Tuesday, December 19, 2006

segulos, mysticism, and fundementals of faith

From a comment to the previous post:
"If I recall correctly, you are not a fan of rational taamei hamitzvot, but rather believe that they are beyond our ability to understand, and may all have mystical ends rather than rational ends. If so, please explain the difference between a segulah and not eating a cheeseburger. I can't see any."

The point of the previous post (as I clarified in the comments) was not that I reject segulos because they are irrational. Rather, I reject the mass advertising of “get spiritually rich quick” ideas of any sort. Avodas Hashem, as the words literally mean, is about work – there are no shortcuts and no quick fixes. Preying on people’s naïve beliefs and offering these fixes packaged with all the gloss of what appears to be frumkeit misrepresents Judaism and borders on stealing.

The Torah makes no claim that not eating a cheeseburger alone guarantees any tangible reward in this world (see Chulin 142), neither in terms of health, longer life, or even spiritual protection from harm. This is a case in point illustrating one reason why I am not a pure rationalist when it comes to explanations for mitzvos. We do find claims in the Rishonim that not eating a cheeseburger will keep you healthy, which undoubtedly made sense in the Middle Ages, but given the health and vigor of a great many Jews who eat cheeseburgers, lobster, etc. without suffering immediate cardiac arrest these claims lead to greater doubt than understanding. The well meaning people who tout any study that comes out “proving” the health benefits of mitzvos just continue this same sort of wrong thinking. Physical reward of any sort should never be the motivation to do mitzvos, and is not even a guaranteed byproduct. If this is true of a mitzvah commanded by G-d, it would certainly seem spurious to think reciting 40 chapters of tehillim or saying Shir haShirim in and of itself produces some sort of physical reward or gain.

The mistaken thinking driving these quick fixes is based on a false concept of reward and punishment people pick up early in life. In first grade we learn G-d rewards good people and punishes bad; G-d controls our destiny and watches us from harm. We also learn about the tooth fairy, the boogie man, and listen to fairy tales. Fortunately, we eventually come to realize the tooth fairy is false (or we run out of teeth to lose in any case), but unfortunately, the naïve beliefs about G-d cling to many people for a lifetime. The net result is people who walk around thinking G-d never causes bad things to happen to good people (not true – see Chulin 142), he will suspend the forces of nature to protect the innocent from hardship and harm (see Shabbos 156), he will assure that true believers suffer not when their enemies choose to harm them (see here), and who will come to the rescue miraculously if a single good deed is done to tip the scales to a person’s favor. My five year old who still believes the tooth fairy leaves money under her pillow (her sisters have since learned better) will undoubtedly accept the notion that tying a red string around her arm would protect her from harm. But adults should know better.

The point was made that it is hard to challenge firmly held beliefs (or to convince people to challenge their own thinking) because once doubt and uncertainty have been unleashed, they become difficult forces to reign in and control. But if we can teach kids to read a pasuk in a more sophisticated less-literal manner than they learn in first grade without concern, I don’t see why we can’t teach kids to have a more sophisticated understanding of Jewish belief than they develop in first grade. The problem, of course, is that no yeshiva curriculum does this. The system, as students mature, focuses more and more narrowly on the legal hairsplitting of gemara learning and lomdus (which anyone who reads this blog knows I appreciate as well) without ever exposing students to thinking about belief in a systematic and mature way. At best, a narrow channel of a specific thinker is emphasized, be it the Rav, Rav Hutner, Rav Kook, Slabodka mussar, etc. but no broader appreciation of Jewish thought is ever developed. So we remain fixated on and reinforce the same level of faith we had in first grade, and those who challenge these core beliefs come to reject the system they have been raised on as foolish, unsophisticated, immature, and unsatisfying.

I don't think we need to pass judgment on mysticism as a whole to reject its misuse. Sadly, the syetem as it exists does reinforce the type thinking that validates these ads, but I don't look for anyone in the "establishment" to tackle this issue any time soon. I have no fear that critical thinking will endanger the halachic system, but it may indeed bring down a great number of false idols that the "establishment" has come to rely on.


  1. Actually, from a Chassidic perspective, non-kosher causes "timtum halev" So they do infuse avoidance of cheeseburgers etc.with spiritual benefit.

  2. I haven't denied the potential spiritual benefit of not eating cheeseburgers or potentially of segulos. But if you think timtum halev causes congested arteries, and you advertise that fact to the public who does not know better, you have a problem.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. A few CC posts on the topic:




  5. Mike S3:00 PM

    The Rambam devotes the largest potion of his introduction to Perek Cheilek to the point I think you are making. While we all know the 13 ikarrim that come toward the end of said introduction, the earlier portions are worth study also.

  6. kishnevi10:14 PM

    I would identify the problem with segulot as the fact that they imply that the Master of the Universe can be manipulated in an almost mechanical fashion.

    Part of the problem lies in what I might call, diplomatically, the overestimation of rabbinical figures. Men who are accorded the status of gedolim accept this sort of thinking, and therefore it must be true since, as we know, gedolim are never wrong.
    If a certain very respected rabbi decides to link the safety level of El Al with its observance of Shabbat, then we must fly El Al only if it observes Shabbat properly. But that is the really the same type of thinking as segulot. [Perhaps the certain very respected rabbi had a quite different rationale in mind. But that's the only way I can understand the matter.] And people accept it without pausing to consider that perhaps the certain respected rabbi had allowed his zeal for the Sabbath to outweigh his critical thinking skills--or perhaps he was himself never educated or exposed to the sort of education you prefer, and simply does really think the universe operates that way. [I speak, obviously, as a person who has a definitely minimalist concept of Daat Torah.]

  7. Anonymous11:59 AM

    The condescension found in blogs or comments is probably an indicator and/or cause of timtum halev.

  8. Anonymous, you mean as illustrated by your comment?

  9. Anonymous10:28 AM

    "Anonymous, you mean as illustrated by your comment?"

    Among others.

  10. Yosef Blau11:52 AM

    There has been an open increase in commercialization of segulos and in guarantees that tefillos will produce a desired result. The most blatent shift is shown in the recent requests for tzedaka where one can check off ones needs and gedolim in Bnei Brak will be mispallel for you. The brochures include stories of miraculous results for those who have donated. What is particularly significant is the gedolim are not Hasidic Rebbes. One should contrast the brochures with the requests for tzedaka for Ezras Torah when Rav Henkin Z.T.L. was alive.
    There are minhagim involving segulos that were unheard of when twenty five years ago in Yeshivos that are now common practice. One example is giving psichas haaron to a husband whose wife is in the ninth month of pregnancy.
    The increased reliance on segulos reflects a community that is less rational and self reliant. The gap between hassidim and misnagdim is disappearing without any recollections of the non-miracle Rebbes of Pshyscha and Kotzk.
    I should acknowledge that my hasidic ancestry has not protected me from become a rationalist misnaged.

  11. "I should acknowledge that my hasidic ancestry has not protected me from become a rationalist misnaged."

    I also have some chassidic blood in me, but I try to be as rational as possible. I think that one can take the best from all worlds. Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz taught that approach.

    I commented elsewhere that I am concerned about "kol hamoseif gorea". Adding new things to Yahadus and emunah can be deleterious in the long run.

    Completely avoiding segulos, is one end of the pole, but the sensationalization of segulos in advertsing is another extreme.

  12. I would also like to recommend the article linked below, by Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz. I should note that the article was the third in a series regarding the advertising of the "Chai Rotel" segulah, and is not discussing any other specific tzedokah. I quote relevant parts, and link it at the end of the post.

    "I mention this in the context of the past two columns appearing in this space noting that increasingly more and more charity ads are hawking 'yeshuos' (miraculous salvations) to prompt people to give tzedakah - as opposed to (or in addition to) making a thoughtful case for why this particular charity is worthy of your support.

    "There are those in our diverse kehilos who attach great significance to segulos and/or yeshuos. Others take the "Tomim t'heyeh im Hashem Elokecha," (Devorim 18:13, see Rashi) approach and do not attach much meaning to segulos/yeshuos. Further along the continuum, there are those who are put off by the notion of segulos/yeshuos and feel that they are presented as 'shortcuts' leading to instant acceptance of tefilos...

    With that in mind, we ought to respect each other's approaches to this matter of segulos and yeshuos. However, in the public arena, I strongly feel that charity ads should be making the case for why particular tzedakos are worthy of the reader's donation - without engaging in 'marketing' segulos or yeshuos...

    There are so many wonderful and diverse charities in our community, each of them worthy of communal support; Tomchei Shabbos, Bikur Cholim, etc. It is the responsibility of those in the leadership of the charities to make the case - in ads, flyers, and personal solicitations - as to why donors should contribute to them. It is certainly appropriate to present footnoted, universally accepted mamorei chazal (words of our sages) - such as a pasuk from Tanach, a quote from a gemorah, or the commentary of Rashi - supporting the themes of the charity in a way that presents a logical thread to the reader."