Monday, May 4, 2020

Does Judaism Mandate Magical Thinking?

A number of people asked me to respond to Shaul Magid's article in Tablet, "COVID-19, Haredi Jewry, and ‘Magical’ Thinking." In a nutshell, the article argued that charedi claims about yeshivos protecting from coronavirus were actually more consistent with traditional Judaism than non-charedi skepticism of such claims:
...It is certainly true that Haredi leaders misjudged this pandemic and their constituents have paid a high price. However, the Haredim were “negligent” in part because they actually took seriously religious beliefs that many traditional Jews claim to hold. In other words: They really believe it!
The notion of covenantal reciprocity, that our actions are an answer to a divine command that will evoke divine mercy, runs down the spine of the entire tradition. It does not suggest mitzvot will always protect us as if they are some magical formula; we know this is not the case, as the sages somewhat cynically teach, “there are no rewards for mitzvot in this world.” But this equation is arguably the very operating system of Judaism....
Is this true? Does Judaism necessarily require one to believe that doing mitzvos will result, in some way, in concrete protection from harm in this world?

According to Rambam's rationalist approach to Judaism, the answer is no. Observing the mitzvot is obligatory and beneficial for a number of reasons, but supernatural assistance in this world is not one of them. For a lengthy discussion of Rambam's approach, and how to reconcile it with some seemingly contradictory statements elsewhere in his writings, see the appendix to Menachem Kellner's Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism, which you can download here.

But what about traditional, non-rationalist approaches to Judaism? Isn't the approach that "Yeshivos protect from coronavirus" consistent with traditional Judaism?

The answer is still no. Yes, traditional, non-rationalist approaches maintained that God dynamically provides supernatural assistance in this world to those who fulfill His will. But - and this is the crucial point - traditionally, this was rarely seen as a reason to avoid normal worldly endeavor.

When Yaakov went to meet Esav, he prepared with prayer - but also with presents and battle plans. When Moshe chastised the tribes who weren't going to enter the land and share the responsibility of combat - they didn't respond that they will learn Torah instead. When the Sages spoke about the importance of earning a living and teaching one's children a trade, they didn't say that one can learn and rely on God.

To be sure, you can find a number of aggadic statements about the supernatural benefits of studying Torah and performing mitzvos. But these were not taken to be operational practice for society. To say as an abstract religious notion that "Torah protects" was done; to translate this into saying that "we are going to go against medical advice and normal responses to pandemics" was not done.

(There are a number of other things to comment on about Magid's article; perhaps another time.)

66 comments:

  1. It would seem that the cultural answer to the question is YES - magical thinking is part-and-parcel of judaism, all strands, all systems, all groups. There are too many examples to give, even for the Modern Orthdox community, where it is clear that people are treating God as a giant vending machine and if we put in the right exact change and pull the right levers we get out of it whatever we expect. There is very little - very - hard work associated with religion anymore. Among chassidim, "fuggedaboutit," and among the yeshivishe there is so much stupidity as to what things means and why things are done that they may as well be part of the Moonies. Sefardim? Seriously, now.

    You can claim the Rambam says this-or-that. Or any other one-off source. But no one - no one - believes it or practices it.


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    1. Yes, we agree. According to Rambam, and many others, the laws of physics are fixed, meaning, that they will not change anytime soon.

      Unfortunately, many Jews, even today, accept and believe in the practice of sympathetic magic (which is the belief that an act or performance is done on earth to get a response from heaven – for example, the native American rain dance is believed to cause rain). When people do mitzvot to expect a reward or miracles, they are asking G-d to alter nature, or what we call magic. However, as I said previously, G-d is good and all-knowing. Since G-d is perfect, creation is good. Thus, it makes no sense to ask G-d for miracles when miracles are already pre-programmed into nature.

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    2. I think that is the crux. The reality is that all layers, sects and cultures of Judaism are infused with magical thinking and this is consciously or unconsciously accepted by many. It's somewhat bizarre that say, the leaders of Sephardic Jewry pay fealty to the Rambam and at the same time relies heavily on magical thinking in the form of amulets etc. that go even further beyond the normative pale. The academic, sterile response that normative Judaism itself does not hold by these ideas is offset by the general populations that are fed and adopt these notions en masse.

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    3. @Turk Hill - Many would say prayer is magic and according to your own definition it could be classified as 'sympathetic magic'. Are you implying that praying or reciting Tehillim for a sick person serves no purpose and cannot help anyone but the person praying? Does the Rambam dispute the idea that our prayers have the ability to cancel a heavenly decree?

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    4. @Anonymous That depends on who you ask. If you ask Maimonides, to my understanding, he would say no. In any event, a prayer is a form of sympathetic magic. A prayer asks G-d to alter nature, the divine decree. Spinoza writes this it is almost narcissistic to ask G-d to change nature. Natural law is fixed and needs no change.

      Some people say that an illness is a divine punishment, that they are caused by G-d. With this line of thinking, are people who pray for recovery contravening G-d’s plan? Can we say that G-d does not interfere with natural law, a person gets sick because of improper eating habits? Can we say that G-d does not answer prayer because this is changing G-d's will? If so, why pray for healing? Is it pointless to pray? Or, do prayers help us psychologically?

      Simply stated, prayer will not fix a broken leg, the doctors will.

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    5. Yes, Maimonides told Jews to pray, but he did not think prayer petitions are answered. He felt that prayers assist the person on a psychological level. Thus, they have a human value.

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  2. Your modus operandi when dealing with conflicting views is always the same - supposedly, you capture what your critic says 'in a nutshell' (even if it is a book of hundreds of pages), then you extrapolate one imprecise or poorly-worded statement and present it as an extreme, or easily refutable view, which subsequently is repeated as fact, to be mocked for the next few years, every time your opponent's name can be mentioned.
    In this case, Dr. Magid does not at all say what you claim.

    You really should think about changing tactics, as intelligent members of your own fan club will discern the pattern of falsehood through all of this..

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    1. I haven't yet read Dr. Magid's article, but I almost completely agree with your assessment of how RNS operates. In the case of Rabbi Shafran's article, RNS completely distorted his words in the previous post. I pointed this out in the comments (A Yid), and it seems nobody else took note of how Rabbi Shafran never actually said what RNS ranted about for the majority of the post. It is frightening how easy it is to mislead so many people in a flash.

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    2. Because, as I pointed out in the comments, Rabbi Shafran himself had distorted the Daas Torah position that he was defending from critique. The Gedolim said "Torah protects from coronavirus," not "Torah upholds the world."

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    3. I'm sorry - I typically appreciate R' Dr. Slifkin, but I must agree with this. I was sent the piece by Dr. Magid, then this one, in close succession. I was in middle of reading that one when I read this, and was very turned off by the complete oversimplification and misrepresentation of his piece. I found this very disappointing.

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    4. I'd be glad to hear how I allegedly misinterpreted it. (Note that I was only dealing with one part of what he wrote.)

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    5. Not everything has to become an argument or debate, and forget the brownie points you hope to win by publicly pointing some flaw after scouring every article of each person you hope to discredit. We get it, you don't like Charedim. But, intelligent and sincere people are interested in learning something, or even in a fair and thorough debate, with thoughtful analysis. Unfortunately, you dont seem to have much to offer anyone on that front.

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  3. RNS is correct, insofar as he states accurately that we don't rely on the supernatural to protect us, though not denying that God can and does intervene. Its applicability to the current period, is quite another matter. Maggid can't or doesn't want to understand that the Chassidishe response to Covid19 is NOT based on the childish faith he attributes it to, but to the hard-nosed assessment that no one knows what the true numbers are, that the political aspect of this is transparent, that official responses are all over the map and mutually contradictory. Just today, the Holy New York Times admitted "the question of why the virus has overwhelmed some places [sic] and left others relatively untouched is a puzzle that has spawned numerous theories and speculations but no definitive answers."

    It is for THOSE reasons, and no other, that the Chassidim have declined to self-destruct on the flimsy evidence shown to them. It has nothing to do with childish blind faith as Maggid foolishly thinks. Maybe to Maggid chassidim are all a bunch of dancing Martin Buber caricatures, but in actual fact they are hard headed businessmen and they conduct their religious life accordingly. If you want them to take drastic measures, you better show them the money. And nobody did. And nobody can.

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  4. excellent to remind people that "Torah protects" is not supernatural but natural. For example, a life devoted to the study of Torah and the mitzvot will bring much wisdom, but will not magically protect Jews from contracting coronavirus. The Rambam writes, for example, that the mitzvot help refine the character and improve one's self and society.

    To use another biblical example, we could point to Joshua 8, where G-d promised Joshua a victory over the Canaanites in the city of Ai. There is a saying which says that "G-d helps people who help themselves." I believe this to be true. After Joshua carefully evaluated and inspected the fortified city of Ai, he organized a very large force, attacked, and won the city. He did not need to rely on G-d or even a miracle to do so (Sefer Yehoshua and Maimonides).

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  5. Well what do you think Magid's point was, Walter?

    It seemed to me that Magid's argument was that some MO people sometimes do mystical things, therefore rationalism is invalid, which is a completely nonsensical argument.

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  6. "When the Sages spoke about the importance of earning a living and teaching one's children a trade, they didn't say that one can learn and rely on God." What about what R. Nehorai says at the end of masekhet Kiddushin? Blackman translation: I would put on one side all the crafts in the world and would teach my son only the Law, for a man enjoys the interest thereof in this world and the principal still remains for the world to come. But with all other crafts this is not so, for when a man comes to sickness or to old age or to troubles, and he is not able to engage in his occupation, then behold he dies of hunger; but in the case of the Law it is not so, for it protects hm from all evil in his youth, and it presents him with a future and hope in his old age.

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    1. R. Nehorai is presented as a lone view of what he himself would do. It is not the normative view of what Chazal prescribe.

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    2. נהוראי=מאיר
      עירובין יג

      רבי מאיר אומר: לעולם ילמד אדם את בנו אומנות

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    3. RNS, do you at least acknowledge that Chazal considered it an ideal approach, just that it is not appropriate for the masses? The fact that the tractate ends with that message is pretty telling

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    4. RDNS,

      The fact is, you misrepresented Chazal by writing: "When the Sages spoke about the importance of earning a living and teaching one's children a trade, they didn't say that one can learn and rely on God."

      You cherry pick your quotes, misrepresent them in any one of your various ways, and produce a whole new Judaism - just like Conservative and Reform do.

      I find it interesting that you like to present your version of Judaism as that of the Rishonim (medieval Torah scholars), yet you don't see the stirah in posting a quote from Tablet Magazine in your blog's sidebar which reads: "By many accounts, he [RDNSlifkin] has almost single-handedly brought an entire ***new worldview*** to the fore."

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    5. do you at least acknowledge that Chazal considered it an ideal approach, just that it is not appropriate for the masses?

      Until the curse of אדם הראשון is lifted, it is imperative that people work for a living. There's simply no other way for humanity to survive. There have always been those who engage in purely intellectual persuits, in all cultures, in all ages. But it is far from ideal to have everyone doing so.

      And, as the anecdote regarding those who tried רשבי's path demonstrates, very, very, very few individuals can reach that ideal, so it's utterly pointless to treat it as a practical approach. In essence, "the masses" includes every single person who is alive today.

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    6. The fact is, you misrepresented Chazal by writing: "When the Sages spoke about the importance of earning a living and teaching one's children a trade, they didn't say that one can learn and rely on God."

      How is that a misrepresentation? And there's not a single Jew living today who relies on Hashem to provide sustenance. Or, to paraphrase the old joke: "they think the Israeli government is God!"

      yet you don't see the stirah in posting a quote

      How is citing the article a contradiction just because it contains a sidebar that mentions many people have a false belief based in ignorance?

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    7. @Avi
      "In essence, "the masses" includes every single person who is alive today."
      That's your interpretation, and maybe correct, but certainly not compelling to the point that others don't have the right to disagree with you

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    8. That's your interpretation

      That's not merely an interpretation. The גמרא relates that many tried רשב’’י's approach and failed. And חרדים themselves claim that no one alive today reaches the level of the ראשונים, never mind the אמוראים. And there are no (credible) reports that anyone has ever devoted his entire existence to לימוד תורה and survived purely on השם's providence. And if throwing one's self on the ציבור counted as השם's providence, there would have been thousands who succeeded by the time the גמרא was recorded, and today millions.

      Thus, they are not disagreeing with me, but with reality. And we have names for people like that. Not nice names, but names.

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    9. Hey Avi (from May6,7:33am)

      (1) "How is that a misrepresentation?" The misrepresentation is that when RDNS says that the Sages "didn't say that one can learn and rely on God" he makes it sound like none of the Sages said so. And lest you think otherwise, remember that RDNS's whole thesis is that it is not a true Torah attitude (despite the fact that it is mentioned by Chazal in a number of places). He likes to point out this Sage and that Sage that worked, but will not address how there are those who did not. People like to quote the Gemara that says "Many did like Rabbi Shimon and it did not succeed for them," but those who quote that do not address how it did, can, and does succeed for some.

      (2) "And there's not a single Jew living today who relies on HaShem to provide sustenance." You are very arrogant to think that you know how every single Jew lives. I know people who rely on HaShem to provide their sustenance. Most of their monthly income does not come from a fixed source so they don't know where much of their parnassah is going to come from each month (and they don't get any parnassah from the government except the little kitzvat y'ladim that everyone gets). They do not ask anybody for anything. Sometimes they can afford to make decent Shabbat meals, and sometimes they can barely afford bread and milk. And they are happy with their lot serving HaShem. Not only do they not think that the Israeli government is G-d (as you joked), they see G-d's hand in their everyday life because they live with G-d and they don't relegate G-d to some philosophical theoretical being to be spoken about only when it's fun to philosophize (like you do). As the Ramban says in Shmot (3:13) "כשם שאתה הווה עמי כך אני הווה עמך", "As you are with me, so I am with you," (see more by the Ramban there).

      And so you'll answer what I wrote in #2 by saying that such people are rare. (A) You were wrong and misleading to say that they don't exist. (B) Even if you are right that they are rare, if they would have spoken falsely about the possibility of trusting G-d like you do then they never would have made it to where they are now.

      (3) "How is citing the article a contradiction just because it contains a sidebar that mentions many people have a false belief based in ignorance?" You misread what I wrote, which is typical of the commentors on this blog. I wrote: "you don't see the stirah in posting a quote from Tablet Magazine in ***your blog's*** [i.e., RDNS's blog's] sidebar which reads: "he [RDNSlifkin] has almost single-handedly brought an entire ***new worldview*** to the fore." I meant that RDNS proudly posted that quote calling RDNS's worldview "new" on the sidebar of rationalistjudaism.com not far below where RDNS writes that his own approach to Judaism "was most famously presented by Maimonides" who lived over 800 years ago. If you don't see the stirah, ask someone to explain it to you. I don't have the patience here.

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    10. And hey, Avi (from May6, 3:22pm):

      (3) So you're one of the people who throws around the quote from the Gmara that says "many tried רשב’’י's approach and it did not succeed for them", and proceeds to contradict the obvious diyuk that it did (and can and does) work for some and ignores learning about how to achieve such bitachon and if it is fitting for you.

      (4) "And חרדים themselves claim that no one alive today reaches the level of the ראשונים, never mind the אמוראים." You think that they were talking about relying on HaShem?! The fact that we can not reach their level does not mean that we are not on the level to to rely on HaShem. The books Nefesh HaChayim and Madrgat HaAdam (etc.) say that we can live on the level of trusting HaShem like that, and they were written by אחרונים, so you clearly have your thoughts muttled.

      (5) "And there are no (credible) reports that anyone has ever devoted his entire existence to לימוד תורה and survived purely on השם's providence." See #2 above.

      (6) "And if throwing one's self on the ציבור counted as השם's providence...." See #2 above.

      (7) "they are not disagreeing with me, but with reality. And we have names for people like that. Not nice names, but names." You are wrong. And there are names for people like you who try to convince people that HaShem can not be trusted to give sustenance. Not nice names, but names. Names that the the Torah gave.

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  7. Dr. Kellner's view of the Rambam's isn't universally accepted. He himself admits the Rambam contradicts his view in numerous places in his writings. In order to defend his view, Kellner suggests that the Rambam essentially a lied a number of times to trick people into keeping mitzvot.

    Its misleading to accept Kellner's perspective as the only one, especially since Kellner himself says the Rambam was wrong since its "objectively false" that intellectual perfection requires moral perfection. Since this blog is about the legacy of the Rambam, you might consider mentioning an approach to the Rambam's thought on this which doesn't blatantly reject its truth.

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    1. @Unknown Yes, Dr. Kellner's view is similar to Straussian interpretation. However, the philosophers knew they could not always tell the truth, they learned to lie. But they lied with good intentions. Plato called it the "noble lie," because while untrue, it helped people. The Rambam called it "essential truths." As you know, the Rambam helps the need to help people. He did not trick people since he felt that observance of the mitzvot was imperative to reaching a moral and intellectual perfection. But he understood that the general population, indeed the vast majority of people cannot handle the truth and feel threatened by it. Thus, he wrote his Guide for two audiences. For the uneducated who will think he is agreeing with them and for the educated who will mine his writings for his true view. Yes, I am convinced that Kellner's interpretation of Maimonides is correct and anything to the contrary is a reinvention of Maimonides.

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    2. Turk,
      Saying that the Rambam had to say untruths is a real denigration of the Rambam.
      It is the way of Torah to cloak the "difficult to accept" things in such a way that nothing that is written is untrue.
      True Torah scholars know how to do this.
      Therefore, so did the Rambam.
      And that is why there are apparent contradictions throughout the Rambam's non-halachic works. It seems that rationalists don't know how to deal with these contradictions except to say that "the Rambam didn't really mean it" about the things they disagree with.
      Here is the kicker! It is from the rationalists that the Rambam was cloaking certain truths. And if you don't believe me, you will find that what I am saying is very clear if you read all of the Rambam's introductions to his Guide for the Perplexed. (I suggest the Kapach translation.)

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  8. Rabbi Slifkin, the issue isn't "a number of aggadic statements about the supernatural benefits of studying Torah and performing mitzvos." This is explicit in the Torah and we say it twice a day.

    Until the last few centuries, no action that humans took could have any noticeable effect on the weather or climate. If you want to argue that the Torah and mitzvos produce reward and punishment solely through improving society, you also have to argue that the primary discussion of the reward and punishment - rain - was meaningless until the Industrial Revoluation.

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  9. I've been waiting patiently to ask my question until you got to this point. How can you still claim that chareidim don't really believe that Torah protects, when that is exactly what RCK said at the outset and actually instructed everyone to act upon that belief? Is it because he changed later to say shut down the yeshivas? By then facts on the ground were different so I don't think it's 100% accurate to call it a retraction.
    Also, it's a funny to bring the b'nei gad and menashe as a proof for what you're saying because who ever said anything about learning in that story? they wanted to stay back in order to have more land for their animals. That's why they didn't say anything about learning. And finally, you note that there are sources that say Torah protects, but you dismiss them as outliers, not to be taken at face value. That's a judgment call, and while I can respect your understanding, I don't see why you can't respect the other side's understanding that these sources are to be taken seriously and sources that say otherwise are the outliers.

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    1. "How can you still claim that chareidim don't really believe that Torah protects, when that is exactly what RCK said at the outset and actually instructed everyone to act upon that belief?" It's not that they believed that it really protects - it's that they didn't take the danger seriously.

      Regarding sources, I'm not dismissing them as outliers - I'm saying that they were not traditionally understood as meaning that one does not do normative hishtadlus.

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    2. Let's narrow the "they" down to select groups since the term chareidim includes many different groups with differing beliefs. Let's focus on RCK's response. Why would you say he didn't take it seriously? He viewed it as a danger, but he said it is more dangerous to close the yeshivos. And then as the virus spread he said it is now more dangerous to keep the yeshivos open. Why is that not taking the danger seriously?

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    3. - "It's not that they believed that it really protects - it's that they didn't take the danger seriously."
      Why are you assuming that? Are you sure you're not projecting your own interpretation? To me it sounds quite similar to what everyone is arguing about needing to open up the economy. That doesn't mean they are not taking the virus seriously, it just means when put against the other, one approach is less bad than the other

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  10. Magid's claim is false because traditional sources never proposed religious practices or beliefs instead of medicine. The halacha requires us to utilize medical doctors.

    So if the charedim "really believed!" in halacha, they'd accept the importance of medical hishtadlus and practicality.

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  11. "The notion of covenantal reciprocity, that our actions are an answer
    to a divine command that will evoke divine mercy, runs down the spine of the entire tradition. It does not suggest mitzvot will always protect us as if they are some magical formula; we know this is not the case, as the sages somewhat cynically teach, “there are no rewards for mitzvot in this world.” But this equation is arguably the very operating system of Judaism.... "
    I'm sorry NS, but this pretty much nails it. Before reflexively running to Menachem Kellner, please READ and CONSIDER the paragraph above. I would be very wary of building an entire worldview based on one interpretation of one outlying view, which contradicts his other writings in any event, no matter what MK claims. The MN clearly says that one's hashgacha is in direct correlation to one's spiritual level, to say nothing of hashgacha klalius.
    Yes, many charedim have an overly simplistic and maximalist view and acted irresponsibly, but you're really throwing out the baby with the bathwater here.

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  12. I have to say that while I've enjoyed and agreed with e.g., the blog's take-down of Rabbi Meiseman's book, I don't see the same critical lens when it comes to works that agree with Rabbi Slifkin's priors, such as Menachem Kellner's work linked above, which starts by accurately documenting the Rambam's views on reward and punishment, and then moves on to dubious extrapolations and ultimately determines to dismiss any contrary statements as untrue, but "necessary" beliefs for the masses. The problems with this approach are numerous. The theory as described by Kellner is not even borne out beyond a certain point by the sources he quotes in favor, before you even look at the contradictory evidence. And there is too much contradictory evidence to reasonably allow a dismissal based on necessary beliefs. As guilty as many on the "right" who ignore the Rambam's philosophical works are of distorting his position, so too are people like Kellner who are willing to just outright dismiss anything that doesn't fit their priors. That there is a lot more nuance and complexity here should be obvious to anyone with a open mind. But those already inclined to quasi-Deistic beliefs are not too likely to examine academic articles that favor their approaches with the same critical lens as they examine the other side.

    As a final note, it is absolutely clear that the Rambam didn't believe in the efficacy of magic, yet right before the paragraph in Mishnah Torah in which he dismisses any reality in magic, he paskens in accordance with the mishnah that the מכשף who is חיב סקילה is the one who uses מעשה כשפים, as opposed to אחיזת עינים. I have yet to find any good explanation as to what he means. And no explanation that relies on necessary beliefs will cut it. I have no doubt that had the question been real enough to bother any of the Rambam's very diverse group of readers, he would have answered it and we would have a teshuvah clearly explaining what he meant. Efficacy of Magic was clearly not a necessary belief for the readers of the Mishnah Torah as the sefer then goes right on to debunk it.

    Shmooli

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    1. I also await Rabbi Slifkin addressing the absurd implications of the absurd implications of Kellner's approach on the religious life of rationalist:
      What does a rationalist think while he prays (something he has an obligation to do for extended periods of the day)? Does he think - I know all this petitionary stuff is complete garbage to fool the masses but I'll say it anyway? What about when saying prayers of repentance on yom kippur? all prayer is written in a non-rationalist (according to Kellner's version of it) petitionary manner - in a language of request. We even have a prayer for god to answer our prayers!
      What does Rabbi Slifkin think as he says the words of Shma Koleinu? (Or - what did rambam think according to Kellner).

      If half the practiced religion is just for the masses because believing in reward/punishment, a petitionary god, repentance, etc. will keep people in line, what about in the modern world where most people "know the secret"? does the religion become obsolete? What is the justification for a blog exposing the secret to the masses?

      I can go on with other basic parts of Jewish living but I think the point is made.

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    2. Simple. Maimonides, like everyone before him and after him, was not an entirely rationalist man. Nobody is entirely consistent.

      Even Rabbi Slifkin believes the founding of the state of Israel and antisemitism are evidence of disturbances to the normal chain of cause and effect (I disagree, which only goes to show the extent that confirmation bias and the other artefacts of being a social human makes rationalism an absurdity.)

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    4. There is a sociological component of the religion that analysis must consider: the religion must survive over multiple generations. Even Eccliastes knew that people do not have children who follow in their ways, even genetically. In order to do this, the religion has to have components that appeal to the masses who chemically require the voodoo because their brains are wired that way. It is better that some teenage boys spend their time unraveling that Tosfos (even if there is no practical use) rather than smoking weed on a street corner (empirically true that this is better if you go look out in any major city). It seems that Rambam (and others) knows there is only an elite who will really "get it" and most will not. But survival requires a bunch more people than just elite. The elite may or may not have children who are similarly elite (brains). The elite still need people to sleep with and with whom to breed (who if not are elite themselves, at least they should be good looking and can cook and repair things around the house.)



      Therefore, it makes sense that there will be things peppered throughout the religion that are pure voodoo. And that the voodoo will be self-promoting and propagating. That's OK. But for those who wish to be part of the elite some day, we need to just nod to it, not get into fights with the shaas-readers, and still keep shabbat.

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    5. @Chaim Stern
      And what about at a time when any idiot can read a blog post and be told "the truth"?
      If this is really how rabbi slifkin feels then he is going against his own world view by trying to popularize this hashkafa!!!
      He should be encouraging the masses to continue in there false beliefs just like rambam did not ripping on them for having them!!!

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    6. אחיזת עינים = Slight of hand. The practitioner knows he's fooling his audience and doesn't believe his acts have any efficacy. The only believers are the audience.

      מעשה כשפים = The practitioner is fully devoted to and believes his acts are effective (as does an idol-worshipper) and (possibly) convinces others to follow in his foolish ways.

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    7. He should be encouraging the masses to continue in there false beliefs just like rambam did not ripping on them for having them!!!

      Rabbi Slifkin takes the approach of "you're free to swing your fist, but not free to hit my face". He has written many times that there's no problem taking other approaches to Judaism. He just rails against those who take the stance that their path is the only valid path, and use that position to attempt harm to others.

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    8. I know you asked for the rabbi’s opinion but here is mine.

      To Shmooli, answering briefly now. In short, I agree with Kellner. Maimonides wrote for two audiences the educated few and the masses. One needs to read the entire Guide to mine his true view.

      Yes, Rambam did not believe in magic. No one truly does. If he wrote about the efficacy of magic it was for the common man, a necessary belief.

      To Anonymous, answering briefly. The Hebrew word for “to pray” is lehitpaleil. The root is p-l-l, which means “judge,” or reflect, so the literal meaning of lehitpaleil is “to judge one’s self.”

      How do rational Jews say some of the other prayers, such as mystical prayers? Rational Jews understand that the prayers do not share a single view of Judaism, but many.

      Yes, Maimonides told Jews to pray, but he did not think prayer petitions are answered. He felt that prayers assist the person on a psychological level. They have a human value. They help stimulant people to reflect on Judaism, the past, and the Torah’s goals to improve. My rabbi says that rational Jews can certainly not participate in some prayers. However, since the prayers have become widely accepted, rational Jews can take part in them by giving them a new, improved, sensible, and inspiring meaning.

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  13. Eh, Rav Natan, you are correct of course when push comes to shove and people have to "vote with their feet" like when yeshivas left Sderot. But when the danger is not quite so evident and in one's face - ie nobody is coughing and vomiting and dying in one's field of vision - then yes. Years of conditioning and (for lack of a better expression) brainwashing yield a situation where yes, the common chareidi folk DO believe that Torah study protects. There are actual aggados, for sure, but also Tzadik stories, Olameinu stories, Artscroll commentaries, etc that "document" protection due to Torah study. (The father of the Baal Shem Tov merited to have the Besht as a son because he was the only one in the whole world learning one Purim afternoon- and therefore had he stopped learning the world would have been destroyed; a young ilui learning in a shtetl made the invading horsemen see a gigantic fire over the town, etc. etc.). Since people (myself/ourselves included, of course) do not tend to think everything through to the minute degree, they would not be aware of the inconsistency or hypocrisy within this - or if they were, would attribute any differences to Yeridas HaDoros or some such.

    I say this not to absolve the leadership of responsibility but to tell how I see the common people's view.

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    1. "But when the danger is not quite so evident and in one's face - ie nobody is coughing and vomiting and dying in one's field of vision - then yes."

      Correct. In the Pennsylvania case currently pending appeal to the US Supreme Court, the Plaintiff coalition (DeVito et al) stated, among other items, that in their state only a tiny, tiny percentage of the population was affected, and most of them were in nursing homes, already elderly, and infirm.

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  14. I really don't understand where the idea comes from that learning Torah protects. We don't find it in תנ’’ך. We don't find it in the Mishnah or Talmud.

    Everyone's favorite גמרא about תלמדי חכמים not having to pay towards physical defenses doesn't cut it. The wall is still built! The most one can learn from that הלכה is that the ת’’כ themselves don't need the physical protection of a wall. The הלכה is still quite clear that the wall is needed! (As can be inferred from the fact that others can be forced to pay for it. That wouldn't happen if the wall was not needed.)

    And the הלכה is referring to a situation where the danger comes from outside. With a pandemic, the danger comes from within. Not only are the non-ת’’כ a danger to the ת’’כ, but the ת’’כ are a danger to the other townspeople. The הלכה in no way implies that the Torah learning protects others from the ת’’כ!

    And not only that, one of the proof-texts for the idea that ת’’כ have their own personal protection is אספרם מחולֹ ירבון, which the גמרא explains to mean אספרם למעשיהם של צדיקים. So we see that it's not the learning that protects them to begin with. It's their many (good) acts.

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    1. I cited the following in the previous blog post by Rabbi Slifkin:

      The Rambam himself says in Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 11:12) that "Torah protects" (I'd be surprised that someone hasn't quoted this yet):

      A person who whispers an incantation over a wound and then recites a verse from the Torah, who recites a verse over a child so that he will not become scared, or who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over a baby so that it will sleep, is considered to be a soothsayer or one who cast spells. Furthermore, such people are included among those who deny the Torah, because they relate to the words of Torah as if they are cures for the body, when, in fact, they are cures for the soul, as [Proverbs 3:22] states: "And they shall be life for your soul."

      It is, however, permitted for a healthy person to read verses [from the Bible] or chapters from Psalms so that the merit of reading them will protect him and save him from difficulties and injury.

      At the same time, it's obvious that עולם כמנהגו נוהג: A person driving a car has to keep his eyes on the road. Taking his eyes off of the road in order to read out of a sefer tehillim won't ensure that he doesn't get into an accident!

      The Kessef Mishneh explains that it is forbidden to think that uttering words of Torah over a sick person will make them well--but the merit of learning Torah can be intended to protect someone who is well.

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    2. Avi,
      You wrote: "I really don't understand where the idea comes from that learning Torah protects. We don't find it in תנ’’ך. We don't find it in the Mishnah or Talmud."

      To cite just 1 or 2 places, it says in Shabbat 30b: "כל יומא דשבתא הוה יתיב וגריס כולי יומא", on which Rashi comments: "שלא יקרב מלאך המות אליו, שהתורה מגינה ממות כדאמרינן בסוטה כא".

      So instead of saying "we don't find it in Talmud", maybe you should *ask* if we find it in Talmud. Even if you asked in a sarcastic or rhetorical tone - at least you'd have been asking instead of misrepresenting the Torah which I think is called "m'galeh panim sh'lo k'halachah", which is a very bad no-no.

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    3. (Waterman, you might want to read my delayed comment to you here:
      http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2020/04/torah-leadership-is-not-what-you-think.html?showComment=1588312910892#c5147029595778909707
      )

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    4. The גמרא in סוטה compares the protection of לימוד תורה to the protection afforded by daylight to various dangers of the night. Given the משל, it's clear that the protection afforded is one of enlightenment. That is, it allows one to see the proper path. It's not the act of learning that protects, but the knowledge and wisdom the learning grants. However, if one metaphorically closes his eyes, the light doesn't help. If one learns, but doesn't apply the learning to keep himself safe, his learning is for naught.

      To apply this to our current situation: if one learns תורה, but doesn't follow guidelines meant to keep him, and others, safe, he's closing his eyes. If one is so wrapped up in learning that he walks under a falling anvil, he's going to be seeing stars. If one is busy with דף יומי while driving to work, someone is going to be in an accident.

      And, even if you reject my reading, you still have no answer to my second point, which is that learning תורה doesn't protect anyone else. So someone learning doesn't protect others from the one learning, and it doesn't protect those not learning from outside dangers. So you have no source for the idea that people should sit and learn in groups while a pandemic is sweeping the world, and you have no source for the idea that anyone's learning protects Israel from outside threats.

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    5. @Avi: But thus the Gemara most definitely says that learning Torah offers protection--even when a person is not actually engaged in learning--just due to the fact that they have assimilated Torah knowledge.
      Let's cite the entire Gemara in Sotah, so that the readers can decide for themselves:
      התניא את זו דרש רבי מנחם בר יוסי (משלי ו) כי נר מצוה ותורה אור תלה הכתוב את המצוה בנר ואת התורה באור את המצוה בנר לומר לך מה נר אינה מגינה אלא לפי שעה אף מצוה אינה מגינה אלא לפי שעה ואת התורה באור לומר לך מה אור מגין לעולם אף תורה מגינה לעולם
      The Gemara is clearly saying that both performing a mitzvah, and learning Torah, provide protection. But performing a mitzvah only provides its protection while the person is engaged in the mitzvah, while Torah studied provides protection even afterwards.

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    6. But thus the Gemara most definitely says that learning Torah offers protection--even when a person is not actually engaged in learning

      It is the משל which describes the nature of the protection. And if one were to take the ברייתא at face value, one should conclude that there is absolutely no reason at all for ישיבות to remain open during a pandemic, as the learning already done will protect. This גמרא in its entirety offers no excuse to ignore health and safety regulations.

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    7. "This גמרא in its entirety offers no excuse to ignore health and safety regulations."
      Most definitely. My son-in-law recently pointed out to me what it says in Shulchan Aruch HaRav, in the Choshen Mishpat section, on שמירת הגוף והנפש, paragraph 13:
      ויש לברוח בתחלת הדבר ואם לא ברח בתחלתו לא יברח בסופו אלא יחביא עצמו במסתרים ולא יתראה בשוק מפני המזיקים כמ"שקלו ואתם לא תצאו איש מפתח ביתו עד בוקר:

      So there's even a halachic source for saying that people should practice social distancing during an epidemic.

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    8. Avi,
      Don't be so thick. While Rashi refers to Sotah, I specifically chose to bring the Gmara and the Rashi from Shabbat and not from Sotah. It is clear from Shabbat the the intent of the Gmara is that Torah protects

      You also wrote: "This גמרא in its entirety offers no excuse to ignore health and safety regulations." While this may be RDNS's and your starting point, the issue in dispute here is whether or not Torah protects the learner and others. You and all the people on your side are saying that "Torah does not protect". Then when we show that Chazal say that Torah does protect, you say, "well, not enough to keep the Yeshivot open during CoronaVirus." In other words: (#1) You were wrong to say that learning Torah does not protect. (#2) To save face, you disingenuously changed your position inconspicuously to be "well it doesn't protect that much". (#3) This is like arguing with Conservatives and Reformers.

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  15. Usually when Tanach stories are brought in support of an argument said argument is already lost.
    I see no exception here

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    1. @Isaac - You mean like in most of Shaas...?

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  16. Magical thinking is rampant in all "Orthodox" religions as well as cults. It's a major human flaw.

    How many times have you read a story about how, for example, a lone surviving house came through a category 5 hurricane with no damage due to the prayer of the owner? What about the 25 similar houses on the block? Were the owners not praying as well?

    The survivors of all disasters say the same thing, including the current coronavirus pandemic. What about the victims whose prayers were ignored?

    hmmmmm

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    1. That is true, but its not limited to traditional religion like Judaism or Christianity. It's also true of modern religions like atheism or scienceism. There is nothing so stupid that some true believer in something, somewhere, wont believe it.

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    2. @Jeff Neckonoff -
      Yes, exactly. It has to do with us being humans (some more 'human' than others). The brain is wired that way, and it takes a great deal of energy and thought to elevate past it. Civilization is but a thin veneer. All religions have this problem, and some of the questions for evaluation are on those that make a person (... and their family... and their community...) functional, or better productive, and that it has a permanence to it.

      Judaism has this. We just also have, from the perspective of an elitist-wannba, a lot of barnacles on the barge that we have to live with as we navigate through frum society and the larger world.

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  17. Rabbi Natan Slifkin needs a Menachem Kellner intervention.
    Just remember, we're only doing this because we care! : )

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  18. Observing the mitzvot is obligatory and beneficial for a number of reasons, but supernatural assistance in this world is not one of them.
    Not kidding? Is it not supernatural: ...There will be no sterile male or barren female among you or among your livestock...(Dvarim 7:14).
    Or: If only My people would listen to Me, if Israel would only walk in My ways, then I would quickly subdue their enemies, and turn My hand against their oppressors (Tehillim 81).

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  19. Here is an excerpt from the rambam in hilchos teshuva perek 9
    נמצא פירוש כל אותן הברכות והקללות על דרך זו כלומר אם עבדתם את השם בשמחה ושמרתם דרכו משפיע לכם הברכות האלו ומרחיק הקללות מכם עד שתהיו פנויים להתחכם בתורה ולעסוק בה כדי שתזכו לחיי העולם הבא וכו' ואם עזבתם את השם ושגיתם במאכל ובמשתה וזנות ודומה להם מביא עליכם כל הקללות האלו ומסיר כל הברכות עד שיכלו ימיכם בבהלה ופחד

    Rationalist number 1: " that is just drush and not meant to be taken so literally. It's at the end of the sefer and who makes it all the way there anyway?"

    Rationalist number 2: " the rambam is merely saying that if you keep all the mitzvos you will perfect your character and become wise enabling you to channel your energies and wisdom towards inventing new technologies that will allow farmers to grow crops with less water (like drip irrigation) and preserve food for longer periods of time, resulting in success and plenty in this world."

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  20. ספר החינוך, מעקה

    אין אדם נוקף אצבעו מלמטה אלא אם כן מכריזין עליו מלמעלה, אף על פי כן צריך האדם לשמר עצמו מן המקרים הנהוגים בעולם, כי האל ברא עולמו ובנאו על יסודות עמודי הטבע, וגזר שתהיה האש שורפת והמים מכבין הלהבה, וכמו כן יחייב הטבע, שאם תפל אבן גדולה על ראש איש שתרצץ את מחו

    The Torah mandates Magical Thinking but rational action.

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  21. The Rambam isn't the whole story. You should read Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel's book, "Peering through the lattices: mystical, magical, and pietistic dimensions in the Tosafist period." It's an eye opener. Far from being the special preserve of the German Pietists, magical thinking was widespread, according to Prof. Kanarfogel, among the baalei hatosafot.

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