Comments on "Amulets" article by Rabbi Riskin
Moshe Ben-Chaim
Dear Editor,
It was refreshing to read Rabbi Riskin's position where he dismissed all notions of amulets and people having powers. His view is that of Rambam, Radak, Saadia Gaon, and many others. I believe these great thinkers to have the correct philosophy, and have always viewed the notion of physical objects or people having "powers" as fallacy, although stories to the contrary still circulate among the simple minded.
I recently heard a popular rabbi speaking on psychology, and he seemed to be a rational person. When however, he concluded with a story that the Baal Shem Tov read minds and had powers, I asked one question, "where does the Torah ever depict a human with this ability? The converse is actually true, the Torah depicts the frailty of man, even Moshe our teacher. Did Dovid or Shlomo Hamelech ever read minds, or perform wonders? Didn't Shlomo actually need to listen to the two women, and only then consider their words so as to render a judgment? Also, the High Holiday davening teaches us that Hashem alone knows man's thoughts". This unique ability is reserved for G-d alone and forms one of the three main principles upon which the davening on the High Holidays focuses.
I then thought, if we see that the wisest of men, Shlomo Hamelech, couldn't read minds, and further learn that G-d alone has this Divine capacity, it is a terrible shame that a popular rabbi who teaches others does not think for himself, but merely parrots the fables of simpletons. Had he considered well, he would have dismissed these stories. We also see that popularity is not determined by the learned.
Over Shavuos, I discussed Rabbi Riskin's article with with a friend Rabbi Moskowitz. He mentioned a good point, "....quoting sources alone can be duplicated by adherents of an opposite view, thereby inviting counter articles equalizing the view he (R. Riskin) wished to endorse."
If one is desirous of appealing to the intellect of a reader, it is essential to give the reasoning behind one's views, and not to rely on sources alone. The author of the Chovas Halavavos, Rabbi Bachya ben Yosef, says similarly. He urges man not to merely follow the rabbis, but he says man must prove or disprove ideas through rational argument, until he sees - with his own reasoning - why a view must be either true or false. Rabbi Bachya says if one does not prove ideas through reason, "he will be punished for this and held accountable for negligence."
So there is a dilemma; two opposing views cannot both be correct, I refer to Rambam on amulets, and other views. What criteria then is to be used to decide in favor of one over the other? It is impossible to state "both views are correct". Although many people say this today, we don't find viz., Ramban when arguing with Rashi saying Rashi is also right! Ramban clearly held Rashi to be wrong in matters. The statement that "both views are correct" is generated by a cowardice of defending a view which others might reject. Unfortunately, the need for social approval wins out over the desire for truth, resulting in such foolish opinions. But deciding for oneself is exactly what we find the author of the Chovas Halavavos teaching us. He says that man must not merely follow the rabbis, but he must prove or disprove ideas through rational argument, until he sees - with his own reasoning - why a view must be either true or false.
This makes sense, as it can only occur that subsequent to examination and consideration of an idea, that man actually holds his own view. Until such consideration, man merely parrots others, and has no merit in what he utters.
Man's mark of distinction and purpose in life is his engagement in intellectual study, without such exercise, man earns no reward.
Looking at what Rabbi Riskin brought to light, perhaps we can expose the falsehood of amulets and miracle workers by explaining the following: Since man came after creation; is part of creation; is subject to natural and metaphysical laws (i.e., aging, death, punishment); he is therefore not in control of creation, as it preceded him, nor is he in control of the forces guiding what has been created. It is not reasonable to claim that man performs wonders, which means altering such natural laws, and that inanimate matter become amulets with powers. Additionally, if a man sins, and is deserving of punishment, then the false belief in using amulets can avert G-d's system of "schar v'onesh", reward and punishment. We know man cannot avert G-d's systems, therefore, amulets and protective 'blessings' cannot function.
We use reason in all areas of our lives, which job to take, to which school to send our children, and which medications to ingest. Should we not use reason in the most important area of life,...following the Torah?
I would like to quote two more excerpts from the introduction of the Chovas Halavavos:
"If, however, you possess intelligence and insight, and through these faculties you are capable of verifying the fundamentals of the religion and the foundations of the commandments which you have received from the sages in the name of the prophets, then it is your duty to use these faculties until you understand the subject, so that you are certain of it - both by tradition and by force of reason. If you disregard and neglect this duty, you fall short in the fulfillment of what you owe your Creator."
Devarim 17:8-10 states: "If a case should prove too difficult for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, between (leprous) mark and mark, or other matters of dispute in your courts, must act in accordance with what they tell you." Regarding this passage, Rabbi Bachya states: "the verse does not say,.....simply accept them on the authority of Torah ages,...and rely exclusively on their tradition. Rather, (Scripture) says that you should reflect on your own mind, and use your intellect in these matters. First learn them from tradition - which covers all the commandments in the Torah, their principles and details - and then examine them with your own mind, understanding, and judgment, until the truth become clear to you, and falsehood rejected, as it is written: "Understand today and reflect on it in your heart, Hashem is the G-d in the heavens above, and on the Earth below, there is no other". (Ibid, 4:39)
Yashar cochacha Rabbi Riskin,
Moshe Ben-Chaim

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