No Holds Barred: Rise of the religious charlatans

Over the past 20 years we have witnessed a slew of mostly fraudulent kabbalists and questionable mystics running around telling gullible Jews their future.

Oh God no. Not another Bible codes book. And this one launched in a full-page ad in The New York Times highlighting how in May 2008, Oprah Winfrey sent a Bible-code message to Barack Obama that he would become president.
Surely I, as an Orthodox Jew, ought to applaud a book that proves that the Torah has encoded prophecy. But aside from the question of whether Obama is God’s anointed, I have serious objections to the Bible codes.
First, there is the fact that you can take nearly any lengthy book, put it through a computer and pull out prophecy. Prof. Brendan McKay of Australian National University found 13 predicted assassinations of public figures encoded in Moby Dick, including several presidents and prime ministers. McKay also found an encoded phrase in Moby Dick that predicted “Drosnin [the author of the codes series] will be murdered by Eli Rips [the Israeli scholar who first discovered the codes] in Athens.” Other scholars found results that were as statistically impressive in a Hebrew copy of War and Peace.
Next, associated with the codes there is the usual apocalyptic bunkum that has so tarnished religion.
The codes apparently predicted an atomic Holocaust in 1986 and, if that didn’t happen, that the world would end (again) in 2006.
(It’s worth noting here my cardinal rule about the difference between a religion and a cult: Religion teaches you to revere life, while a cult teaches you to fear death.) The codes predicted a world war in 2000, and that Israel would be destroyed in a global cataclysm (let’s hope Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenejad isn’t reading the book). The book further predicted a comet would strike Earth and obliterate much of it in 2006.
WHAT MAKES an even greater mockery of the codes is that the Torah today is somewhat imprecise in that some letters of the Hebrew alphabet can be replaced by vowels, and we are not certain whether the vowel or the letter itself should appear in certain passages. Insert a few of those missing letters and the codes become gibberish.
But none of this has stopped a few Jewish outreach organizations – most notably Aish Hatorah – from employing the codes as a tool by which to attract young Jews. Little do they realize that Christian missionaries are putting the New Testament through computers to demonstrate that Jesus is the messiah.
But my personal objection to the codes is something else entirely, and has to do with the growing view of Judaism as magic and rabbis as soothsayers. Over the past 20 years we have witnessed a slew of mostly fraudulent kabbalists and questionable mystics running around telling gullible Jews their future. Many are rabbis who claim illustrious pedigrees. The majority employ a classic “cold reading” – where without even realizing it, you end up supplying the information to the “seer” (who can really only see your wallet) – and are about as capable of telling the future as I am of playing in the NBA.
You receive a private audience with these much-soughtafter rabbis and they immediately wish you a speedy recovery for your ailing back. They tell you they know you’re having tension with one of your children and that your dead mother has forgiven you for the time you forgot her birthday. They offer sop and comfort, but ask them anything truly useful, like when the next bomb will go off in Jerusalem, and they stealthily change the subject.
But that hasn’t stopped wealthy, educated and sophisticated Jews all over America from lining up to line these charlatans’ pockets.
We are living in an age that desperately needs religion.
Modernity is only a blessing as long as its technological advances are governed by values. Wealth in the West has ended poverty, but has brought soulless materialism.
Putting the professional before the personal has led to the decimation of romantic relationships and the neglect of family and children.
This is why the Bible is more relevant than ever. Western men and women need to read of a wealthy nobleman named Abraham who personally sat outside his tent to welcome wayfarers. Politicians who eviscerate each other in attack ads need to read of Moses, who brought Pharaoh to his knees yet remained “the most humble man who walked the earth.”
Brothers and sisters who haven’t spoken in years need to read of Joseph, who became the most powerful man alive but forgave his siblings their attempt at fratricide.
Men who cheat on their wives must read of King David, who engaged in the most severe penance after his affair with Bathsheba.
But religion as pious sorcery threatens to undermine its moral dimension. The Bible codes and mystical, magical Judaism tell us it’s not inspirational guidance and wisdom which makes the Bible special, but its hidden numerology and predictions. You turn to the Bible not to learn how to be close to God, but to predict the next real-estate surge.
SO LET me be clear. I don’t give a damn if the Bible can predict the next president, and I don’t need the Torah to forewarn me that I’m about to become nuclear toast.
Rather, I turn to Judaism to discover the values by which I should lead my life and maximize my potential. I seek not to discern the future, but master the here-and-now.
Religion is a road map not to some underlying codes hidden in the Bible, but to the godly nature that sits beneath my ambition, selfishness and egocentrism, striving to come out.
If you want a vulgar forgery of faith, there are any number of religious charlatans who, for a couple of bucks, are ready to read your palm. But if you’re an adult, then you’re ready for religion as something that attunes you to God and humanity’s needs rather than focusing exclusively on your own.
The writer is founder of This World: The Values Network. His newest book is Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.