Saturday, June 21, 2014

Why my wife lit candles early last Friday night

In reaction to the recent kidnappings in Israel, a call was made for Jewish women around the world to light Shabbat candles in the merit of the missing boys. In already-observant circles, the suggestion was made to light extra candles or to light earlier than usual. My wife did the latter.

Did she light early because she sees the act as a segula, a sort of "charm" or "technique" for aligning spiritual forces in our favor? Certainly not. Did she do it, as most people spoke about, "in the merit" of the boys, meaning that if we accrue enough favor with Hashem, He will change His decree and grant the boys' release? No, that was not her intent either.

Why did she participate then? Because 1) it was a "symbolic" act, an act of caring, of keeping the fate of the boys, and the anguish of their families, in our minds and hearts, and 2) it was something undertaken by the community, an expression of solidarity and compassion ("compassion" literally meaning to be together with someone in their suffering), and that is something she wished to take part in as well.

It's the same for all the extra prayers and Tehillim being said. Even if one doesn't believe either in word magic or in "storming the heavens" with prayer in hopes of acquiring merit, there is a place - along with any direct, concrete help one can provide - for doing something additional in order to keep the suffering of others in mind, so as not to forget them as we go about our daily lives.

Yes, certainly there are millions of other people suffering throughout the world - at the hands of human cruelty, neglect, and simply very bad luck - and our hearts should be with them too.


  1. The problem with this is, if you don't participate in these communal "symbolic" acts for whatever reason, you're viewed not just as uncaring, but as potentially sabotaging the entire communal effort - since others believe that the symbolic acts are more than symbolic.

    1. I don't see it that way, Tesyaa. In my religious years, my view would have been "the more the merrier," every bit counts, but prayer and solidarity was never an all-or-nothing proposition. How god might judge an individual who could join in and doesn't is his domain, not ours.
      If you've had the experience of being judged for not joining in (but how would anyone know anyway? These are private acts), then you've truly seen some of the worst distortions of religiosity. With all my distrust of "frumkeit," the issue you raise is not one I ever experienced in my 20+ years "in the fold."

    2. And by the way, AJ, your point is well-taken, and well-expressed, as always.
      Framing these "segulot" as concrete acts to express our caring, that actualize our emotions in a symbolic gesture, is quite helpful. Thanks!

    3. Tesyaa, even leaving aside the spiritual "sabotage" issue, there's always a danger that "positive" symbolic gestures can turn into negativity toward people who don't "conform". I remember the brouhaha that erupted when President Obama didn't wear a symbolic American flag pin on his lapel. Somehow what started as a cute symbol turned into "halacha l'Moshe miSinai". In this case though, I agree with Daniel - I don't see where anyone's being chastised for non-participation. Could be that people might feel guilt or possibly resentment, but that's another story.

    4. I'm not the only one who had the same thought:

      I was thinking more along her lines, that is, if someone asked me to go to a tehillim gathering and I demurred, would I be viewed as not doing my share. I rarely get invitations to these anymore, so luckily I haven't had that experience lately.

    5. how about these people

      also i get very nervous when my actions are used to bolster a wrong belief system since the people "in charge" use compliance with there actions as implicitly stating that you agree with there theology

    6. Tesyaa - I hear. I guess it depends on the "what" and "where". Candle lighting is private, so it's not really an issue. With Tehillim gatherings and the like, where we live, these events get posted on neighborhood lists. It's not a personal invitation. When my wife doesn't show up, no one gives it a second thought. But if you're contacted personally and decline (or say "maybe" and then don't show), I can see how that would be awkward.

      vafsi ode - Satmar is Satmar. There's almost nothing they could say or do that surprises me anymore. Interesting the other point you made - that simply by "doing" something like going to a Tehillim gathering, people think you agree with the theology even if your rationale is totally different. So it's kind of like "maris ayin" - it "looks" problematic, at least from a rational POV. (Hey, I've got an idea... Maybe just say Tehillim with a "heker" - e.g. go in a t-shirt that says: "Don't worry, I'm really a rationalist.") But then again, couldn't you make the same argument for just about ANY mitzvah - i.e. that the fact that you're doing it makes it look like you agree with the 95% of frum people who believe that the command has a divine Commander, that doing it or not doing it has "s'char v'onesh" implications, etc.?

  2. On second thought, AJ, I'm not sure I agree with you here.

    The sentiment you expressed, "there is a place - along with any direct, concrete help one can provide - for doing something additional in order to keep the suffering of others in mind," is a good one, and for an individual like yourself, who takes social reponsibility seriously, I can see how such acts are a beneficial adjunct to whatever actions you may take.

    But on a communal level, when that community is steeped in the "god controls everything" mentality, these segulot and prayers become the ikkar (primary action), I believe, in most people's minds. When people do extra-special mitzvot or adopt stringencies, or attend prayer rallies, I think they tend to leave that experience feeling that they "did their part," that they put in their appropriate hishtadlut (human effort) and that now the ball is in god's court.

    Of course, even from the most charedi theology, this attitude is sorely (and dangerously) misguided, as a quick glance through the Chumash would easily reveal.

    I guess my point is that on a communal level, a responsible kol koreh (public announcement) would encourage each person to take action, practical action, by whatever means available. Let individuals pray and do segulot as it moves them. But let the community join hands to take practical measures, to wield its influence, wherever possible. That should be our sole communal effort, our sole expression of solidarity.

    The greatest challenge of every society is to engender a sense responsibility in each individual, to combat our innate laziness and selfishness and move us to act for others, to take responsibility for each other's well-being. In a tight-knit community like orthodox Jewry, this is easier to accomplish. How sad it is that they waste such amazing potential on prayer rallies and chumrot!

    In this particular case, I don't know what action might be appropriate and effective. But as long as people feel that they have "done something" with their prayer and mitzvot, there is less human capital invested in exploring every practical avenue.

    Bottom line, for an individual, your message is great. For a society, it seems to me, it does more harm than good.

    1. Wasted potential - too true. I often think about that in terms of shul time. If you start to add up the hours the faithful minyan-goer spends in shul per week... per year... the numbers are staggering. And what's actually accomplished with all that time? Sure, there are "benefits", but are we really getting "bang for the buck"? Not nearly I'd argue - not even from a "spiritual" perspective, let alone a rational/practical one.

      And yes, you're right - the theology leads people to believe that religious acts ARE in fact "concrete action", the MOST concrete actually. Everything else we do, all the "practical" efforts we make, are secondary. Which means that religious acts run the risk of coming "instead of" other things.

      So it's a valid critique. When I said "along with any direct, concrete help" I didn't emphasize that "concrete help" should in fact be primary. It should. And I might have mentioned that there was also - and *more importantly* - an effort in our neighborhood to donate packaged foods and other useful items to the soldiers out in the field right now, which we participated in.

      I'd only say though that while I agree, that's not what this post was about. It was simply meant as a rejoinder to the notion that lighting candles early is necessarily a product of "magical thinking". It doesn't have to be. That was really all I was trying to get across here.

  3. Whether or not someone believes, when we come together and pray, or pray alone, we connect our hearts to each other. It transforms us and makes us more compassionate towards each other.