Asking the Igros
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.
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.