Tradition Today: Belief and disbelief

The battle against superstition within Judaism is an ancient one.

haitians reach for aid AP 311 (photo credit: AP)
haitians reach for aid AP 311
(photo credit: AP)
Two articles that I read recently presented me with a dilemma, for they paint a picture of Jewish belief that I cannot accept. The first concerned the mezuza. A member of the city council of Beersheba was proposing a law that would require the examination and possible replacement of all of the mezuzot in the municipal building in order to halt “a few unusual events that sowed panic among municipal workers” since he claimed that mezuzot ward off unfortunate events.
The second article, written by a prominent rabbi in his weekly Shabbat newsletter, concerned the earthquake in Haiti and stated that God deliberately brought this catastrophe upon the people of Haiti, although the writer did not explain exactly why.
Regarding the mezuza, this is a case of superstition masquerading as religion.
The assumption of the council member is that the mezuza has magical powers which work automatically and are independent of God, thus the mezuza itself can protect you and a faulty mezuza can leave you open to demonic powers. But what, after all, is the mezuza? It is certainly not a protective amulet. The Torah nowhere equates the mezuza with an amulet. On the contrary, the Torah asserts that there is no such thing as magic in which an object or a spell has automatic effect.
Rather the mezuza is a sign we are commanded to place in our homes: “Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:9; 11:20). As interpreted by the sages, this involves placing a parchment containing words of Torah, the first two paragraphs of the Shema, in a place where it can be seen when entering and leaving a room to remind one of the beliefs that are written there. They are similar to the tefillin which are based on the same biblical section – “Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead” (Deut. 6:8).
Maimonides in his Guide explained both the mezuza and the tefillin as having the purpose of “reminding us continually of God, and of our duty to fear and love Him, to keep all His commandments, and to believe concerning God that which every religious person must believe” (III 44).
There is nothing magic about any of this. The translation of tefillin as “phylacteries,” based on a word meaning “guard” or “amulet,” is misleading and totally incorrect since that is not their purpose at all.
The battle against superstition within Judaism is an ancient one. The Talmud itself testifies to the fact that people used amulets and believed in their power to ward off evil. Obviously this belief was also widespread in medieval times, since Maimonides takes a strong stand against it: You must beware of those who write amulets. Whatever you hear from them, or read in their works, especially in reference to the names which they form by combinations, is utterly senseless; they... believe that by using them they are enabled to work miracles. Rational persons ought not to listen to such men, nor in any way believe their assertions (Guide 1:61).
Unfortunately people probably paid no attention to him, since so many are superstitious by nature, but we would do well to follow his wise words. We need more religion today and less superstition.
The question of the earthquake is more complex. If it is true that God directly caused the earthquake, one would have to ask what kind of a God is this? Certainly one cannot seriously contend that the Haitians, whatever their faults, were sufficiently evil to deserve such death and punishment, in which case either God is immoral – heaven forbid – or even cruel. To my mind, such a belief borders on hillul hashem – the desecration of God’s name.
The rabbi who wrote the article asserted that everything that happens in the world represents God’s will and His direct intervention. It is true that the Torah presents several cases in which natural catastrophes are brought about by God in punishment of evil. First there is the flood, then comes Sodom and Gomorrah and, of course, the plagues in Egypt. The implication he draws from this is that every such event is an instance of God punishing evildoers who deserve it. This is similar to the belief of the so-called friends of Job who contend that everyone who suffers must be an evildoer who deserves it. The point of the Book of Job is to disprove that thought. Suffering, whatever its cause, is not a sign of sin nor is natural disaster a sign of God’s displeasure.
It is simply not true that Judaism teaches that all natural catastrophes are brought on by God as punishment. An earthquake is mentioned in Amos 1:1 and Zechariah 14:5 with no assertion that God had anything to do with it. Similarly the Book of Ruth records that there was a famine in the land, with no hint that it came as a punishment from God. The same is true of the famine in the time of Abram (Genesis 12:10). There is nothing in our tradition to compel one to say that natural catastrophes are a punishment from God.
More importantly, the sages enunciated a very interesting concept concerning nature – ha’olam k’minhago holech, “the world pursues its natural course” – meaning that this is the way that the world works. This is the equivalent of what we today would call the laws of nature. They gave the following illustration: Suppose a man stole a measure of wheat and sowed it in the ground; it is right that it should not grow, but the world pursues its natural course (Avoda Zara 54b).
I cannot explain why there are so many disasters in the good world thatGod created. We do not have the answers to all our questions, but itmay be as important to know what we do not believe as to assert what weaffirm. To assert that disasters do not represent the punishment of Godis as important as believing that God exists. Of one thing I amcertain: Those who came from Israel and elsewhere to Haiti to rescue,heal and provide food and help to the victims of this disaster werefulfilling the will of God. They were God’s partners in the work of tikkun olam, repairing the shattered world in which we live.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the MasortiMovement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.