After Noah’s flood, God gave the rainbow as a sign that never again would humanity be destroyed because of its failings. To this day, there is a blessing of thanksgiving on seeing a rainbow “Who remembers and keeps His covenant and fulfills his promise” (Brachot 59a).
In medieval times there was a debate about whether the rainbow was a new creation made specifically for Noah’s covenant, or a pre-existing physical phenomenon that represented the commitment. Nachmanides (Ramban 1194-1270), knew that Greek philosophers understood the rainbow to be a perfectly explainable part of the physical world. Even if the average Greek thought it was a channel that the gods and goddesses used to come down to earth and then go back again. On the other hand, to this day, there are still some who maintain that the rainbow was an entirely new divine creation after the flood. Either way, it should be a good sign otherwise why would we bless it? Yet the Mishna (Hagigah 2:1) talking about a lack of respect for God, says that looking at a rainbow is an example of just that. As if looking up at it, is a challenge to God. The Gemarah actually has an opinion that people looking at a rainbow will lose their eyesight!
What is so bad about looking? In some societies looking a mad dog in the eye was considered dangerous. Just as looking at another person directly can be considered arrogant and aggressive. Once people believed that if a pregnant woman looked at an animal or an unusual human being while pregnant it could affect the shape and character of their unborn child. This is why many pious women coming out of the Mikvah immediately look up at the sky. Some soccer players having scored a goal look upwards, while others bow down.
Around the world, the rainbow is clothed in superstition. In the Amazon, it is the dwelling place of evil spirits. In Ireland, it is where the leprechauns hide their pots of gold. In Africa, it is a sign of impending disaster and some Christians believe that their messiah will not come back to earth in a year in which one sees a rainbow.
The great medieval authority, Rabbeinu Asher (C.1250-1327) wondered how one could be expected to make a blessing on the rainbow if one is forbidden to look at it? He suggested that to look, meant gazing with devotion, rather than simply looking. Similarly, Yosef Karo said that it was forbidden to look too intently (Shulchan Aruch O.C. Hilchot Brachot (229.1).
Fortunately, we have enough rationalist authorities who take a different point of view.
Rambam (1138-1204) in his Guide For the Perplexed (Chapter 32), said that the Mishna was only referring to someone who did not have the mental capacity to understand things about the physical world beyond his limited comprehension. The idea that one would not be allowed to gaze at a rainbow or anything else God created, would be unacceptable. The goal of the Halacha itself was to promote the knowledge of God to the best of a person’s abilities. Rambam in his work on commandments nowhere mentions this issue of not looking at the rainbow.
Rabbi JB Soloveitchik in an essay on Teshuvah asks “Is it possible that the Talmud thought that there is some resemblance between a rainbow and the Almighty and that was why one shouldn’t look? Can He who is incorporeal be portrayed as a rainbow? Rather what the Talmud meant was that he who looks at a rainbow, one of the most sublime of cosmic phenomena, at this ravishing sight and fails to see it as a reflection of the sublime nobility of the Almighty but observes a rainbow and nothing more, such a person is blind to the glory of his Creator!”
There is still far too much superstition amongst us. Worrying about evil spirits, evil eyes, curses, and hexes was the prevailing norm around the world until relatively recently, but it persists in some minds. I notice superstition particularly in those communities and traditions which have drawn heavily on Kabbala as a practice not just as commentary and mystical theory. All cultures have absorbed strange traditions. That doesn’t mean one cannot adapt an alien idea and give it significance. But that is not the same as doing something out of fear. One is fun. The other is a curse!
So how come we, supposedly rational western-educated modernists, celebrate Halloween? Seriously? Do we still believe in witches, vampires, ghouls, and devils?
Halloween originated as an ancient Celtic harvest rite. Like all pagan festivals celebrating different stages of the agricultural year. Halloween marked the descent unto the dark world of winter controlled by witches, wizards, and evil spirits. To deal with them, humans were expected to imitate them. By disguising themselves, tricking, frightening each other, and lighting bonfires to scare the wicked forces away.
Christianity adopted many pagan festivals and turned Halloween into a day of mourning for saints and called it All Hallows (Saints) Eve. It was soon abbreviated into Halloween with special church services and lighting candles on the graves of the dead. Like Christmas, it is now more commercial and secular rather than religious. But for the life of me, I cannot understand why Jews would celebrate it. Unless of course, they thought the Shaydim, the evil spirits, would come and carry them away if they did not!
It is one thing to celebrate the beauty of the world and thank God for the rainbow and every other beautiful natural feature. Quite another to fear that evil surrounds us waiting to pounce if we do not jump through the hoops for them. That just takes us back to the Dark Ages.
At this moment we are worried about the future. Venal, dogmatic, egotistical politicians across the spectrum and around the world, pursue their own agendas regardless of truth, honesty, or justice and vilify the other. I am hard-pressed to think of one on either side I would trust. Whatever dark forces are unleashed by this election in the USA, we should not let the result either depress or deflect us from what we hope for. Which is the freedom to be and think as we choose, as well as the suppression of all kinds of religious, racial, and intellectual prejudice and hatred.
For me, at this moment, the rainbow is a symbol of hope. Although I believe it will probably be “somewhere over the rainbow.”