Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Walk Article

Rabbi David Walk

Humanity has been in love with magic forever.  Magicians and shamans have held major roles in society for thousands of years.  People are amazed by what they can't explain.  And it doesn't change.  Nowadays we have a new phenomenon.  Now that magicians are entertainers rather than advisors to kings, there is a movement towards explaining the tricks of the trade.  The Amazing Randi (Randall James Hamilton Zwinge, b. 1928) has made a career our of debunking charlatans who claim paranormal powers, and has a standing $1,000,000 challenge to anyone who can demonstrate occult powers.  Even those crop circles, which people have claimed for years are the work of extraterrestrials, have been recently explained.   But people continue to be gullible.  In a famous incident from 1922, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame visited perhaps the greatest magician of the modern era, Harry Houdini.  Houdini then performed an amazing act of receiving a message from the dead.  Doyle believed it, but Houdini wrote him: Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion ... I won't tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily "supernatural," or the work of "spirits," just because you cannot explain them.... Lamentably, Sir Arthur continued to believe that Houdini had psychic powers and spiritual connections.
It doesn't help.  Even when the magician themselves claim that it's just a trick, people just want to believe this stuff.  That former mayor of Bridgeport, CT, P. T. Barnum, got it right, when he said:  There's a sucker born every minute.  People are gullible and seem to want to be that way.  So, imagine the problem in pre-modern times when the magicians had government backing and a credulous, primitive society.  This is why the Torah has to warn us many times about the dangers of sorcerers, soothsayers, fortune tellers, etc.  I know that there have been, throughout the ages, great Jewish authorities who believed that these necromancers actually performed feats of magic, but I will ignore them for the time being, because I side with their antagonists and that other position won't fit into the point I want to make. 
In this week's Torah reading we have another prohibition connected to those about rejecting wizards (Sorry, Potter!): But the prophet who intentionally speaks a word in My name, which I did not command him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die (Deuteronomy 18:20).  In other words, false prophets are as dangerous as these magical charlatans.  But how can we recognize a false prophet?  Maimonides is very clear that the simple definition of a false prophet is one who prophesies against the teachings of Moshe (Laws of Torah Fundamentals, 8:3).  The base line information for the world of prophecy is the Torah.  Just like basic science and math are the criteria for rejecting a sorcerer, Torah is the only criterion for rejecting a prophet.  
Now we can give a new and fascinating definition for a word which appears in verse 8.  We are told in rejecting these conmen to be tamim.  There are many ways to translate this term:  whole-hearted, complete, blameless, or perfect.  However, I think that perhaps the best definition of this kind of person is one with intellectual integrity.  This tamim individual doesn't compromise clear thinking for a cheap trick.  It's okay to be entertained by prestidigitation, but not to become convinced by it.  Magic can become a slippery slope of escapist thinking.  Judaism doesn't believe in quick fixes for problems, whether spiritual or physical.  I love that quote from H. L. Menken:  For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong!
In our business, politics and religion we must do our best to achieve clear thinking and information based decisions.  Michael Shermer from Scientific American wrote an interesting article about The Believing Brain.  Mr. Shermer explains: We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, emotional and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture and society at large. After forming our beliefs, we then defend, justify and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments and rational explanations. Beliefs come first; explanations for beliefs follow. 
We have to fight this tendency to be lazy and complacent in our thinking process.  It's important to listen to reasonable voices even if we perceived them as from an opposing camp.  We can't automatically think that someone is right or wrong based upon their tribe or group or party.  We often make ourselves blind to reality because of predetermined biases.  This is dangerous.  There is a tendency to notice and select information which agrees with preconceived notions.  We often ignore data which we assume disagrees with our prior beliefs.  Just because we disagreed with one source on one topic, doesn't mean that we will always be at odds on every issue.  
This demand of intellectual integrity is difficult and uncomfortable, but is ultimately worthwhile.  I believe strongly that good science and good Torah emanate from healthy skepticism.  We must have the ability to say that just because I don't know the answer doesn't mean that the solution is supernatural or will never be rationally explained.
Houdini became famous with his ability to fool the audience, but he wanted us to know that it was a trick, only entertainment.  I hope that we don't get fooled in the more important areas of our lives, by shoddy and lazy thinking.  Anyone claiming to have a secret unknown to all others or a magical solution to serious problems, require an immediate rejection.  We believe that the best route to inspiration is perspiration.           

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