Monday, January 4, 2010

Superstition and Jewish Observance

Whether a religious practice is superstitious depends on what its practitioners think that they are doing: one and the same practice may be sustained by different beliefs, some superstitious and some not. Some superstitions are more harmful than others, but superstition is in itself a harm to the mind.

Don’t envy me my fine car! (Found at

Recently I was searching the Web for the source of a passage from the Reform Jewish liturgy, engraved in my memory by repetition long ago, that had recently been returning to my mind. Through Google Books I found it in the old Union Prayer Book:
May the time not be distant, O God, when Thy name shall be worshiped in all the earth, when unbelief shall disappear and error be no more. Fervently we pray that the day may come when all men shall invoke Thy name, when corruption and evil shall give way to purity and goodness, when superstition shall no longer enslave the mind, nor idolatry blind the eye, when all who dwell on earth shall know that to Thee alone every knee must bend and every tongue give homage. O may all, created in Thine image, recognize that they are brethren, so that, one in spirit and one in fellowship, they may be forever united before Thee. Then shall Thy kingdom be established on earth and the word of Thine ancient seer be fulfilled: The Lord will reign forever and ever. (Union Prayer Book for Jewish Worship (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1940), 71–72)
To me this passage is sublime music. Not only do its iterations, its balanced phrases, and its elevated diction seduce my ear, but I am touched—deeply—by the faith and hope that it expresses. Yet I do not share that faith and hope. Nothing could be more welcome to me than a day “when superstition shall no longer enslave the mind nor idolatry blind the eye”; but I have no expectation that such a day will ever come. Nor do I see any reason why the alternative to superstition and idolatry should be worship of the supposed one true God, rather than simply the absence of worship. If belief in a creator and ruler of the universe is not itself a superstition, I have yet to understand how it differs from one.

Evidently I am not the only one on whom this passage has made a lasting impression. In searching the Web for it, I had the good fortune to happen on the text of a sermon given in 1997 by Rabbi Barry Block of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, the title of which is adapted from the quoted passage: “Does Superstition Enslave Our Minds?” I have found much in this sermon to think about, as well as much that leaves me dissatisfied.

Rabbi Block begins by drawing a distinction between harmful superstitions and harmless ones. He offers as an example of a harmless superstition the saying among Yiddish-speaking Jews of the generation of his grandparents, “Tu, tu, kayn aynahora” (the “tu,” I take it, is not a Romance pronoun but a representation of spitting). They said this, according to Block, “to ward off ‘ayin ha-ra,’ the evil eye,” that is, “to prevent ill fortune from befalling us as a result of our having said something too good or too bad.”

(I can’t resist digressing at this point to mention that an equivalent expression existed among the Spanish-speaking Jews of the Ottoman Empire, to which my maternal grandparents and their siblings and cousins belonged. Among them the formula was “Mashalah!”, an expression derived from the Arabic “Mā šāʾ Allāh” and used in many parts of southeastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. As I am told, it means “God has willed it” or “Whatever God wills,” and is uttered to ward off the evil eye when notice has been taken of one’s good fortune. My Sephardic great-aunts used it, for example, as congratulation to a mother on her child—not that I appreciated its meaning when I was that child: to me, the word was merely the accompaniment to the dreaded and painful indignity of being firmly pinched on the cheek.)

So that is Block’s example of a harmless superstition: the practice of uttering a formula to ward off the evil eye or its effects. He provides the following anecdote as an example of a harmful superstition:
Some years ago, in Israel, an entire bus full of school children from one town were killed in a terrible accident. In the days following that horrible tragedy, the chief rabbi of the town announced that the accident had occurred because too many of the mezuzzot in town were not kosher. His pronouncement was based on the superstitious notion that the mezuzzah is a mere amulet, a magic spell meant to ward off evil.
In this case, as Block understands it, the superstition is the belief that mezuzot, provided that they are produced and maintained according to halakhic requirements, have the power to keep evil away. Anyone convinced of this, like the rabbi in the story, is likely to conclude that if you fail to maintain your mezuzot properly and misfortune befalls you or members of your household—if, for instance, your children are killed in a bus crash—then you are partly to blame. This superstition is harmful, Block says, first, “because it suggests that victims have brought on their own misfortunes,” and second, because “this kind of superstition can drive Jews away from Judaism. A sophisticated person, hearing that the mezuzzah wards off evil, may well assume that all of Judaism’s teachings are equally silly, and therefore unworthy of our attention.”

Block argues, however, that the fault lies not in the practice of keeping mezuzot but in the meaning that some Jews attribute to that practice. He notes that, while the founders of the Reform movement abandoned the practice as superstitious, it has returned in more recent times, and he proposes that the reasons for the return to the practice be understood in such terms as these:
Each time we enter our home, the mezuzzah reminds us that God should be present there, that we should treat the members of our families, and all who enter our doors, with the love and respect required of us by the words of Torah. When we leave home, and we see our mezuzzah once again, we should be reminded to practice our Judaism along our way, being ethical at work, loving our neighbors as ourselves. If we are so inspired by the mezuzzah, then perhaps it will act like an amulet, after all, even if the scroll inside it isn’t kosher. It won’t prevent bus wrecks, but our lives will be better. We will find blessing in our homes and on our way.

One might raise questions about whether this interpretation of the practice of keeping mezuzot is indeed free of superstition. The business about their reminding us to conduct ourselves ethically and making our lives better through such effects is all very well, but what of the idea of God’s presence and the idea of the Torah as a work of divine origin? For the moment, I want to set such thorny questions aside. Block’s most general point, which I accept, is just that not all superstitions are harmful, and not all ritual practices with which superstitious beliefs have been associated are necessarily superstitious themselves.

What bothers me is that, even with respect to this very general idea, Block’s examples do not seem to me as clear as he apparently would like them to be. Let me start with his discussion of the “evil eye.” Two meanings of this expression (or of “ayin ha-ra”) need to be distinguished. One is the underlying meaning of an envious gaze, or ill will toward another on account of that person’s good fortune. According to Rabbi Louis Jacobs, this is the sense that the expression bears in the Mishnah, in which “the ‘evil eye’ simply denoted that its possessor could not bear with equanimity the good fortune of others.” Taken in this sense, the evil eye is a mere natural phenomenon, an undeniable feature of human psychology. Human beings do, as a matter of plain fact, sometimes bear ill will toward others on account of their good fortune.

Quite distinct from this, though derived from it, is the use of the same expression to signify a supposed power of envious persons to bring actual misfortune upon others by their mere gaze. This sense, Jacobs notes, comes into play in the Babylonian Talmud, from which it passes into later Jewish traditions. (Besides the locus cited by Jacobs, other occurrences in the Talmud are noted by the anonymous purportedly rabbinical author of this piece.) So understood, the expression signifies not a natural phenomenon but something supernatural: a power to make bad things happen to another according to one’s wish by wish alone. Now this surely is superstitious (though for now I defer the question of what makes it so). It is in this sense that Rabbi Block interprets his elders’ utterances of “Kayn aynahora” as gestures to ward off the evil eye. But the interpretation of Rabbi Jacobs, like his Yiddish, is somewhat different:
Even today some people, when praising others, will add: “let it be without the evil eye” (in the Yiddish form, kenenhora), meaning I do not intend my praise to suggest that I am enviously casting a malevolent glance.
On this interpretation, the utterance is not meant to ward off the evil eye, in the supernatural sense, but to disavow the evil eye, in the natural sense. I cannot tell which meaning the users of the Yiddish expression in Block’s recollections had in mind. Indeed, there is no reason to assume that they all understood it the same way, or even that they could have explained what they meant by it, beyond the surface meaning of the words. It is enough that Jacobs’s interpretation shows that we cannot presume, as Block seems to do, that the use of the phrase was a manifestation of superstition. It might have been and it might not have been. In any case, the superstition, if there was any, lies not in the phrase itself or in the use of it, but in the understanding with which it was used.

In saying this, I am, in effect, playing one of Block’s own cards against him: for the distinction between a ritual practice and the superstition associated with it is just the point that he makes about the practice of keeping mezuzot. The trouble I see is that this distinction threatens to undercut the other distinction that he wishes to draw, that between harmless superstitions and harmful ones.

Supposedly, it is harmless to believe that saying “Kayn aynahora” keeps evil away, but harmful to believe that installing and maintaining a mezuzah keeps evil away. The latter point is supposed to be shown by the example of the Israeli rabbi who attributed the accidental death of children to the failure of their parents to maintain their mezuzot properly. But it is easy enough to invent scenarios in which something equally noxious might be said on the basis of the other belief. For instance, suppose that a young couple die in an accident shortly after they are married, and one of the in-laws is blamed for neglecting to say “Kayn aynahora.” The most that can be said to contrast the two examples is that the belief that saying “Kayn aynahora” wards off the evil eye (in the supernatural sense) did not, so far as Block knows—not that it cannot—cause harm, while the belief that keeping a mezuzah wards off misfortune, in the case that he cites, did cause harm.

One way to to link the harm more closely to the belief is to take the line that superstitious beliefs are intrinsically harmful, regardless of their consequences. Superstition, one could argue—and indeed I would argue—is the enslavement of the mind, and to undergo it is a harm whether one knows it or not. (A mind enslaved is impaired by that very bondage from recognizing its condition.) The distinction to be drawn is then not between harmless superstitions and harmful ones, but only between less and more serious forms of mental bondage; perhaps also between ones that do not have harmful effects beyond themselves and ones that do.

So what are we to make of Block’s examples? The practice of saying “Kayn aynahora” and the practice of keeping mezuzot on one’s doorposts alike may be based on a superstitious belief in some instances, and may not be so in other instances; that belief, though harmful in itself qua superstition, may do harm in some instances, or it may not. Does this hold for all Jewish ritual practices? I don’t know. I am, however, pretty sure that under any plausible interpretation, at least some such practices necessarily depend on a belief in their divine origin. It is difficult to conceive of a non-theistic rationale for keeping strict halakha, where that includes behavior that no one knows about but you (as against observance dictated by social pressures within an Orthodox community). So that leads me to the really difficult question: Is belief in God, or more specifically in a God who reveals himself through Torah, itself a superstition?

For the moment, I will only say, as I said at the beginning: if there is a difference between the two, I have never been able to see it. Whether that is because there is no difference or because I have not looked far enough, I am in no position to say. I do hope, however, to say more about this question, as well as about the question of what superstition is, in a subsequent post.

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  1. Excellent points,MKR!
    I especially agree with "If belief in a creator and ruler of the universe is not itself a superstition, I have yet to understand how it differs from one."
    Well said!

  2. Glad that you liked the post, Alexander, but that particular statement wasn't really making a "point," just stating my own particular state of understanding. I have to confess that I do not yet have a satisfactory understanding of what superstition is! For me, at this point, it's more an "I know it when I see it" term, which is not the sort of understanding in which one can place much confidence!

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