Why Judaism and Superstition Don’t Mix
Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was a doughty activist against superstition and black magic. A gentle man but fiercely rational, he would travel throughout India exposing frauds, fakers, and tricksters. But he so enraged people who made a living out of superstition that he was shot dead at the age of 67, just a few weeks ago.
Judaism desperately needs a Dr. Dabholkar. We have been getting more superstitious as time goes by, not less. We may look condescendingly at Indian susceptibility to multiple gods and superstitious practices, but it seems to me that most Jews are not very different. Perhaps we are so insecure, gullible, and troubled that we are only too willing to believe any rabbi who claims he can perform some charm or magic, that we throw millions of dollars each year at people who take advantage of our weakness in the name of religion. What is more, if you call it “kabbalah” you are guaranteed a whole legion more of suckers.
I understand that people are insecure and weak, and need props, supports, and placebos. I understand that for all the technological advances of society, humans remain fragile, insecure organisms that need to feel protected. But what is really troubling is that hardly any rabbis of note are prepared to speak out against this epidemic of delusions.
Maimonides, in his rational moments, was clear that references in our ancient sources to spirits, evil eyes, and other such supernatural phenomena were of significance only in that people actually believed in them and therefore psychosomatically, as we would say today, they were actually affected by them. If someone believed he had been cursed, he felt cursed, and it took its toll on him. In parts of Africa I am told, to this day if the Witch Doctor says someone will die, he or she goes off to a special hut and dies. I often encounter people who explain their failures or tragedies in terms of the “Evil Eye.”
Until relatively recently, the way everyone looked at the natural universe was through astronomy and its daughter, astrology. The Biblical word Mazal simply meant the heavenly bodies, and people knew that the sun and the moon affected things on earth one way or another. But people believed that spells, charms, and incantations carried out by shamans and witches could change the course of the stars and our fates. Paganism asserted that we were the playthings of the gods and our fates were decided by them and the planets. The more you worshipped, the more gods you had, the less the likelihood of trouble.
In contrast, monotheism posited that in so far as anything could be affected on earth, it was our relationship with God and our actions that determined what happened. We might be able to avoid some or certain tragedies. But even then we had to accept and resign ourselves to whatever the Divine Will was. There were indeed things beyond our control, and if we could not change them we had at least, like Job, to bear them and accept them and make the best out of it all. There were no lucky charms with any guarantee. But that did not stop people from wanting them, from needing them.
The Biblical oracles disappeared either because they were captured in war or because they were abused. “King Hizkiyahu hid the Book of Cures and smashed the bronze Serpent (of Moses’s days) and the authorities of the day approved it” (Brachot 10b). Back in those days, our religious leadership had guts and confidence.
But then Kabbalah emerged as a force within Judaism. It is a wonderful body of knowledge, not some dangerous hocus pocus to terrify little children. But in addition to the majesty of a way of refining one’s spirituality – to harness Divine energy, parts of it absorbed a great deal of medieval magic, angelology, and folk cures. And so today many Jews are still fearful of kabbalist curses such as the notorious “Pulsa Di Nura,” the strokes of fire, that was supposed to have caused Rabin’s death (not of course some mentally deranged fanatic). Anyone want to try it on me? Go head. Be my guest.
Jews have always been a varied collection of individuals. So it is not surprising that some are more credulous than others, some prefer a rational Judaism and others a mystical. I am just constantly surprised how people who run their business and professional lives with expertise, seem so willing to sacrifice all logic when faced with a crisis, and turn to soothsayers, tarot card readers, and rabbis who tell you that all bad things can be traced to a defective mezuzah, or that reciting a formula or changing a name will avert the catastrophe. If only it were that easy and obvious everyone would be religious!
I will concede that a person’s frame of mind can make a tremendous difference to his will to overcome challenges. These placebos may have such an affect. But we are taught that a direct line to the Almighty is the true response to a crisis. It helps us cope. It is one thing to turn to a greater or holier person for inspiration. But it is a failure of one’s humanity to expect them to perform miracles for us.
In days gone by, people explained the irrational in life as the work of spirits, evil eyes, curses, or the wheel of fortune. They saw astrology as a tool to explain the way God intervenes in the world, rather than as a system in competition with the Divine. They realized there were external influences such as gravity and natural phenomena. They just wanted to know how they could control it all. We graduated to seeking scientific information. Yet still there is so much that escapes us. That is why we still cling to magic.
Superstition is the belief that totally illogical, random actions cause bad things to happen. As well, acts of equal randomness can be antidotes. Such an idea flies in the face of numerous Biblical and post-Biblical texts. The magician Bilaam, who was invited to curse the Israelites, ended up blessing them and declared that “Jacob is not subject to magic and Israel is not influenced by sorcery” (Numbers 23). My father always used to tell us children that if we were frightened of anything we only had to say the “Shema.” That would be our hotline to God, and that was the only protection we would need.
So today when we wish each other Mazal Tov, what can that mean? The rabbis argued about whether Mazal applied to God-fearing Jews (Shabbat 156a and b). Overwhelmingly, they decided it did not. Good deeds and charity were the only response. But there were no guarantees. Death and sickness were and are inevitable. So is the human capacity for inflicting evil. “The world functions according to its own rules” says the Talmud. When we wish someone Mazal Tov, we express the hope that their lives will be as free of pain and suffering as possible, not that random actions can save us. But then, as they say, there are no atheists in a war zone, so I guess there is no logic when one is desperate. I just wish all that wasted money would go instead to people or institutions that really deserve it!