Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Karma and Chameleons
Upon arriving home one day last week, my wife told me that someone had been desperately trying to reach me. "Something to do with animals," she said, rolling her eyes. I had barely been in the house for a few minutes when he called again.
"Someone told me that you keep exotic animals... do you have a female chameleon?" he asked.
As it happens, I do have a female chameleon. Since chameleons are mentioned in parashas Shemini, I keep them in my nascent museum. But it's not the Israeli variety, which is illegal to catch, and fares very poorly in captivity. Instead, it's a very unusual variety from Africa, known as Jackson's three-horned chameleon, and in Israel, it's priceless and near-irreplaceable. It's not for sale, I told him. I was surprised that he wanted one; it's unusual for someone to attempt to breed chameleons. Which is the only reason why someone would specifically want a female chameleon, right?
He told me that he didn't want a female chameleon for breeding purposes. Nor to keep as a pet. He wanted it for a reason that you'd never, ever guess, not in a million years.
He wanted it to cure someone's cancer.
When I found my tongue again, I tried to explain to him that female chameleons don't cure cancer. But he wasn't interested in hearing what I had to say.
There are others cases of belief that diseases can be moved from people to animals. In Jerusalem, there are "kabbalists" who "transfer" jaundice from people to pigeons, provided that the pigeon is of the same gender as the person. But as Dr. Fred Rosner notes, it appears that the pigeons die not from absorbing the jaundice, but from being crushed in the hands of the healer. And the patient recovers because - well, people sometimes recover, especially with the help of a powerful placebo.
There is also a long-standing belief in the ability of lizards to cure disease. In 18th century America, doctors recommended that cancer patients swallow several lizards daily. My famous Stincus marinus is known in Hebrew as the "pharmaceutical skink" due to the ancient belief in its curative powers, and dead specimens can still be purchased today in the Arab shuk for this purpose. Certain types of geckos are recently being caught in vast quantities, due to a belief that they cure cancer and AIDS.
Some people will doubtless latch on to a news report that a certain compound produced by pregnant lizards may provide important information on the origins and treatment of cancer in humans. But this has nothing to do with curing cancer via eating a lizard, or placing it on a person!
I find the whole matter rather sad. I remember that when my father, z"l, was dying of cancer, the oncologist warned us against resorting to quackery. People in such situations are often so desperate that they try anything to change their karma. And others, sensing vulnerability, come out of the woodwork to peddle their snake-oil, and in some cases they have convinced themselves of its efficacy. At the time, someone called me to tell me about a special tefillah that works wonders in such cases. "Great!" I said. "What is it?" No, he said, it only works if he says it. "Okay," I said, "go ahead!" No, he said, he doesn't do it for free, only for payment. "Okay," I said, "but do I get a refund if my father doesn't recover?" No, he said, he can't absolutely guarantee that it works in every case. But he knew for sure that it was very powerful! A friend of mine told me that when his mother was dying of cancer, a rabbi tried to sell them mushrooms, for thousands of dollars, that would cure it.
Can it be categorically proven that chameleons and geckos and mushrooms don't cure cancer? No, of course not. But it also can't be categorically proven that there is no giant invisible pink fairy in Manhattan. The point is not whether something can be categorically disproved. It is whether there is the slightest reasonable basis to believe that it is true, such as to justify investing time, money and hope. The last one is tricky - placebos can be very powerful, and hope can be beneficial. Still, it has to be weighed against the costs, including the cost of false hope.
Cancer is a horrible, horrible illness. Sometimes, it can be cured. And sometimes, it can't - and chameleons won't change your karma. We are not in control of what happens to us - only of how we react to it.
(On a lighter note, check out my post about a penguin ba'al teshuvah, over at the Zoo Torah blog.)