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Superstition

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Where does superstition end and religion begin? Or are they same? My late father had no patience for spells, curses, or any kind of superstition. He always quoted to us the famous line from Numbers 23:23, “There are no charms in Jacob, no magic in Israel.” The most he conceded to us as kids was that if we were frightened we should say the Shema.

Why are Jews so superstitious? In fact, the world is. One might think that astrology, card reading, divination of all sorts, were demolished eons ago. But they are gaining in popularity, rather than waning.

However much we are led to believe we are closer to controlling our world, and we are in many areas, in our personal lives there is far more pressure and insecurity. The world we inhabit is often as frightening as it must have been to Neanderthal man in his cave. And we still use similar tools for protection. What is wrong with superstition?

Superstition is the belief that, regardless of my own actions or any other external factors, like walking into a war zone or driving a car the wrong way on a motorway, if one does certain prescribed actions, or carries a certain text or symbol, it will protect. Regardless of whether I do my homework, check the figures, and balance all the factors, if I get a blessing then this business deal will succeed. Look at all those footballers crossing themselves before they take their kick!

Any rational mathematician familiar with the laws of probability will be able to explain why some bets on currencies may well succeed, cancer will be cured, but others not. The successes will be hailed as miracles. The failures will be accepted and forgotten. Human brains have that amazing gift of ignoring things they want to.

Many people confuse religious symbolism with superstition, but it is not the symbolism of religion that protects. The mezuzah on your doorpost is not a magic charm. It is there to remind you of your religious obligations in the hope that by doing them you will be elevating yourself and your household.

Time and time again, the rabbis say that luck has no bearing on Jewish life (Talmud Shabbat 156a&b). And yet, for all that, you can find references in the Talmud to people relying on luck. Luck, like God, seems a natural human response to the unknowable. Whoever avoids using spells for luck enters the highest levels of spirituality (Nedarim 32a). However, human frailty, I am afraid, trumps logic most of the time.

Religion itself proclaims that the good are rewarded, yet in life the righteous often suffer and the wicked prosper. Clearly, good actions and good consequences are not inevitably connected. If God can ordain 400 years of suffering in Egypt before the Exodus, then during those four hundred years the enslaved sons of Jacob could have done nothing to change their situation. Rational attempts at explaining the world in terms of individual good and bad totally flounder. No wonder it became so much easier to refer it all to another life.

Religion, in theory at least, is predicated on the idea that, one’s actions can determine a lot. The word is “hishtadlut”, the other side of the coin to “bashert”, the Yiddish for “ordained”. They coexist. We can and have no option but to accept what happens. There are so many competing and conflicting factors at work in the universe that it is impossible to know or control them all. But at the same time there are plenty of other areas where one can do one’s best, where it is possible to change and achieve things by whatever means are at one’s disposal. Only desperate or lazy people clutch at straws.

What I find offensive is that too many of these miracle rabbis expect people to pay for their insecurity! Credulity then becomes a matter of extortion and manipulation. Give me money and I will give you a charm to cure your cancer. Now that’s what I expect from a witch doctor, not a rabbi.

I do feel the presence of a Divine power that can be reassuring and comforting, not because it necessarily produces the results we hope for, but because it reinforces a sense of our own humanity. It encourages us to use our human resources to cope. It is supportive, if not curative. It is like love. It does not take away life’s problems, but it certainly makes life easier to handle. It is the difference between regarding God as a Slot Machine and regarding God as an experience to feel and savor and enjoy. The more positive experiences one has in life, the easier it is to cope.

I was always impressed by the story in Kings II, Chapter 5. The prophet Elisha cured the Aramean general, Naaman, by getting him to recognize a higher power, not a superstitious one. Most importantly, he refused any reward. Nowadays there’s a charge. We have, indeed, deteriorated spiritually! Superstition and religion are in bed together more than ever.

7 thoughts on “Superstition

  1. I have a question or questions rather than comments. Firstly a lot of ” superstition” exists around the current period of The Three Weeks, especially the 9 days, where we are advised to be careful over taking serious decisons that will affect our future, such as contracts buying a house, an operation etc. My son for example has to have a straight forward medical procedure soon, and I was advised by a Rov, who I would not classify as superstitious to avoid the 9 days if I can. You can also refer to Rabbis who give brochos, for pay or otherwise, or even Cohenim, like myself who apparently have the power to bless ( as every person has..). Where does superstition end and the possibility of the unexplained begin?

  2. Yes, you are correct that in the Gemara (Taanit) and in medieval sources there is a lot about how bad it is to get involved in conflicts with non-Jews, etc., during Av, over and above laws of mourning. There is a body of opinion, both about the good times of Adar and the bad of Av, that seems to contradfict what I say. However, remember I did admit there were contrary voices in the Talmud.

    It is partly to do with the mystical concept of Hester Panim, that God hides, at certain times more than others.

    But I do believe that, however embedded superstition may be, at some times more than others, it does conflict with purist and rational Torah and, as Rambam says, merely attests to popular superstious beliefs.

    I have to say I, personally, would never give advice to defer medical intervention or a business deal because of the three weeks (the Gemara and Karo only speak of the nine days ).

    I think a rabbi who gives brachot for money is a scandal and a Chilluil HaShem. Have you ever heard of a cohen asking for money for a bracha? And with Pidyon Haben the money is not for the bracha. The cohen does not, anyway, give the bracha. He is simply the vehicle for the Divine blessing, which is why a cohen who is a sinner, though not a murderer, can still duchan.

  3. Thanks for clarifying this. To be fair the Rov in question did say we should avoid the 9 days. Fortunately my son’s appointment is before then. I agree that asking for money for a brocha is a scandal. But I have received brochas from visiting Rosh Yishivas and Rebbe who principle purpose for a visit was to raise funds for their causes. No one has asked me or others for donations but the underlying assumption is that you do this. What do you think of this specifically? And is asking for a brocha a form of superstition?

  4. Yes, I do believe that visiting rosh yeshivas/rebbes, etc., giving brachot in general without knowing the person is dishonest and a fundraising scam. At best it is a placebo, though I dont dispute that placebos can work.

    If the person really knows you and therefore is investing some of his spirituality to elevate you, that would be a different matter. A bracha is an expression of a person’s desire to benefit you spiritually. It can also be a simple hope that you do well. But a meaningful bracha should involve a relationship of care, knowledge, and love. Think of the brachot Yitzchak gave his sons (and different than Yaakov’s more predictive ones).

    The donor might want to justify himself by saying he is simply calling on God to bestow His blessings on you. This is behind the idea of the rebbe who is regarded as having a closer connection to the Almighty. I would be more inclined to accept it if the rebbe were someone who had achieved his position through his own merits, as opposed to birth, though I can think of examples where a relative emerged as a great leader.

    But where the person simply does not know you and his concern extends simply to the size of your donation, I am afraid I think if it is not superstition it is dishonest quackery!

    I may not know you, but I feel strongly enough to pray for your son’s recovery because I really do care; but if you asked me for a bracha, I’d say, rather ask your wife!

  5. Living as I do in a RC enclave of Europe presents much in the way of superstitious 'events'

    Earlier in the Gregorian year – horses & riders are blessed – then come cars & drivers – last weekend motorcycle riders got sploshed and soon the owners of mobile homes get done. They haven't got round to cellphones or computers yet….

    OK thats fun to watch and it's nothing to do with Judaism – nonetheless way back in the Pale – they expected the Rabbi to do 'stuff' too – and he obliged….apparently even the Besht wrote 'protective' amulets, though payment (all cards accepted) was not involved…

    I'm ambivalent – if a bit of red string on the wrist makes one think of G-d, whereas another does so without the string…

    Thanks to the clarity with which the divine purpose is presented in Judaism – I have no need of a talisman – but does it not all fall under "willful error" for which forgiveness can/should be requested?

    Graham

  6. Good to hear from after so long!

    Interesting point about forgiveness. I do not necessarily think human frailty always requires forgiveness, perhaps understanding.

    And yes, of course, superstition derives from the way people interact with the universe, creation, etc., which is why the Hindus have gods for everything, and likewise pagan Europe.

    I guess I have greater sympathy for the intelligent Romans who merely regarded their household gods as family heirlooms. Nice harmless customs is one thing, actuallly believing they work is another!

  7. Most we feel was probably adopted by us in the age of kindergarten.

    It is good the Jeremy is displaying empathy and sympathetic understanding to all men.

    Commendable that he invites us to a spellfree world.

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