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 actually affected 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 they 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, 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!
About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.
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