Does Superstition Enslave Our Minds?

Sermon given June 13, 1997, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

When I was a child, if our extended family would gather for dinner, we would often have thirteen people at the table. Unfortunately, my great-grandmother was very superstitious. Fortunately, though, she didn’t see very well. Frequently, she would ask, “How many people are at the table?” The answer was always the same: “twelve.” Ultimately, my great-grandmother died on the thirteenth day of the month. No, it wasn’t a Friday.

Today is Friday the thirteenth, a uniquely unlucky day, according to superstition. Actually, though, the number thirteen has only positive connotations in Judaism. We celebrate Bar or Bat Mitzvah at the age of thirteen. We are taught that God has given us 613 commandments.

Even if the number thirteen doesn’t bother us, we Jews do have our superstitions. Some are harmful and should be eliminated, while others are more innocent. Some traditional practices, though, often dismissed as mere superstitions, may actually provide deeply meaningful religious moments.

If you came to my home, you would be surprised to hear me begin my discussion of harmful superstitions by talking about mezuzzot. Toni and I have a mezuzzah on just about every door in the house, interior and exterior.

Some years ago, in Israel, an entire bus full of school children from one town were killed in a terrible accident. In the days following that horrible tragedy, the chief rabbi of the town announced that the accident had occurred because too many of the mezuzzot in town were not kosher. His pronouncement was based on the superstitious notion that the mezuzzah is a mere amulet, a magic spell meant to ward off evil.

This kind of superstition is harmful, and should be eliminated, because it suggests that victims have brought on their own misfortunes. Imagine the parents of those Israeli school children, who were told that their children would have lived if they had simply remembered to have their mezuzzot inspected on a regular basis. Moreover, this kind of superstition can drive Jews away from Judaism. A sophisticated person, hearing that the mezuzzah wards off evil, may well assume that all of Judaism’s teachings are equally silly, and therefore unworthy of our attention.

Some among us may be familiar with the tradition that people with two living parents should not recite the Mourners’ Kaddish, or even remain in the room while it is being said, lest something terrible befall one of those parents as a result. We might have heard that breaking the glass at a wedding is meant to ward off evil spirits. These superstitions, no less than regarding the mezuzzah as an amulet, have the potential consequence of blaming victims who might make a slight ritual error, and could easily lead some to scoff at Judaism altogether.

This kind of superstition was on the minds of our early Reform rabbis when they wrote the prayer, “May the time not be distant . . .,” so beloved in the old Union Prayer Book, and now found in our Gates of Prayer. With those words, we pray for a better world in the years ahead. One of the prayer’s hopes is that “superstition no longer enslave the mind.” Our Reform founders sought to create a Judaism free of superstition, a rational faith worthy of the modern, sophisticated Jew.

Not all Jewish superstitions, though, are so harmful. Some may simply be regarded as endearing folk traditions. Those among us who grew up with yiddishe grandparents, myself not included, remember an older generations who would say, “tu, tu, kayn aynahora,” at any of a number of provocations. I can’t even say this correctly. These words are meant to ward of “ayin ha-ra,” the evil eye, to prevent ill fortune from befalling us as a result of our having said something too good or too bad. “Kayn aynahora” is the folksy Jewish way of saying, “I shouldn’t count my chickens before they hatch.”

As an expression of Jewish culture, not taken too seriously, a little common superstition is pretty harmless. Rabbi Norman Cohen suggests, in fact, that “superstition can be quite healthy if we keep it in perspective, accepting the fact that it is just one way of dealing with our anxieties.”

Some practices, otherwise superstitious, are meaningful if interpreted properly. Let’s look again at the mezuzzah, and at the breaking of the glass at a wedding.

Our Reform founders attempted to abolish these practices on the grounds that they are mere superstitions, and problematic ones at that. Many of us who grew up Reform, remember a time when our homes did not have mezuzzot on their doorposts. For decades, there was no breaking of the glass at most Reform weddings. More recently, though, these traditions have been practiced by the overwhelming majority of Reform Jews. In fact, I’ve never been asked to eliminate the breaking of the glass from a wedding ceremony, even though that ritual is technically optional here at Temple Beth-El.

Some may charge that the re-adoption of these rituals by Reform Jews is “mindless traditionalism,” superstition superseding our rational minds. Perhaps, though, these rituals have always had a deeper meaning.

Each time we enter our home, the mezuzzahreminds us that God should be present there, that we should treat the members of our families, and all who enter our doors, with the love and respect required of us by the words of Torah. When we leave home, and we see our mezuzzah once again, we should be reminded to practice our Judaism along our way, being ethical at work, loving our neighbors as ourselves. If we are so inspired by the mezuzzah, then perhaps it will act like an amulet, after all, even if the scroll inside it isn’t kosher. It won’t prevent bus wrecks, but our lives will be better. We will find blessing in our homes and on our way.

The breaking of the glass at the conclusion of the wedding has many “correct” explanations. Consider this one: Marriage is not always as joyous as the wedding itself. The bad times, when our hearts break, are symbolized by the shattered glass. A couple that enters marriage, believing that their married life will always be as blissful as courtship, is in denial and doomed to failure. Breaking the glass symbolizes a realistic approach. It may even be said to scare off the real evil demon, which is denial. Superstitious or not, breaking the glass may actually bring us good fortune.

Finally, we come to those practices, which seem superstitious to some, but which may be deeply meaningful to those who believe. I think, in particular, of the traditional Jewish practice of changing the name of a person who is gravely ill. The original idea was that the Angel of Death would be confused by the name change, and therefore unable to find the person who had been destined to die. Rabbi Stahl has spoken of his own father, of blessed memory, who was given a new Hebrew name at the age of twelve, when he was dieing of scarlet fever. He lived, thank God, to become the father of our rabbi.

We could easily argue that any number of scientific factors led to the recovery of Rabbi Stahl’s father, and that the name change was a primitive, superstitious act. I certainly do not believe that God, or the Angel of Death, for that matter, could be confused by something so superficial as a name change. Some people whose names are changed do die. But may a family not be comforted by trying anything and everything to save a life? Don’t the sick have a better chance of recovery if they believe that they will live? May God not be moved by our faith?

If every act of faith is no more than mere superstition, then perhaps our entire religion, indeed every religion, can be dismissed as mere superstition. Dr. Chanan Brichto, of blessed memory, who was a teacher at the Hebrew Union College, used to say that “the difference between religion and superstition is that superstition is the other person’s religion.” “Superstition” may just be another word for faith.

Today, we have begun to recognize the role of faith in Reform Judaism. While still trying to steer clear of the harmfully irrational, we embrace many rituals that were once dismissed as mere superstition, and we worry less about whether our faith stands up to the test of reason.

On this Friday the thirteenth, we acknowledge that some superstitions may harm us and can be used to harm others. Taken to an extreme, superstition can enslave our minds. Blaming our failures and tragedies on ritual errors isn’t just silly, it’s immoral.

At the same time, though, we affirm that not all superstition is harmful and not all faith is superstitious. Let us embrace Jewish rituals which bring us good teachings, even if they are connected to superstitions. May we be unafraid to take great leaps faith. If we are inspired and if we are healed, physically, emotionally, or spiritually, let none dare to call our faith mere superstition.