Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Have You Checked Your Mezuzahs?"

I've made a couple of trips to "Terem" (local emergency medical clinic) recently with two of my children, including last night. (Everyone's ok - just kids having normal kid-type accidents, though it doesn't make it any less traumatic when it happens!) So after a fairly long evening I get home, and a neighbor, knowing about the previous accident, asks me with grave concern: "Have you checked your mezuzahs?"

I'll tell you why the question irks me. First off, here I am coming back home from what was obviously a stressful ordeal, and now somehow I'm to blame for it, because I haven't checked all my mezuzahs recently? I know he wasn't "blaming" me - but the implication is that I'm supposed to be the one taking care of my household, yet I'm not ensuring that we have basic "spiritual protection". But the other thing I'm left shaking my head at is the belief (which is as far as I can see has become "standard" creed) that mezuzahs basically work like amulets, a form of "Torah-sanctioned" magic, whereby if the letters are written correctly, they have the capacity to protect the house and ensure that no harm comes to the family. But God help you if there's one letter that's missing, faded, smudged, etc., because now "mazikin" (demons, spiritual entities) will enter the house and unleash all manner of hellish havoc - from broken toasters and leaky pipes, to accidents, sickness, problems with "shalom bayit", you name it. Even if a person is God-fearing, davens sincerely three times a day, is meticulous in mitzvah observance, that's not enough - because if so much as one letter of your mezuzah is ill-formed, all bets are off!

This is just one of the little interactions with my religious brethren which leaves me with the sense of "What are people thinking?!" Forgetting about whether it might be a form of darchei emori (lit. "ways of the Amorites", buying into non-Jewish magic and superstition), what about basic common sense? You know, like the kind that says that "accidents happen" is a more likely (not to mention healthy) explanation
Taken from an article on the website
than saying little Shloimi or Rivka fell off their scooter because a demon placed stones in their path or went inside their heads and caused them to make too sharp a turn, all due to the fact that here's a scroll on the doorpost of their house that wasn't offering enough spiritual protection. Seriously? It just goes to show that intelligence is no inoculation from believing in utter nonsense and superstition.

The bitter irony is that emergency clinics all through the country are going to be filled over the next day or so with kids who've been burned or otherwise hurt as a result of Lag Ba'omer bonfire celebrations, where kids build towering infernos with little or no adult supervision, often in areas adjacent to dry brush. Every year kids end up hurt, and every year fire departments are driven nuts putting out wildfires. And why? Because of the belief in the holy power of Kabbalah/mysticism and the veneration of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who many people believe authored the Zohar (which itself is a questionable assertion). Point being, the same people who will tell you about getting your mezuzahs checked for fear of harmful demons are the same ones who let their kids run around setting massive unsupervised blazes. The message: Hashem will protect you - not if you're a decent human being, not if you practice reasonable safety measures, but if you press the right spiritual "buttons".

It's superstition run amok, a kind of religiously sanctioned mental illness. And not only is it annoying to encounter (especially when coming back from the ER), not only is it the kind of superstitious thinking not befitting of an am kadosh (holy nation), but sometimes it's just downright dangerous!

Wishing everyone a happy (and safe, and sane) Lag Ba'omer


  1. AJ, I agree 100% with your comments.
    I am working towards becoming observant. However no-one can convince me that believing in kabbalah, Zohar or any other mystic b.s. is a requirement for being a "frum" Jew.
    I consider any form of mysticism idolatrous, pure avodah zarah and b.s. It is a blight on Orthodox Judaism and should be jettisoned forthwith. I think you agree?

    1. Hi Dave,

      Well, in my "feistier" moments I might call it avodah zarah (though in my *really* feisty moments I'd call mainstream Orthodox belief avodah zarah, so maybe I'm not the best judge! ;-). But in real life I generally don't like to give people a hard time about their beliefs. If a person is happy and functional, I try not to be judgmental if I can avoid it. My rule to live by: PEOPLE are more important than IDEAS.

      That's why so much of online interaction puts me off - people too often are attacking others they don't agree with, viciously and shamelessly, out to make them feel lower than dirt, rather than just working through the ideas themselves. Let the best, most coherent idea win I say - but not by mowing people down. Anyway, I digress...

      There is some fantastic material in Kabbalah - very deep and penetrating. So don't count it out! But here's a tip: Relate ALL of it to the human psyche and human interactions, NOT to other-worldly spiritual realms "out there" somewhere. Like the title of R. Aryeh Kaplan's book calls it: "Inner Space". (I don't know if R. Kaplan de-mystified Kabbalah to the extent that I do, but the title shows he must've been on the right track.)

      But I definitely agree with you that a person should be able to reject mysticism and still be a frum Jew in good standing.

      Good luck on your journey!

  2. So sorry that you've had to visit the Terem recently! Glad to hear that your kids are okay!!

    Your neighbors comments would have irked me too . . . but, at the same time, I can't say I'm too surprised by them. Superstitious beliefs are so tenacious! My family that it not at all religious, has a ridiculously long laundry list of superstitions. (I posted on our superstitions ages ago here )

    And theistic religion is inherently a belief in magic, no?

    Also, love your philosophy of people over ideas.

    1. CL, Thanks for the link to your post - some good material there!

      I didn't get into this, but the superstition regarding mezuzahs may go back to the Ancient Near East. The Assyrians had massive cherubs (winged lions/bulls with a man's head) adorning the doorposts for protective purposes. They were sometimes called "Shedu" which I've heard people propose might be related to "Shadai", the name of God written on the outside of the mezuzah scroll. The Torah however says nothing about the "protection" that a mezuzah should provide - only that the basic tenets of Torah should be something we think about/discuss at home, while walking, binding it on our arms and on our heads, writing it on the doorposts of our homes, etc. But it could be that the ancient Israelites already had an association regarding protective deities placed at the doorposts, so contrary to the Torah the mezuzah was given that superstitious overlay from the outset. This is speculation of course. But I'm sure others have done research on this. There's a well-circulated article called "Mezuzah: Protective Amulet or Religious Symbol" by Prof. Martin Gordon, which at a glance I don't think gets into the Assyrian counterpart, but looks like a relevant read.

      As to whether theistic religion is necessarily a belief in magic... I'll have to think about that. Is petitioning God the same as tapping into "spiritual forces" using various formulas? Not sure. If you have some ideas on this, maybe a blog post is in order! ;-)

      Best, AJ

    2. An Off topic You-know-you're-not-orthodox-when . . . Your response reminded me of how when my husband and I were thinking of baby names, he was horrified when I suggested
      "Shadai". I had no idea what it meant, but I liked the way it sounded! (Sounded Israeli/Jewish . . . )

      Thanks for the link to the article - will take a look.
      > Is petitioning God the same as tapping into "spiritual forces" using various formulas?

      I don't really see why not. Both are ultimately appeals to the supernatural. Am I over-simplifying?

    3. Hmm... Well, here's a definition of "magic": The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural.

      I think most God-believing folks would say they for sure invoke the supernatural, but that it's not to "control" or "forecast" anything. God is in control - they're just asking for help, healing, forgiveness, etc. So there is a difference, wouldn't you say? Now if you get into notions of practical Kabbalah, that's another story - it starts to sound an awful lot like the above definition.

      BTW, cute baby-naming story!


  3. I found your blog post because a similar thing happened to me: A friend was just diagnosed with cancer, his daughter had a kidney infection, and his wife was diagnosed with an ulcer. Another friend told me, “I told S to check her mezuzot”, and it really steamed me, as I recall the train wreck at Habonim years ago and some rabbi blamed the deaths on imperfect mezuzot.

    This whole thing cheapens Judaism, makes it tawdry, like an amulet. Judaism was never about “add water, stir, and you’re good”; it’s much more complex. I can’t say whether the Assyrians’ shadu derived from שדי or שד, but I blame the 20th century *keiruv* movement for resurrecting this nonsense.