The seal of G-d is truth (Sanhedrin 64a)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Talking To The Dead

Author's Note: I am not a posek (halachic decisor) and these are merely my philosophical reflections on what I maintain is the proper Torah approach on such matters. The nuances and complexities related to these issues are numerous and hardly monolithic, and they are the source of great debate and discussion in the world of Halachah. I want to emphasize the following: For any and all Halachic matters related to this article, please consult a reputable, Torah observant, Halachic authority. May Hakadosh Baruch Hu grant us the cognitive faculties to follow His will.

While doing research on an unrelated topic, I stumbled upon a website which compelled me to take a closer look into the unfortunate world of those within Judaism who corrupt Torah for profit. Tragically, the Torah world is replete with popular superstitions masquerading as Judaism, and a plethora of examples can be found online which show the pernicious depths to which some of these vultures will sink, in order to propagate their poison and profit from the process.

The human condition being what it is, people are naturally vulnerable to their tactics. For too many Jews, proper Halachic prayer to Hakadosh Baruch Hu lacks the attraction of a vial of holy water from an alleged wonder worker, or an amulet under a pillow to aid a woman during childbirth. And then of course there are those who are drawn to graves like a bear to the beehive. Many visit these shrines and actually pray to the dead, either inadvertently or with definite intent. Consulting the dead is a biblical prohibition ( Deuteronomy 18:11). It is important to note that the Rambam (Avelus 14:13) even prohibits appropriate prayer in a cemetary, and other Rishonim argue likewise.

(As an aside, most of these graves are actually fabricated. This is not to say that there aren't graves with credible traditions. In truth, no one knows who lies within many of these tombs. Sometimes it's even an old imam or a nun! Their association with the real personalities with whom they bear their names are often based on inaccurate Byzantine traditions, modern distortions, or inventions of charlatans. Thus one finds “discovered graves” from the 1980's bearing a purported ancient tradition. The site might even develop into a tourist attraction, along with some fantastic and outlandish, forbidden ritual that “prove” efficacious for something.)

It is terrifying that people within the Torah camp are actively undermining yahadut and damaging Jewish souls. The campaign is both organized and disorganized, an amalgam of misguided foolishness and those with more premeditated intent. It has no leader, and it has a thousand heads. While many have good intentions, the end result is that they create Jews with corrupted notions of Judaism.

Others are not so innocent. Some have created profitable businesses to spread their wares. Sophisticated websites inform the deluded and the desperate, that for merely sharing their credit card number, distinguished torah scholars will pray for them at a grave or at the kotel. I refer to them as “kabbalah” vultures because they are the predators behind this phenomenon, though naturally they know nothing of Kabbalah. Kabbalah with a lowercase “k”, if you will, or the pseudo-academic qabbalah with a “q”. They are as far from the notion of true Jewish metaphysics as Mecca is from Manhattan. But they prey on those who are both attracted and vulnerable to foolishness, and propagate a childish notion of tefillah that has more in common with Santa Claus.

The common theme resonating among all these groups is ignorance of Torah ideals, and the fact that their religious worldview has more of a pagan influence than they could ever imagine. In fact their ideology reads like a page from Sir James George Frazer's anthropological work on pagan religion, “The Golden Bough.” From a Torah perspective, ignorance is never bliss. Ignorance of The Almighty inevitably leads to one form or another of idolatry, either outright, or the idolatry of distorted viewpoints. As such, the only solution is to expose the problem and provide a proper Torah perspective.

There is a laundry list, nay, an entire collection of encyclopedias, of nonsensical segulot floating around. Rites and rituals that are reportedly efficacious for finding one's eventual partner, having children, attaining financial success, or curing disease. All of them are nonsense and many are forbidden according to Torah. They are in direct opposition to our forefather Abraham's mission, and they constitute a biblical prohibition.

"You shall be perfectly faithful to Hashem your G-d." (Deuteronomy 18:13)

Amuqah: The Search For One's “Bashert”
The popular superstition of visiting the purported grave of the Tanna, Yonathan Ben Uziel, at Amuqah, stands out as today's quintessential ritual for finding one's "bashert" (significant other). (Without getting into the complicated and problematic hashkafic question of the term bashert, which is premised on an unjewish belief in predestination, I will simply retain the word as a semantic, out of expediency.) An ancient custom we are told, which as it turns out, isn't quite so ancient. The fiction connected to the Amuqah shrine was actually invented in the 1950's by an unscrupulous tour guide who cashed in on people's pain. And much like other creators of fiction, this monster lives on. There is nothing ancient about this foolish ritual. Furthermore, this tragic ritual has even descended to the level where undignified women have been known to drape certain "garments" on the tomb in the hope of finding their match. While most of those who propagate the Amuqah mythology condemn such practices as obscene and contrary to Torah, they are also to blame. As we see throughout the Torah, the pagan drive often leads to sexual impropriety.

The website for Amuqah details the institutions and personalities related to the site, and features information about different rites other than the standard Amuqah ritual one for finding a spouse. It reads like a children's book, but there is nothing charming about it. Thus, we also have the “Talis from Amukah that frees your mazal”, the little known “Shidduch Shofar”, and the “Segulah of shidduch Wine”. And all I could think was this: This is the Judaism of the Gaonim, Rishonim, and Acharonim?

The cult of Amuqah is grotesque, because it asserts that The Almighty in His wisdom, created a system, where the fulfillment of one's ultimate happiness is premised not on chesed, or self-perfection but on a pilgrimage and foolish rites.

Young people, and those creeping on into older batchelorhood, are naturally anxious about finding a spouse. I want to emphasize one point. Every effort should be made to help all Jews find marriage partners, whether it be in the form of proper introductions or ideal creating opportunities/events for them to meet. There is a genuine shidduch crisis in the Jewish world today for a host of reasons which I will not dissect here. And the issue requires our attention, because it is an emergency. But perverting jewish concepts is never an acceptable solution, even if the ritual or rite in question has a placebo effect on one's confidence.

Most Jews who go to Amuqah or other shrines, whether they be fertility shrines, marriage shrines, or parnasa shrines, are to be pitied. They are fine people, but are desperate and vulnerable to all types of suggestions. Furthermore, they are the byproduct of a Judaism devoid of intellectualism. "Captured babies", if you will. Their teachers and rabbanim cultivate these superstitions. In the absence of true Torah wisdom, man invariably turns to soothsayers. Torah Jews denigrate superstitious practices, since they are contrary to reason. As Rambam teaches us, a foolish custom is no custom.

It could be argued that relying on various halachic positions which maintain that it is permissible to visit graves of righteous people, (not praying to them mind you, this is forbidden according to all!) is dangerous, since many Jews end up praying to the Tzadik. Many simpletons will bring up the biblical story of Calev and the spies, as some sort of proof for visiting graves. As if Calev, who was one of the gedolei hador, was praying to the dead, Heaven forbid! In the hostile environment of the sinful meraglim (spies), Calev went to the Machpela to derive strength from these great Jews. He reflected on the tribulations of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs, and strengthened himself in the knowledge that he and Yehoshua could persevere.

If and when a Torah individual visits a grave, he reflects on the life of the gadol and turns away (both literally and figuratively). Out of sight, and out of mind. There are those who posit that they are merely asking the tzadik to pray for them. Chazal also addressed this issue, both from the perspective of whether the dead can actually do anything for us, and if it is halachically permitted. In short, the popular notion of a "meilitz yosher" (intercessor) is dangerous and halachically and hashkafically problematic. It is foolish to needlessly subject oneself to the problematic issues relating to biblical prohibitions. We have no need of intermediaries. We pray directly to The Creator.

Entire movements within "orthodoxy" propagate a Judaism of outlandish folklore and "Jewish mysticism." One who has any sense of yahadut knows that such practices and beliefs are often an expression of 2000 years of living with goyim, either x-tian or Muslim. As far as those who purport to be wonder-workers, they are all charlatans, and those who would send you to them are delusional or worse. No proper Torah authority, no genuine gadol, ever engaged in such practices themselves or encouraged others to do so.

Prayer: Halachic Not Primitive

Man can call out to Hakadosh Baruch Hu at any time, and in any tongue. There is a concept of halachic tefillah (issues related to time, place, etc.) and a Jew must adhere to them. And then there is man's individual right to call out to G-d in general. (Tehillim would certainly be an expression of this, albeit on a more elevated level.) The main problem with so-called hitbodedut (self seclusion) that many are attracted to is that it presupposes a false relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu based upon primitive thinking. Hashem is not "our friend" as these practitioners are wont to believe. Such childish notions (while understandable for a child) are anathema to yahadut, along with other infantile notions such as those who conceptualize G-d (Heaven Forbid) figuratively. According to Maimonides such beliefs are heresy. Contemporary expressions of hitbodedut are certainly deviations from Judaism, and the influence from foreign cultures is apparent when one reads the literature.

Jews should abandon questionable practices and emulate David Hamelech who used the majesty of the creation and the natural world to reflect on The Almighty. This is indeed a Jewish endeavor, because it solidifies in the mind of any true thinking person that there is a G-d. As such, even an overnight in the forest can be a Jewish expression and an intellectual endeavor, albeit without the constraints of "dry intellectualism." I personally remember with fondness escaping by myself to some wilderness “to get away from it all”. It can be healthy and clear your head. But to enter the forest for the purpose of screaming out "Aba" to the heavens like an escapee from an asylum is an entirely different matter.

Naturally, there is significant danger anytime man approaches the natural world without the intellect. As the Rambam teaches us, this was the original mistake of the people in the days of Enosh, who started to worship the stars as both worthy of such service and an expression of honoring The Almighty. Instead of learning from nature and reflecting on the source of all creation, their flawed thinking degraded into overt deification of nature. They became idolaters.

The native American tribes personified this. They accumulated a tremendous amount of knowledge about the earth. They mastered the science of the interconnectivity of ecosystems, the patterns and behaviors of animals, tracking skills, and weather. Furthermore, they respected the earth and didn't waste natural resources. The problem? They deified nature. We see this mentality today among many “secular” Israelis who find “spirituality” in the idolatrous East, and bring back Hindu ideas and other forms of nature worship. A return to the ideology of idolatrous Canaan.

A Jew must always use his intellect to understand Torah concepts. This is not akin to the pursuit of a secular philosopher. Yahadut requires man's full intellectual involvement. At the end of the day, since there are concepts we can't possibly understand (along with notions that the Torah prohibits us to ponder about) we are obligated to follow the tradition, even in the absence of a cognitive understanding. Our best efforts are limited. Even Moshe Rabbenu had limitations. Abandoning one's seichal is akin to idolatry, since it leaves one vulnerable to any emotional experience or encounter.

This is not to denigrate or deny the emotions. As human beings we have emotions, and we needn't apologize for them. But our emotions must always be guided and tempered by Torah. And Torah can only be understood with intellect. There is no such thing as Jewish mysticism. A thousand books have been written on this fictitious subject. The root of the problem is that a large number of Jews have a distorted notion that Kabbalah is a mystical system. As such, when the people behind the phenomena of an Amuqah speak in broad generalities about “practices approved of by many reputable mekubalim”, they earn a forbidden certificate of kashrut. My question invariably is this: Who are these nameless, amorphic, “mystics”?

The best way to resolve this tragic mindset is to understand definitions of concepts. Let us first define Kabbalah. The mere mention of the word conjures up perverted ideas that have no basis in authentic Jewish thought. If one wants a definition of a Torah concept, one refers to the Gedolim of Torah. The great Gaon Rav Cham Zimmerman (of blessed memory) noted the following:

Kabala has nothing to do with mysticism. That is why all our Chachamim and Gedolei hador were against Shabtai Zvi's fraud, deceit , and mystical absurdities. Kabala is only a continuation, a perush on all aspects and units of Halacha, how they pertain to the mental-ruchniyot worlds.....
Kabala is built on pure logic. People who are ignorant in Halacha can tell us nothing in Kabala.” (Torah and Reason, pg. 22)

Emotions Follow Intellect

In Judaism, emotions always follow knowledge, never the other way around. Practitioners of hitbodedut and shrine-hopping (shrine hoppers if you will) do the exact opposite. They construct (or deconstruct) "knowledge" based on their own primitive needs and emotions. This isn't Judaism.

Jewish superstitions are not harmless folklore. They distance Jews from The Creator. I don't believe that it's better to let Jews keep their narishkeit intact. Certainly not when a particular practice involves the possible abrogation of biblical prohibitions. In this specific case, at the very least, going to Amuqah skirts the periphery of prohibitions relating to idolatry, in the form of praying to the dead. (For that matter, so does writing kvitlach to dead people.) And the periphery drops right into the abyss. If you love your fellow Jew, you will do anything within the stretch of your arm to save them.

I have tremendous sympathy for the suffering of Jews who inadvertently pursue a false path that masquerades as "holiness." Heaven Forbid that one should feel anything but love for such unfortunates. They are not culpable for false ideas that were taught to them by those they venerate. Yet losing oneself in a false system is a Jewish tragedy, and it will not bring comfort to them. And ironically, those who pursue strange paths in order to draw nearer to the Creator, are in actuality distancing themselves from Him.

This is a critical point, and yet it can be a tremendous comfort. We have the ability to pray directly to The Almighty. What can be more comforting to Man than this constant opportunity?

Man (both Jew and gentile) requires no conduit to Hashem. The authentic Torah approach is to turn directly to The Almighty. May Hakadosh Baruch Hu protect His chosen nation (as well as all righteous gentiles pursuing the truth of His name) from all spiritual contagions, and from those who would spread them like a virus in the name of the Torah.

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