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Superstition

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I have always said that what’s wrong with Judaism is not the ideas or the texts, but the people who misapply or distort them. Of course, you could say that too about every philosophy, every political theory, and every institution.

When it comes to religious experience, I side with the mystics. But when it comes to practice, I am a rationalist. So much so that I tell people who are worried about such things as curses, evil eyes, and bad Karma to transfer it all to me personally and I will be happy to do them a favor and relieve them of such nonsense. But that never stops the believers from believing.

We have just celebrated Purim. The name Purim comes from an old Persian (and  Aramaic) word for a lottery. A common way of deciding things. Yet it is unambiguously forbidden according to Jewish Law even if there are traces of auguries and lotteries in the Bible. Concerning Yom Kipur we read “And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for Azazel” (Leviticus 16: 8). The process of dividing the Land of Israel by tribe was based on a lottery (Numbers 26: 56), in avenging the rape of the concubine in Gibeah (Judges 20), and the distribution of jobs in the Temple by King David (I Chronicles 25: 8). We should not expect to see consistency! 

On Purim the lottery was used by an enemy of the Jewish people, to determine the day on which the Jews of Persia were all to be murdered. The Talmud says that because of Purim the whole month of Adar is a good month for the Jews and Av is a bad one because that was when the Temples were destroyed. And we should try to do business in Adar and fix litigation in that month and not in the month of Av. Isn’t that superstition? 

 The Torah is quite clear “Do not do as the Egyptians or the Canaanites” (Leviticus 18:3) and then “…do not practice divination nor soothsaying” (Leviticus 19:26). It then reinforces the prohibition. “Let none of you use divination, a soothsayer, an enchanter, or a sorcerer (Deuteronomy 18:10).”  The Talmud forbids astrology (Pesahim 113b) and Maimonides emphasizes that it is forbidden to practice divination or ask counsel of a soothsayer and says that Jews should not believe the predictions of charlatans (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11) but rely directly on God. Yet King Saul consulted the Witch of Ein Dor. And to this very day, most Jews seem to be excessively superstitious, relying on signs, symbols, charms, and miracle workers to solve their problems, cure their illnesses and guarantee long life and good fortune. What does it mean to be superstitious?

Let’s take the word mazal, usually translated as luck, and used only once in the Bible to mean stars (2Kings 23:5). But by the time of the Talmud the word has come to mean astrology and there is a debate as to whether mazal if it means astrology has any relevance. There is a debate about mazal, (TB Shabbat 156a).  The dominant opinion is that mazal in the sense of astrology does not have any place in Judaism at all. And the same goes for such terms as segula, a charm, or siman, a sign or a kameah, a mystical secret formula. All reminiscent of ancient auspices such as flocks of birds, black cats, tea leaves, and witchcraft which dominated the medieval mind and have enjoyed a massive resurgence in recent years, particularly but not exclusively, in the Sephardi world.  But there is another understanding that mazal simply means Divine involvement in the world on every level, even plants so that we are only invoking God directly, not the stars and that is not unlike saying at energy transcends and animates our universe.  


Yet we keep on trying to get God to change things the way we want them to be. Which cannot make rational sense given that millions of people on earth are all asking God at the same time for the same things, and they cannot all be answered favorably. We only hear of the successful blessings, palm readings, cures, and predictions but never the far greater number which has failed. But that doesn’t stop us from trying. And many argue that these things do give people hope and comfort and even encourage them to fight harder for success or even to heal.  Perhaps rabbis turning a blind eye to superstition (or making a fortune out of them) are just recognizing human frailty and making use of the placebo effect. If it helps it can’t be harmful.


Sephardi spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was strongly opposed to buying lottery tickets. One of the reasons given by the late Ashkenazi chief rabbi Avraham Shapira for allowing the practice was that since the Jewish community is already accustomed to buying lottery tickets, we should not forbid them publicly because we would not want them to ignore us and thereby sin knowingly.

Lotteries have always played a part in Jewish life. The Jews facing Roman conquest on several occasions used a lottery to decide on suicide or capitulation. As late as the eighteenth century the Vilna Gaon devised a lottery based on the Bible to solve issues where there was no other way of finding a resolution or evidence. Something that has also been used in the judicial system of the secular State of Israel.

Modern culture has secularized the concepts of fate and randomness, to the point of presenting them as a blind and inexplicable reality, chaos. The science of mathematics has even developed an entire branch that deals with probability, whose purpose is to analyze random events while ignoring their possible significance. Experts assure us that our minds see patterns that do not exist and are capable of amazing delusion and simple errors. Who causes history to repeat itself or, at least, to rhyme? The skeptic will attribute matters to coincidence or chance. The believer may see the hand of God. 

Purim, being plural, means lotteries. But wasn’t there only one? One way of understanding this is to say there were indeed two; the lottery of human superstition and on the other hand the Divine lottery of the uncertainty principle, the inevitability of instability and uncertainty that a tradition enables us to cope with.

Just because we humans are insecure this does not mean we should not go on pursuing fools’ gold. We choose our poison and more often than not we choose our own fate. We may turn to all kinds of shamans but in the end, each one of us has to cope with what we can control and what we cannot. 

The Talmud ( Moed Katan 28a) says that only three things depend on mazal, forces beyond our control. How long we live, how our children grow up, and how much money we make! To which we might add our genes and good fortune not to live somewhere, where genocidal maniacs may decide to bomb us to pieces. No holy words will stop the drunken driver coming at you head-on or a Vladimir Putin deciding to murder you. And if superstition helps good luck! 

WEEKLY TORAH

TSAV

Leviticus 6:1 to 8:37

Eating together

There are four obligations on Purim. To read the Megillah of Esther, to give charity to the poor and gifts to our friends, and to have a celebratory meal, a seudah. The significance of all these is that in reacting to an attempt to de-humanize, we go in the other direction to emphasize humanity, and the things that reinforce human interaction, and concern. To look to the past to learn from it, and to look forward to the future with hope. 

The Purim story is an example of humanity at its worst and its best. Survival against the odds. That is why although Pur means a single lottery, Purim means many. Because life is constantly a matter of weighing up the odds.  And the Purim story encourages us to be proactive and not give up.

What’s so significant about having a banquet? Eating together has always been a symbol of friendship, hospitality, loyalty, and family. Breaking bread is an ancient tradition going back long before the Torah. And we celebrate each Shabbat, each festival with a Seudah (or two or three). This is something that in the world at large is getting rarer and rarer and indeed family life itself has been seriously degraded. The family coming together on Shabbat, Sunday, or Friday was once universally accepted. Nowadays the idea of family is almost going out of fashion. It is associated, with pressure, control, and humiliation. In American society, Thanksgiving and Christmas seem to be the only times most families do get together. Even in many Jewish families the idea of eating together once a day during the week, usually the evening meal, with grace before and or after, has become all too rare as other demands take priority.

This week, again, we read in the Torah about the sacrificial system. The very name, sacrifice, implies an unnecessary act of killing animals for ceremonial purposes. Although the subject of sacrifices nowadays has lost its allure, there are still important moral and social lessons we can learn from the Bible text on the subject. In Hebrew, the word for a sacrifice is Korban, the same word Karov also means to be close to God and other people. Whereas some sacrifices were indeed ceremonial, others were designed as atonements for individuals, for religious and political leaders, who all need to examine their actions and intentions regularly. Everyone inevitably makes mistakes.  We need constant, honest reality checks.

 Amongst the sacrifices we read about, there are two categories, Shelamim, literally to make peace, shalom in society, and the Mincha, rest or ease, designed to make us all feel comfortable as well as being part of a community. These sacrifices were shared. The bounty and good fortune were shared around. Sacrifices were ways of ensuring that the members of the community were fed as well reinforcing their religious identity. 

The Mincha was also primarily vegetarian. So that people who could not afford meat or simply preferred other food could also be part of the system. Speaking personally, in the improbable possibility of the Temple ever being rebuilt, I pray and hope that any sacrifices brought then, will all be Shelamin and better still Minchavegan to boot.

And given that on matters of food and aroma people have different tastes, this also reinforces the idea that in providing food to get together or to celebrate, we should try to please the palates of our guests, not just ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom

 Jeremy

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