Essays Print
Magic Brachos:Where is the Faith in Faith Healing? by Ellen Carni
Magic Brachos:Where is the Faith in Faith Healing? by Ellen Carni

Volume 2 , Issue 3

It is a late summer day in Borough Park. Streimel-headed men roam unabashedly, and women stride the streets in longsleeved ankle-length dresses under the sultry sun. I enter a basement apartment to find a small salon whose decor has undoubtedly seen better days. On the wall hangs a hand-painted sign that reads, ?B 'ruchim Habaim B 'shem Hashem.? A few women are sitting and a young chasidic man is pacing the corridors. They are waiting their turn to speak with the famous or infamous, as it may be, kabbalist, Rabbi M.

Rabbi M. came to my attention innocently and inadvertently through a family friend and I soon learned by grapevine of his enormous reputation among so manywalks of Orthodox Jewish life. From the heart of Borough Park, from the Upper West Side, Washington Heights, and even the New Jersey suburbs, people were coming to see him. I heard stories of illnesses disappearing, of infertile women conceiving, and of marriages coming to pass following his prophecy and his bracha. My temptation, alas, became too great to resist.

An allbut emaciated old man, who sported knee-length grey pe'ot and a black satin robe, whisked me into his cluttered office while I rounded up a Hebrew/Yiddish translator from the salon. After he asked me a few questions about my practice of halakha, I was beset by a sinking feeling that, judged from his perspective, he had relegated me to the netherworld of Gehenom. Brusquely, bordering on rude, he answered my questions in no uncertain terms, although all positively, nonetheless, and muttered an unintelligible bracha three times. Then, he whisked me out as quickly as he had ushered me in.

Stunned as I was, the worst was yet to come as I listened to the experience of my translator, a lovely young Orthodox man who had undergone a major personal loss. He had interrupted her with phone calls, reprimanded her for not being married, and asked her inappropriate questions about her intimate life, insisting that her answers were between him and Hashem. When she made a donation, he asked her for more. (She politely but assertively told him off.)

I subsequently discovered that Rabbi M. had declared an acquaintance of mine ?cured? of a serious illness after he was surreptitiously but with sincere intention given a large donation by my acquaintance's spouse. And it was not long before Rabbi M.'s prophecy about my future success at a certain job came to grief--I was not offered the job!

In the weeks that followed, my perturbation abated and I attempted to give meaning to my experience.

Surely, I thought, it is understandable that people, at least those I know of, go to Rabbi M. in a state of despair, seeking some control over their future where human effort has failed to help them transcend, for example, a tragic situation. When human limitation is reached, there is always a hope in the religiously inclined, and often even in the less religiously inclined (they say there are no atheists in foxholes) that the intercession of prayer can produce a divine miracle or a nes as Iheard people mention in Rabbi M.'s waiting room.

I, with my own variationsof ?tragedy? notwithstanding, am no different from the next seeker. In fact, I am all for prayer. I believe in the power of prayer if merely from a persuasion that the spiritual realm, like the psychological realm in which I am accustomed to working professionally, does not obey the same laws of logic that guide our external lives. But granted that I share with the others the belief in the omnipotence of Hashem in exercising the option to answer our prayers, and to perform apparent miracles, it seems to me, and after my experience with Rabbi M. especially so, that, ultimately, it is less important that our prayers be answered miraculously than that we ourselves exercise responsibility in proffering our prayers or in having them rendered by others. The ways in which we exercise our faith in Hashem ultimately come back to us. What do I mean by this?

Presumably, one goes to Rabbi M. as an act of faith, faith that he, by his reputation as a rabbi/healer,has special capacities. Suppose that Rabbi M.'s prayer or his prophecy comes to pass. Does this necessarily make him an emissary of Hashem? Would the events have come to pass anyway? And what of the power of suggestion on the seeker to bring about those very events by a self-fulfilling prophecy? e.g., the allegedly infertile seeker becomes more open to getting pregnant because she is suggestible to Rabbi M.'s prediction that she will conceive. Even assuming, at last, that Rabbi M. has some powers of prediction beyond the pale of most of us, is that a reason to defer to his relationship with God, especially if it is at the expense of denigrating one's personal faith in God? e.g., Rabbi M. was the only one who?If not for Rabbi M?. Considering Rabbi M.'s questionable ethics, what God would choose him as His emissary? And, after all, is a capacity for fortune-telling a measure of one's spiritual attainment?

Then again, I ask myself what God would provide us with easy answers to our dilemmas, where, for a small, or even a large, donation, we can know our destinies, let alone through such a medium as Rabbi M. Is not life, after all, about learning to deal with ambiguity? Have I grown spiritually from having put my faith in Rabbi M.? Do I need a miracle to strengthen my faith in Hashem?

I am reminded of -- in fact, I shall never forget -- something said by the Bostoner rebbe, who also gives brachose. Rabbi Horowitz does not make predictions. But he helps seekers deal realistically with what is before them and he treats them, at least to my knowledge and experience, with respect, whether they are Orthodox or not. (The rebbe also runs Project Rophe, a non-profit medical referral network for seriously ill people.) When my father was ill with cancer, he asked the Rebbe, ?How do you help a man die with dignity?? The Rebbe answered, ?You live with dinitiy.? When I weigh this advice against Rabbi. M?s advice concerning a problem I had inquired about, ?Go home and say some Tehillim. You will be completely well within a year,? there is no question which type of counsel would offer me the greater growth.

It could be argued that Rabbi M.'s seekers do not consult him as an act of faith or for greater spiritual growth but simply to obtain solutions. (And who, in the depths of despair, cares how solutions are obtained?) Then, I would contest, why go to a rabbi? There are psychics and other non-traditional alternatives for healing or problem solving in the secular world. But here, I believe, is the heart of the matter, for where a phenomenon like Rabbi M. goes awry, in my opinion, is where, l?havdil ben kodesh l?chol, the spiritual and the supernatural merge, leaving the seeker at the borders of mazel and magic.

Magic is a phenomenon in which reality is manipulated by individuals to achieve a supernatural effect. With mazel, a supernatural effect, an apparently serendipitous or fortuitous phenomenon, is attributed to divine intervention. The magician attempts to control what would be beyond one's ordinary grasp, while the ?Baal Mazel? relinquishes control, accepting that what is beyond one's grasp must be in God's hands. Now what happens when a rabbi purports to intervene to produce supernatural effects, in other words, to produce mazel by serving as a magician of God? One finds, I think, or runs the danger of finding, an ersatz spirituality. The danger is in promoting a faith based on the miraculous, or a faith based on concrete outcomes, or a faith based on the powers of a so-called elite, or a faith based on the vulnerability of seekers to attach themselves to a faith healer. The danger is to prey on the wishes and fantasies of the seeker, turning his or her search for hope into an expectation of certain results which may or may not come to pass.

Suppose that Rabbi M.'s prophecy is wrong, or yet more perplexingly, partially right and partially wrong. Is that a reason to lose faith in or to doubt God or, at least, the benevolence of God? I am as susceptible as the next desperate person to succumb to the lure of the deus ex machina of the Greek tragedies, that is, to want solutions to drop in my lap conveniently from heaven. But in my heart, I believe that true faith is independent of particular outcomes. In my opinion, faith depends on our ability to us our God-given strengths to meet life?s challenges, for better or for worse outcomes, and still maintain our belief and commitment to a (munificent) God, to the world we live in, and to our own capacities to find viable solutions for ourselves. To me, faith lies at least as much in the quality of our ordinary dealings with day-to-day realities as in our investment in an omnipotent God-as-miracle-worker.

I am not protesting the mediation of rabbis in assisting us in overcoming our various plights. Far from it. I am making the point that a sophisticated faith requires us, l'havdil ben kodesh l?kodesh to finely attune our powers of judgment and discrimination in choosing our spiritual guides. Our Jewish history is replete with religious leaders of all kinds, including maggidim and the like, offering spiritual counsel. It is up to us to garner appropriate insights into how such counsel can help us cope with challenge and balance our worldly and our spiritual lives.

Faith is, ultimately, an internal experience. Faith is in what we make of our encounters with life. We can strengthen our faith even from a negative encounter. Case in point: rather than condemn Rabbi M. for the poor results, not to mention the impertinence of his behavior toward me, I should thank him. He provided me the opportunity to reflect in some depth on the meaning of faith in my life.

Ellen Carni, PhD., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan.



All Rights Reserved(c) The Jewish Review, Inc., 1987-2011