Tuesday, 16 September 2014

In your opinion: Are Crazy Jewish Superstitions Proliferating?

Guest Blogger
Rav Dov Fischer
* * * * *

Every other Sunday morning, I teach an intense text-based class in halakha and in related Judaic social, cultural, and historic matters to a group of 25 women who attend by invitation only, so the group is not an average group.  They are profoundly intelligent, many with advanced secular degrees, and others equally brilliant just without the documentation.

This morning we covered three subjects, primarily focusing on Eruv Tavshilin, the composition of Avinu Malkeinu, and halakhot regarding who is eligible to serve as shat"z for the Yomim Nora'im.  And then we came to the open-ended questions and answers.

Somehow, as the Q&A discussion unfolded at class's end, one question led to another, as people inquired about a proliferation of crazy superstitions that now are taking hold in segments of the Orthodox community.  Someone asked about an email she had received, advocating a certain outlier practice, and then another mentioned something else crazy, and finally one of our regulars observed her perception that, in an era that boasts so much intellectualism and rationalism and book learning, it seems striking that so much craziness is proliferating within Orthodoxy.  My instant gut reaction — the instant answer I offered at Q&A time — is that, with the wonderful rise of many ba'alei teshuvah, we find many of them desperately seeking to leave behind their previous ├╝ber-sophisticated secular university worlds and seeking sincerely to return to a pre-modern level of authenticity.  Their problem is that, as they pursue authenticity, they do not know what is authentic and what is nonsense.  Unlike the better educated and committed FFBs among us, who have some sense of sources and learning and authenticity from a lifetime of immersion, who grew up with it and lived among it and grew up with rabbonim and with frum people and got a sense of what is normative and what is bubbe-maisos, a whole new world without roots suddenly is trying to reclaim roots without knowing what is real and what is Memorex and what is utter nonsense.

So we find people wearing red strings, thinking that will make them holy or successful or blessed.  A new craziness where people are calling friends or relatives across the country to bake and distribute 20 challahs on Erev Shabbat, in order to save someone who is ill.  The annual lemming-like pilgrimage of more than 30,000 Jewish men, who leave behind their wives and children for the Yomim Nora'im, to spend the holiest days of the year amid the drunken anti-Semites of Uman, Ukraine.  Again, the insane red strings on the wrists.  People who are m'chalel Shabbat and who eat n'veilot u-treifot, but protect themselves and gain special points in Heaven with a red wrist string.  A new email that every mitzvah that is done between 17 Elul and Rosh Hashanah counts as 12 mitzvos.

Where does this come from?  Has it always been this crazy?  I remember my Mother, zikhronah livrakhah, requiring me to walk back over my reclining sister if I initially had walked over her.  That is, if my sister was lying on the floor reading a book, and I happened to walk over her, then I was required to walk back over her.  But at least my Mom z"l did not couch the rule in religion, as though this was going to change G-d's plan.

Is this only in my inbox?  Or, perhaps, am I the one who is wrong?  Could my father have been saved from dying of leukemia if eight or nine women on the block each had baked 20 challahs — totaling some 160 or 180 challos — every Friday for him?  Do the 30,000 lemmings who trek to Uman objectively register better income and health during the following twelve months than do those who stay home and spend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with their wives and children?  What is going on, and does this concern us as rabbonim who are empowered by our kehillot to lead them on a Torah path?

— Dov Fischer

Kol Tuv


Anonymous said...

This is a very important discussion on this topic and I salute Nishma for posting it. Having come years ago from a Bal-Tzhuva shul, I too sensed a type of "superstition-creep" taking hold of some congregants and Rabbanim alike.

Anonymous said...

Superstitious thinking is frequently a disguise for a kind of so-called mysticism. That mystical tendency can be understood in scientific terms as morbid imagination, a pathological state that leads to a psychotic fantasy world. Loss of reality is dangerous. When perception is distorted by a primitive withdrawal to a world of fusion with love objects--in this case, with G-d--insanity is the only result.

Micha Berger said...

The gemara charictarizes pagan thought as religion for the sake of extracting from the gods what they want. "''The kindness of the nations is sin' (Mishlei 14:34) — all the charity and kindness done by idolators is only for their self-aggrandizement..." (Bava Basra 10b)

This isn't just about rationalism vs mysticism. It's about inverting Judaism from being the means to contribute to Hashem's plan for the world into a paganistic mindset.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

I think Rav Micha's statement is right on point. Many people believe that the essence of Torah is found in the chukkim, when we do something so different that others 'laugh' at us for being different and we respond by declaring our allegiance to Hashem by acting upon his command and specifically doing something that others would seem foolish. What these people forget thought is that the way the world looks at us is significant -- and the Torah wants us to be seen as a wise nation. Its a challenge to balance these concerns for there is within Torah chukkim -- but we also are to be involved in thought. I have discussed this at http://www.nishma.org/articles/insight/spark5753-9.htm amongst other places

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Anonymous said...

The Disparaging Term I've heard used against those who seek to Manipulate Hashem via "magic" is "Theurgy".

Tamim Tihyeh would imply that even if effective, it goes counter to Torah