Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Thinking Again About Segulos

Segulos are a tricky subject when it comes to Judaism.  On one hand there is clearly a strong tradition supporting their existence and use, especially when it comes to Kabbala stuff.  Even the Gemara mentions them in various places without much controversy.
On the other hand the Gemara also notes that there is a thin line to be crossed in some cases and then certain actions you might think are segulos become darchei emori, idol worship.  Something which must definitely be avoided.
Perhaps I'm too much of a rationalist (doesn't explain my being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan though) but I've never been comfortable with segulos.  One of the middos that I find most important about God is His absolute free will.  As Rav Shimon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, notes in his commentary on Torah God is completely above any pressure or coercion.  He cannot be forced to do anything.  He can be merciful or strict but it is always by His choice.  So contrary to His nature is any form of influence that the Gemara notes only three cases where human argumentation led to God saying "Well, what can I do?  I have to do things his way".  Even in those cases the Gemara is clear that God wasn't doing this because He was somehow backed into a corner, chas v'shalom, but because He wanted His plans for history to continue on as scheduled.
That's why I've always been uncomfortable with any magical aspects to Judaism.  I don't like the idea of independent angels, sefiros or whatever running around up in Heaven with lives of their own.  I don't like the idea of anything disturbing the absolute unity of God and His sole control of life, the universe and everything.
And I especially don't like magical charms and rituals that people say will create specific results.  For me such things interfere with the unique and personal relationship every single individual in existence has with the Ribono shel Olam.
After all, if it comes down to a red string on the wrist instead of hours of positive mitzvos fulfillment to achieve a certain goal then why bother with the latter?  And if you say that the former only works in the presence of the latter then what does that say about God?  He'll reward you for observing the big 613 but only if you have the right kind of thread on?
Even when it comes to Rosh HaShanah I'm a bit of a drag. Every year the Ironheart family is invited over to one of the nicest families you'll ever meat for one of the Yom Tov dinners.  This family treats the segulos of Rosh HaShanah with lots of energy and enthusiasm.  Me, I cringe.  Am I really to believe that if I eat a fish head then I'll have a better year, regardless of my actions in that coming year or the degree of repentance for my misdeeds of the previous one?  Yes, I enjoy  the apple dipped in honey but that's because it's an apply dipped in honey!  Who wouldn't like that?  I don't really think that my chewing it down with proper kavannah is going to change my fortune for the coming year.  My personal relationship with God, my level of dveikus to Him, and the overarching needs of history and the universe will trump that.
Perhaps we all need to see through the extras more clearly and remember that behind all of these rituals, amulets and herbals there is only one God in Heaven and Earth, that His will is supreme and that He desires a personal relationship with all of us.  Trying to circumvent that or, chalilah, to manipulate him, only drives us further away from him.

12 comments:

waaaaaaah said...

I feel the same way you do about segulos. It took me some time though to realize it

Chaim B. said...

>>>He cannot be forced to do anything. He can be merciful or strict but it is always by His choice.

Of course he can't be forced into doing anything, but that doesn't mean the universe operates without predictable rules. You put your hand in a fire -- you expect to get burned. You don't think to yourself, "Well, I'm now forcing G-d to cause me to have the experience of being burned by doing this."
Segulos work the same way. Just because the predicatable laws are revealed to us through kabbalah rather than empirical means makes no difference.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

The universe only operates with predictable rules because He so desires it. He is quite able to suspend those rules at will. Recall the various physics-defying miracles in the Tanach or the stories in the Gemara about water burning and men breastfeeding.
The difference with segulos seems to be that they are demanding invoked miracles. According to the rules of nature Fishel (not his real name) has cancer and will die. Ah, but I'll get an amulet from a certified kabbalist and bypass those rules of nature, irregardless of Fishel's personal status vis a vis the Ribonon shel Olam. Who cares about laws of nature? Who cares about Fishel's aveiros? He has an amulet! That's the problem I have with it.

Princess Lea said...

To clarify, that symbolic stuff on Rosh Hashana are called simanim, as opposed to segulos. My father eats the fish head, but no one in my family (including him) gives it any weight. It's like how we eat an egg by the seder and on Tisha B'Av; it was probably invented as a minhag as a reminder to the person, not to Hashem.

As for segulos, what people constantly get wrong is that when the segulah was first done, it was by a person full of faith and they wanted to show Hashem their faith. Anyone who "copes" them is doing it just for the result, not with the right frame of mind.

Take, for instance, the concept of davening for someone else. People say, "Great, we'll exchange names, and boom! We'll get what we want!" That's not how it worked. Someone once davened for their friend with their whole heart, with their whole soul, not expecting anything for themselves. That sort of selflessness changes a person, and changes their decree Above.

Segulos must be done with the right motivation, 100%. Who can guarantee that nowadays?

Chaim B. said...

>>>Ah, but I'll get an amulet from a certified kabbalist and bypass those rules of nature, irregardless of Fishel's personal status vis a vis the Ribonon shel Olam.

According to the rules of nature Fishel is supposed to die. Ah, but I'll get antibiotics from a doctor and it will ward off the illness. Who cared about Fishel's status viz a viz the RBS"O?

Same thing, isn't it?

Why do you make the blanket assumption that people who rely on segulos think of them as a *replacement* for a relationship for Hashem, but you would never think of accusing people who go to doctors of using them as a replacement?

>>>To clarify, that symbolic stuff on Rosh Hashana are called simanim, as opposed to segulos

Semantic difference.

The source for siman is Kerisus 6.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Not the same thing at all. Al pi halacha the physician has a licence to heal and patient has a licence to seek out a physician. I am unaware of similar obligations on the segulaters and segulatees.
And my assumption is based on what these segulos are used for. Can't get pregnant? Can't find a shidduch? Can't get a good job? They're being used as a shortcut to success.

ahg said...

Princess Leah: I'm trying to understand what you're saying. Are you suggesting that the first person to bake challah in the shape of a key (or with a key inside) engaged in prayer, meditation and a cheshbon hanefesh beforehand and that gave her a successful year, while creating the illusion that her symbolic action had some effect? Then, she told all her friends about it, and copied the symbolic action but not the prayer, etc. and a segulah was born?

If the symbolic action devoid of the prayer, meditation, and soul searching is empty - then wouldn't you agree that it should be discouraged?

Wouldn't you agree that prayer, meditation, and soul searching ought be sufficient without the symbolic act, and therefore it would benefit society if we removed the focus from the symbolic act?

Princess Lea said...

ahg: Shlissel challah is actually the wrong raayeh in this case, as there is compelling evidence that it was taken lock, stock and barrel from Christian practices.

Permit me to clarify: I am referring to certified segulos, those that are itemized in ancient texts, such as, say, the Gemara. Those "segulos" referenced therein usually involve "prayer, meditation, and soul searching."

Just because something is toted about as a "segulah" does not make it valid. I am heavily anti-segulah, in most of its forms, and prefer to practice "prayer, meditation, and soul searching" on its own.

As for the amulet business, the Rambam was VEHEMENTLY against them. THE RAMBAM HAS SPOKEN.

Chaim B. said...

>>>Those "segulos" referenced therein usually involve "prayer, meditation, and soul searching."

Really? Can you point to a gemara that says this? Where, for example, do you see in connection with the simanim of Rosh Hashana (Kerisus 6) anything about meditation and soul-searching? Or where does it say this with respect to amulets?

>>>And my assumption is based on what these segulos are used for. Can't get pregnant? Can't find a shidduch? Can't get a good job? They're being used as a shortcut to success.

Can't find a shidduch -- go to a dating advisor. Can't get a job -- go to a career counselor. All the same thing. Forget the license of "rapo yerapei" -- there is a license called "hishtadlus." Just because you happen to think the only form of hishtadlus to get a job is to send out 100 resumes does not mean that other forms of hishtadlus (in the form of spiritual segulos) are not effective as well.

If you did not know what antibiotics were and someone told you to swallow some pills and you will feel better, would you believe them? Of course not! Even with "rapo yerapei" you would assume the guy is nuts, a quack, not a doctor, and refuse. That's exactly the argument you are making about segulos.

Of course eating the fish head without anything else will get you nowhere. Sending out resumes without better kavanah in bareich aleinu will get you nowhere either. But kavanah alone without sending out the resume won't do much for most folks. Eating the fish is like sending out the resume.

Princess Lea said...

Chaim, let's take it from another perspective.

There is a concept that one creates their own world. Meaning, how one chooses to perceive reality affects reality in itself.

You see fish head consumption to be hishtadlus.

I see "prayer, meditation, and soul searching" to be hishtadlus.

If I do not give any power to a fish head, my eating it will do nothing for me. You choose to see power in the fish head. Perhaps it will do something for you, despite my doubt.

At the end of the day, even if you eat a mountain of fish heads and have a wonderful year, it cannot be proven, without a trip to the Beyond and back, that one has to do with the other.

MGI and I will stick with the Rambam.

snag said...

"There is a concept that one creates their own world. Meaning, how one chooses to perceive reality affects reality in itself."

yes, a false concept.

juda said...

two points first i was once told that these r"h segulas are gufah showing the idea that you mentioned
"One of the middos that I find most important about God is His absolute free will." so we are showing that god is not bound to grant a good year to those having the cleanest slate doing the most mitzvas ect.. but rather he is free to judge not in justice but grant the undeserving life if he so chooses based on who he feels is mevatel themselves completely to his judgment (even to the point of doing obscene segulas if there are gemaras that suggest this will find favor with him)
second point is a limud zechus on these traditions and those who further such practices this may be like the rambams reason for karbanos this is our kosher outlet for those inclined to superstitious practices