Thursday, December 11, 2014

Yet Another Strange Request

Being the Zoo Rabbi, I receive some unusual questions and requests. There was the woman who wrote to ask me if she should teach Torah to her dog, because it was the reincarnated spirit of her late husband. There was the man who asked to borrow my chameleon, in order to cure cancer. There was the new couple who consulted me about their shalom bayis problems, relating to the husband not wanting to murder any bugs that were in the house, much to his wife's distress.

Today's request falls into that category. My administrator at The Biblical Museum of Natural History just contacted me about how to handle a request that we received. Somebody desperately wants to borrow goat horns to place in her home for a few days, as a segulah. And we do indeed have some goat horns at the museum (along with horns of kudu, oryx, impala, blackbuck, eland, springbok, blesbok, pronghorn, mouflon, aoudad, rhinoceros, jackalope and unicorn), which were made into shofars (strangely, many of the alleged "ram's horn shofars" on the market are actually from goats). What should we say?

Now, I didn't hear what the goat horns are allegedly a segulah for. (It might have something to do with the Amiltai segulah.) But, coming from a Maimonidean rationalist perspective, I am confident that they don't actually function as a segulah for anything. So what should I tell her?

On the one hand, I don't want to cooperate with, and effectively endorse, highly irrational beliefs that have nothing to do with traditional Judaism. But on the other hand, the person appears to be in a situation of distress, and it could be psychologically beneficial to provide the segulah. It also depends on whether the problem is a medical problem, which can be greatly alleviated by the placebo effect, or an external problem, which cannot be solved merely because one believes it will be solved. If it's the latter, then either her problem will be solved, in which case it doesn't matter if she doesn't get my goat, or it won't, in which case any comfort derived from the goat horns will be undone.

So what should I reply? Yes? No? Only if it's a medical problem? Unfortunately I don't think that there is any objectively correct answer to this question.

34 comments:

  1. Doesn't the Rambam himself write in Mishnah Torah permitting the carrying of 'healing' amulets on Shabbos? I seem to remember, if true, that his rationale was that they're ineffective, but since the person believes they work, that is beneficial in and of itself to some degree.

    IIRC...

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  2. ha i dealt with a similar problem last year. i hate the whole shlissel challa thing and we dont do anything in our house, but my mom is a mekubal and really wanted one and asked my wife to bake it. she smartly didnt say yes or no to my mom and asked if i would mind. after thinking it over, i felt that there are enough sources to rely on to make my mom happy (perhaps my deal was special b/c there is also a kibud am consideration), and even though i think its ridiculous, if it makes her happy, we should do it.

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  3. I would be even less inclined to donate for a medical problem, for fear that she would feel she doesn't need to seek help from an actual doctor thanks to the healing powers of goat horns.

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  4. Goodness, what a pickle to be in, Rabbi. One is swayed towards the kind approach, but where is the cut-off point? The word will surely spread, testimonials of miracles will abound, rumours of a brisk under-the-table trade emerge and you might as well put up a sign, "Rabbi Slifkin, Fine Purveyor of Excellent Elixirs, Propitious Remedies, Salubrious Tonics and Efficacious Segulas." And then the Chinese will hear of it and all your living and preserved critters and critter-bits will be trade commodities on Alibaba.

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  5. Rambam Avoda Zarah 11:12
    מי שנשכו עקרב או נחש, מותר ללחוש על מקום הנשיכה, ואפילו בשבת, כדי ליישב דעתו ולחזק ליבו: אף על פי שאין הדבר מועיל כלום, הואיל ומסוכן הוא, התירו לו, כדי שלא תיטרף דעתו עליו.

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  6. Should your museum be lending items out to private individuals for private purposes?

    Lawrence Kaplan

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  7. Let me say I am no fan of segulahs!
    Maybe, perhaps lend the horns . But, make sure to remind them that Hashem runs the universe and keep that in mind while performing the segulah.

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  8. Should your museum be lending items out to private individuals for private purposes?

    Lawrence Kaplan


    That was my first reaction. You should have a simple rule that you won't do it. This is not the purpose of the museum and the museum resources should only be used for the purposes that the donors and board intended.

    While on the neighborhood patrol, people sometimes ask for rides. We were told to say "we're a patrol, not a car service". I think that the same logic applies here.

    As to your underlying question, I would advise her on how to get the horn at a reasonable price, assuming that she is not using it instead of chemotherapy, as others have pointed out.

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  9. If you're worried for these people's well-being, why make this a public discussion?

    These are people who came to you personally in earnest search of help. By stating publicly that you think their requests are "strange," you risk them hearing about it and feeling foolish and embarrassed, if not slightly betrayed. Which is arguably worse than not supplying someone with a "segula."

    Sorry for the "tochecha." The segula discussion is interesting, but the post left me feeling a tad uncomfortable.

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    Replies
    1. With questions like this, one can be very confident that the questioner is not a reader of this blog.

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    2. As it happens, I do read your blog on occasion. But why should that matter?

      Maybe you can explain what you mean.

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    3. @Mark
      I think RNS meant that the people who asked for the horns don't read his blog....Correct me if I am wrong...

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  10. It likely doesn't matter anymore, but I adopted the practice of not killing any bug (except mosquitos) in my home in order to teach my children to not become so quick to kill everything they dont like and the value many of the bugs actually do provide to a home. I solved the screaming problem though by catching the bugs and releasing them outside alive so my daughters and wife dont want to murder me in my sleep. I hope the other husband was able to come to a similar solution.

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  11. Be professional about it. That's important for the Biblical Zoo.

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    Replies
    1. We are not actually the Biblical Zoo. We are a little more heimish.

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  12. How about telling them:"Look,segulot are man-made idols (or in this case animal-made)and you should trust Hashem only because otherwise you dwill not only look ridiculous but you'll be committing idolatry too!" ?

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  13. When you say a 'medical problem', do you perhaps mean a 'psychosomatic problem'? - in which case if the patient believe it will help it might well do so.

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  14. Is your museum a totally self-sustaining enterprise or do you have investors and/or donors. If the collection belongs to Natan Slifkin, then do what you want. But if the collection is owned by a business or charitable institution, then you have a fiduciary obligation to your investors and/or donors to protect their investment. Your website indicates that the museum is owned by The Torah and Nature Foundation which is a 501(c)(3), so presumably you are mostly funded by donations. That being said, I personally would not donate to your institution if I knew that private individuals were borrowing exhibits for any purpose, let alone a ridiculous one. The National Museum of Art may lend a painting to the Louvre for a temporary exhibition, but it wouldn't lend a painting to David Ohsie to hang in his car to scare off criminals while he drives neighborhood patrol (which would be like a segulah).

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  15. See your post on October 3 2014 stating that the your rationalist views will not be connected to the museum in any sort of way.

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  16. Rabbi YY Rubinstein addresses this exact sort of problem in The Little Book for Big Worries. Read it cover to cover (that takes about 1.5 hours) to absorb the whole "Use good sense and compassion" message.

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  17. This is where rationalism hits a wall. You have the opportunity to help someone out, without hurting anyone. What is the shayla?

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  18. Wait - you really have jackalope and unicorn horns?
    Whatever you do, do not lend those out - they would be difficult to replace.

    Do you also have dragon horns, I heard that they are a great Sgula for being accepted to Hogwarts.

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  19. Bringing this discussion back to the topic of rationalism, I'd like to ask why we assume the placebo effect works only in a medical situation. Wouldn't a psychological benefit equally apply to any area of life where one is struggling or afraid of something? The same potential danger would apply as well, thinking that the segula has independent powerinstead of acting as an agent of Hashem. See Moshe's hands in the war against Amalek or the nachash hanechoshet

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  20. If I were in your situation, I do not think I would too charitable. This is a zoo/museum not a Kupat Cholim. I do not practice medicine, real or quackery...to do so if illegal. You need a good psychologist in my opinion and wish them the best. That is what I would do if I were you.

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  21. One more note on the issue of fiduciary duty to the Museum, I assume that a substantial fraction of the museum's collection is on loan from R. Slifkin's personal collection (the Shofar collection being one example). So that, strictly speaking, R. Slifkin could do what he pleases with these items. Even so, I think that it behooves R. Slifkin to avoid going down this road.

    On the issue of neighborhood patrols and segulot, one could argue that participation itself has all the efficacy of a segulah...

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  22. A teacher in a classroom might require that a child bring a note in _from the doctor_, before permitting them to miss gym, for example. If you are considering acceding to this request, perhaps require a note (call, etc) from her rabbi that is recommending this.

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  23. I'm sorry, did you say you have jackalope and unicorn horns?

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    Replies
    1. I saw the unicorn horns with my own eyes at the museum! Go for a visit and all will be revealed. http://biblicalnaturalhistory.org/.

      Or else this might help: http://zootorah.com/assets/media/essays/ExoticShofars.pdf

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  24. לפני עור לא תתן מכשול

    It seems simple to me: what these people want to do is a violation of the Torah’s prohibition of נחוש and similar acts, and helping them would thus be prohibited. It’s not just a stupid harmless act they want to perform, but something that is prohibited by the Torah. Amazingly, you don’t need Maimonidean thinking too see that this is bad; the Torah already forbade it explicitly!

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  25. No. If you think she is mentally unbalanced then, at best, the "horns" will offer illusory relief that will not last. If she's not crazy, you shouldn't be party to her heresy

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  26. Of course you should send him the horn. What's the harm in a little healing fetish?
    However, the museum should be reimbursed for its palliative efforts.
    In fact, to enhance the psychological benefit, you might suggest two horns instead of just one.
    Just pay shipping and processing for the second one.

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  27. I agree with Lawrence Kaplan above--just don't go there. Heimisch as you might be, lending out your artifacts to private persons for whatever sundry purposes is a bad precedent for the institution. You arebetter off having a clear, blanket policy that does not require judgment calls of this kind, and that policy should be "No".

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  28. *Not* if it's medical- tell her to see a doctor.

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  29. The title of this post should have been "placed on the horns of a dilemma"

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