Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Ring of Power

There has been much discussion about a large ad in last week's Mishpachah for a segulah ring; you can see the pages of the advertisement here and here. R. Josh Waxman has discovered more information about the ring and has some valuable analysis here and here. (And thanks to the Jewish Worker for alerting me to this.)

Many have observed that this ring has certain resemblances to the One Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings. However, there are also certain differences; here is a table listing both similarities and differences: 

Silver Segulah Ring The One Ring
Crafted by G-d fearing Yidden in purity Crafted by the Dark Lord, Sauron, in evil
Made from pure silver Made from pure gold
Immersed in a mikvah Immersed in the volcanic fires of Mount Doom
Must be double-wrapped at all times Must be secured as tends to escape its bearer
Engraved with special holy Sheimos HaKedoshim Engraved with Sauron's incantations
Cannot be manufactured by anyone other than Mr. Avraham Leib Schwartz Cannot be manufactured by anyone other than Sauron
Possesses special powers Possesses special powers
Can be purchased Not generally available

Contrary to what some might expect, I don't make a habit of scoffing at segulos on this website, for several reasons. One is that it's all too easy for blog to descend in scoffing; I try to engage in the more difficult task of constructing a school of thought rather than destructing others. It's not as though any of my readers are going to be buying it, anyway.

Furthermore, one person's segulah is another person's fundamental religious belief. How much more inherently irrational are segulos than, say, tefillas haderech (which I am extremely makpid about)? True, one can draw distinctions, but the efficacy of petitionary prayer may be difficult to justify on a solely rational level. In fact, it seems that according to Rambam, while petitionary prayer is of great religious importance, it does not actually serve to attain the object of one's requests. (See Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, for extensive discussion of this.) Of course, even according to this approach, there are still much better reasons for engaging in petitionary prayer than in segulos!

However, segulos can be helpful on a psychological level. In Making Of A Godol, Rabbi Nosson Kametzky describes how the whole Amukah-shidduch-segulah was invented a few decades ago by an enterprising tour operator. Yet Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was not in favor of revealing this to the public, since he believed that it was comforting for people to go there.

On the other hand, the "segulah ring" seems to be an attempt to extract money from gullible people via highly misleading claims, which makes it more dangerous. A few years ago, I was horrified to find that our cleaner was giving all the money we paid her to a person who claimed to have special powers of prayer. And when my father z"l was dying, the segulah-hawkers quickly came out of the woodwork. Last year, in Israel, there was a news report about a "kabbalist" who had taken a fortune from gullible people (can anyone provide the link?). And the tactics of Kupat Ha'Ir in Bnei Brak for preying upon people's emotional weaknesses, are simply disgusting (although at least in that case, the money is for charitable purposes, albeit debatably).

So, in light of the particular excesses of the segulah ring - its extreme promises and its requirement for payment - I think it certainly should be criticized. However, it is important to be thoughtful about this, rather than to have a knee-jerk reaction to scoff at anything that doesn't meet one's own personal standard of rationality.

57 comments:

  1. Never make fun of a Mekubal- he can turn you into a duck
    ~overheard from my Rabbi

    PS Spot on post

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  2. Born a Minute AgoJune 21, 2011 at 5:38 PM

    But what if it works?

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  3. One other difference is that Sauron only made one master ring of power. He was smart enough to make all the other rings subservient to his.
    The implications of the segulah ring are what should be concerning. If I live a life of total abandon, will this ring still buy me God's favour? And if I live a life of Godfearing purity, why do I need the ring?
    BTW, Morgoth was a way better dark lord, got a lot more done and had a much better pet (Ungoliant) than Sauron (Shelob)

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  4. I like two particular aspects of the ring: First, it's special powers escape if it is not double wrapped (It should, however, be stipulated how long this takes. One will certainly have to change the coverings.) Second, it can help with illegal business ventures. This power is particularly useful.

    Kudos to you for recognizing your own irrationality. Now I fear for your soul.

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  5. "Tried and proven segulah"
    What about evolution, or the age of the universe?

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  6. One more aspect to compare/contrast:

    The One Ring makes the wearer invisible to men; the segulah ring ostensibly has the opposite effect.

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  7. "The One Ring makes the wearer invisible to men; the segulah ring ostensibly has the opposite effect."

    Well, maybe it just makes the wearer's metaphorical cloths invisible to men. (As in the emperor's new cloths.)

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  8. I wonder if never having heard of Lord of the Rings or Wagner or any of the other magic ring mythology out there would make a person more gullible for this type of thing? One point in favor of secular literature and movies -- so that we don't fall for cheap imitations!

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  9. Just to add one more comparison:

    Luchos Rishonos
    Crafted by G-d in purity
    Made from pure sapphire
    Were not immersed -- but the people had to immerse
    Must stay in the aron at all times
    Engraved by G-d Himself
    Cannot be manufactured - the oisios b'nes haya omdin
    Hovered in the air until klal yisroel sinned (ohr haChaim)
    Easy come, easy go

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  10. Even if you accept the Ohr HaChaim's view, the Luchos had no special powers for people. They were instructional.

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  11. Greg, just to be specific, the ring's actual power wasn't to make you invisible but to amplify your natural desire. For hobbits (and whatever species Gollum/Smeagol belonged to) being inconspicuous was important so the ring amplified that trait into actual invisibility. Which makes sense because really, if that's all it did, why would we care if Sauron could turn himself invisible? Ooooh, so scary!

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  12. I think that Avi's point needs to be highlighted.

    The advertisement tells how "a certain individual tried an illegal method to save his business" was initially sentenced, started wearing the ring and then had the charges dismissed.

    This is not a question of harmless superstition, but of using a superstitious belief to encourage criminal activity.

    And Gedolim endorse this? I am never ceased to be amazed by what goes on the Haredi world.

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  13. I can't wait to see all the kollel guys with rings. My wife always wanted me to get a wedding band... lol.

    I think it's a segula for parnassah for Schwartz! If it really worked, he would wear one himself, and not try to get rich off the feelings of desperation of many people.

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  14. If this can help people with mental illness, and spiritual issues, there may be hope for the people in the Ami article.

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  15. Here's a bit of irony.

    In the ad in Mishpacha you linked to one of the testimonials stated that, "A certain individual tried an illegal method to save his business." He started wearing the ring the night before the sentencing and miraculously the judge dismissed the case!

    This, printed in a magazine that won't print pictures of women.

    Some real screwed up priorities here...

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  16. What are those 'holy' names and what is the price tag? This story is heartbreaking. A sgula for fraud with the haskomos of a bunch of mekubolim?! How low can we go?

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  17. "I can't wait to see all the kollel guys with rings. My wife always wanted me to get a wedding band... lol. "

    Whoops, forgot to point out that wedding rings are beged ishah (and men cannot be purchased, c"v). Super-powered rings are not only not assur (whether for beged ishah or superstition) but to be encouraged.

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  18. There is one segulah that I absolutely believe in:

    Fear God and observe His mitzvos.

    Segulah for everything.

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  19. >However, segulos can be helpful on a psychological level. In Making Of A Godol, Rabbi Nosson Kametzky describes how the whole Amukah-shidduch-segulah was invented a few decades ago by an enterprising tour operator. Yet Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was not in favor of revealing this to the public, since he believed that it was comforting for people to go there.

    So is the knowledge that there are some Orthodox rabbinic leaders who refute superstitions and deny that they are integral to Judaism.

    There are a few people who do have a problem with these things who despair at the prospect that the rabbis are gullible or even worse, that they indulge the gullibility of the masses. A few rabbinic voices who refute this can give needed chizuk to people too.

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  20. Once again you show your ignorance, not just in torah but in Tolkien too.

    Sauron did not create the one ring. One of the elves did.

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  21. Last week on a flight from the UK to the US, I sat next to a non-observant jew who had grown up Orthodox. He noticed me saying the Shema as we landed and asked me why. I told him that it couldn't hurt!

    And I'm as "rational" as anyone I know!

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  22. "Last week on a flight from the UK to the US, I sat next to a non-observant jew who had grown up Orthodox. He noticed me saying the Shema as we landed and asked me why. I told him that it couldn't hurt!

    And I'm as "rational" as anyone I know!"

    I'm left wondering what the point of your story is. Is it that it is rational to say shema when landing? That even the most rational person you know isn't terribly rational? That landing is irrationally scary even for the uber-rational?

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  23. With all due respect (and I mean that sincerely!), I don't see how appealing directly to Hashem for salvation (Tefillas Haderech) or reaffirming Hashem's Oneness, mastery of the world, and reminding ourselves of our fundamental laws and beliefs (saying Shema) can be considered in the same category as a segula ring, which requires no activity or awareness on the part of the wearer, and thereby does nothing to move a person closer to Hashem and is actually being used INSTEAD of connecting to Hashem.

    And I agree that encouraging the use of segulas as an "easy out" after knowingly engaging in criminal activity is even more problematic.

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  24. "Once again you show your ignorance, not just in torah but in Tolkien too.

    Sauron did not create the one ring. One of the elves did."

    My Tolkien bikiyus is limited but I believe R' Natan correct. Do you think the elves traveled to Mt. Doom to make it? (The elves made the lesser rings.)

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  25. A couple important differences

    Sauron learned ring-making from the Elves. I doubt the purveyors of segulah rings made them themselves.

    The rings Sauron made - the ones for Dwarves, humans and his One Ring had verifiable, demonstrable powers.

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  26. Fred:

    "So is the knowledge that there are some Orthodox rabbinic leaders who refute superstitions and deny that they are integral to Judaism."

    Great point. For a good refutation of the misconception surrounding segulot, see - a good example of what you were talking about.

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  27. For the past 25 I have carried a "Roite Bindel" which was sold by the Kollel America, R. Meir Ba'al Haness, 132 Nassau St., New York, New York 10038. I can't say if it has protected me or not, since I cannot live two parallel lives, one with the bindel and one without it. But I truly loved and revered the uncle who gave it to me. As far as I know he, on some level, believed in these segulas, and in tribute to him, I dutifully transfer that laminated bindel from wallet to wallet. The same uncle also gave a copy of the Kabbalistic sefer, Raziel Hamalach, which I've kept in my Tefillin bag since my Bar Mitzvah. If only to perpetuate his memory, I'll probably give each of my sons a Raziel Hamalach when they each get their tefillin and ask them to keep it in the bag in memory of a great uncle who died before they born, and eventually in memory of me, the nephew who adored him. I may even promise to be a meilitz yosher if they do it. Segula? Who knows!!

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  28. Even if you accept the Ohr HaChaim's view, the Luchos had no special powers for people. They were instructional.

    IIRC the Luchos were housed in the Aron, the Ark, which was believed to have special powers for the nation that had it in it's possession, which was highlighted in the earliest Sifrei Neviim. The Plishtim (or other nations) would steal or attempt to steal the Aron from Bnei Yisrael in order to benefit from it's special powers. It's special powers stemmed from it's containing the Luchos.

    During the same time there was also the Urim V'Tumim which had special powers for those who knew how to tap into those powers.

    And do we not believe that a person entering the Kodesh Kedashim in the Beis Hamikdash would die if he was not the Kohen Gadol? This also stems from the powers of the Luchos, housed in the Aron, housed in the Kodesh Kedashim.

    We also believe in the powers of sacrificial animals in the time of the Beis HaMikdash.

    We also believe in the powers of the ashes of the korbon of a Para Aduma (Red Cow) when administered by a descendent of Aharon HaKohen (the priestly class) to cure an illness.

    I'm wondering what the rational approach is to all these beliefs in the powers ascribed to these objects' abilities to affect people's lives.

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  29. "What you believe is true." Prince, rock artist.

    Sanhedrin 90a, the Gemara brings down, An explanatory Baraisa: "He denied (dose not believe in) the resurrection of the dead. Therefore he shall have no share in the resurrection of the dead."

    In other words, if one dose not believe in the resurrection, will not be resurrected.

    There is no bigger phenomenon that can occur in this physical wrold then this event.
    Everything else by comparison, is smaller.

    Kal vachomer, if through believing, we will be resurrected, then everything else (smaller) we believe, will surely happen as well.

    For this, we do not need a ring or any other Talisman.

    Belief is a form of desire. The more we believe, the stronger our desire.
    It is said. Hashem opens He's hands and satisfies the desire of every living being. Psalm 145.

    Believing is seeing, opposed to seeing is believing.
    o

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  30. To quote The Magnificent Seven "If the Good Lord had not meant them to be sheared He would not have made them sheep." Unscrupulous charlatans have been scamming the credulous as long as there have been people.

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  31. "The One Ring makes the wearer invisible to men; the segulah ring ostensibly has the opposite effect."

    OR: the segulah ring makes the wearer invisible to the IRS.

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  32. Are any of the people who banned Mishpachah the same as those who promote this ring?

    (The original version of my post was: "Don't you now see the ruach hakodesh of those who banned Mishpachah?")

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  33. Garnel:

    Did you just call Ungoliant Morgoth's pet?! I hope she doesn't hear you saying that.... o_O :-P

    Yakov R:

    Celebrimbor forged all the rings except for the One Ring; Sauron made that one himself.

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  34. Sorry about my earlier comment. I was under the mistaken impression that Celebrimbor (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celebrimbor)created the ring. I was wrong, it was Sauron.

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  35. "And I'm as rational as anyone I know!"

    Not when it comes to politics, Charlie.

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  36. Michael A. SingerJune 22, 2011 at 5:01 AM

    yakov r said...
    Once again you show your ignorance, not just in torah but in Tolkien too.

    Sauron did not create the one ring. One of the elves did.


    Just to set the record straight on Tolkien (I hope this is relevant enough to be posted). I present several "ra'ayahs" from "Appendix B" of "Return of the King":

    c. 1500 of the Second Age: The Elven-smiths instructed by Sauron reach the height of their skill. They begin the forging of the Rings of Power.

    c. 1600: Sauron forges the One Ring in Orodruin.

    Elves = three rings
    Sauron = one ring.

    So, for the record, Rabbi Slifkin's mastery of the Oral and Written Tolkien is affirmed! Yoreh Yoreh!

    Sincerely,
    Michael A. Singer

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  37. Garnel said: "Greg, just to be specific, the ring's actual power wasn't to make you invisible but to amplify your natural desire. For hobbits (and whatever species Gollum/Smeagol belonged to) being inconspicuous was important so the ring amplified that trait into actual invisibility."

    The ring made Isildur, a man, invisible during an Orc attack, until he lost it in the Anduin and was killed. The nine rings also made men invisible, although they were important men with no apparent virtue of inconspicuousness.

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  38. I can't believe that no one has yet linked to Wikipedia:

    The One Ring is a fictional artifact that appears as the central plot element in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth fantasy novels. It is described in an earlier story, The Hobbit (1937), as a magic ring of invisibility. The sequel The Lord of the Rings (1954–55) describes its powers as being more encompassing than invisibility, and states that the Ring is in fact malevolent. The Lord of the Rings concerns the quest to destroy the Ring, which was created by the primary antagonist, Sauron.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_Ring

    I guess that Rabbi Slifkin's knowledge of both Tolkien and Torah stand unchallenged.

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  39. It is sad that so many Jews waste their time on worse than nonsense. As though there aren't enough Torah and misswoth to keep us busy and inspired.

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  40. Well said Tali. This needs developing, but I was disappointed in RNS's comparison of tefilla to segula, as we see it. Although it is childish to think of tefilla as a shopping list for what you want it is equally damaging to think of it as merely comforting. It assumes that there is no meaningful relationship between God and man, you may as well be talking to the wall. I think that there is much more to tefilla. Again invoking the man woman analogy - there is an aspect of talking and relating to your wife which is much more than logistical or even psychological, you are growing together, building a shared reality. I see this as being more than merely emotional. It touches on our very sense of being, our awareness of self. Again I am entering into areas which, while not being strictly rational, are very real to most peoples experience of life. I am going to look into Marvin Fox's interpretation of the Rambam and see if there are other ways of understanding him (by the way, do you know if he is the brother of R David Fox, also from Chicago originally, who was a mentor of mine in Mevaseret? I know he had a brother in academia who died a few years back)

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  41. Whoops! The link that I posted earlier did not appear. Here it is:

    http://www.mesora.org/segulos2.htm

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  42. Classic YBT hyper-rationalist revisionism. Maybe I'll do a post on it.

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  43. > The Plishtim (or other nations) would steal or attempt to steal the Aron from Bnei Yisrael in order to benefit from it's special powers. It's special powers stemmed from it's containing the Luchos.

    They stole it for political purposes - it was like stealing Israel's god - and returned it when God made them realize they'd done an oopsy.

    Anonit, the ring made Isildur invisible because he was trying to escape an orc ambush. On the other hand the ring did nothing when Tom Bombadil put it on because he had no need for any power. It's also not clear it if the nine rings' only power was making their wearers invisible. Again, if you're looking to become powerful and mighty then you need more than a neat parlour trick to get there.

    Third, ring making was a joint venture. The elves forged their rings using magical technology provided by Sauron in addition to their own. He snuck in programming that would make those rings subservient to his when he would finally forge it.

    Finally, Steg, I think of Ungoliant as Morgoth's pet like I think of that guy I once saw with a slavering pit bull who knew that if he gave it half a chance it would kill him but hopefully it would notice his neighbours and go after them first.

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  44. What is "revisionist" about that post? It seems to be a straightforward summary of the Rashba's view on segulot.

    Your comment about "hyper-rationalism" is a little funny coming from you. It reminds me of the classic definition of "extremes" - anyone to the left of me is a kofer and anyone to the right of me is a "frumock." You claim to be a rationalist; and anyone espousing a greater degree of rationalism than you is a "hyper-rationalist" and anyone espousing a lesser degree of rationalism than you is a non-rationalist. Interesting!

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  45. I use the term "hyper-rationalist" to those who are so passionate about rationalism that they believe that all great Torah figures must also have been rationalists.

    The article claims that "it is clear from the Rashba that the framework within which Segulos work is the framework of science and nature". On the contrary; Rashba's point was that some things are NOT in the framework of science and nature.

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  46. As a further example, he claims that "if, however, we think that they are some type of magical force, then we have dangerously crossed the border into a non-Torah perspective." But the overwhelming majority of Torah authorities of the centuries certainly did not see belief in magical forces as being a non-Torah perspective!

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  47. From my experience (and amply confirmed by the comments on this post) there is significant overlap between interest in fantasy, superheroes, and science fiction and interest/involvement in orthodox Judaism.

    Any thoughts on this?

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  48. Okay, no more Tolkien discussion! Take it to TheOneRing.net.

    Meanwhile, I put up a new post about Rav Sternbuch's clarification regarding his endorsement of the ring.

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  49. I found the part about Amuka from "Making Of A Gadol" online in two places, the second is a scan of the two pages
    http://www.canonist.com/?p=398
    http://www.chabadtalk.com/forum/attachment.php3?attachmentid=241&d=1058819943

    It's a bit confusing, it mentions a tour operator and a woman going to Amuka in a taxi, but it's not clear which was first, and if the woman preceded the tour operator, there might be an earlier source.

    Wiki (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_ben_Uzziel) mentions a tradition going back to the 17th century to pray at the grave for all sorts of things, not just to get married. It also mentions reasons suggested for going there to pray for shidduchim suggested in "Holy Places in the Land of Israel" by Zev Vilnai, but doesn't say if those are Vilnai's ideas or from earlier sources.

    And here (http://www.torah.org/linkedlists/torah-forum/fu/0516.html) is another version of someone making it up, the story here is that a rabbi was told to pray "by the rarely visited grave of a great rabbi" in the 1930's, and because it was hard for him to get there, he made up something connecting Amuka and marriage so other people would go and he could tag along.

    The funny thing is that the reason he made up is one of the ones from Vilnai's book.

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  50. Since Garnel doesn't seem to have an email address, just one last Tolkien comment --

    Ein mevi’in r’aya mi-Tom Bombadil.

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  51. My-Precious-said, you are mistaken about the various items you mentioned. The Philistines didn't 'steal' the aron; they gained it in battle as a war trophy. They also believed that it contained the Israelite deity, rather than some stone tablets with mysterious power. The tablets had no power in and of themselves; only a sanctity conferred upon it by GOD. If someone violated that sanctity, then he was subject to divine punishment.

    The Urim Vetumim jewels on the high priests vest acted as an oracle (appropriate letters engraved on the gems would light up for thw worthy wearer). Again, they had no power, they only served to answer questions if GOd wished to answer them.

    Animal sacrafices had no inherent power. Only if the supplicant offered them in regret of his unintentional sin (together with confession), or in thankfulness, did they confer any benefit to the offerer.

    Finally, the ashes of the Parah Adumah (red heifer) had nothing to do with curing physical illness. They served only to cleanse someone from the tumah associated with contact with the dead. Such tumah and tahara are both divine decrees. The ashes are merely the form of the divinely decreed ritual; not something that has an inherent purifying capability.

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  52. R' Natan, if you're going to prominently mention a Tolkien theme in your post, then you have to expect Tolkien fans to take the bait. I guess you didn't realize just how many of your commenters were in that category.

    Getting back to the subject. While the form of amulet being peddled may have some impetus from Tolkien's "one ring to rule them all" and the LOTR movies, it closely relates to an ancient practice. Historically it had taken the form of 'divine names' and verses written and inserted in something worn around the neck. But the inscription of said names on a ring so worn is basically the same. The reason for the 'required' double covering is to allow the itme to be worn in the bathroom.

    I note that the listed 'intermediaries' are all asssociated with the same yeshiva in J'lem - except for Rav Shternbuch. Does the yeshiva get compensation for its apparent endorsement?

    My objection is to all amulets and segulot which I consider mere superstitious practice. Prayer that isn't predicated on some automatic response is in a totally different category. It's a way of relating to the divine.

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  53. YC:
    Never make fun of a Mekubal- he can turn you into a duck

    Indeed, that very thing happened to me.

    ... (long pause) ...

    I got better.

    :)

    --josh

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  54. "I try to engage in the more difficult task of constructing a school of thought rather than destructing others."

    Do you really believe this to be true, or is it what you'd like to be true?

    Either way, I still love your writings.

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  55. "From my experience (and amply confirmed by the comments on this post) there is significant overlap between interest in fantasy, superheroes, and science fiction and interest/involvement in orthodox Judaism.

    Any thoughts on this?"


    Yes, Orthodox Judaism teaches people to enjoy reading. People who enjoy reading, tend to enjoy speculative fantasy.

    There is also a strong correlation between interests in super herores /fantasy/science fiction and computer programmers. I believe its the same connection as with Orthodox Judaism.

    Another possibility: Orthodox Jews identify with the underdog/oppressed hero who gains victory through a secret identity. Just like nerds in general.

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  56. Amatuer wrote:

    "Yes, Orthodox Judaism teaches people to enjoy reading. People who enjoy reading, tend to enjoy speculative fantasy."

    I don't think this is it. There are a lot of other things to read.

    "Another possibility: Orthodox Jews identify with the underdog/oppressed hero who gains victory through a secret identity. Just like nerds in general".

    This seems to me closer to the mark. I suspect it has to do with feeling powerless and seeking to escape this reality to an alternative reality, where one is powerful and protected. Rabbis are ascribed special powers and insight like superheroes. The stories of the Torah and Talmud read like fantasy (miracles such as splitting seas, manna falling from heaven etc...) By learning Torah, practicing halakha and connecting to Rabbis there is the hope that one can escape one's weakness and partake in these powers.

    This is just an initial thought. I'm sure there's much more...

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  57. Froom Yid said
    G-d fearing Jewish men do not wear rings!

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