Between pogroms, disputations, Inquisitions – and now, computers – it’s hard to be a Jew, or a believing one, at least. The latest challenge actually comes from right here in Israel – in the form of a computer program designed by a team at Bar-Ilan University led by Prof. Moshe Koppel, an expert in the field of Authorship Attribution, the analysis of texts to determine information on who the actual writer was.
Together with several other professors, Koppel’s system analyzes word use in a document to determine information about an “unknown author,” figuring out his/her gender, demographics, personality, cultural background, etc. The texts are analyzed by a computer using specially designed algorithms, which the team says has a very high level of accuracy.
In a landmark paper on the subject, Koppel, along with fellow researchers Shlomo Argamon, Jonathan Schler and James W. Pennebaker, wrote that “authorship profiling can help police identify characteristics of the perpetrator of a crime when there are too few (or too many) specific suspects to consider,” or help corporate officials analyze blogs and postings on websites to sharpen their message.
It sounds like a sort of modern version of “biblical criticism,” which has its roots in the 17th and 18th centuries and is accepted by modern scholars as authoritative. So it would make sense that Koppel would apply the Authorship Attribution algorithms to the Tanach, especially the Torah. The result was what any scientist would expect: The software “confirmed” 90 percent of the accepted findings of biblical critics – the three authors of the first chapters of Genesis, the “priestly” and “non-priestly” authors of the middle books, etc.
“We have thus been able to largely recapitulate several centuries of
painstaking manual labor with our automated method,” Koppel and fellow
scientists Navot Akiva, Nachum Dershowitz and Idan Dershowitz said in a
statement after presenting the results at a conference last week.
All that is well and good if you’re a scientist who accepts the idea of
differentiated authorship of the Tanach. But if you accept the
traditional Jewish belief that the Torah was given by G-d, you have a
bit of a dilemma.
Of course, arguably nothing has changed; biblical criticism has been
around for centuries, and those who choose to believe have ignored it
On the other hand, it was easier to dismiss biblical criticism until
last week; you could attribute the findings of Wellhausen, for example,
to his nasty attitude to the Jews, which undoubtedly colored his
research. But you can’t really attribute bias to a computer program –
especially not one developed by a team from Bar-Ilan University, several
of whom are apparently observant themselves! Belief is, of course, a
personal thing, and Jewish tradition itself is aware of outward
contradictions of text in the Bible. Large swaths of the Talmud are
dedicated to resolving textual problems and contradictions.
And for those who accept the historical evidence of Jewish belief – the
witnessing of the giving of the Torah in front of millions of people,
the unlikelihood that difficult commandments like keeping Shabbat or
shmitta (the sabbatical year) could be imposed without a singular
historical experience (such as a divine revelation) – a computer’s
confirmation, or lack of it, isn’t going to make a difference.
But not everyone’s faith is that rock solid, and if we take the results
of advanced computer algorithms seriously in so many other areas, it’s
hard to dismiss their findings in this specific area.
But how soon we forget! This is not the first time computers have
tangled with the Bible, and the last time they did, the Bible won hands
down. I’m talking, of course, about the original studies of the “Torah
Codes,” as originally developed by Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips and Yoav
Rosenberg, and later enhanced by Robert Haralick. The original Codes
idea was based on taking passages from the Torah, applying the
Equidistant Letter Sequence (ELS) method to find a hidden “code,”
containing additional, pertinent information on the subject, as well as
hints of historical events and personalities.
According to the original theory, it only works in the Hebrew version of the Torah.
Technically, you could do the same thing by just picking a letter and
counting in a random number or sequence backward or forward, but the
whole project was made much easier by computers. The most authoritative
website on the subject today is Torahcode.net, run by Prof. Haralick and
Rabbi Matityahu Glazerson, along with Witztum, Rips, Gans and other
scientists involved in the field.
While the authors of the original theory only presented the theory and
its application (the site has many examples), many believing Jews seized
on the Codes as “proof” of the divinity of the Torah, with computers
affirming that the Bible was no ordinary book. The idea was so
successful, in fact, that it invited all sorts of other applications
that the original team did not see as helpful – and in fact damaged the
popular and scientific reputation of the Codes.
First there was the book The Bible Code
by Michael Drosnin, which purported to use the Codes to predict the
future (Drosnin sent a letter to then-prime minister Shimon Peres
warning that he had “foreseen” in the codes a nuclear attack striking
Israel in 1996). Then, various Christian groups jumped on the bandwagon,
claiming to used the ELS method to find “hints” of the appearance of
Jesus in the Torah. Finally, scientists, sick of what had turned into a
farce, ran experiments on Shakespeare’s works and Moby Dick
, finding “codes” in those as well.
Haralick et al still stand by their findings, and the Torahcode.net
website thoroughly discusses each of these phenomena, responding to each
criticism and proving why they are scientifically invalid, having
nothing to do with proper Codes methodology.
Going through the Torahcode site, believers will come away with the
feeling that, indeed, computers “proved” the divinity of the Torah – a
perfect antidote to the Authorship Attribution theory of multiple
So which is it: Do computers prove, or disprove, the Torah’s divinity?
That, too, is a matter of faith, and it depends on which computer you