May 20, 2024
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Segulot and Other Fallacies: A Call for Intolerance

Click here for responses by the Jewish Link and Rabbi Gil Student.

Religious tolerance is a fundamental value of both modern secular society and traditional Judaism. Thankfully, such tolerance is a hallmark of Bergen County’s Orthodox Jewish community.

Our community is richly diverse and inspiringly harmonious. In the same synagogue or school you may find individuals with a wide range of identities and sympathies: Sephardim and Ashkenazim; Modern Orthodox and Haredim; feminists and right-wing traditionalists; spiritualists and skeptics. It is a blessing to belong to a community where competing ideologies coexist peacefully, extremism is generally shunned, and members of each sub-group show genuine respect to those at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. The same level of respect is accorded to non-Orthodox communities as well.

But some religious practices are fraudulent and deserve neither tolerance nor respect.

For some years now, we have seen a proliferation of events in our community revolving around the visit of a charismatic person who, among other activities, offers advice and blessings to those seeking his or her counsel. The visitor typically promises salvation (“yeshuos”) from dire situations by means of his or her divine talents (“siyata de-shemaya”), efficacious blessings, or a miraculous talisman or technique (“segulah”). This is not a free service; normally, a fee or donation is expected.

Not surprisingly, these self-styled “miracle workers” claim to resolve crises related to the most potentially agonizing aspects of human life: Health and illness, the pursuit of a spouse (“zivug” or “shidduchim”), domestic harmony (“shalom bayit”), childbearing, and finances. Their visits are announced by aggressive marketing campaigns, as seen in print ads and emails distributed by the Jewish Link and other publications.

It should go without saying that in the modern period, claims to divine powers are patently false. Practitioners of “proven” segulot prey cynically on those who have exhausted all options or are simply seeking a connection to the divine. These claims and practices are morally and religiously repugnant, have no merit whatsoever, are deeply alien to the mainstream of our tradition, and bring shame on our community.

No rabbi, no matter how distinguished his lineage, can determine someone’s health by scanning their Hebrew names. No one can divine the future by any means, including—need it even be said?—reading the shapes of molten lead poured into water (though this originally pagan practice continues to provide entertainment to German families on New Year’s Day). No person with any sense of dignity or modesty, and certainly no legitimate Jewish leader, would allow himself or others to promote their “holiness” or “special powers,” even if convinced that they possess these qualities. Our Sages underscored the arrogance of Balaam, who professed to “know the thoughts of God” (Num. 24:16; Berakhot 7a).

My call for intolerance in this matter is addressed to three distinct groups: Our rabbis and communal leaders, the general membership of the Orthodox community, and traditional Jewish publications such as this paper.

* * *

To the professional and lay leadership of the Orthodox community, I propose that we adopt a no-tolerance policy toward charismatics who offer supernatural “yeshuos.” They should be denied a platform in our synagogues.

I believe that the promotion and use of segulot and other superstitions raise numerous halakhic problems. These may include gezel (theft), genevat da’at (deception), lifnei iver (misleading the uninformed), and chillul Hashem (casting Judaism in a negative light). Depending on the specific practice in question, they may also violate prohibitions against kesem (divination), nichush (augury), and darkhei emori (pagan practices).

There is already strong precedent for the public condemnation of such practices. In January 2013, a group of prominent roshei yeshiva released a statement in response to a marketing campaign directed at singles seeking marriage. Among the signatories were Rabbis Malkiel Kotler of Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha and Aharon Feldman of Ner Yisroel, shelita.

Below is the English version of the statement (Hebrew and English versions are posted on The Partial View blog). It is a remarkable document, which I will cite in full:

The anguish of many of our brothers and sisters who are anxiously awaiting their zivug is well known. We are therefore greatly disturbed by the recent pronouncements advertised in many Jewish media outlets promising to deliver, for a fee, the salvation they so anxiously seek through the supposed “powers” of Kabbalah. The advertisers falsely claim that they can see the heavenly obstacles preventing a person from getting married, and unlock the gates of their fortune, through the power of “Kabbalistic rituals” and “secret formulas,” all of which are foreign to our holy Torah and perfect faith. Even worse, they brazenly guarantee that anyone who pays a fixed sum ($648) and receives their “zivug set” will marry within a short time, a statement which belies any facade of legitimacy.

We hereby announce the truth: Anyone claiming to know the heavenly workings, and guarantees to manipulate them, is not to be believed. Marketing this power as a commercial enterprise crosses the border into deception and exploitation of the public. Contrary to what the advertisements would lead one to believe, true tzadikim have never claimed such powers much less brazenly marketed them to people in need.

We strongly protest the desecration of Torah and the transparent opportunism that is taking place. There is no doubt that those who were innocently misled into giving money in exchange for such guarantees are in no way bound by such commitments. We hereby advise that they cancel their pledge and request a full refund of all monies already committed.

Dear brothers and sisters! The gates of heaven are open to all who approach in sincerity, and in the merit of following the Torah commandment of “Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha,” by relying on Hashem and turning to him with complete faith, may we all experience the divine providence granted to those who serve Him and trust only in Him.

* * *

I also appeal to members of our community to protest this corruption of traditional Judaism. Our exemplary diversity and tolerance should leave no room for those who exploit the desperate.

To be clear: This is not about favoring “rationalism” over “spirituality”; all religious people seek spirituality, and all must do so without comprising the truth.

The segulah phenomenon does not represent authentic Hasidism or Kabbalah. The Baal Ha-Tanya and the last Lubavitcher Rebbe did not peddle segulot. Neither the Vilna Gaon nor Rav Kook offered supernatural cures, despite their deep mastery of and commitment to Kabbalah.

While you can find references to segulot and miracle workers in pre-modern Jewish literature (I do not include biblical miracles, which belong to a separate category), such stories arose within a pre-scientific culture in which supernatural phenomena were taken for granted even by educated people, just like the Earth was assumed to be at the center of the solar system. Those rabbis who offered such remedies centuries ago may have truly believed, in their pre-Enlightenment innocence, that they had tapped into a divine force.

It is possible that some modern segulah practitioners do not intend to defraud and are simply victims of their own naivete. Even if this were so, our response should be the same. We must reject falsehood, to paraphrase Maimonides, from wherever it comes.

* * *

I urge the Jewish Link to decline advertising fees from individuals and organizations touting “yeshuos.” It is irresponsible and beneath the dignity of this paper to serve as a messenger for religious fraud.

The Jewish Link already maintains standards for advertisements and advertorial content. It would not run ads or announcements for businesses or causes inconsistent with traditional Jewish values. Likewise, ads for miracle workers and faith healers are incompatible with the values of our community. By definition, they constitute false advertising and should be refused by the Link.

We recently recited a mishnah in Avot (2:9) that extols the ability to “see what is coming.” Of course, this statement has nothing to do with cheap fortune-telling; it refers to having insight into the future based on current patterns and trends. The recent acceleration of visits to our community by charismatics bearing blessings is cause for alarm about the direction in which we are headed. It is time for all of us to take a stand.

By David S. Zinberg

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