by Rabbi Micha Berger
When a pharmaceutical company tests a new drug, they cannot simply look at its effects on an individual. After all, they cannot know how this particular patient would have fared without the drug and thus lack a basis for direct comparison with the results of how he fared with it. Instead, these tests are statistical. The researcher looks at two populations: one that uses the new drug and one that does not – the control group. If the population that uses the drug has fewer outbreaks or symptoms than the control group, then we know the drug works. For example, even if outbreaks occur during the test period in as little as 10% of the control population but only among 5% of those receiving the drug treatment, we conclude that the drug is helping the entire population – even those 90% who otherwise would not show the more measurable symptoms with or without the drug.
The goals of Torah observance can be viewed in a number of ways, but the basics are generally defined as follows. A life of observance is one of seeking closeness to the Almighty to emulate His Perfection. Torah ennobles and refines the person who observes it.
This means that the Torah actually makes a testable claim. Chazal call the Torah a "sam hachaim" – an elixir of life. Would our "drug test" protocol recommend following the Torah as we witness its results manifest among those who observe it currently, relative to those who do not?
As in the test of a new drug, we cannot really see the effect of following the Torah on an individual. We have no idea what anyone would be like had they not been exposed to a life of Torah and mitzvos, so we cannot say how much more refined they are now as a result of being blessed with such exposure. Instead, we could assess the effects of Torah observance using a parallel technique to that used in medicine, as summarized above. Here too, we can compare the two groups of people who on average are similar except regarding the one factor we are testing.
Unlike the pharmaceutical company's test, there is a basic difficulty in measuring the symptoms. Without performing a systematic study, how do we get statistics on unethical behavior, unaltered by differences in the likelihood of people in each community reporting the events?
Realize that the claim being made about the Torah is an extreme one. The difference between living blindly and following the Truth is immense, and disparate ramifications should reflect this difference. For our claim to be true, we must see significant, tangible differences in ethical behavior in our communities compared to others that aspire for what they believe to be their higher callings, have similar incomes, etc. If our abuse and other crime statistics are not clearly superior to those of communities which are not Torah observant, – especially after we correct for other socio-economic factors, examine other faith communities, and account for other variables – it would be experimental evidence that what the mainstay of our community is practicing does not fit the Torah's self-description. In truth, the difficulty in obtaining statistics may be offset by how pronounced the claimed effect should be. The Torah is describing a uniqueness that should be self-evident and obvious at first glance, without requiring a systematic study.
How would we fare in such a test?