Monday, June 27, 2011

Hyper-Rationalism and Segulos

In the comments to an earlier post regarding the Silver Segulah Ring, someone referred approvingly to a discussion of segulos which claims that the rationalist approach to segulos is normative in Judaism and was the view of Rashba:

"it is clear from the Rashba that the framework within which Segulos work is the framework of science and nature; we simply are not privy to all of the workings of science and nature...  If we take the attitude that empirically tested phenomena work through the principles of science despite the fact that we do not understand these principles, then we are relating properly to Segulos; if, however, we think that they are some type of magical force, then we have dangerously crossed the border into a non-Torah perspective...."

However, not only is this not "clear" from Rashba; in fact, he says nothing of the sort.

Rashba (a.k.a. Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Aderes, 1235–1310) discussed this matter in the context of his disagreeing strongly with Rambam's across-the-board dismissal of all magic (and similar phenomena for which there is no rational explanation) as being nonsense and thus prohibited. Rashba points out that the Gemara is full of such things, which (unlike Rambam) he takes authoritatively, and he stresses that these practices are endorsed even though there is no rational explanation for them. Rashba later delivers what he believes to be the coup de grâce:

עוד יש לי מקום עיון בדברי הרב ז"ל שכתב אמרו בפי' כל שיש בו משום רפואה אין בו משום דרכי האמורי. רוצה בזה כל מה שיגזרהו העיון הטבעי הוא מותר וזולתו אסור. ע"כ. ואני שואל כמסתפק בדברי הרב ז"ל מהו הדבר שיקראוהו הרב ז"ל שיגזרהו העיון הטבעי. אם מה שיגזרהו עיון חכמי' שחברו ספרים בטבע כאריסטו וגאלינוס וחבריהם שחברו ספרים בטבע הסמים והמסעדים המועילים לפי עיונם וכל מה שלא השיג עיונם הוא בכלל איסור דרכי האמורי. לפי שעיון חכמים אלו שהשתדלו בחכמת הטבע כולל כל מה שאפשר להיות פעל כל בעל טבע בטבעו. ואצל עיון חכמים אלו יפסק מאפשרות העיון הטבעי. זה באמת מה שלא יקבלוהו השכל כי באמת הדברים הפועלים בסגלה אין פעולתם בפלא מהם אלא בטבע מסגל, רצוני לומר בטבע לא ישיגנו עיון החכמים ואפילו החכם שבחכמים לרוב העלם הטבע ההוא מכלל המין האנושי מצד שהוא אדם, כסגלת אבן השואבת שהברזל קופץ עליה ויותר מזה מורגל בירדי הים באניות תוחבין מחט בחתיכת עץ צף על פני המים ומראין לו אבן וישוט על פני המים עד שיפנה אל פני הסדן ושם ינוח - ולא ישיג עיון טבע זה כל חכם שבחכמים אלו של חכמת הטבע. (שו"ת הרשב"א חלק א סימן תיג)

Here, Rashba argues that it is impossible to claim that only phenomena for there is a rational explanation are real and permitted. His reason is that there are phenomena that undeniably exist, and yet for which there can be no scientific explanation. The example that he brings is the magnet, and its use in a compass. These things operate neither in the realm of the miraculous, nor in the realm of the natural; instead, they operate in the realm of segulah. Rashba notes that "the wisest of scholars in the sciences can never grasp the nature" of such things.

Now, I myself, in my monograph on demons, argued that one cannot simply assert that those who believed in demons and suchlike were not rationalists. Things looked different in the medieval period, and some people believed in such things for rational reasons. Nevertheless, there is still an enormous gulf separating the rationalist Rishonim of Spain from the mystical Rishonim and from the non-rationalist Rishonim in Ashkenaz.

Superficially, Rashba's discussion appears not too far removed from that of Ralbag. Ralbag was an extreme rationalist, yet he likewise asserts that magnets can only be explained in terms of being a segulah. However, the term segulah as used by Ralbag (and Rashba) has been borrowed from pharmacology, where it refers to peculiar properties which cannot be explained in terms of its constituent elements (see Y. Tzvi Langermann, "Gersonides on the Magnet and the Heat of the Sun"). In applying it to magnets, Ralbag is claiming that the nature of the magnet cannot be grasped by the science of his day; but he is not explaining it to be a supernatural phenomenon, and he did not see it as reason to accept the validity of magic.

For Rashba, on the other hand, there is no distinction between that which science cannot currently explain, and that which it will never explain. Rashba's point is not that there are "empirically tested phenomena work through the principles of science despite the fact that we do not understand these principles." On the contrary; his view is that there are principles other than laws of science and nature that operate. Unlike Rambam, who realized that magnets are a solely naturalistic phenomenon, Rashba believed that magnets operate in a different realm - that of segulah. According to Rashba, the framework within which segulos work is precisely not the framework of science and nature. He therefore sees magnets as reason to accept belief in magic and all such phenomena. The lack of any conceivable scientific explanation for a phenomenon is no reason whatsoever to doubt its existence.

Now, it is true that even today, we don't really understand what magnetism, or gravity for that matter, actually is. We can measure and describe how it works, but we still don't know what it fundamentally is. Nevertheless, we are fully confident that it is a natural, rather than supernatural, phenomenon. Rambam and even Ralbag felt the same way, which is why their inability to comprehend magnetism or other phenomena did not prevent them from dismissing other phenomena as clearly false. The line between science and pseudo-science is not always clear, but there are nevertheless many things that we confidently dismiss as non-existent. Rashba, on the other hand, did not believe that we can ever dismiss phenomena as scientifically impossible and false - and saw magnets as evidence for this.

It will come as no surprise to long-time readers of this blog that the person claiming Rashba to be a scientific rationalist is Rabbi Saul Zucker, an alumnus of YBT (Yeshivah Bnei Torah). In the past, I disputed Rabbi Zucker regarding his belief that all Rishonim, including those of Ashkenaz, were Maimonidean-style philosophers and logicians. I have also pointed out his error in claiming that Rashi believed in magic for rationalist, scientific reasons. Other graduates of YBT have gone so far as to claim that Rashi did not believe in magic, and some have even claimed that he did not believe in demons.

YBT is a very fine institution; some of my best friends learned there. But YBT stresses that the Maimonidean rationalist/ philosophical/ logical approach to emunah and theology is the correct, authentic and traditional approach. And along with such an extreme, hyper-rationalist approach, comes the belief that such an approach was held by all great people in Jewish history.

I strongly identify with the rationalist approach. But I'm not going to delude myself into thinking that all great Torah scholars in history must have been rationalists. That is no different from Charedim claiming that all great Torah scholars in history were Charedim, or from Kabbalists claiming that all great Torah scholars were secretly kabbalists, or from Rav Moshe Shapiro claiming that all great Torah scholars were Maharalniks. Just because you strongly identify with a certain approach, it does not mean that all great people felt the same way!

(See too the post entitled "Modern Orthodox Charedim.")

55 comments:

  1. Rambam himself in numerous places laments the prevailing corruption of Judaism among the rabbinical circles. He even says regarding the Jewish nation that he found it to be a people without faith(das) or law. In Hakdoma Leperek Chelek he can't even call them a group(kas), but compares them to the sun in a sense that they are so unique. I agree that few of the rishoinim held rationalist views the way Rambam or we understand it today, but I don't think it creates an obligation on us to share those views. I don't have a problem with saying that today we know better.

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  2. The Rashba does not say what you claim he does! In fact he says that there are things that cannot be explained by the science of the Greeks and others of antiquity and his own time. An example of this is a magnet. He says that there is a "teva mesugal" for these things. That means there is a special division of nature - teva - that has its own special - mesugal - laws. This doesn't mean that segulot are supernatural or mystical according to the Rashba. It means only that they have their own fixed, special laws of nature.

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  3. You didn't read what I wrote. He didn't see magnets as miraculous. But he didn't see them as part of the ordinary natural order. They have their own order. And they are evidence for all the magical phenomena in the gemara.

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  4. Now I think we're talking semantics. Once you say that segulot operate by fixed laws- special laws that are distinct from the regular known laws of nature, but fixed laws that have their own nature, are observable if not explainable, but they are not mystical or supernatural - you're saying that the Rashba looked at segulot from a rational point of view.

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  5. Please can you read the post carefully?
    The critical difference is that Rashba never sees the lack of rational explanation for something as reason to doubt its existence.

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  6. Remember Clarke's third law:
    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  7. But a lack of rational *explanation* doesn't mean that the thing is not rational. By that I mean that if we were to observe something, infer patters, classify it, etc., even if we cannot explain it, we can still relate to it "scientifically and rationally." This is what goes on in science all the time.

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  8. Not so trivial nitpick: We have a much better understanding of magnetism than we do of gravity. I'd go as far to say that magnetism is well-understood by physicists.

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  9. By that I mean that if we were to observe something, infer patters, classify it, etc., even if we cannot explain it, we can still relate to it "scientifically and rationally."

    To be sure. But Rashba is saying that even with things with which that process of observation and measurement has not yet been done, we should believe them. According to Rashba, the fact that something has no rational explanation is no reason to be skeptical about whether it exists.

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  10. When Rashba says that some phenomena are beyond human comprehension he isn't what most people would today call a rationalist. I don't think it takes him outside the bounds acceptable to Rambam, though.

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  11. There is one thing you have to admit about magic, segulos, etc. All of it works. Sometimes. (Or at least seems to). Because it does seem to work, belief in them is not irrational (given ignorance of statistical data and/or methods to demonstrate confirmation biases, etc).

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  12. Could you explain the Rashba's position a little further, please? Why is so remarkable about the magnet that it can serve as proof of anything? Science cannot *explain* anything; it merely observes and thus predicts. The fact that a magnet can attract and repel is no more or less inexplicable, it seems to me, than fire bursting forth from sulfur, the ability of the asbestos to retard fire, and a thousand other curious facts found in nature. How does a magnet prove or disprove anything?

    Thanks in advance.

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  13. According to Aristotle, one body can only affect another via physical contact. Magnets thus presented a challenge to medieval thought, since they exert effect with no apparent intermediary.

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  14. "According to Rashba, the fact that something has no rational explanation is no reason to be skeptical about whether it exists."

    That is certainly not irrational! If scientists can observe the effects of quantum mechanics and see their consistent application, yet cannot explain QM rationally, they should still be skeptical as to whether quantum mechanics exist? Is that your position?

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  15. If something is OBSERVED to exist with CONSTANT APPLICATION, then obviously there is no reason to be skeptical.

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  16. Isn't that the way magnets work? It is OBSERVED to exist with CONSTANT APPLICATION. And this is the Rashba's model for a segula!

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  17. Yes, magnets exist, and yes, they work.

    But Rashba extrapolates from magnets to OTHER phenomena that are not observed to work with the same regularity as magnets.

    Please, please, read the post carefully! From your comments, it really looks as though you have not done so.

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  18. I object to the term " Chaities", even in quotes it is disrespectful. Please refrain from calling talmidim of a Chacham, and the Chacham himself by such terms. It makes your arguments seem petty, your posts childish and your existence spiteful

    Ya'akob

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  19. Sorry, I was somehow under the impression that they themselves use that term. I'll change the post.

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  20. Can one truly say that in Rashba's day magnetism was observed to work with absolute reliability? I think that he was born within a few decades after the first published European mention of the compass; it was cutting edge technology in his day.
    Its practical use pretty much involved ritual procedures applied using special objects and wasn't viewed mechanistically until a long time later.

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  21. The idea that we don't know what "nature" is was contained in the Kuzari see I, 71 et seq.

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  22. I have a hard time comparing the rational ideas behind segulot to those the medieval period Rabbis (and indeed scientists) professed for magnets and the like.

    Yes, magnetism and other similar elemental forces were not fully understood before their practical uses were implemented. The lack of understanding was not a hindrance to their reliable usefulness. Just because you didn't understand the forces at play that direct a magnet, does not mean your compass would not point north.

    In direct contrast, we have segulot like the recent ring (though there have been thousands before) that promise a result through unknown means. A rationalist would contend that just because we don't understand the forces at work does not mean we cannot benefit from their impact. This would indeed be true if there was a reliable and consistent result from indulging in these practices. However, segulot are proliferated in the context of doing a certain thing and believing in its effect. You don't have to believe that a magnet will attract metal. It simply does (granted that the metal is magnetic).

    Does the possibility exist that our thoughts impact reality through the use of a segulah? Anything is possible. But I certainly wouldn't call it rational.

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  23. Concerning those mysteries I fear I must take an exuberantly and annoyingly rationalist approach. It was brilliantly - how else? - summed up by the late Roger Zelazny in his classic novel Lord of Light:

    Ah, but it makes a great difference, you see. It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy -- it is a matter of essence. The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in that final direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either

    I'm not so arrogant as to believe I can understand everything. But I'm willing to give understanding anything my best shot. The story of human progress is one of taking it apart to see how it works, making a wrong guess which leads to a correct one, building on the past and occasionally overturning it.

    Our revered rationalist ancestors may have been wrong about every single thing they asserted about cosmology, biology, physics, mathematics, astronomy, demonology and embryology. But by the above standard they were right; they took the best information they had and applied it to the best of their understanding, arguing where there was doubt or disagreement.

    Newton was wrong about the nature of space and time. His mechanics and optics only apply under special circumstances. Even his mathematical notation has been supplanted. But he's regarded as one of the greatest rationalists and naturalists of all time because of the way he did things and the improvements he made with the tools at hand. And he still had the humility to compare himself to a child playing with pebbles on the beach or a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants.

    And as far as it goes, we don't understand gravity completely. But we understand it much better than we did a decade ago let alone a century or millennium. And with all respect, Rav Slifkin, we have an excellent understanding if ferromagnetism, diamagnetism and paramagnetism. We did back when I was an undergraduate suffering through quantum electrodynamics.

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  24. To put it another way, there has been a steady parade of "segulot" and "things outside the natural order" from the darkness beyond the campfire to the light within its circle.

    Those who say "We can't possibly ever understand it" have been proved wrong so many times they can generally be ignored by sane people. That change from "We can't understand it" to "We don't understand it yet" may be the single greatest differentiator between the Ancient and Modern worlds.

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  25. Mark - you're exactly correct. And that's why the Rashba says that the example of segulot is a magnet, and not, let's say a "shlissel challa."

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  26. I'm curious about some context for Rashba's thinking about segulot: Does Rashba regard astrology the same way he regards segulot?

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  27. I agree that it is unrealistic (or irrational) to force fit people into simple categories such as "rational" vs. "irrational". The Rambam, Ralbag, and a few others were most easily categorized as rationalists. Other Rishonim such as Ramban and Rashba are not so easily pigeon-holed. The Ramban, for example, was a mystic, yet insisted that the rainbow was a perfectly natural phenomenon despite the clear implication in the torah as to its special creation. The Rashba dismissed the findings of contemporary natural scientists when it conflicted with talmudic halacha. Yet, he inveighed against the new practice of kapporot, considering it a heathen practice.

    Magnetism is not really any different than other physical phenomena in terms of our understanding. Newton's response to critics of his theory of gravitation which ran counter to Aristotelian concepts (changes in motion were said to result only from contact with other objects) was to assert that he formed no hypothesis as to ultimate causation - only to a quantitative description of what occurs. In other words, he offered no explanation of action at a distance, only a means of accurately accounting for the motion of massive objects. The same is true for phenomena such as the attraction or repulsion between less massive objects, be it due to the concept of charge (electrostatics) or magnetism. While magnetism has been associated with coordinated electron motion (electric current or the concerted spin of electrons), the latter is of a more mysterious nature since the electron appears to be a point particle so that a spinning point is an unrealistic concept. In any case, science is not concerned with questions of why, but of how, i.e. mechanism.

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  28. It appears that Rabbi Slifkin and Rashba Ricky are having an argument regarding the following issue: The Rashba extrapolates from magnets, which are consistently observed to work with constant application, to other phenomenon. Magnets can be explained by nature, that they work in a consistent, repeatable manner means that they work as part of a rational system. So the question is- what is the Rashba extrapolating to? If he is referring to other phenomena that are consistent and repeatable, then such a system could be considered explainable (and thus rational) even if no such explanation was known at the time. Or perhaps the Rashba was extrapolating to phenomena that were not consistent, repeatable rational, or even existed. Do we have any evidence as to other areas where the Rashba applied the "Segula" category?

    It should be noted that "segula," although used in modern times as a synonym for mystical power, was not always used as such. Therefore the term itself is not dispositive of the Rashba's meaning and we must examine the other contexts in which the Rashba used the classification of "Segula" to evidence what the Rashba held on this matter.

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  29. Rashba Ricky, I'll pick a couple nits here.

    Quantum mechanics is a collection of theories used to explain and predict phenomena. The phenomena which caused it to be developed were repeatedly and repeatably observed. The tools were developed because current theory did not do an adequate job of explaining them.

    QM could still exist as a mental construction if it did a lousy job of explaining things like the ultraviolet catastrophe or the tunnel diode effect. It just wouldn't be very useful.

    The point which I think you meant to make is a good one. Odd things which are best explained by quantum mechanics happen. They do so in the absence of that explanation. One can rationally accept that they happen. One can measure and quantitatively describe them. The explanation comes afterwards.

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  30. In general it's not rational to believe in speculative concepts however a segulah can work in a positive sense by the power of suggestion and belief that can cause the immune system to function better and people may get well in some cases.

    For example its known a dog can add years to one's life because they comfort, love and relieve stress thus causing certain hormones and endorphins to function better in the body and mind.

    The science of positive thinking, meditation for healing is something doctors now see has part of traditional western medicine though not measured in the classic sense.

    This is considered known and proven facts in Eastern through known by cause and effect cases over many centuries by millions of people. The West is now just now catching up. I've have been meditating for 35 years and it still has a bad stigma in many Jewish circles.

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  31. The magnet must have been very fascinating to the Rashba for him to have categorized it, in the realm of a segulo.

    I wonder in what realm he would have categorized, the airplane, computer, cellphone, TV, etc

    You write "Rashba notes that "the wisest of scholars in the sciences can never grasp the nature" of such things."

    What would have these wise scholars said to the items mentioned above. We are talking about the 13th century, after all.

    Ralbag on the hand, had a more rational view, he recognized that the scientists of the future, will be able to explain what was not understood in his time. (A very wise observation.)

    I see the rational of this post (not to mention, having to read it three times) at first I did not see the point you were trying to make.

    And that point is that there are Rabbis that just can not get it right.

    Are they making this stuff up or do they have a low level of comprehension. (How do they teach others?)

    Can you share the response from Rabbi Saul Zucker and of any of the YBT graduates, if any.
    o

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  32. The laws of magnetism certainly operated in the first decades of the use of the magnetic compass in the West (or in China for that matter) but are you so certain that everybody immediately also knew, for example, to keep iron and steel away from the compass if they wanted it to be reliable? Knew how far they had to be kept away?
    In the absence of that knowledge, whether why you thought a compass worked was based on reason or belief, you would not have thought that a compass was working reliably.
    That's what I was talking about

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  33. The "everyone's a rationalist" phenomenon strikes me as coming out of a well-intended but sloppy use of the transitive property of equality: if a=b and b=c, then a=c. That is...

    If Rationalism = Truth, and the Torah Greats of the past = Truth, then surely the Torah Greats must all have been Rationalists.

    Since this is clearly not the case, we need to check our math and see which of the first two assumptions is incorrect.

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  34. David Meir,

    Your equation of "If Rationalism = Truth, and the Torah Greats of the past = Truth, then surely the Torah Greats must all have been Rationalists" is NOT in the form of "if a=b and b=c, then a=c." Rather, it is in the form of "if a=b and c=b, then c=a." No one who knows anything about logic would hold that this equation is necessarily true.

    Talk about "sloppy use"...

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  35. Yes, magnets exist, and yes, they work.

    But Rashba extrapolates from magnets to OTHER phenomena that are not observed to work with the same regularity as magnets.


    Can you please point out where he does so? Many thanks.

    - Barry

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  36. It's in the part that I didn't quote. The topic is all the paranormal phenomena discussed in the Gemara, such as zugos, etc.

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  37. @Kevin,

    I probably shouldn't have invoked the transitive property, because I'm not talking about an "if all elephants are green and all houses are green" logic problem. (And you're right that in that case c=b is not the same thing as b=c.)

    The point is that if we consider the rationalist approach to Torah to be the one and only Truth with a capital "T", and we also assume the Gedolei Torah to possess such Truth, then we'll end up coming to the (untenable) conclusion that any true Gadol b'Torah must also be a rationalist.

    Which means either we're mistaken about what constitutes Truth, or mistaken about who possesses it.

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  38. I don’t think the absence of answers to the WHY questions is in opposition to the Rationalist approach. We may not know the WHY answers to quantum mechanics and gravity but we are certain theses forces exist because we can predict their outcomes. There is no observable evidence whatsoever concerning the existence or benefit of Segulos/magic etc. Therefore, trying to justify their existence by theorizing WHY they must exist is in opposition to Rationalism.

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  39. Yes, magnets exist, and yes, they work.

    But Rashba extrapolates from magnets to OTHER phenomena that are not observed to work with the same regularity as magnets.


    Can you please point out where he does so? Many thanks.

    - Barry

    It's in the part that I didn't quote. The topic is all the paranormal phenomena discussed in the Gemara, such as zugos, etc.

    I will not have time to look at the rest of the teshuva until I get home from work. Can you please direct me to a specific part in which he makes this equation, so that I know what to look for? Thanks again.

    Barry

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  40. " There is no observable evidence whatsoever concerning the existence or benefit of Segulos/magic etc. "

    Let's be honest. There is no study on segulos and if they work or not, because there is no working scientific theory as to why they might work. Therefore, we assume they don't and don't even bother testing it.

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  41. Unbaised observerJune 29, 2011 at 12:47 AM

    Allow me to summarize the main dispute in the comments so far:

    כי באמת הדברים הפועלים בסגלה אין פעולתם בפלא מהם אלא בטבע מסגל, רצוני לומר בטבע לא ישיגנו עיון החכמים

    The Rashba clearly says these phenomena are natural but possess a nature that scientists cannot penetrate. This would seem to be identical with the Rambam's acceptance of segulos as you describe in the post.
    But you say the Rashba diverges from the Rambam because he extrapolates to other segulos which are dissimilar to magnets.

    It's in the part that I didn't quote. The topic is all the paranormal phenomena discussed in the Gemara, such as zugos, etc.

    I find it odd that you go to great lengths to assert that the Rashba did not share the Rambam/Ralbag's definition of segula which makes him an irrationalist but withhold the passages which substantiate that assertion.

    And how do you know that the Rashba didn't conceive all Chazal's segulos to be similar to magnets and was extrapolating to a totally different type of segulah?
    Isn't it more reasonable to assume that the Rashba assumed all of Chazal's segulos were tried, tested and proven reliable?

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  42. The Rashba clearly says these phenomena are natural

    No, he doesn't. He says that they are in a separate class from both natural events and miracles.

    I find it odd that you go to great lengths to assert that the Rashba did not share the Rambam/Ralbag's definition of segula which makes him an irrationalist but withhold the passages which substantiate that assertion.

    Because it's too long. Have you looked it up?

    And how do you know that the Rashba didn't conceive all Chazal's segulos to be similar to magnets and was extrapolating to a totally different type of segulah? Isn't it more reasonable to assume that the Rashba assumed all of Chazal's segulos were tried, tested and proven reliable?

    First of all, you're assuming that he gave great weight to the empirical method of scientific testing. But all indications are otherwise - especially given his responsum regarding terefos. Second, even if he did require and assume such methodological empirical confirmation, this itself would be a difference between Rashba and Rambam - that Rashba assumed that this had always taken place with every paranormal phenomenon in the Gemara.

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  43. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I woke up disappointed. I began looking through the teshuva last night (which, by the way, is number 413 in my edition, not 470 -- perhaps there are different editions), but did not make it all the way through. It is very long. I was hoping that you could at least outline your thoughts as to where the Rashba makes the extrapolation from magnets to other types of segulos, so that my investigation would be guided. I would much appreciate your doing so. Many thanks,

    Barry

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  44. Ameteur:

    "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." So far none of the magic - Jewish magic, New Age magic, Arabic magic, Chinese magic - works. We know that a bunch of the traditions like washing the hands with a two-handled cup don't prevent disease any better than basic hygiene. Worse if anything because the role of soap was not well-understood two thousand years ago.

    All rigorous studies of magic have been embarrassing for the magicians whether secular or religious. And James Randi's prize went unclaimed for many years.

    If you think they work the burden of proof is on you. Until then, I'll let Tim Minchin speak for me

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  45. Unbiased ObserverJune 30, 2011 at 4:18 PM

    First of all, you're assuming that he gave great weight to the empirical method of scientific testing. But all indications are otherwise - especially given his responsum regarding terefos.

    First of all, you don't have to give great weight to the empirical method in order to make a parallel between the magnet segula and the segulos of Chazal. They just have to work on a consistent basis.

    And the Rashba in a teshuvah about defending Chazal's science cites the gemara where Chazal made a statement about losing fertility over time under certain conditions. A woman claimed that her experience falsified Chazal's assertion. But when pressed, she confessed that she didn't meet the conditions that Chazal required.

    So it would seem that for the Rashba, empirical confirmation was necessary and it was in fact confirmed.

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  46. How do you see that empirical confirmation was necessary for Rashba?

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  47. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I would still really like to see some kind of summary of where/how the Rashba extrapolates from magnets to other segulos, if you please. Thanks so much and kol tuv,

    Barry

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  48. Unbaised observerJune 30, 2011 at 11:32 PM

    How do you see that empirical confirmation was necessary for Rashba?

    I see it from the cases he discussed --like the infertility "segula" that I mentioned.

    But this is odd. You were the first to assert that the Rashba was capable of believing that all things are possible without sufficient empirical confirmation. You have consistently refused to substantiate that assertion.

    And now you you are saying I have to first show you that you assertion is wrong? Shouldn't you first have to show that your assertion has any basis whatsoever?
    The Rashba begins the teshuvah with quoting the Rambam's opinion --which clearly required empirical confirmation as necessary but perhaps not sufficient --and spends the rest of the teshuvah analyzing and trying to come out with a consistent approach.
    Although the Rashba concedes that he doesn't seem to succeed in this, where do you see once in this teshuvah that the Rashba is arguing of differing with the Rambam's definition of a valid segula as at least requiring empirical confirmation?

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  49. Unbaised observerJune 30, 2011 at 11:39 PM

    I believe the relevant section is this:

    ואעפ"כ מותר וכמו שכתב הרב ז"ל זה לשונו ואל יקשה בעיניך מה שהתירו (שבת פ"ו דף ס') מסמר הצלוב ושן של שועל. כי הדברים בזמן ההוא היו חושבין בהם שהוציא אותן הנסיון והיו משם רפוא'. והולכין על דרך תליית העשב שקורין פאוניאה על הנכפה וצואת הכלב על מורסת הגרון. שכל מה שנתאמת נסיונות כאלו אע"פ שלא יגזרהו ההקש הוא מותר לעשות משום רפואה. הנה אחר שאסר התיר כל מה שנמצא' בו תועלת מצד הנסיון. ואם כן מותר לסמוך על נסיוני הקודמים. ואין אנו אסורין בהן עד שיבחן הנסיון בהתאמת לעינינו. שהרי מסמר הצלוב ושן של שועל אנו מותרין לסמוך על נסיונם של הקודמים וכמו שאנו סומכין על חכמי הרפואה באותן הרפואות שאין ההקש הטבעי גוזר אותם. ולא על חכמי התורה וחכמי הרפואות בלבד אלא על כל האנשים שאומרים שנתנסה הענין ההוא התירו לנו לסמוך עליהן כבעלי הקמיעין. שהרי התירו הקמיעין בין של עיקרין בין של כתב. ולא פי' לנו חכמים אי זה קמיע של כתב ואי זה עיקר מן העיקרין. והרב זכרונו לברכה בספר המורה כתב לאיסור אחר שהתיר. והוא שכתב שם בפרק ל"ז זה לשונו כל מה שיאמרו שהוא מועיל ממה שלא יגזור אותו העיון הטבעי אבל נהגו להתיר לפי דעתם כמנהג הסגלות והכחות המיוחדות אסור. והוא אמרו (ויקרא כ') לא תלכו בחקות הגוי והם אשר יקראו דרכי האמורי מפני שהם סעיפי מעשה המכשפים ושהם דברים לא יגזרם היקש טבעי. הנה שאסר לנו אפילו מה שיש בו תועלת מצד הסגלה כל שאינו גוזר אותו העיון הטבעי. ונשוב לאסור מסמר הצלוב משום דרכי האמורי אחר שהתרנו אותו. לא ידענו אי זה נקח בידנו למעשה מדברי הרב או ההיתר כמסמר הצלוב או מה שאסר משום דרכי האמורי. ואולי יאמר הרב ז"ל שאפי' מה שתלה בספריה' לסגלה לא נאמין לפי שעיקר ענינם לתוהו ולהבל בעניני המכשפים. אבל מה שאמרוהו חכמים ז"ל נאמין ונסמוך לעשות מעשה מצד מה שהתירו ונתאמת להם לסגלה. ושמנו הרב ז"ל במבוכה רבה.

    He seems to consistently adopt the empirical confirmation component of the Rambam's definition of allowable segulos and never raises an issue that according to you, it contradicts what he understands to be valid beyond confirmation.

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  50. Unbaised observerJune 30, 2011 at 11:51 PM

    Second, even if he did require and assume such methodological empirical confirmation, this itself would be a difference between Rashba and Rambam - that Rashba assumed that this had always taken place with every paranormal phenomenon in the Gemara.

    A.why does this attribution of rationality to Chazal make the Rashba less of a rationalist than the Rambam? It would seem to make him a "hyper-rationalist" like our YBT friends.
    B.Where does the Rambam say Chazal didn't confirm their segulos by consistent observation before assuming they were effective?

    The gemara is full empirical critiques of statements of Chazal. Search for the phrase והא קא חזינא and you'll find about a dozen cases where the gemara quotes an assertion of Chazal, then challenges that empirical observation does not bear this out, and a subsequent rejection or revision of the statement to conform to the observation.

    This form of critique is found in many more places in the gemara but using different terminology.

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  51. OK, I will devote another post or two to explaining this.

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  52. The new post is up:

    http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2011/07/old-wives-tales-and-double-blind-tests.html

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  53. By the way, why do you call yourself "Unbiased Observer"? Nobody is entirely unbiased. The only person I've ever heard claim themselves to be categorically unbiased is Rabbi Saul Zucker.

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  54. Unbiased ObserverJuly 3, 2011 at 3:43 PM

    I mean to say that I have no horse in this particular race between yourself and the YBT folks.
    I am perfectly sanguine with the prospect that the Rashba was an extreme mystic who despised the rigors of any empirical method which claims to limit what he considered true reality.

    But the Teshuvah seems to speak for itself. The gulf between the Rashba and the Rambam is not very wide and seems to be quantitative but not qualitative.

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  55. “I have found in one of the books, whose title I would like not to mention [explicitly]: ‘Whoever wants to bring a woman to him so that she will love him, let him pronounce the name of VHV YLY SYT ALM, frontward and backward seven times, in the night of Wednesday, during the first hour of night, which is the time of Saturn, and let him conjure Kaftziel, that is the angel presiding over that planet, by that name. At that time let him write four names on a parchment of a deer, without interrupting the writing by any speech. Then, let him put the amulet on his neck as an amulet and then the woman, whose name and the name of her father he has pronounced, will love him a great love, by the virtue of that name.’ Similar things I have found in great numbers, and they are almost infinite; and these things have spread and reached the hands of great Rabbis, but they hide them in a scrupulous manner and they think that their treasury is replete with pearls. And they are very reverent [awesome] while studying the names when they need them. And these things may get crazy, [even] these nice men, or others like them as the great Rabbi [Maimonides] has said [Guide 1:62]. And from this issue you may understand all the other and know that all the types are similar to them… and whoever will negate their efficiency, will be answered immediately that a certain famous Rabbi has caught the demon and put it in prison in a house during the whole night and in the morning he found a small mosquito and killed it and immediately the demo ran away from the house. Those and those like them, together with their Rabbis, have been caught by the demons and their eyes have been darkened, and their hearts blinded, and they have been brought to madness and death [by those beliefs]” (Abraham Abulafia, Sefer ha-Melammed 292b-93a).

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