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Discovery Seminar Uses Science to Revive Faith

by Calmetta Y. Coleman

Wall Street Journal – November 11, 1996

A few months ago Deborah Grayson considered Judaism the religion of her ancestors, incompatible with science. She viewed the Bible as myth and the miracles it described – the Red Sea's parting, for instance – as metaphors.

Today, Ms. Grayson says she is a believer. She eats kosher and is shopping for a synagogue among Conservative and Orthodox temples.

Ms. Grayson says she was convinced by Discovery, a fast-spreading religious seminar that purports to offer scientific proof that God exists. "I walked in a secular atheist and walked out believing that the Torah had been handed down by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai," says Ms. Grayson, a 24-year-old graduate student of Social Work at Columbia University.

In the past year, about 240 U.S. Jewish community centers, schools and synagogues – eager to expand their membership have paid Aish HaTorah, the Jerusalem based organization that runs Discovery, about $1,000 to put on each Discovery seminar. Aish HaTorah a non-profit Jewish education group whose mission is to persuade secular Jews to observe Judaism has put about 60,000 people worldwide through the seminar since 1987 – more than one third of those just in the past two years.

Many of today's campaigns to bring observant Jews to temple try appealing to the heart, portraying Judaism as offering spiritual fulfillment and a sense of belonging. But Discovery's crusaders against assimilation are taking a different tack – appealing to the intellect.

Discovery teachers point to computer analysis of the Torah - the first five books of the Old Testament that they say proves God hid codes in the text to foretell later events. Treating the Torah text like a word search puzzle, researchers looked at every other letter or skipped an equal number of places between letters to find names like Norman Schwarzkopf and Anwar Sadat, as well as warnings of the Holocaust.

Of course, using that method the names could show up in any thick book, say War and Peace. But statisticians who did experiments on Leo Tolstoy's work say that related words don't appear in as close proximity as in the Torah. One group of mathematicians who used computers to search for the names of prominent rabbis in the Torah even published their research in the journal Statistical Science in August 1994.

Such findings show an intentional design that only God could have created, believers argue. And if so, is there any question that Jews should live as the Torah instructs them? "We had to give an intellectual presentation to give people a reason to believe in God." says Rabbi Noah Weinberg, founder of Aish HaTorah. Discovery is just one of the outreach programs of 23-year-old Aish HaTorah, which also offer seminar on Jewish history and the Bible from a religious school in Jerusalem.

Aish HaTorah's roots in Orthodox Judaism give some mainstream religious Jews pause. "They're a lot more to the right" in their teaching than even some Orthodox American congregations says Shmuel Goldin, chairman of the Israel Commission of the Rabbinical Council of America and a Bible professor at Yeshiva University in New York.

As for codes research, he says, "They use it very wisely, but it's a little bit more mystical, al little bit more esoteric than the approach I would take."

Indeed, not all religious Jews find the intellectual argument compelling. Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Anshe Shalom B'nai Israel Congregation in Chicago fears the seminar could lead to a worship of numbers.

But like many Jews, he worries even more about assimilation and intermarriage. Intermarriage is so common place among American Jews – about half marry non-Jews – that their population has been static since 1970 at about 5.5 million. Consequently, the rabbi says he might consider sponsoring a Discovery seminar at his temple.

The codes research also falls in line with a tradition of Jewish scholarships that emphasizes close textual analysis of the Torah and other religious literature, says Rabbi Eugene Fink, director of development for the Rabbinical Seminary of America. Theories of codes in the Torah dates back to medieval times, you could see computerized word searches as simply a high-tech twist.

The upshot: Religious leaders who don't take Discovery too seriously sometimes promote it anyway. Hundreds of non-Orthodox Jewish organizations have held Discovery Seminars and it is beginning to attract interest from some Reform Temples. An eighth-hour seminar held by Congregation Beth Am Temple in Longwood, FL two years ago, drew more than 500 people and caused a favorable buzz. Still, the Temple's Rabbi, Merril Shapiro calls the codes research "cotton candy for the mind, a fun game."

Also helping Discovery's expansion in the US is an array of high-profile spokesmen and supporters, such as talk-show host, Larry King, Elliot Gould, and Kirk Douglas. Mr. King says he has been actively involved with Aish HaTorah for two years, and is a board member on one of its committees. But his involvement is strictly cultural. Mr. King refers to himself as a "classic agnostic" and says he isn't even familiar with the code teachings of the Discovery Seminar.

Mr. Gould, and others, were recruited by Irwin Katsof, an Orthodox Rabbi who is in charge of marketing Discovery in the US. In July, Rabbi Katsof spotted Mr. Gould on a flight home from Rio De Janeiro. The rabbi upgraded to first-class to sit near Mr. Gould. During the flight he gave the actor his pitch, popping a promotional video tape into the first-class VCR, and in September, Mr. Gould appeared at a seminar in Manhattan and talked about his own need to learn more about Judaism. At a seminar at Universal Studios in June, Mr. Douglas drew 300 people, the largest crowd at any one seminar all year. Meanwhile, Jason Alexander who plays George Costanza on "Seinfeld", is scheduled to host a seminar in Los Angeles, early next year. "I would be shocked if we didn't have 1000 people at the seminar," Rabbi Katsof says.

The rabbi, who graduated from a Jesuit college thinking the beliefs of Judaism were "absolutely nonsensical," embraced the religion during a trip to Israel where he embraced Aish HaTorah. There he joined a group of rabbis who had gotten the idea of developing the Discovery Seminar from another group that was teaching the codes in Israel. "Sometimes you have to sell the sizzle, and not the steak," the rabbi jokes.

Within the next two years he hopes to win over at least 10% of the 1.4 million US Jews between the ages of 20-30, a critical demographic group. "If we reach them then, when they're deciding who they'll marry, we'll have made significant progress in bringing people back to Judaism," Rabbi Katsof says.

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