Monday, July 27, 2009


Clean & Unclean Mystical Powers - Part 2

by Reb Gutman Locks at Mystical Paths

(Part 1 here.)

The first half of this article sited a number of examples of mysterious powers found within the various religious practices in the world today. These powers raise a number of questions. For instance, why does G-d allow these powers to exist, and with these mystical powers openly demonstrated in so many religions, how is one to choose the proper path to follow?

That we can even ask these questions shows us the very reason why G-d has allowed these unclean powers to exist. He wants us to have free will. This is an essential principle in creation. The spiritual reward is commensurate with the spiritual effort. If there would be no free will, we would be like angels merely doing what we were programmed to do. If there were no mystical signs in those other religions, who would chase after those extremely foolish beliefs that surround those wonders?

They teach such things as, “Bow down to the Sun and Moon,” “There are millions of gods today, and this idol is one of them,” “The father of this person was not a man. It was a ghost.”

Without those magical signs and fantastic promises that these followers claim, not even the most foolish person would ever believe in those religions. So G-d allows such magic to exist to let each of us choose our own spiritual path.

If all of the obvious goodness came only from following the Torah, no one would ever stray to those foolish religions.

This explains why G-d allows such powers to exist, but how are we to know which path to follow? How do we know that normative Judaism, which is often taught to be so strict and so detail-oriented with very little of these types of mystical experiences, is what we should be following? And when there is an apparent miracle in someone’s life, how do we know that it was a genuine wonder and not just coincidence, or something from the “other side” (the unclean powers) like these other religions demonstrate?

One question to ask is what happens to the one who is credited for having done the miracle? If the credit for the wonder is attributed to the “wonder-worker,” even as a “humble servant,” then there is something wrong there. If the “miracle” strengthens the ego of the “wonder-worker,” and the wonder shows how special he is, then certainly something is wrong there.

When there is no question except that the wonder came from and is attributed to G-d, then it may very well have been a true wonder. If after the experience the attention is focused on the Infinite One and not on the person who “brought” it or on the one who received it, then it may have been a truly holy experience. Did the experience strengthen your awe of the One Infinite Being, or did it increase your appreciation of a wonder-worker, or of a spirit?

Given all this, still, there also have been known to be righteous, Jewish wonder-workers. In our generation alone there were three of the greatest wonder-workers who ever existed in the history of the Jewish people. The Baba Sali, Rav Kaduri and the Lubavitcher Rebbe were all instrumental in bringing about amazing wonders. These wonders certainly brought a lot of attention to them, especially from their followers. So still we have to ask, how are we to identify the miraculous intercession from G-d and mere magic?

There are also wonders brought about from the improper use of the Kabbalah. This is called “Practical Kabbalah.” But there is a strong prohibition against using these arts. How do we know if the wonder came about from G-d’s miraculous intersession or the work of a crafty student of the Kabbalah?

In fact, many of the sages have warned us not to follow any of these signs at all. Not the miracles and certainly not the voices, even if they actually come from Heaven.[i] “The Torah was not given to the Heavens,” they say. “It was given to us here on earth.” According to this strong opinion, a voice from Heaven or a wonder cannot decide anything for us today. So how are we to guide our lives?

The average person is not experienced enough to be able to discern a clean power from an unclean power. To understand the true underlying nature of the experience we must look and see what comes from and surrounds the wonders. See where the wonders lead. Would following the teachings of the one who “brought” the wonder lead to your having a normal Jewish life, a Jewish family and Jewish descendants?

G-d’s miracles come to help us and to strengthen our belief in Him and in His Torah. They will never take us away from this. He gave us His Torah thousands of years ago, and those of us who have kept it over the years have continued on as Jews. Those who have left it have disappeared from the Jewish people within one or two generations.

Following other spiritual beliefs will not lead to this essential goal. Even if those other religions were spiritually moral paths, which they are not, following them would mean that your children or grandchildren will intermarry and their children will be removed from the roles of the Jewish people. After all, if you believe like they do, and act like they do, there is no reason not to marry like they do.

[i] Gemora Baba Metsia chap 8


  1. "For instance, why does G-d allow these powers to exist"
    the easy answer is that these powers don't exist...


  2. @josh,

    I don't think that's such an easy answer, you get dragged into defining what 'exists' means in that context.

    If I witnessed some of the powers myself, are you telling me I was mistaken? Would your argument change if you had witnessed them?

    Or are you saying it is a healthier Jewish derech to deny they exist (even if the proof of their existence is right in front of your face) and stubbornly persist in performing Torah and Mitzwot?

  3. R'Locks:

    Thank you for this useful teaching. I respectfully suggest that articles such as this are needed in many communities and hope to see more.


    I took your comment as "pshat" until Yitz brought us a little deeper. What did you mean?


  4. Advicde to HaSepharadi: Never take Josh's comments as "pshat".

    Always wait for someone else to clarify the confusion Josh brings to a topic.

  5. peshat.

    "If I witnessed some of the powers myself, are you telling me I was mistaken? Would your argument change if you had witnessed them?"
    that you were mistaken. and that i was mistaken. who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes? ;)

    but seriously, this is the very definition of achizas einayim. and nowadays, many of the secrets behind these illusions have been revealed for those in the know. this is true for magic tricks such as sawing a person in half as well as for cold reading and warm reading:

    the problem comes when people *think* they are capable of spotting and detecting trickery, when really it takes training to do so. if i witnessed something personally, i would know my own deficiencies in this area and not be convinced. this is not a matter of defensive denial to believe what i think i should believe, but rather a knowledge of my own limitations and a lack of gullibility.

    Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum, zatza"l, has written several articles about this. Here is one:

    kol tuv,

  6. Devorah:
    would you say the same to Rabbi Teitelbaum?

    it is a shame that because i take a position or two (or ten) that you feel is wrong (or heretical), many others are called into question. but i can live with that.

    the fact is that this is a great, long-standing debate between mystics and rationalists. on my side i have, for example, rav shmuel ben gaon.

    kol tuv,

  7. oops, that should have read rav shmuel ben chofni gaon.


  8. @Josh,

    I know that's what you meant, but you can't scientifically or rationally make an argument for the fact that such powers are an impossibility -- as long as there are reported 'miracles' we are required to believe in, any rational stance would assume some system in which these 'miracles' must function which then suggests the system can be used in other ways -- it's a moot point why or why not HaShem would allow His 'miracle system' to be abused; but it stands to reason that since HaShem allows us to abuse His 'natural system', the same would be true of the system of the miraculous. Bilam WAS a navi. _That_ wasn't achizat aynayim.

    So whether the miracles are miracles outright, or whether there is a science to miracle performance, the fact remains that as much as anything can be said to exist, these 'powers' can be said to exist.

    The fact that cold/warm reading etc, (with which I was already familiar) exists, doesn't mean that every exhibition of such 'powers' is conclusively a product of trickery in the sense of achizat aynayim.

    In short, you can't categorically rule out 'gaming' the 'miracle system.'

  9. "I know that's what you meant, but you can't scientifically or rationally make an argument for the fact that such powers are an impossibility -- as long as there are reported 'miracles' we are required to believe in"

    and this is where it is a very narrow road for everyone. if you lean too far one way, you end up possibly (ch"v) believing that there are two reshuyos; and if you lean too far the other way, you end up possibly (ch"v) disbelieving our own miracles.

    in the beginning of parshas veEschanan, we have a pasuk Asher Mi El. It is interesting to see how different meforshim take it. See how Onkelos goes about it and Ibn Ezra goes about it. Onkelos rereads it so that it is not talking about any powers at all. Ibn Ezra says that this is written according to the perspective of the Toim.

    Who says Bilaam was a navi? This is a matter of major dispute of rishonim, the mefarshim, whether he was a navi or merely a kosem. I could argue that he was a *faker* (using achizat einayim), but Hashem grabbed onto him in this particular instance in order to bless the Bnei Yisrael and encourage them. And even if a navi, perhaps this was as a navi within Hashem's parameters.
    (See also Shadal's explanation of Bilaam, here:

    (Indeed, proofs from psukim are all going to be like this. I mentioned Shmuel ben Chofni Gaon. His famous peshat, against certain midrashic understandings, is that the witch at En Dor was not real, but she was fooling Shaul *throughout*.)

    And how does a prophet use the "miracle system"? One answer (see here, mentioned by Abarbanel citing the sefer haIkkarim, Rabbi Yosef Albo)
    regarding nissim done by a prophet (e.g. Eliyahu Hanavi) that the navi promises something with trust in Hashem that Hashem will follow through. And then the miracle comes to pass. Not that there are special powers in a "system" that can be used by good people and bad.

    If so, how can a rasha use the mystical system? He can make a promise, but since he is a rasha, or an idolator, so why would Hashem change the teva to fulfill his words?

    besides that i believe my position to be true, it has the side benefit of having all supernatural events under Hashem's control; and making them actually supernatural rather than part of a system, and thus almost natural.

    but what i give here is likely not the only possibility. as i noted, rav shmuel ben chofni gaon, *for example*, preceded me in this rejecting mystical powers outside of those of Hashem. (and he was not the only one.) and they surely have ways of answering. for example (and i am no expert in his thought so i hope i a representing his correctly), rav shmuel ben chofni gaon restricted miracles ONLY to neviim coming to prove their prophecies. He rejected the idea that Hashem would perform miracles for people who were merely tzaddikim, and not prophets. This led him to reject as inauthentic traditions the miraculous experiences described in the Heichalot literature.

    kol tuv,

  10. @Josh,

    Even if the 'miracle system' is: "you hope for God to perform a miracle," there is no blanket guarantee HaShem won't perform a miracle for a rasha. [Just as a rasha appears to lead a rewarding life in the natural/physical realm]

    Always a pleasure to discuss Torah ideas with you Josh.

    aylu v' aylu divrei elokim hayyim

    HaShem's creation is so much greater, subtler and more intricate than we can begin to imagine, that the most opposite views share a common source and coexist on some level of revelation of Godliness.

    I don't think people usually appreciate that shiv'im panim l'Torah means 70 entirely different approaches to Torah. Sometimes entirely contradictory approaches to Torah.

    I think we've adequately ironed out/highlighted the differences in the different approaches here.

    kol tuv,


  11. Peshat "ain ode milvado" why waste time in debate at tha level of truth there is nothing but Hashem!

  12. reb nati:
    true, but Ain od milvado can mean all sorts of things, and certain explanations of Ain od milvado might be problematic, such as "ain od milvado" to advance panentheism. similarly, i find it theologically problematic to believe that Christians have any real power, because Ain Od Milvado -- there IS no power beside Him. And practically, if it is all nonsense, then it is not proper for an Am Navon veChacham, HaGoy Hagadol Hazeh to be so gullible and believe in such shtuyot.

    on a practical level, if some guru performs "miracles" for his cult-followers and also predicts some apocalyptic event, should i pay a moment's notice to it? i would not. but some religious Jews pay heed to Muslim apocalyptic prophecies about the 10th imam.

    indeed. Hashem is kol yachol, and beyond our understanding. so maybe Hashem could *regularly* provide miracles for reshaim. even though by doing so the Kel Kanah distances people from His worship and *tricks* them thereby. from my limited perspective, this seems *unfair* and somewhat evil, but who am i to judge. (and Hashem as kol yachol could also in *theory* assume human form or impregnate a virgin, though I don't believe He did do this or would do this.)

    this relates, perhaps, to how you view the success of the navi sheker in producing miracles. the pasuk in Devarim 13:4 says Ki Menaseh Hashem Elokeichem Etchem.

    But some of the commentators are quite reluctant to say the most straightforward translation, that this is a miracle that Hashem Himself provides in order to trick and test you. Thus, Rashbam says that Hashem allows the navi sheker to make use of the ruach hatuma to accomplish this. and ibn ezra gives a suggestion that he stole this true prediction from a navi emes. not that Hashem goes about tricking people by Himself providing true miracles on behalf of idolatry, which appears to be what you are suggesting as a possibility.

    meanwhile, while anything is possible, and I should not presume to judge the True Judge, i am not forced into such a position. for while anything is theoretically *possible*, we see such trickery which fools many people and then we see the methods by which they accomplish the trickery. if so, why put ourselves in such a "difficult" position. it stands to reason that in other cases we (personally) don't know enough to explain, they are using similar methodology. and that when there was a possibility of fire suddenly igniting and consuming the sacrifices of the neviei baal on har hakarmel, it was not because of their mystical impure arts or because Hashem was going to provide the miracle on behalf of the idolatry, but because, as the *midrash* notes, they hid a priest underneath the alter to set the sacrifice on fire, and Hashem sent a snake which fatally bit him such that in this instance he was unable to perform the magic trick.

    kol tuv,

  13. These things happen or appear to happen only to provide you with the illusion of free choice.

  14. yitz:
    i didn't say, before, that i appreciate your perspective, and your tone. thanks.

    i would just add here that unfortunately this conversation devolved into a mystical vs. rationalist divide. but i think that even on the mystical side, even if one acknowledges that powers once existed, one is not religiously compelled to adopt all the shtuyot of other religions as real phenomena. indeed, if both possibilities are open before us, the idea that it is trickery should be one of the options, and perhaps even the preferred option.

    there are a lot of gullible people out there, or people who are conditioned by their religion to be superstitious. while chazal were often mystical, they still denied the reality of certain superstitions. for example, just because some silly christians see the virgin mary in a grilled cheese sandwich, Judaism, even mystical Judaism, should not compel a Jew to believe such utter nonsense as an article of faith, or even something plausible.

    kol tuv,

  15. What would you say about miracles attributed to Catholic saints (obviously believed by intelligent Catholics to be caused by God, working through the Catholic saints)? I'm talking about for example simple young peasant girls/contemplative nuns/many other obviously humble people trying their best to work for God according to their lights? No ego involvement or self-aggrandizement in evidence. Just operating from within a different, and we believe, factually false religious tradition. Do their wonders (let's assume they exist) come about through evil powers, somehow? I am committed to Judaism, but I have enough semi-insider :-) experience of the Catholic world to just really wonder...


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