Mysticism and the Placebo Effect

Rabbi E. Feder and Rabbi A. Zimmer

In today's world, there is a prevalence of mystical practices designed to protect or give knowledge about the future (i.e., horoscopes, Ouija boards, red bendels, etc.). Devarim 18:14 states that the art of mysticism is something the other nations turn to.  On the other hand, the Jewish nation is enjoined to be "tamim," complete with Hashem, our God. There is a divide between two camps of the Rishonim regarding how to understand the Torah's prohibitions against mystical practices.

One group, headed by the Ramban, believed that these things do in fact work. The Torah nonetheless prohibited them, instructing us to turn to Hashem alone. One difficulty with the Rambam's approach is why, if these things do work, did the Torah prohibit them?  Why can’t we use mysticism like we use aspirin, especially in light of the Ramban’s commentary on Vayikra 26:11 (based upon Bava Kamma 85a), that the Torah gave us express permission to use conventional medicine.  Because of this difficulty, the Ramban (Devarim 18:9) mentions that "many were kind [in their defense of the Torah] and said that these things do not really work...but we can not deny facts which are well known to observers..." In other words, the Ramban's belief was based upon numerous observations of the efficacy of these methods.  An entire quasi-physical system of forces was posited to account for these effects. 

The second group, headed by the Rambam, maintained that these things were all lies and deceptions.  The Rambam states in Laws of Idol Worship 11:16 that there are clear proofs that mysticism is not a scientific system of thought, but is based on nonsensical speculations and is utterly false.  The Torah prohibits them because they lead a person into a life of destructive fantasy.

One difficulty with the Rambam is how he explains the empirical evidence of the other camp.  Similarly, how do we reconcile the observations of the Ramban against the clear proofs of the Rambam that all these things are false?

We believe that the approach to some of these problem (especially those concerning healing) can be resolved through an understanding of the  placebo effect.  The belief that something may work, can have a surprisingly powerful, positive effect.  There is tremendous variation in how the placebo effect works, but there is convincing empirical evidence it is real.

The first recorded mention of the placebo effect was in 1784, where Lavoisier used a new method of blind experimentation to expose the mesmerists.  The recognition of the placebo force was a major breakthrough in modern medicine. Because of its near ubiquity, the placebo effect was previously drowning out or distorting most experiments which tested medical drugs or procedures. The recognition of this effect allowed experimenters to filter out the "noise" created by the power of the placebo in order to identify other forces that "truly" heal.  

The description of the placebo force closely matches the description of the mysterious forces of mysticism.   There are similar, specific methods for inducing both. One example is that red pills have greater efficacy in inducing the placebo effect of a stimulant than blue bills.  The reverse is true of a depressant.  Similarly, mystics have perfected their art by choosing specific colors, sizes, and shapes in their rituals and practices.

The very art of practical mysticism can be truly identified as the art of inducing the placebo effect. The mystic is a master of this art.  It was not easy for mankind to learn this art.  It required a tremendous amount of research to understand all the various factors that influence it.  This knowledge is amassed and passed down to future generations.  

We suggest that this unification of the placebo effect with mysticism can help us resolve the contradicting facts between the two camps of Rishonim, thereby uncovering a deeper understanding of the Torah's prohibition against all forms of mysticism.

It is true that the world model of mysticism can be observed to correspond to statistically significant improvement in the welfare of an individual who believes in them, especially when administered by an expert in the art.  Yet it is likewise true that the speculated forces of mysticism, as separate from the placebo effect, are totally false.  No intelligent person believes in their existence.  (See the wiki article on the "The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge" by James Randi for an excellent modern day proof.) The practice of mysticism persists to this day only because it is rooted in some truth.  Mysticism works because the placebo effect is real.

An ethical dilemma surrounds the phenomenon of the placebo effect. There are situations where we have no other method of curing other than the power of placebo.  Should the person seek out a mystic, someone trained in the art of inducing the placebo effect?  It would require society to foster a belief in mysticism.  (It might even bring down the cost of healthcare.)  Is there something wrong with this?  The Torah is against this approach.  But if it can work, why didn’t the Torah promote a society of mysticism?  What is wrong with a society availing itself of the placebo effect?

We believe that the reasons of the aforementioned Rambam and Ramban apply to this old question in a more modern form.  The path of mysticism might start out from the placebo effect, but the path quickly branches out to include a life spent pursuing fantasy and imagination.  This is necessarily so, as belief is most powerful when it grabs hold of deep, primitive fantasies in the unconscious mind.  This path ultimately leads to the total destruction of both the individual and the society as a whole.

Bamidbar 23:23 states that the Jewish nation is different from other nations in that we do not have mysticism.  Despite this, we do not lack the benefits of the placebo effect (in contrast to secular society at large).  We have available to us a different method.  We turn towards Hashem in prayer.  We know from the words of the Torah and our Prophets, and from our national history (i.e., stories of Purim and Chanukah that have been transmitted to us through annual performances) that prayer works.

A person can never be sure that Hashem will answer their prayers.  There is no guaranteed method for bringing about every cure.  Nevertheless, you can have perfect confidence that the best method for success is to follow God's ways in all of your deeds, and to turn to God in your time of need.  The true belief of a Jew is much deeper and greater than the other nations’ beliefs in mysticism.

As such, the Jew does not lack the benefits of the placebo effect.  On the contrary, we benefit from the true efficacy of Divine Providence, as well as from a greater, enhanced placebo effect through pursing a path that we know to be grounded in truth.  

How full of wisdom is our Torah's solution for troubles in our lives.  It steers us away from the paths of desolation, and guides us towards the Name of Hashem. The prescription of the Torah is encapsulated in one verse in Devarim 18:13: “You shall be complete (tamim) with Hashem your God.”