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An Aura of Respectability?
We've discussed lots of pseudoscientific claims in this forum, but there never seems to be a shortage of new ones to explore. The latest was mentioned in a recent article in Hamodia magazine.
Significantly, it was presented by Rabbi Pinchos Jung from the Ani Maamin Foundation, which has the backing of Rav Shlomo Miller, Rav Avraham Levine, Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky and Rav Aharon Feldman. This is an organization which disdains primitive approaches to faith such as that expressed in Reuven Schmelczer's book The Heart of Emunah and which presents miraculous stories of sentient pigs, mermaids and sorcery. They set out to reinforce emunah in a "mature fashion," with an aura of respectability. And in the summer 2017 issue of Dialogue (the journal under the aegis of Rav Miller and Rav Feldman), there was a harsh critique by Dr. Jonathan Ostroff of The Heart of Emunah.
Now, in the past, I have pointed out that the criticism of Schmelczer's approach by these people is somewhat ironic, in that the Ani Maamin Foundation, relying on Ostroff himself, spreads nonsense such as that the universe is only 5778 years old, and dinosaurs lived just a few thousand years ago, concurrently with contemporary species. And the arguments for emunah given in the Ani Maamin Foundation's book, Emunah: A Refresher Course, contain the usual specious claims about the Torah's claims regarding animals with one kosher sign, the fins and scales of fish, and so on. But in the new Hamodia article, a new type of pseudoscience is presented: Auras.
According to Rabbi Jung, the aura, "a possible manifestation of some aspect of the neshamah," can be captured by a special type of photography which shows ultraviolet. "This has advanced to the degree that we have photos depicting the difference in the glow around a person before and after laying tefillin! The same has been shown of a married woman before and after covering her hair." As a source for this astonishing claim, Rabbi Jung cites Rabbi Zamir Cohen's book The Coming Revolution. (You can also see Rabbi Cohen's material online at this website and also at a website called "Absolute Truth".)
Aura photography began back in 1939 with Russian scientist Semyon Kirlian. He discovered that a hand placed on a photographic plate connected to a source of voltage produced an image of the hand surrounded by an "aura." Kirlian photography, as it is known, became very popular among paranormalists and new-age spiritualists. Its most recent incarnations include special Aura Cameras that you can buy for just a few thousand dollars.
However, as with countless other such paranormal claims, aura photography is a simple fraud. Needless to say, there are no rigorous double-blind tests to prove its efficacy. The photographic effects are produced not by a spiritual aura, but rather as a result of moisture in the air surrounding the object being photographed. There are various factors which determine the color of the aura in the photos, and there is no consistency. Yes, the photos of people before and after laying tefillin show differently colored auras, but so would photos of anyone taken in slightly different circumstances - especially if you wrap an item of clothing such as a tallit around the head!
I have great sympathy with those who are trying to reinforce emunah, and especially with those who are attempting to do it in a scientifically respectable way. But they bear a tremendous responsibility. Professing to have an aura of respectability, and yet presenting pseudoscientific nonsense which can be exposed by a simple Wikipedia or Google search, is a shirking of that responsibility. It is going to result in the brightest Jewish minds being utterly turned off to Judaism.
So how should one teach emunah? Well, you can teach about the single greatest miracle in our history, which nobody denies the factuality of, although some would downplay how extraordinary and special it is. Or, you can opt to teach emunah as it really should be - not Discovery-style "proofs," but rather loyalty (which is the true etymological meaning of emunah) to our sacred and wonderful mesorah.
My second child, my oldest son, just put on tefillin for the first time. There was nothing that could be captured by Kirlian photography. But I saw an incredible aura radiating from him.
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