June 23, 2024
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June 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

This article is a response to this article, and here is the Jewish Link’s response.

The question facing the Jewish Link, its advisors and its supporters is whether to allow advertisements for segulos and other mystical services. Allow me to discuss the issues by thinking out loud without offering any conclusion, which is hardly my place.

Do these advertisements serve a segment of the community legitimately following its established and respected religious authorities? If so, do they anyway alienate another segment that is perhaps larger or otherwise more central to the newspaper’s mission? I suspect that the answer is that there are readers and rabbis who support the advertisers and very few people alienated. I was taught as a general principle that when it comes to someone’s livelihood, which is what advertising is for a newspaper, you should be as lenient as possible. Assuming the services advertised are legitimate and have at least some religious sanction, let the readers decide on their own whether to partake.

Rav Yosef Kafach, perhaps the greatest Maimonidean of the Twentieth Century, offered a surprising and uncharacteristic personal revelation in a footnote to his edition of Rambam’s letters (p. 42 n. 54). In his youth, he struggled with an attraction to astrology and even wrote a commentary to Ibn Ezra’s guide to reading the stars. On the one hand, he recognized that Rambam considered astrology to be utter nonsense. However, the young Rav Kafach deeply desired access to the mysteries of the universe, in this case through the writings of the famous Jewish thinker, Ibn Ezra. This need to understand the world, to know the secrets for success, is profound. It is a response to feelings of helplessness, a desire to gain control over the seeming randomness of the universe. In my opinion, the better response is active faith, not only believing in God but placing the energy of your insecurities into Torah study and mitzvah observance.

On some issues, I am a proud extremist. Public access to mystical secrets and supernatural shortcuts, especially for a fee, is one such issue. Rambam and Ramban debate why the Torah forbids sorcery and astrology but I prefer a third, more extreme approach that has important practical implications today.

The Torah (Deut. 18:10-11) forbids a number of different forms of magic, including casting spells, interpreting omens and inquiring of the dead. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Avodah Zarah ch. 11) explains that none of these actions work. They are all sleight of hand tricks, like the skills of contemporary mentalists and illusionists. These ancient magicians were hucksters, preying on the superstitious and philosophically unsophisticated.

Ramban (Additions to Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, positive commandment 8; commentary to Deut. 18:13) takes a less skeptical view of ancient magic. He does not deny that mystical powers exist in the universe that humans can harness. However, those specific acts are forbidden and, more generally, we must place our trust in God. “Tamim tihyeh im Hashem Elokecha,” (Deut. 18:13), you should have complete faith in God. Accessing those mystical forces demonstrates a weak faith, a need for human control rather than divine.

According to the Rambam as I understand him, many of the segulos we see today—do this act or say this verse at a specific time—are wrong and foolish. They do not work and may even serve to disgrace the Torah (ibid., 12:12). According to the Ramban, they might actually work but even so they demonstrate a lack of faith in God. God gave us the Torah. He expects us to utilize the tools He provided us—including prayer, fulfillment of commandments and Torah study—in order to achieve success in this world and the next. Any attempts at shortcuts are effectively a slap in the face to the Torah and a neglect, in belief if not in practice, of the Torah’s commandments. We have no prophets today to tell us the future; all we have is the Torah itself. But I prefer a more extreme approach.

Rav Yitzchak of Corbeil (Semak, no. 10) takes things one step further. He says that commandment of “Tamim tihyeh” requires that we not attempt to determine what will happen in the future, not even by asking a prophet or a wise, righteous man. Our task is in the present. Of course, we must worry about our own future in the World-to-Come and take steps today to ensure we are on the right path. But a person of faith should not try to discover what events lie in the future or to mystically direct them. Our faith must reside in God, not seers or conjurers, faith healers or fortune tellers.

When I see advertisements for segulos and yeshuos, mystical and magical salvations promised by rabbis invariably asking for money, I assume that only people lacking faith in God will respond. Only those who fail to be tamim will seek out these mystical shortcuts.

But that’s how I see things. Others see the world differently. Not only do they believe that these segulos work, they consider them valid religious opportunities. There are great rabbis who endorse some of these segulos. Presumably, they have a different view of these types of practices and either interpret the Rambam and others differently or follow other precedents. Maybe they see these soothsayers and soul-readers as the prophets of our generation.

Regardless of how they justify their position, where great halachic authorities differ, we need to leave room in our communities for multiple approaches. There are many paths to God, which appeal to people with different backgrounds and temperaments. With astrology, which at the time was considered science, some people took the Ibn Ezra’s path of accepting it and others followed the Rambam’s rejection. So, too, with segulos, which many people believe are based on practical mysticism.

A community newspaper is supposed to serve the entire community. If there are leaders in the community who support these mystical approaches, a newspaper should not exclude their groups. Of course, the world is never so simple. Often, serving one group excludes another and you have to make difficult decisions. That type of triage should be the last resort, when no other compromise is possible.

Ultimately, this is a matter for local rabbis to decide. Of course, any readers with questions should ask their shul rabbi.

Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com. Raised in Teaneck, he is a graduate of Solomon Schechter, Frisch, and Yeshiva University.

By Rabbi Gil Student

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