Thoughts on Judaism

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Asking the Igros

Certain Chabad elements believe that we can still contact the Chabad Rebbe. The fact that he died on 3 Tammuz 5754, more than 10 years ago, is no problem. Simply follow the following mystical formula, source unknown. Write a letter with your question on it, fold it and insert it randomly into a random volume of a collection of the Rebbe’s letters. The Ribono shel Olam will guide you such that the answer to your question will be on one of the two adjacent pages you select. For the Internet age, you can go here, and enter your question online and the Rebbe will answer you. Note the hard coded format of the request, as you apparently must accept the Rebbe as the Messiah. I was never aware of this requirement, but I assume it is part of the stricter security requirements when opening such powerful magic to Internet use. After you have entered the request, you click and, voila, the “Rebbe has answered you” with two random pages from the zillions of volumes of letters. If you cannot read the original Yiddish or Hebrew of your answer, no problem. Just go to your local Chabad House. If you do not get a sheepish, embarrassed look from the Rabbi, he might just translate the letter. Based on a random person’s translation of a random letter, written to someone else a long time ago on another subject, you will get something that is relevant to that subject. But certainly, you will see how, in parable, something somewhere on these pages applies to your situation. And this how a true Chassid finds guidance in his or her life.

Is this just lack of intelligence, deeply disturbed personalities, or some other psychiatric condition? Not at all. You have just seen a psychological study of egocentrism in action. While usually hurled as an insult, egocentrism is the very normal, human tendency to believe that everything that we perceive applies to us. The Rambam partially addresses this in Moreh Nevuchim in his treatise on Hashgacha protis. Foretunellers, horoscopes, Nostradamus interpreters and psychics of all flavors exploit this trait to peddle their wares. They are generally reinforced with anecdotal evidence, i.e. stories of successful feats that are “impossible to explain” without accepting the validity of the magic.

The Flaw Exploited
Famed magician James Randi once related how he demonstrated egocentrism to lecture audiences. He would ask each person their birthdate and then issue them a copy of their horoscope, appropriate to their zodiac sign. Each student was to rate the horoscope in accuracy, as to how it related to specific details in their personalities and lives. Ordinarily, about 80% would rate the horoscope as accurate or extremely accurate, especially if the descriptions were positive. He would then have them swap horoscopes with their neighbor. They would discover that they had all rated the same identical horoscope. The essential piece in this trick is that the “sitter” (to use psychic lingo) reveals all of the facts against something very general offered by the “reader”, in this case, the horoscope. Carnival professionals refer to this as “cold reading”, and it is as convincing as any trick that you have ever seen performed.

The Igros
So, at first glance, it is simply a “cold reading” trick. But is there any basis in Judaism for getting answers in this way? As the common person goes, there is no basis, precedent or anything in halacha that would prescribe this as a positive or Jewish method. As close as I could come was this. In the Gemorra, sometimes a person would tell a young child, P’sok li p’sukecha, repeat the verse that you have been learning. In Gittin 58, Nero, a Roman general, is sobered using this method. There we have the random elements, the reader’s general answer, and the sitter applying the details. The Rambam would not hold someone who did this in violation of fortunetelling prohibitions. In having said that, I find no ringing endorsement of this method anywhere in Judaism. I know of no instances where the Chabad Rebbe or his predecessors communicated with the dead, tzadikim or otherwise, with this method or recommended it to anyone.

How can we be sure?
How can I tell if my Igros answer is really unique, or if I am simply performing a trick on myself?

Since there is no standard or precedent, at least make sure you have a consistent asking method. For one, do not just read through until you find something to select as “the answer”. Choose a random place on the page, just like you chose the pages at random and, if the Ribono shel Olam guided you to the page, you can trust that he can guide you directly to the site. Can’t you? Then, derive an answer.

Then consider your answer using the following steps:

First step: Is this a DIRECT answer? If I ask if I should go to New York for Shabbos, does the answering letter say, “you should go to New York for Shabbos” or vice versa? If not, we can all agree that you do not have a DIRECT answer, by anyone’s estimation. If you do not speak the language of the letter, why were answered in a language that you do not understand? Why didn’t the CR just answer in the language in which you asked? I’d have to venture that VERY FEW people get a direct answer.

If you not get a DIRECT answer, then

Second step: Does this parable apply to many situations? BEFORE you ask the Igros, write two or three fictional questions on another paper and put it aside. Then, ask igros. Apply the answer to your situation. Then, honestly evaluate the same pages (or the place on the pages that you have randomly chosen) against the fictional questions as if they were the real questions. Can you make answers for them just as well? Present your fictional questions to a believer as if it were the real question and show them the answer. Can they see the answers?

Third step: Try opening igros for advice by just thinking your question, or put nonsense characters into the online form and think your question. You will often find that the Rebbe can “read your mind” as well as your paper.

Fourth step: Once you have derived and interpreted an answer, try to derive and interpret the opposite answer from the same pages or random place.

Fifth step: Try putting the note into a random secular book of poems, notes, or letters. To be fair, you must try just as hard to get an answer from here as you did from Igros.

Sixth step: Only for the brave. Ask a direct question on the Rebbe's shita or knowledge that only the Rebbe would have and ask for a written source for the shita. For instance, how about a written source for this "custom" of asking igros on behalf of the dead. Verify the answer.

In the end, you may find that asking a question and then rolling the dice to pick a random page and then selectively deciding, based on spacedust, that particular words on the page are the CR’s answer to a question, is not really a great way to make decisions. Those who follow the CR might do better to learn his teachings and try to apply his morals and principles to their situation, rather than to rely on mind games and parlor tricks to convince themselves and others.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Dangers of Infallibility Doctrine

The Rambam warns us in Moreh Nevuchim, from the introduction, that certain people who have all of their learning from Torah, and none from practical observation, can misconstrue facts. If one reaches an absurd conclusion, he advises to reconsider the path to that conclusion, for instance, if one concludes that the Earth is flat. He warns in 3:14 that the facts of astronomy that he is quoting are not infallible in any way.

Infallibility of certain human beings, the Sages, Rebbes, etc. leads us down two possible paths.

1) We may stand strongly against a scoffing world and proudly proclaim that our facts are correct and the rest of the world is off its rocker.

2) We may reconsider our interpretation, as the Rambam advises. We may consider the possibility that it is not the text or the principle that is wrong, but our understanding of that text.

Method A has had its unlikely successes in the past, e.g. the claimed discovery of a unicorn (""), mutant buck, not mythical variety, in Ohio *See note at end of post. Yet, far more often, it locks us into a kooky, untenable outlook, which some wear as a banner and others simply try to de-emphasize. Those who wear it as a banner tend to emphasize, embellish, or simply invent wondrous feats. On this basis, the sage becomes a saintly magic miracle worker and anything issuing from him is “infallible” or “beyond our understanding”, even if it is nonsensical and easily refuted. Wisely did the Rambam warn us that miracles and wonders do not make a prophet or a Messiah.

The brilliant Rav Tendler wrote a book in the 70’s called “Pardes Rimonim.” It contains an excellent example on page 18.

The errorless transmission of Torah from generation to generation often includes ancillary information essential to their comprehension. Our Sages were heir to scientific facts and concepts only recently ascertained. The Talmudic scholars knew that the female liberated an ovum that participated with the sperm in the creation of a new individual. They knew the presence of the Fallopian tubes hundreds of years before Fallopius lived …

When I say Rav Dr. Tendler is brilliant, this extends to his compassion for people and a common sense approach to practical issues, like dying patients and severe disabilities. The Dr. in his title is an MD, not the mere academic variety, and the “Rav” is connected with a “Posek HaDor”.

However, this Method A comment of his is easily overturned. The Ramban at the beginning of Tazria and MANY others explain their belief, based on Mishnaic worldview, that female seed is coagulated blood in the womb, not the ovum, discovered in 1827. Therefore, the Mishna in Nida states that the red parts of the body come from the woman and the white parts come from the man. Those red parts include the black of the eye. In their days, there was argument as to whether the black of the eye was solid or, as we have discovered since, a simple hole covered by something colorless. Further, explains the Ramban, the role of the male sperm is arguable. It may become part of the new individual, or it may simply contribute to shaping its form which is spiritually ordained, a concept known among Greek scholars as “Hiyuli”. We now know that the first understanding is more accurate, and that physical DNA is responsible for the second. Further, even modern halacha has battled over whether DNA evidence in paternity is valid, since blood is obviously red and therefore comes only from the mother, according to Mishnaic worldview. How does Rav Dr. Tendler find evidence of advance knowledge of the human ovum in this?

The Rambam states (Hilchos Issurei Bia 5:3-5) that the female seed is formed in the 2 female testicles (which he calls “eggs), and ripened in the “paths in them”. This is all contained in the “Alia”. Rav Tendler states that the Alia is the bladder (quoting Rabbenu Chananel), and this is the only likelihood, given the positions that the Rambam and most halachists, mention. (Note: When trying to understand positions of organs in these halachas, the woman is lying on her back, as Rav Tendler points out.)

So, Tendler’s infallibility statement locks him into a strange situation. On the one hand, he feels that the Sages knew of the ovum and the Fallopian tubes, and implicitly, all of human anatomy. On the other hand, the infallible sage, Ramban shows that he knows nothing of the ovum and the infallible sage, Rambam does not know of the Fallopian tubes. He does know of “paths” that are inside the female “testicles” or near them at any rate, inside the bladder (at least by Tendler’s equation). While this might be equated with Fallopian tubes with a little stretch, it is clearly not the same as the discovery of Fallopius. These were the medical facts, as they had them at the time.

The same doctrine leads us through some nauseating acrobatics in apologetics. After all, there was no problem with the Mishna sages, the Rambam, the Ramban and other greats discussing the scientific concepts that ruled in their day. It was infallibility doctrine that solidified these evolving concepts into a concrete form. Then, along come modern apologists to try and build a link between the “four elements” and atomic theory, or the mythical astronomical galgalim and “String theory”. How did Ptolemy know these amazing scientific facts, you ask? Why he got it from the Jewish sages of the time, of course. And we are forever stuck with trying to reconcile the medieval science with current knowledge, based on better observation.

Of course, many tools are available to save us. Nature changed, don’t you know. The theory of relativity (which the apologist has, no doubt, read through, at least once) corroborates. Science cannot really DISPROVE the relic of infallibility. Since it was stated infallibly, and science cannot DISPROVE it, it remains in its default state of truth. And, when the death blow comes ultimately, it retreats to Rabbi X never really said that.

And the TRUTH, OY! If we cannot reconcile our view of infallibility with real truth, we can always fall back to spiritual truth (presumably in the face of physical falsity), different levels of truth, or some other excuse why the infallible is false. And here is the danger. It undermines the nature of truth, such that it is meaningless. A clear example is the $100 promise. A promises B a gift of $100 tomorrow. As the next day finishes, B goes to A to claim the money, and A refuses to taunts of “liar”. A retorts in one of the following ways:

1) By “tomorrow,” I meant some unspecified time in the future.

2) I meant to give you the spiritual equivalent of $100

3) If I was to threaten you with a gun, and I would accept $100 not to kill you, you would certainly give it to me. Since I am not threatening you, consider it as if I have given you $100, since you still have the money that you agree that you would have given away.

4) The promise is beyond our simple, humble understanding. We do not have the ability to judge the truth of the promise, based on our deep inferiority to A.

In any case, A’s promise is tenably TRUE. But the promise is still meaningless. The entire TRUTH is meaningless, because it has been redefined. TRUTH is no longer something to rely on, but something to be molded when it fails to produce. B has a TRUE promise, which controverts the entire value of the promise, reliance on its truth.

We do no service by defending Torah, its Sages, or its history in this way.

* Note: In the picture of the unicorn buck, the animal has antlers in the normal place and a single horn at the center. The animal normally sheds its antlers and grows new ones.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Homeopathy - Finally, Proof

Finally some proof regarding homeopathy.

In short, homeopathy is based on two principles:
1) Like cures like
2) Dilutions make the substance stronger

In pursuit of point two, there is a known scientific limit. The Avogadro limit effectively counts the number of molecules in one cc of water, and limits dilutions to approx 6 with 23 zeros. Thus any 24x solution or greater cannot have a more than a single molecule of active ingredient in it, and as we get to 30X, for instance, the chances of that one molecule being there in any particular pill are lottery level. This spawned a third principle:

3) Even though there is no active ingredient, the water or alcohol of the solution retains a memory of the substance that was once there.

Well. it may be hokey, but you can't dispove it, right? WRONG! Follow the link in the title of this post, and we can finally effectively PROVE that homeopathic dilutions do not remember anything.

Therefore, when you buy these products, you are buying a pill made of water, alcohol, saline, sucrose or whatever the solution base was, AND NOTHING ELSE. Please compare price accordingly.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Magic medicine and Insurance

One challenge I am often presented on the subject of "alternative" magic medicine is that insurance covers many of these types of "treatments". Homeopathy, acupunture, chiropractic and naturopathic treatments can all claim some of this "legitimacy".

Note: By chiropractic care, I mean the traditional Palmerian subluxation nonsense. The term "chiropractic care" is presently applied to many types of treatments, loosely or not at all related to Palmerian treatments. I do not wish to debate each individually. WWW.CHIROWATCH.COM will handle that.

The answer is that this legitimacy is no more legitimate than an endorsement from a celebrity. Insurance companies sell what people demand, not necessarily what is good for them. For example, the Aetna site often comments on quackery, but there may be Aetna plans that cover the same quackery, because their job is to sell policies, not to dictate medical treatment. I am sure that if a company targets religious Jews, they may yet sell insurance that covers the pidgeon treatment for hepatitis. This does not imply research, only market demand.

Another challenge I get is that, since some things work as placebo, we should allow it to work for the people who would benefit from the placebo. This is OK, but magic medicine practioners often pick up on people who are in desparate straits, who have tried real treatments, or have been convinced that medical science is a monetary conspiracy. After all, who would not spend a moderate or even large amount of money for a promise (and that's all there is, a promise) to save themselves or a loved one from a difficult disease. They are no more than a con game for the vulnerable. I think that victimizing people in this way, especially under those conditions, is reprehensible, disgusting, despicable, I can not think of strong enough terms. Apparently, a large number of people in the frum world disagree, by posing this challenge. I guess our moral standards are different, as well as our reality compass.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Copenhagen, Heisenberg and Apologetics

A quick look here should be enough to sober a person on the danger of using obscure scientific theory in apologetics. Please see my previous post's links for review of the QM subject, and the Chabad Rebbe's (CR) letter, refering to the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty.

Not enough that they want to apply these QM concepts to the physical macro world, but they want to learn from that speculation all sorts of Torah concepts, whether they are Torah or not.

For review: Heisenberg stated that the more precisely we measure the position of a subatomic particle, the less precisely we can measure its momentum, and vice versa. Hence, we can only determine the position or momentum within a range, but not precisely. Hence, we cannot conclude that cause "A" will always place the particle at point "A", as a conclusive effect. (Deeply oversimplified, but simply google the subject for more in depth discussion.)

The Copenhagen group, Bohr, Schrödinger et al, based on the double slit experiment, concluded that as one measures the wave or particle, the wavefunction collapses, making further measurement impossible. The implication is that one can measure either particle or wave, but not both. We cannot determine which particles go through which slits through cause and effect. If we open both slits and fire photons at only one of them, we would expect to lose the wave behavior, BUT THAT IS NOT THE CASE EMPIRICALLY. Schroedinger described it with the famous cat thought experiment.

The linguini logic of apologetics goes something like this (I am picking on Chabad, but others of you , Jewish and non Jewish, you know who you are):

1) QM proves that cause and effect are not necessarily linked. Each effect is only the most probable, not the necessary effect of the cause. Hence, miracles are naturally proven to be possible, though not probable. Naftali Berg Z"L, in B'or HaTorah vol9 page 47, indicates that the CR told him that this was an OBJECTION to using Heisenberg in apologetics, since it obviated the MIRACULOUS nature of miracles and made them only improbable events.

2) Prayer can affect things though our intention, just as, in Copenhagen, the observation changes the reality.

3) Reality is, itself, determined by observation, Aidus, as Copenhagen implies. Hence, we cannot trust our own observations, but Torah's edicts, as it is our observation that makes the reality real.

(Note: while some will claim this is a "straw man", I assure you that I have heard each of these arguments proposed in all seriousness. Follow the links, and you will be amazed at the apologetic acrobatics.)

I would point out some of the more obvious flaws in using this information in this manner. Please feel free to add any others you see fit (or question mine).

a) Heisenberg only applies to SUBATOMIC particles. We can know both position and momentum precisely with a car, a spaceship or a planetary body for instance. The Planck constantis key to understanding the scale. To say that Heisenberg removes the relationship between ALL CAUSE AND EFFECT is presumptuous and not supportable. Even the cat gedanken is only theoretical explanation of their view of how this could affect the macro world, not established reality. I am amazed that, given what Berg said in 1995, still maintains this on its website, though the Mindel letter from the CR seems to support this concept.

b) The CR was at the University of Berlin in the 1930's when and where QM was just being born in the layman's mind. This type of speculation would have been prominent discussion at that time. Still, the context of the Mindel letter does not completely imply that the CR is on board with it, only that the arguments of scientists are out of place, considering the principle. His point is that determinism is no longer certain in science whereas Torah is certain in reality and therefore, science cannot disprove Torah. True enough, but science can call interpretations of Torah (and every word and halacha of Torah requires interpretation*) into deep question, even based on likelihood. "You can't prove it" sophistry aside, the Torah scholar must take a position, "this is wrong by Torah standards" or "this is acceptable by Torah standards", on questions of science. Just to say that the science shows the world to be undeterministic is not a strong or supportable argument.

c) Copenhagen DOES NOT imply that the observer causes the reality. It only implies that the observer brings determinism to the system. The observer has no control over WHAT WILL BE DETERMINED, only that the observation establishes one of the possibilities as reality. The cat experiment makes this perfectly clear. In the moment before observation, the cat is both alive and dead in Schroedinger's estimation, and upon observation it will become one or the other, but the observer has no way of CONTROLLING WHICH will happen.

d) Copenhagen has always been weak. Dr. Afshar's challenge is devastating to Copenhagen. In short, Copenhagen is counterintuitive, violates the Theory of Relativity, and is likely to die the death of the Ptolemaic astronomy system. In short, Afshar shows that he can observe the wave behavior and measure no change in the particle behavior at the same time. In the modified double slit experiment, he blocks the minima of the wave pattern. In observing the particle behavior, according to Copehagen, the wavefunction collapses and the wave behavior cannot be observed. Hence, particles should be absorbed by the blocked minima, since they are no longer "real". He claims though that experiment data shows no difference, indicating that the wave pattern minima still exist, even though he is measuring the particle behavior. When Copenhagen is disproven, what will become of the apologetics built on it?

e) Even without Afshar, there are other possible explanations, aside from Copenhagen. Since they are not so conducive to apologics, however, they are not considered. Yet, it is incorrect to ascribe anything approaching scientific consensus to facts based on Copenhagen, or even indeterminacy, as with Einstein and Bohm.

In short, using Heisenberg or Copenhagen for the purposes of apologetics is short sighted. Look at the Ramban at the beginning of Parshas Tazria to see how disproven science in apologetics looks several centuries later.

* Note: Above I stated that all of Torah requires interpretation. I will bring two examples. In the case of a thief breaking in, the Torah says that the matter depends on whether it is day or night. The Chachamim say that this is allegorical and refers to whether the victim is "as certain as daylight" that the thief is not going to kill him, as with a father breaking in on his son. In the case of a Motzi Shem Ra, the Torah states that the proof that the victim's father brings is to "spread out the sheet" that proves her virginal bleeding. The Chachmim interpret allegorically that this means to indicate that the father of the victim carries a high burden of proof. (This is because the proof that the Torah recommends is very weak, since it can be easily faked. Perhaps the Torah meant just that, that the father's burden proof is very low, but the Chachamim interpret as they do. The point is that it is, in all respects, an interpretation of the Rabbis, overriding what would be the clear words of Torah.) This being the case, anytime we are challenging the "Torah", we are, in effect challenging an interpretation of the "Torah". The clear resolution of halachic issues by expounding is the basis of Talmud, Rishonim, Acharonim and later discussion. We have every right and responsibility to ask how they came to any conclusion, and what they meant ex-cathedra, and what they were giving as examples. Watch out for my "infallibility" rant, soon to follow.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Quantum Mechanics - The science of the simple

QM is the rallying point of so many religious "scholars", that one would think that the forefathers of this relatively new area of physics were Rebbes themselves. Promoters have used the formative ideas of QM to defend ideas such "cause not linked to effect", scientific support for the possibility of miracles, the power of the observer (or the davener) to influence the path of reality, and the innate issue of absolutism in science. The CR alludes to it here.

A short history is in order. Here is the poor man's intro guide to the subject. A good review of the subject with all of its linked concepts is necessary to proceed.

So in short, there are some observations, and 4 basic ways of understanding them.

We must begin with the Principle of Indeterminancy, put forth by Werner Heisenberg. It proposes that when one measures precisely the position of an object, one loses the abilty to measure its velocity accurately, and vice versa.

1) Copenhagen interpretation - This is the classical grandaddy of QM theory. Its basic tenet is that the observation of photons / light waves collapses the "wavefunction" and brings on the "reality". Its backbone experiment is the "double slit" experiment. Its flag is the Schroedinger cat "thought experiment". Its adherents were the who's who of the QM and subatomic particle world. In particular, its interpretation of Heisenberg, seems to assert in a macroreality that the inevitability of cause and effect are not clear cut. The reason why the two factors cannot measured accurately is because there is an indeterminancy in reality. While QM generally applies to subatomic quantized particles only, the urge of the apologist is apply this philosophically to all of physics. Copenhagen is a favorite of the apologist.

2) Multiworld Interpretation - Its basic tenet is also indeterminancy, in that an infinite numer of worlds exist and a different path is taken in each of them as choices arise. Its banner is the "physicist suicide" thought experiment. This is the interpretation that requires the most imagination and faith, but it is not a favorite of apologists.

3) Hidden variables - Its basic tenet is that there are inherent missing variables that account for the apparent indeterminancy. Einstein, in particular, (the E in EPR) promoted this view, arguing that Copenhagen abandons intuition and violates the theory of relativity. Its banner is the EPR paradox. It formed primarlily as an answer to Copenhagen.

4) Afshar's challenge to Copenhagen - More recently, a QM scientist by this name has claimed to show in reproduceable forum that he can break the basic experimental spine of Copenhagen, by observing the wave pattern and photon particle detection at the same time, refuting the notion that the "wavefunction" collapses on measurement.. He argues that the entire basis of the debate is flawed and that it is probable that the concept of photons and subatomic particles as "particles" is in error. We await the peer review of what would be a breakthrough in QM theory.

One observation that I had was that the CR, in the letter above, states:
"Need one remind our orthodox Jewish scientists, who still feel embarrassed about some ‘old-fashioned’ Torah truths, in the face of scientific hypotheses, that Heisenberg’s ‘principle of indeterminacy’ has finally done away with the traditional scientific notion that cause and effect are mechanically linked, so that it is now quite unscientific to hold that one event is an inevitable consequence of another, but only most probable? The 19th century dogmatic, mechanistic, and deterministic attitude of science is gone. The modern scientist no longer expects to find Truth in science. The current and universally accepted view of science itself is that science must reconcile itself to the idea that whatever progress it makes, it will always deal with probabilities; not with certainties or absolutes."

However in B'Or HaTorah, vol 9, page 47, Dr. Naftali Berg z"l claims that the CR told him that the Heisenberg Principle is "not satisfying from a Jewish perspective" because it reduces miracles that are so declared to be miracles into possible, albeit unlikely, natural events.

While this entire "macro world" (greater than Planck's constant) discussion is a bit presumptuous, it is still unclear what the CR actually said in this regard. On the one hand, he calls Heisenberg "universally accepted". In another place, he completely rejects Heisenberg and indeterminancy as an apologetic tool. In religious teachings, Chasidus, both he and his predecessor, the Rayatz, explain that "cause and effect" "Ilah v'Alul" is a real principle in nature, and use it as a parable to explain the difference between nature and G-dly choice. It is also unclear whether the CR meant Copenhagen, rather than Heisenberg. It is possible that in the context of the letter, the CR simply means that the scientists should hold a different view because of Heisenberg, without endorsing he prinicple homself.

I realize that some homework and background is required to follow the debate so in later posts I will try to stay with one subject at a time and examine it in light of its philosophical implications on Judaism. Note, I am not a QM physicist, so I will have to limit discussion to popular history and elementary level debate. My interest here is to examine QM as an apologetic tool. I think that it is overused and largely used in a false manner, which is detrimental to apologetics.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Alternative medicine official Chabad stuff?

A Chabad pamphlet, Lchaim, published this in 1992, Parshas Trumah:

"Traditional" modern medicine has ingrained within most of the medical profession and many of us lay-people a skepticism toward alternative medicine. Acupuncture, chiropractics, holistic and herbal medicine, etc., predate vaccinations, antibiotics and surgery-as-the-only-option; yet many of us balk when the suggestion is made to consult an alternative health professional. And woe to the MD who uses or encourages alternative methods; he may well be ostracized by his peers in the medical community. All this despite the fact that recent findings--by modern medical doctors no less--have shown that some of these alternatives really do help!

In the area of medicine, modern has become traditional and we have become so intransigent as to not even consider alternatives. After all, human nature makes us feel comfortable with what we know, and nine times out of ten the amoxicillin will cure the ear infection. And if that doesn't help there's always another, newer antibiotic to try.

For many Jews, the modern definition of Judaism--like medicine--has become the norm, the family "tradition." We're comfortable with mixed seating in the synagogue, kosher in the house and non-kosher out, and the 11 o'clock news after a sumptuous Shabbat dinner. On Chanuka we light the menora but are not necessarily even aware that Jewish law dictates the shape of the menora and the length of time the candles must burn. Purim means dressing up and eating delicious hamentashen, but when it comes to listening to the Megila--the Scroll of Esther--one of the actual mitzvot of Purim, there's minimal interest. The list goes on, and we can all add our own family "traditions" to the repertoire. All of these customs despite the fact that Jewish observance, as set forth in the Torah, predates modern Jewish traditions.

Being reluctant to try alternative medicine limits one's options and closes off an entire world to a person. The same can be said when we're hesitant about delving into and even practicing the Torah's laws and customs.

But, when you show a willingness to learn Torah even though it's not necessarily accepted among your peers, to observe Jewish holidays according to ancient Jewish traditions though they might not be a part of your family's traditions, to respect Jewish beliefs stemming from a traditional Jewish perspective, you are actually expanding your own horizons.

Modern medicine is slowly beginning to recognize the possible value of alternative medicine. The same can be said of modern Judaism. We all know about the recent studies within the Jewish community. They have found that only through such traditional Jewish values as a strong Jewish education, "hands-on" holiday observance, Jewish marriages, etc., does the younger generation have a chance at becoming or remaining committed Jews.

Imagine how much we can expand our horizons, how enriched our lives can be, if we are willing to open up to the ancient traditions of Judaism."

Ad kan lshono.

While this pamphlet was obviously written by a magic medicine advocate and overstates the value of this pursuit and its acceptability in the medical community, it is scary that this was published in a semi official Chabad publication.

Did the Chabad Rebbe advocate that people pursue placebo cures for real diseases? In 1992, when this was published, the Rebbe had withdrawn from the public scene and, presumably, regular editting duties largely due to his failing health. (No offense to those who are known to be offended by this statement.) The evidence would suggest that he did not.

Advocates point out that he permitted people to pursue the profession and gave blessings to heal.

I would point out, though, that the proof of pudding is in the eating. The CR was ill numerous times, heart problems, foot problems, etc. over the years. No one, NO ONE has ever shown me that he pursued "alternative" medicine, oriental traditional medicine or any other type of magic cure, including those mentioned in the Talmud or in "secret kabalistic" writings. As I understand, he went to REGULAR MEDICAL DOCTORS, and he underwent REGULAR MEDICAL TREATMENT.

I would also point out that, when thousands asked his medical advice, he told them to follow the advice of the doctor or to pursue a different avenue of REGULAR MEDICAL TREATMENT. I have not found anyone who has told me that the CR told them to abandon the care of doctor and seek out an accupunturist, an alternative medicine advocate, a naturopathist, or any other "professional" in magic medicine. The closest I could find were people who claim that the CR allowed them to continue complementary methods that they were already involved in. This would fit with Rambam, who says that even though certain practices are opposed to Torah practice, he would them in cases where they would act as a placebo. (e.g. Hilchos Avodah Zara 11:12).

This only shows that modern magic has taken on a life of its own.

New Observant Astronomer blog

For issues regarding Torah and its world view, especially in matters of astronomy, follow the link. Obviously, astronomy, its history, and its relationship to its ugly stepsister, astrology, plays a large part in Jewish thought, legal ruling and general learning.

How much magic?

Magic is a part of frumkeit that gets nods from the gallery, but it pervades everything frum. Fundamentalism then firmly roots magic into frum reality. The combination has created a host of medrashim that are central to the way children learn Torah. In later times, it has created a REAL golem, REAL dibbukim, Rebbes and other magical beings that can fly, heal, communicate telepathically, prophesy, speak to the dead, transcend death itself, and those are just the highlights. In Israel, mekubalim perform services such as healing the hopeless, prophesying, causing rain (always at the beginning of the raining season , for some reason), solving any problem with magical formulae from "kabalah" (though where in kabalah is often a secret beyond mortal research, see the "pidgeon cure" below), interpret dreams prophetically, even speak to the dead. Usually, the victim in this is some person who is grieving, poor, extremely ill or some combination of the three. In America and Europe, the non-Jewish variations of this are billion dollar industries.

Perhaps we should propose a licensing procedure, whereby, like any other profession, practitioners of these arts would have to pass some tests showing that they perform what they advertise. Anecdotes, even multiple similar anecdotes, are funny and interesting, but we need real data. Otherwise, we allow vulnerable victims to be fed to this hungry money, prestige and power machine, and we allow them credibility to continue with our blessings.

Here is an example of the weakness of anecdotes.

Suppose 10,000 people take a remedy "X" for a certain disease. 10 of these patients report that they are completely healed after they took remedy X. And another 25 say that they have had some positive effect, after they took it.

Scenario A: Scientific conclusion:
The remedy is ineffective. It has a 0.1% cure rate and a 0.35% overall improvement rate. These might be the result of natural remission, misdiagnosis, or other factors. This data has been filtered for the placebo effect by controlled double blind tests against a placebo control group. The placebo effect is known to be as high as 30% in medicine, and much higher in matters of faith and religion.

Scenario B: Anecdotal conclusion:
We have 10 people, Chaim, Shmuel, Yosi ... who were completely cured by this miracle remedy X, and 25 people who definitely felt better and will probably be healed soon. Chaim said, "I've never felt anything like it. Right after I took the remedy, I felt tingly and then the pain just disappeared. Subsequent MRI's were all clear." Shmuel and Yosi reported similar effects.

Note: We have no verification that they have the disease beforehand nor any proof that they do not have it afterwards, other than their own say so. We have no knowledge of any other treatments that the person might be undergoing, nor do we know anything about their lifestyle or any other factors that might affect the illness. We have no knowledge of the 9965 people who took the remedy under the same circumstances and report that it did not work, because it is not an anecdote worth retelling. We do not even know if the people who were healed took the remedy or not, other than their say so.

While the example here is from medicine, it can be applied to any area of truth seeking.

What do we do about magic and superstition that has filtered into halacha? Is it yiras shamayim to:
cut your fingernails alternately
burn the clippings
avoid making kiddush in the first hour when Mars is influencing
count people "not one, not two" or "hoshiya es amecha"
hang amulets of "shir hamalos" on a newborn's crib
pour off the first drop of liquid in a cup to ward off demons

If we de-emphasize it, metaphorize it, or just plain sweep it under the carpet, does it help our rational outlook? If we emphasize and support it in the face of a scoffing world, does it somehow make us more frum, more yirei shamayim, more pnimiusdik?

I'll have to stop, this has been a long, but perhaps productive post, kein eyin hora (spit, spit).