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Seance or Science? What Rabbis Need to Know
by Yonatan Hyland

Science demands empirical verification: "Conclusions" are considered "scientific" if they have been investigated experimentally - which is certainly not the case with conditions which have never been even known to mankind and can never be duplicated. - The Rebbe - Mind Over Matter, p. 113
 
 

I love science, and it was partially through science that I came to Torah, with material such as the essays by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan you can find online at simpletoremember.com.[1]
 
In fact, whenever I see material about science and Torah, I try to acquire and read it.  So, when one of my Rabbi friends showed me the book, The Coming Revolution - Science Discovers The Truths Of The Bible by Zamir Cohen, I eagerly jumped right in. 
 
What I discovered was, to put it mildly, a disappointment.  It's not that it's written for non-scientists.  That would be fine, and I think we need more of that.  The problem is that a lot of what he's calling science just isn't, and some of it appears to be sanctioning topics that I was taught weren't Kosher.
 
Here are a few examples.
 
In the chapter entitled "The Human Silver 'Spiritual' Cord," R' Cohen cites examples of early twentieth century spiritualists (also sometimes called "spiritists") as proof that the soul exists.  That is problematic on two levels. 
 
First, although there are plenty of people, scientists among them, who believe that there is a reality to life after death, no science of things beyond the grave yet exists. Hence it is totally inappropriate to claim that science verifies spiritist claims. 
 
Second, Torah enjoins us only to be familiar enough with that sort of thing in order to avoid it.
 
"...in Deuteronomy the Torah proscribes ... practices such as consulting the dead. ... Sorcery, dabbling in the occult and "crossing over" are serious infractions to be strenuously avoided."[2]
 
"When you come to the land... don't learn to do as the nations there... using sorcery or omens or contacting the dead. Hashem despises all who do that... Tamim tihyeh im Hashem Elokecha - be complete (trusting) with Hashem. (18: 9-13)."[3]
 
In short, necromancy is not "modern," nor is it "science," nor is it Kosher.  It doesn't belong in this book, at least not as it has been presented.  But...
 
...interestingly there are Sages of antiquity who say it's all just an illusion anyway.
 
"Saadia Gaon states that the Egyptians  - and anyone for that matter - possess no power, other than what each man's muscles can manipulate. In Egypt, the astrologers and magicians were no different than today's sleight of hand performers. Ibn Ezra - another great Rabbi - commented that the Torah does not prohibit that which is real and true, rather, only that which is lies is prohibited."[4]
 
Add to their words that in the past century some of the very best scientists had a profound belief in, and commitment to, spiritualism, but nevertheless, "Despite years of research, no scientist has proved séances were anything more than an elaborate con trick."[5]Their personal beliefs notwithstanding, none of them could ever demonstrate its validity.
 
And so, if Zamir Cohen wanted to illustrate just how far ahead of their time the ancient Jewish Sages really were, I would have been much happier if he had said something like:  'At a time when the world was rife with superstition, with no modern science to guide them, Sages like Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra and the Rambam [see below] clearly saw contacting the dead for the fraud that modern science says it probably is, because that's what they learned from their study of Torah.'
 
For a taste of some scientifically legitimate, not to mention Kosher, questions that are being asked about spiritual matters, please see Dr. Arnie Gotfryd's essay entitled Neurology, Medicine and the Soul in his book Mind Over Matter: The Rebbe on Science, Technology and Medicine, which you can also read online at chabad.org.[6],
 
In another chapter, "The Secret Life Of Plants," we find the claim that not only are plants alleged to have human-like feelings, but that they are even supposed to be able to read our thoughts.  Again, that's not science.  In order to be called "science," experiments must be independently reproducible. But, when scientists at Cornell University tried to repeat Cleve Baxter's "experiments," (ostensibly measuring the "response" of a plant to boiling brine shrimp) they were unable to do so, despite confirming with him that they had the experimental details correct.[7] 
 
But, seriously, how could anyone believe that plants get emotionally upset at the death of millions of microscopic fish, when dead fish are, as any avid gardener can tell you, a very excellent plant food?[8]
 
Finally, another egregious example of misrepresenting science is found in the chapter entitled "The Effects Of Sound Waves On Matter."  Not only is the featured "scientist," Masaro Emoto, not a real scientist (even by his own admission), but he clearly states on his website that what he does derives from his idolatry (he admits that he prays to "the water god").  The fact that many people believe he is a scientist, taking his unscientific claims seriously and referring to him as "Dr.," when his "degree" was from an un-accredited diploma-mill, and not even in a scientific discipline, is very disturbing. In fact Mr. Emoto's name is featured on a mainstream science website in a list of those making unverifiable and even fraudulent claims.[9]
 
The following quote from Rambam applies, I think, not just to the belief that Mr. Emoto's method can influence the shape of ice crystals with words, music, thoughts, etc., but also to the idea that plants can read our thoughts or that a medium can contact the dead. Like Saadia Gaon and Ibn Ezra above, Rambam also asserts the falsehood of such ideas, and he doesn't mince his words...
 
(CH 11, Halacha 16) - "Whoever believes in [occult arts] of this nature and, in his heart, thinks that they are true and words of wisdom, but are forbidden by the Torah, is foolish and feebleminded.    . . . .
 
The masters of wisdom and those of perfect knowledge know with clear proof that all these crafts which the Torah forbade are not reflections of wisdom, but rather, emptiness and vanity which attracted the feebleminded and caused them to abandon all the paths of truth."[10]
 
...and also...
 
"Negative Mitzvah 35:  You shall not use incantations
Deuteronomy 18:10-11 'There shall not be found among you... a charmer'
 
A 'charmer' is someone who recites chants that can, supposedly, control different situations. We are forbidden to recite these chants."[11]
 
If anyone objects, saying that Mr. Emoto's work is OK because he doesn't "chant," I can only reply that if a chant is ineffective, how could any other expression be, whether verbal, musical  or mental?
 
There's more, but the above should be sufficient to illustrate the problem, which is that when calling something science, it really ought to be.  And when saying something agrees with Torah, it really should.
 
I have no doubt that Rabbi Cohen means well, and I have no doubt that his book was written to inspire his readers to come closer to Torah and Hashem. But I fear his apparent lack of scientific knowledge has caused him to err, and may also lead his readers astray.  I.e., paraphrasing the Rambam's warning, when those he's drawn close to Torah find out he's so mistaken about the science, they may then think he's wrong about the Torah as well, G-d forbid!
 
NOTE - I'm not dismissing all alternative ways of knowing because some do have validity.  But they are still, by definition, not science.  One cannot use them as examples of scientific wisdom. One may, for example, study and believe in miraculous and supernatural stories such as those in the Torah, Medrash, and Chassidic tales, even though they may seem similar. Such stories are believed because the source is authoritative according to Judaism. I will choose Moses, a Talmudic sage, or the Lubavitcher Rebbe over the likes of Mr. Emoto any day of the week because such individuals are of known integrity and reliability. However if a dubious claim is made by source which is unverifiable and/or non-Kosher, why would an Orthodox Rabbi want to promote that as true?
 
If one wants to know about the connection between Science and Torah, there are some excellent sources of material.  My personal "gold standard" is Mind Over Matterby Rabbi Joseph Ginsburg and Professor Herman Branover; translated, edited and supplemented with extensive new material by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd.[12]
 
Another short but very nice compilation of interesting information can be found at the "simpletoremember.com" website.[13]
 
Finally, from the Aryeh Kaplan reference above,[1] a quote which deals with science errors made by prominent Rabbis:
 
"Very often people tend to paint themselves into an intellectual corner. Then, once they find themselves painted in, they have no way out." 
 
If what I've written can help those of us who, like Rabbi Cohen, have painted themselves into intellectual corners by neglecting important principles of knowledge both according to science and Torah, then this exercise will have been well worth it.
 
[1]
http://www.simpletoremember.com/faqs/Kaplan-SimpleToRemember.com.pdf
[2] http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/276467/jewish/Spiritual-vs-Holy.htm
[3] http://www.torah.org/learning/parsha-insights/5757/shoftim.html
[4] http://www.mesora.org/saulandthewitch.htm
[5] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4185356.stm
[6] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/113106/jewish/Appendix-5-Neurology-Medicine-and-the-Soul.htm
[7] http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/189/4201/478
[8] http://www.masternursery.com/PrintItem.cfm?itemid=49
[9] http://www.chem1.com/CQ/gallery.html
[10] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/912370/jewish/Chapter-Eleven.htm
[11] http://chasidus.com/general/daily-rambam/016.htm
[12] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/111581/jewish/Mind-Over-Matter.htm
[13] http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/creatorofworld/
 
Yonaton Highland is a baal teshuvah whose only regret is not coming to Yiddishkeit sooner. He has degrees in Chemistry and Biophysics and has worked many years as a Genetic Toxicologist.


Dr. Aryeh (Arnie) Gotfryd, PhD is a chassid, environmental scientist, author and educator living near Toronto, Canada. To contact, read more or to book him for a talk, visit www.arniegotfryd.com or call 416-858-9868

 

 


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