Saturday, July 02, 2005

Shabbos: Apikoros and Amulets

Over at ToratMoshe, Moshe Silver's blog about the weekly Torah portion, you will find the following related to last week's parsha:
A Rasha' - a Wicked Person - says: "I know G-d commanded us to keep kosher, but I don't care." An Apikoros says: "Three thousand years ago it was dangerous to eat meat in dishes that milk had been cooked in. You could get food poisoning. Nowadays, we have refrigeration and sterilization, it's OK." What most people do not expressly state, but what underlies this statement, is "And that's the way G-d wants it to be."
It is a traditional understanding of what the Torah has to offer, but is it the only traditional understanding? It seems to me that even 2000 years ago, the Torah's limitations were acknowledged by the rabbis (who may not have thought of them as limitations even as they reinterpreted them, sometimes leniently and sometimes stringently). My problem with this traditional interpretation is that I read it as building a fence around me, the Apikoros:
The Apikoros often accepts Torah as "a way of life," paying great homage to the importance of "our eternal tradition". It's just that, when it comes to what the Torah really means to say (or really should have said), the Apikoros knows better.
But it isn't the Torah that forbids treating minor medical ailments on Shabbos. It's the Rabbis, who fear that it might lead someone to grind herbs into medicine (53b). Do I dare to ask if G-d wants me to have a headache on Shabbos? It is a question only an Apikoros would ask!

My rebellion against Rabbinic stringincies simmers on a low flame. I bristle at all the time they consume constructing a straitjacket around Shabbos., but I delight when they turn their attention to grander themes. It's been many pages since that has happened, but it begins to re-occur on 53. Here, amulets and shoes creep into the discussion (and they will flutter in and out for several pages). Amulets, in particular, reveal a rabbinic tension between superstition and science, as there is an important question regarding how one can prove that magic is effective.
Is there such a thing as an amulet that is proven effective for man and not proven effective for animals? (53b).
According to the Gemara, the answer is yes, and the explanation has to do with mazal. Rashi offers two alternative definitions of mazal, though both apply exclusively to humans, providing the missing "ingredient" that makes the amulet effective for humans but not for animals. Mazel is either the angel advocate for a person in the Heavenly Court or the intelligence that allows a person to believe in the therapeutic effects of the amulet. Either definition requires faith in something for the medicine to work.

This suggests that miraculous intervention requires at least intelligence and perhaps an advocate in Heaven. So, it is natural that the Gemara will seek to determine what sort of man is ripe for the miracle of healing:
It happened with a certain person that his wife died leaving a son to nurse, and he did not have enough money to pay the fee of a wetnurse. A miracle was performed for him-- his breasts were opened like the two breasts of a woman and he nursed his son.

Rav Yosef said: "Come and see how great this man was, for such a miracle was performed on his behalf!" Abaye said to Rav Yosef: "On the contrary! How inferior this man was, for the natural order was changed on his behalf!" (53b).
According to Rashi, his inferiority is suggested by the plain fact that God did not perform the less conspicuous miracle of opening the "gates of income" for him. Maharsha (in ArtScroll):
This person certainly had some merit, for otherwise the miracle would not have been performed for him. However, he was inferior in that he was prevented from earning a living in the normal way and thus had to be sustained with a miracle.
It is perhaps a common notion to suggest that a modest person will see daily sustenance as a miracle, but no less worth preserving and keeping in the forefront of one's mind.

There is an early example of scientific methodology on 61, where the Rabbis seek to establish a protocol for evaluating the effectiveness of amulets. There is general agreement that an expert in amulets is one who has crafted three amulets for three different people, all of which have had healing powers, and that an effective amulet is one that has cured the same illness three times. Rav Pappa inquires: "If one wrote three different amulets for a single person who suffered from three different illnesses, and cured him of all three illnesses, what is the law?" In such a situation it cannot be determined whether the amulets or the patient's mazal was the deciding factor, so the healer's expert status remains uncertified. There's a glimmer of science even in the absence of empirical data, and the mind struggles to establish methodology.