Thoughts on Judaism

Sunday, March 06, 2005

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).


  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Jewish Exile, at 12:23 PM  

  • we can, perhaps, re-interpret "ayin hara" and its equivalents, as rationalist rabbanim have done throughout the ages. I use re-interpret colloquially; perhaps what we find will be a more true and original explanation than the one we have accepted until now. one place to start would be to investigate what exactly is wrong with counting jews, since that has its source in tanach (in chumash, but most clearly when david is punished for it).

    By Blogger Jewish Exile, at 12:23 PM  

  • Correct. WE MAY REINTERPRET concepts such as ayin hara. But, aren't we concerned more with what THEY meant?

    In the case of counting people, we have several different interpretations of the cases you mention. The modern student learns that ayin hara is akin to the goyishe "evil eye", an anthopomorphized curse entity of some type. The question stands. How does the modern frum person who rejects this concept as superstition relate to it in the context of frumkeit?

    Do we sweep it under the rug through softening its interpretation or do we uphold it against all scoffers?

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 1:01 PM  

  • On what basis does one "reject superstition"? Surely only in the scientific sense, that if there is no evidence for something, or it is not needed to explain something else, then it doesn't exist. Science does not believe in invisible green men or demons. But that does not preclude them from actually existing. Now if we have a source IN TORAH for the existence of something, is that not sufficient for the believing Jew, given that that science does not DISPROVE its existence?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:14 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 1:14 PM  

  • Almoni

    Define "IN TORAH". Every statement and word in Torah is filtered through the eyes of an interpreter.

    Example: In the case of the Motzi shem ra, the Torah says "he shall spread out the sheet". Obviously, the proof is very weak, so halacha goes with a nonliteral interpretation. The same is true of a thief breaking the the wall "during the day".

    So it seems that something that is obviously absurd drives us to a different interpretation. The Rambam says as much in the intro to Moreh Nevuchim.

    However, I cannot disprove, for instance, that the world was never flat. Maybe 3000 years ago it was and Pesachim 94b was literal. However, Moreh Nevuchim uses that as the example for the absurd. Is it absurd because the Rambam said it, or because it is, even though I cannot disprove it.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 1:39 PM  

  • Your example from the flat world is not accurate. We can NOW prove that the world is not flat. However, we cannot prove that demons don't exist. It may even be possible that in the time of Shas, they existed, and nowadays they have left this world.

    Something may be un-scientific (like demons) but that does not necessarily mean it defies logic or is absurd.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:22 PM  

  • Nor is there any reason to believe that the existence of demons is intended to be literal.

    And you say we can prove the world is not flat. I disagree. We cannot prove that it was not flat 1000 years ago. We cannot prove that it does not become round only when we look, but then is in reality flat at all times when we are not looking.

    Bottom line is that there is no reason believe that demons exist. They have no effect on anything perceivable. If they did, we would devise some way to perceive them. If they cannot be perceived, they are of no consequence and might as well not exist, since they no effect on anything real.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 10:41 PM  

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