What did Harry Houdini have in common with Menachem Mendel Schneerson? (Yes, both were Jewish but I’m looking for something a little deeper).
I recently completed Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and, in a footnote, the Rebbe said that if his predecessor, the 6th Chabad Rebbe, really wanted to speak with him from the other side he could do so without dancing tables.
So the answer is, both Harry Houdini and the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe were deeply skeptical of seances.
It was known that the Rebbe, however, would often pray near the grave of his predecessor, perhaps when his own good judgment was insufficient to answer all the questions that must have crowded his mind.
Deuteronomy 17:8 asserts that if a decision eludes a judge it should be taken to a higher authority residing in a place where God will choose in the future land of promise. The word used for elude is ‘yipale’ which comes from the root pele or wonder. One of the cell phone companies in Israel is called Pele-phone or Wonder-phone. Wonder not as in, I wonder what movie we’ll see tonight but as in Wow.
What does it mean for ones judgment to be ‘wondrously’ elusive? Rashi says it means that the correct judgment is hidden and many commentators assume that it’s something the judge really should know but that it has somehow slipped his mind. And so later commentators will try to answer the following question: How could such a thing happen?
Chessed L’Avraham, a commentator from the 17th century, relates this word to a phrase in the verse that suggests the judge can’t decide between ‘blood and blood’ meaning a capital crime of murder. Although the intent seems to be stylistic, Chessed L’Avraham asserts the double statement of the word ‘blood’ implies the judge is clouded by believing, as the Talmud suggests, that his blood is redder than his fellow’s. As Shakespeare has his Jewish character Shylock cry, ‘If you prick me, do I not bleed?’ When we are stuck in what Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman would describe as confirmation bias -- the filtering of information in such a way that anything that challenges our assumptions is neglected and anything that confirms it is welcomed -- our judgment will be impaired. We’ll miss the obvious because it doesn’t fit our world view.
Late 19th century Rabbi Avraham of Sochachov connects the ‘wonder’ word to the phrase about a conflict in the gates of the city. He tells a story of a delegation from a smaller community unhappy with how their rabbi ruled on kashrut issue. Rabbi Avraham said their rabbi was only potentially guilty of a mistake in rabbinic law. They, however, were guilty of transgressing a Torah edict from our verse, causing unnecessary strife in their community. That’s why his judgment might be clouded and certainly theirs.
I’ve read that the expression of righteous indignation can lead to a production of adrenaline followed by a release of endorphins to calm one down. This chemical reaction often helps convince us even further of our confirmation bias since we feel so good after expressing our anger and we associate our good feeling with the righteousness of our cause.
So there’s no wonder that a noxious blend of confirmation bias reinforced by righteous indignation can lead us to lose our sense of balance and judgment.
Shabbat is the perfect time to take advantage of endorphin opportunities. A nice walk in nature will give the exposure to the sun and exercise, meditation, music, sex (it’s a double mitzvah!), laughing and crying, and sweets including chocolate.
There’s nothing better for restoring the balance and judgment we’ll need to confront the week ahead.