Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On Segulos

No, I did not recite Parshas HaMan yesterday. Nor did I last year*, the year before that or before that.

Lawyer-Wearing-Yarmulka came up with an interesting term for the proliferation of segulahs that have cropped up - Vending Machine Judaism. He puts it as follows:

My main beef with the segulah explosion we're witnessing, is that it cheapens Judaism. I've used the term Vending Machine Judaism before, and I think it's the perfect description of the new religion we're creating. Basically, God is a giant vending machine. We stand in front of it, see what we want, press a button, and we expect to get it. Need a shidduch? Say Shir haShirm. Parnasah? Say Parshas Ha'mon. Can't find your keyes? Give money to R' Meir Baal Ha'Ness.

This is turning religion into nothing more than a means to an end. It's a selfish version of Judaism, as in "How can I use God to get exactly what I want"?

I agree with him that Judaism shouldn't be about "magic formulas" and superstition. Thinking that saying a parsha acts as a "good luck charm" toward some goal or end does cheapen Judaism. However, I have to disagree with him about the very premise of his argument, which he presents in his last statement -- that asking God to provide for your wants and/or needs is selfish. After all, the bulk of the Shmoneh Esrei tefillah is not made up of praise of God, it's made up of various bequests on personal and national levels. I don't think anyone can rationally state that praying for one's needs isn't an authentic and long-held Jewish tradition. Even the Patriarchs prayed to God for their needs and wants. So, that being the case, how does praying to God for parnassah really differ from reciting Parshas HaMan at the prescribed time? Aren't they both just different forms of "vending machine Judaism?" and ways of "manipulating" God to get what we want?

To me, I think there is a fundamental difference between prayer and the segulahs that LWY brings in his rant. When one prays, one (hopefully) takes the time to recognize to Whom he is praying and takes into account that He is the source of all our blessings. God expects us to pray to Him for our needs and wants. He *wants* us to turn to Him for help and to recognize Him. Prayer causes us to develop a relationship with our Creator and to become closer to Him.

A segulah, OTOH, does not do this**. A segulah says "here's a 'magic' formula. Do this and God will grant you X, Y and Z." It does not involve asking Him to provide for us or to help us in our time of need. A segulah doesn't bring you any closer to God. Saying Parshas HaMan doesn't ask for sustenance. It doesn't bring one closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu... it's just a recitation of a passage. (The same could be said for prayer without kavannah, but at least that's in the form of a bequest.) In the vast majority of cases, what's missing in a segulah is the emotional commitment that is such a necessary component of prayer. Dropping coins in a box for R Meir Ba'al Hanes is fine, but even if you recite the prayer that goes along with it, I highly doubt that any of us recite it with the emotion that the Roman guard did the night he was to be executed. It's the emotional component that's missing -- the emotion that brings us closer to HaShem. To me, drawing closer to God is what makes all the difference.

Another important distinction (to me, anyway) between praying for parnassah and the segulah of reciting Parshas HaMan is the timing element. Prayer can be recited whenever one wishes. Whenever one feels the pressure of earning a livelihood, one can always turn to the heavens and ask God for help. He always makes Himself available to anyone who prays. You can turn to Him at any time of the day or night. He won't turn you away because you chose to pray on Wednesday at 3:00 rather than on Tuesday at 7:00 or Monday at 10:23. The segulah of Parshas HaMan, however, runs counter to this -- it states that it's only effective on that one day. If I recite it today, it's not effective -- I have to wait for next year. Choosing one day of the year for the simple recitation of a passage to effect a change in our livelihood sounds so... arbitrary... that I find it hard to believe that it comes from a loving, caring God***.

The Wolf

* Actually, I recite it every year when multiple times when preparing the parsha for the Shabbos morning laining (and again when I lain it on Shabbos morning. But I don't do it specifically on Tuesday for the segulah).

** Yes, I recognize that there may be some segulahs that do bring one closer to HKBH. If they genuinely do so, then I probably would have no objections to it.

*** Yeah, I know that there are going to be those of you who point to Yom Kippur. But the fact remains that (1) Yom Kippur still involves a major emotional component of bringing yourself closer to God and (2) prayer for forgiveness from sin is effective year round too. If I miss Yom Kippur for whatever reason, God's not going to turn to me and say "sorry, you'll just have to live with your sins this year. Come back next September."


Anonymous said... says that it is a real Segulah.(just kidding)

Anonymous said...

Well done.

I saw an interesting explanation for segulos in Droshos HaRan.

He compares segulos to taking medicine. Just as God enable medicine to work on a physical level, segulos work on a meta-physical level. By performing certain acts at certain times a person is able to attach somehow to influences that are going on heaven a that time.

He goes on to say, just as medicines have no guarantee of working and the sick person is really dependent on God, so too segulos.

From this perspective, segulos are real, if they are "authentic". But they do NOT bring a person closer to God just like medicine does not. In fact, a reliance on segulos and medicine both can distance a person from reliance on what matters: God.

Ezzie said...

I've never understood segulos much, and good post... nevertheless, I did say Parshas HaMan yesterday. Check out the post I wrote which discussed it; I think you'd actually approve...

Lawyer-Wearing-Yarmulka said...

When you pray, you are often asking God to give you something. When you perform a segulah, you're expecting God to give you something, hence the "Vending Machine" term. That's where I believe the selfishness comes in.

Anonymous said...

Blame it on the influence of the mystical elements of Judaism that took root 1000 years ago with Yehuda Halevi and later flourished under the influence of the Zohar and eventually the chassidic movement. Orthodox Jews are as superstitious as anyone, and no more rational - as a group - than Xenu believing scientologists or Moroni's golden plates believing Mormons.

Lion of Zion said...

"an interesting term for the proliferation of segulahs that have cropped up - Vending Machine Judaism."

i think yeshayahu leibowitz used the term "slot machine judaism" when writing about popular attitudes toward tefilah

Anonymous said...

I think that we should differentiate between segulahs. One type like saying shir hashirim or tehilim is akin to praying, but in organized manner. Like we do with sidur. Yes, we can pray without it any time we want, but sidur organizes our requests and we call it davening.

Other segulahs are superstitions, and should be treated as such. These segulas are wearing a red string to prevent ain hara, or drinking wine from the groom’s cup to get married. Instead of addressing Hashem, you are relying on the power of the red string, or on the power of a cup of wine. I actually question these segulahs as may be avoda zara?

But then again we hear stories about Adam’s robe? It was a physical thing, too. Was treasuring it avoda zara, too? Somehow I don’t think so.

We also know that astrology in its pure form (not the horoscope one reads in the newspaper) is real. So asking for money on a specific day of the year could actually have some merit to it. But reading a specific parsha instead of making an actual request straight to Hashem?

Anonymous said...

"I think there is a fundamental difference between prayer and the segulahs that LWY brings in his rant. When one prays, one (hopefully) takes the time to recognize to Whom he is praying and takes into account that He is the source of all our blessings."

That is indeed a fundamental difference between prayer and segulahs. However, the fundamental similarity is that they both work equally well.