Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Letter From Rebbetzin Kanievsky

Someone forwarded me (and many other people) the following letter from Rebbetzin Kanievsky (my thoughts below):
Dear women and girls! We need you to help us in prayers! The situation in
Eretz Yisrael is very difficult. Lately we are suffering terrible losses,
many orphans and widows from different diseases. My husband, The Rabbi, was
asked what could be the reason for all these tragedies. The Rabbi opened a
Gemara and said it's because of foul language. And how can we correct
ourselves? Only by watching what we say.

I read an article written by Rabbi Segal from Manchester who writes: "Never
did I see a person who learned 2 Halachot of Shemirat Halashon every day and
didn't see salvation from above, whether in children, in shidduch, good
health, parnasa or bringing up the children. He had promised that whoever
will learn the Chafetz Hayim, he will be his defender in Heaven." And we
witnessed miracles that happened to people who took upon themselves two
Halachot every day and saw Yeshuot. While I was reading the article a woman
walked in crying and said she has a number of aging daughters that are still
not married. I showed her the article and immediately she said she will
learn two Halachot of Shemirat Halashon every day. Within three days one
daughter got engaged. Two months later her second daughter and ba"h this
woman saw many Yeshuot. Like her, hundreds of girls who took upon
themselves the Shemirat Halashon got married.

A different story is about a woman who came to us about a year ago with
great sorrow saying that she'd been married for 20 years and she didn't have
children. I advised her to learn two Halchot every day and B"H she
conceived and now has a month old baby boy.

And another story: A few weeks ago a woman came to me, broken and crying,
and said that her mother is in the hospital with a growing tumor. She
asked what she could take upon herself to help. Again, I advised that the
entire family learn two Halachot of Shemirat Halashon every day. Two days
later she returned and asked of me to tell her story and the miracle that
happened. She said that the entire family gathered and decided to learn two
Halachot daily and two days later they received a phone call from the
hospital saying to come and pick up the mother, the tumor is gone and she is
in good health.

I hear many miracles such as these.

And now, we should all take upon ourselves, bli neder, to learn two Halachot
of Shemirat Halashon every day and pray with great kavana. A prayer that
comes from the heart through a holy mouth is immediately accepted by
Boreh-Olam and prevents many troubles and tragedies and brings Yeshua to the
world. In the future, each one of us will be shown how many wonderful
doings, how many people we saved. And thanks to you, my dear righteous
women and girls, we will have the Zechut to bring Mashiah Tzidkeinu soon in
our days.

Yehi Ratzon that Hashem will fulfill all of your wishes for the best,

B. Kanyevsky
For Zikui Harabim,
Each one who receives this letter should try to make at least 50 copies and
spread them for your own success, and you shall be blessed by Hashem, amen
An[d] whoever exceeds that amount will be blessed directly from the mouth of
Hashem.
1) Like a true golem, I will react to last things first. Thus, the last portion of the letter, which states that
For Zikui Harabim,
Each one who receives this letter should try to make at least 50 copies and
spread them for your own success, and you shall be blessed by Hashem, amen
An[d] whoever exceeds that amount will be blessed directly from the mouth of
Hashem.
is a bit over the top. First, I should note that it appears below Rebbetzin Kanievsky's signature, without a P.S., and so quite plausibly came from someone else. This postscript is essentially a segulah for success and blessing from Hashem for forwarding the email to everyone in your Inbox. Not that the letter itself does not contain segulah content, but that was for learning Chafetz Chaim and for guarding one's speech, not for forwarding a chain letter.

Indeed, many chain letters contain such a section at the end, threating horrible things will happen if you fail to forward it and wonderful things to happen if you do. Thus, for example:
You must send this on in 3 hours after reading the letter to 10 different people. If you do this, you will receive unbeleveably good luck in love. The person that you are most attracted to will soon return your feelings. If you do not, bad luck will rear it's ugly head at you. THIS IS NOT A JOKE! You have read the warnings, seen the cases, and the consiquences. You MUST send this on or face dreadfuly bad luck.

*NOTE* The more people that you send this to, the better luck you will have.
See how the pattern of this chain letter matches the pattern of other chain letters. Indeed, "The more people that you send this to, the better luck you will have" roughly matches the additional claim that
An[d] whoever exceeds that amount will be blessed directly from the mouth of
Hashem.
Of course, here there is a plausible reason for this -- by forwarding this, or photocopying and mailing/distributing it, you are being mezake the rabbim. But the claims being put forward -- that you will be blessed by Hashem, and for mass-spamming it, will be "blessed directly from the mouth of Hashem" is a bit excessive. Whoever wrote this, whether is was the person who began distributing it or Rebbetzin Kanievsky, cannot make such promises of a blessing directly from the mouth of Hashem.

2) Now that I've discussed the postscript, on to the actual text of the letter, in order. The first paragraph reads:
Dear women and girls! We need you to help us in prayers! The situation in
Eretz Yisrael is very difficult. Lately we are suffering terrible losses,
many orphans and widows from different diseases. My husband, The Rabbi, was
asked what could be the reason for all these tragedies. The Rabbi opened a
Gemara and said it's because of foul language. And how can we correct
ourselves? Only by watching what we say.
Stating knowledge of the why of various tragedies is not my own personal cup of tea, coming from a more rationalist and less mystical background, but there are surely support for such, as we find in various gemaras explaining reasons for various tragedies, and find various personalities throughout Jewish history making such claims about the reason for tragedies.

So someone asked Rav Kanievsky the why of many modern personal tragedies (men dying from illnesses, leaving orphans and widows). He did not respond off the cuff, purely from his mystical knowledge. Rather, he knows about his own contemporary society, and apparently looked up a gemara which stated reasons for various personal or national tragedies. (There are such gemaras, such as in Taanit, where various reasons are given for drought (one is people saying lashon hara), or Shabbat 33a, which states that askera (croup) comes to the world because of neglect of tithes, or (on the next amud) because of slander.

Unfortunately, we do not know which gemara Rav Kanievsky found, because this letter is directed towards women and girls, and they will not respond to (or have knowledge of) gemaras, but rather will respond to inspirational stories of segulas and miracles.

However, assuming that this letter is accurately translated, Rav Kanievesky said that what caused this was nivul peh, foul language. Foul language is not the same as lashon hara, slander and tale-bearing. Yet, she extrapolates from a statement that it is because of reason X, to promote strengthening in a distinct cause Y. And if the problem is indeed nivul peh, then stopping lashon hara should not end the problem.

3) Skipping over the anecdotal evidence for the moment, the nature of the campaign is interesting. I've seen a bunch of programs lately targeting women and girls specifically in the areas of Shmiras haLashon and Tznius. (Here is one such example.) I haven't seen that many emails encouraging women to take up, or announcing a new set of shiurim in, say, learning a sefer of Nach with Malbim, just fuzzy subjects of this sort.

I don't know who comes up with the ideas, but the thought that this (tznius and shmiras halashon) is the end-all and be-all for Jewish women, and what they must have endless education about, seems to betray an attitude of considering women sex objects that talk too much. Thus, we must curb the sex-object aspect by teaching, and teaching, and teaching modesty, and curb the excessive talking with instruction in Chafetz Chaim. And perhaps women have internalized this attitude, who think this is what must be stressed and stressed.

4) The business with the segulas as a reason for learning shemiras halashon bothers me somewhat.

We keep Torah and mitzvot because it is the proper thing to do, and because Hashem commanded us to do it. We don't do it to ward off or prevent cancer, or in order to get a shidduch. This is transformation of mitzvot into segulot, which Rambam was against in the case of mezuza.

Sure, the Torah says there are rewards for mitzvot. Thus, perhaps we can see a segula in this week's parsha, parshat Ki Teitzei, where it says:
טו אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ, אֵיפָה שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ--לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִיכוּ יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-ה אֱלֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ. 15 A perfect and just weight shalt thou have; a perfect and just measure shalt thou have; that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
Though of course this is the written reward for doing a mitzvah, and the purpose is surely to be ethical and to listen to Hashem's command. And in the Shema, the promise of rain in its proper time, or lack thereof, for listening to commandments. And in the gemara, various maladies come to people and the world for specific deficiencies. But that is the natural sechar veOnesh, or else reward from Hashem.

In this case, the protection is not really coming from Hashem, but from another power -- the ascended, deceased spirit of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan. He promised to intercede up in Heaven on behalf of anyone who learns this specific sefer that he wrote (presumably, learning his Mishna Berura would not help), he will be his/her defender in heaven. Read another sefer on lashon hara, you don't get this defender.

While this was a clever way to encourage people to learn his sefer and so learn the laws of lashon hara, perhaps this was ill-advised, because of the way it has been taken and corrupted. A person has many defenders and accusers in heaven, and it certainly is good to have the Chafetz Chaim as a witness/lawyer for the defense, this is not the same as an assurance that therefore everything in your life will go well. The Chafetz Chaim did not mean this as a panacea, a cure-all for every malady and life difficulty. He did not say, "worried about a shidduch? Learn my sefer and I will guarantee results. Sick relative? Learn my sefer and I guarantee that they will recover." (He guaranteed no results, while Rabbi Segal and Rebbetzin Kanievsky certainly appear to do so.)

And, once he passed away, he is a soul in heaven, and doing an act or ritual in order to get him to intercede and get results, rather than praying and doing good deeds and hoping for a positive outcome from Hashem, may not be the best thing in the world. There are not two authorities in heaven, such that one can go to one of them (the Chafetz Chaim) and be guaranteed results. For those who find praying to angels theologically problematic, this may also be theologically problematic. Compound it with the fact that it is a segulah, and we may well have idolatry and superstition.

Such practices are more accepted in the chassidic world, with its Rebbe-centric attitude. And we have praying (to Hashem) at the graves of tzaddikim. Personally, I find such segulot theologically troubling.

A related issue: In Kupat Ha'Ir mailings, they often promise yeshuos from all sorts of maladies (the same laundry-list given above) in exchange for supporting Kupat Ha'Ir and thus the families of the poor Talmidei Chachamim in Eretz Yisrael. These mailings are over-the-top and look like they are selling segulot. Infertile? Send a check for X dollars and Gedolim will pray for you that you will have a child. Here are a bunch of anecdotes proving it! I've thought it possible, perhaps probable, that Rav Kanievsky did not personally read these English leaflets and approve the content and approach. If his Rebbetzin expounds the same, I may well have to rethink that attitude.

5) These anecdotes are indeed inspiring. But such anecdotes, and statements, have been used to support other causes as well.

For example, the tumor disappearing anecdote above. There is another story which I saw on an imamother thread.
I know of a litvish lady that was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She went with her husband to the Skulaner Rebbe that promised her that if she shaves her hair, she will be helped. She did it that night and when the time came for her to have surgery, lo and behold, her tumor was gone. Needless to say, all her siblings shave their hair since then.
Thus, shaving the head (together with other head coverings such as a tichel) has now become a general segulah for warding off cancer.

Rabbi Falk, in an article which Ariella of KallahMagazine pointed me towards, writes, also based on the Chafetz Chaim, that all are modern troubles come (not because people are having nivul peh or not learning enough of the Chafetz Chaim's sefer) but because women are wearing modern wigs. He basis this on the Chafetz Chaim:

He bases his causal analysis on the fact that the troubles of those times gave rise to a feeling that Hashem had chas vesholom forsaken and abandoned His people to the wicked devices of their enemies. The only place where the Torah writes the frightening words "Hashem will forsake you" is in conjunction with pritzus, as the Torah writes: "Velo yeiro'eh becho ervas dovor veshov mei'acharecho - - Hashem shall not see nakedness on you, [for if He does] He will forsake you" (Devorim 23:15). The Chofetz Chaim therefore pointed an accusing finger at pritzus as the cause for the severe troubles that befell Klal Yisroel in those times.

We are at present in the throes of a seemingly endless string of tzoros that threaten to engulf the yishuv in Eretz Yisroel. The nature of these troubles is such that we once again feel totally abandoned and helpless. In line with the Chofetz Chaim's words just quoted, we must assume that a serious lack of tznius is at least one of the main underlying causes for the present condition.

Nowadays, Orthodox women certainly do not leave their hair uncovered. However, many wear hair-coverings that are totally inappropriate and, according to a wide range of poskim, constitute an issur min haTorah.

This is an extension of the Chafetz Chaim who was talking about not covering hair at all, and we do not know that the Chafetz Chaim would say this even today. But it all comes down to lashon hara and/or tznius.

Elsewhere, I have heard that all our modern troubles are coming from talking in shul. Or for not opposing the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem strongly enough.

6) To the point of using segulot in this way, there is a general danger that these rituals imbued with meaning and potence approach witchcraft. As the Talmud says, "the best of women practices witchcraft."

In the same context, we have that "the
best physicians are destined for hell." Some commentators explain that this means specifically the best physicians, because due to their skill they are filled with arrogance and will then accidentally/negligently kill someone.

I would suggest that the same may be read into the statement about the best of women. Specifically the best of women. These women crave spiritual growth and exploration, and unfortunately, not as much room and opportunity is afforded them as is afforded men. A man can become a rabbi, he can lead prayers, become a mohel, etc. For a woman, she is excluded from a lot of the formal established ritual.

As a result, she creates new ritual, or imbues new meaning in the ritual she does have. Thus, challah-baking and taking off challah, reciting people's names as she does it. Your typical Jewish baker does this mitzvah but does not make it mystical, and recite names of cholim, nor do I think women throughout Jewish history did this. At these gatherings, occasionally, a woman gives over a shuir, telling about the mystical significance of all the 7 components of the challah -- the flour, the water, the yeast, the salt, the sugar, the oil, the egg. This is new ritual because of religious longing which is unsatisfied.

The same goes for the fetishizing of a word, Amen, writing books about how it is a cure-all for all of life's ills, and making Amen parties where women make brachot and say Amen to each other's brachot. Women's prayer groups have their own halachic issues, but this more-acceptable alternative may be even more problematic. It is, in some circumstances, the meeting of a coven.

So too for many other segulot, and encouraging women in adopting these segulot, as segulot, I find somewhat problematic. Even for worthy aims such as shemiras halashon and tznius.

7) I am sure Rebbetzin Kanievsky is a tzaddekes. I don't know whether she took College Statistics, though. :) I didn't, myself.

There is something called "regression towards the mean," which basically means that is you have a given sample at the extremes, the next time you look at that same group at the extreme, it will move towards the average.

To cite the heilige Wikipedia:
Regression toward the mean refers to the fact that those with extreme scores on any measure at one point in time will probably have less extreme scores the next time they are tested for purely statistical reasons. Scores always involve a little bit of luck. Many extreme scores include a bit of luck that happened to fall with or against you depending on whether your extreme score is extremely high or extremely low.
The people coming to a Rebbe or a Rebbetzin for brachot are at the extreme. They self-select for that, since people who are doing just-fine, thank you, or just fabulous, do not come for a bracha or segulah.

On average, at any point, there will be people with problems and people doing fine, and people doing wonderfully. Thus, while on average, people might be having just the same amount of troubles, if you only look at the people who previously were at an extreme, many will have moved towards the mean.

Thus, the fact that people in difficult circumstances performed a segulah and we have anecdotes in which many of their situations improved is not necessarily evidence that the segulah works.

The same is true, by the way, for drug treatments, and people working on such studies need to watch out for this, and look at the entire population at the extremes and the middle.

Also, she is likely only going to get ecstatic call-backs from people for whom the situation improved and so the segulah "worked." In cases in which it did not work and the person died, or the daughter became an old maid, she is not going to get an angry call-back that she recommended the segulah and nothing happened. Those people will give up, or will try other sugulot, etc. Some of them might keep coming back for repeated advice until they also give up, such that she could get some feedback, but not everyone. Thus, the data she has is incomplete, since it is self-selective on two levels.

Besides which, the woman with the tumor was presumably being treated by doctors as well, though the way the story is told over, one might get the impression that the tumor was growing and growing, and 2 days after they began the segulah, though the doctors did nothing, the tumor miraculously disappeared into this air.

And the infertile woman may have been asking for a blessing/segulah together with, that is to bolster, fertility treatments she was trying at the time. And there is also a placebo effect -- a woman's emotional state does have an effect on ability to become pregnant, and knowing that she had a sure-fire segulah may have aided her in becoming pregnant.

I am not stating that in these two cases, for sure, it was not a miracle. But I am pointing out that we do not have enough information in these second-hand accounts of success to be able to fully evaluate it. And as such, it bothers me to use such anecdotal evidence to create a segulah with troublesome religious/theological import.

9 comments:

Chaim B. said...

was this letter really written by r' kanievsky?

joshwaxman said...

Good point.

I don't know for sure. It certainly is written as if it was written by the Rebbetzin, and is signed by her, and from my (limited) internet searches, it has been consistently attributed to her...

I don't think someone would sign the name, unless it was done by someone else by accident. (say, someone whose name was B. Kanievsky forwarded this, and this was taken to be originally from her, and thus placed as a clarifying signature). The same has happened in the past for other emails, like hoaxes forwarded by someone who worked for a govt. agency.

One thing we might try to do is track down that article by Rabbi Segal from Manchester, and see if it was written in English or Hebrew, and if in English, whether Rebbetzin Kanievsky reads English.

joshwaxman said...

Also, according to this issue of Jewish Observer:

Rebbetzin Kanievsky does indeed go by B. Kanievsky, and talks with the women, while her husband deals with the men. So the narrative as told in the letter sounds plausible.

Shmendrik said...

" Lately we are suffering terrible losses, many orphans and widows from different diseases."

For some reason, this is the perception in the frum community, although it's probably not borne out by statistics.

Anonymous said...

>For some reason, this is the perception in the frum community, although it's probably not borne out by statistics.

You have no idea how often people tell me things about this or that car accident or death, that they read on Yeshiva World or Vos is Neias or something similar; and then there are the six other people telling me the same story, only they heard it from the person who read it and don't know the original source. The grapevine is getting more immediate, is all.

Shmendrik said...

"The grapevine is getting more immediate, is all."

That could be part of it. I think that the rareness of tragedies may make people more aware of them. 100 years ago, it was probably not so uncommon for any large family to lose a child before adulthood. Nowadays, thankfully, that occurs far less often, so the tragic aspect is more pronounced.

Also, the Chareidi world seems to enjoy lurching from crisis to crisis, so this could be another aspect of that.

joshwaxman said...

True.
It could be that internet communication is shrinking the world, so that something that occurs in another community is more well known in others.

Also, the charedim have a high birth rate, thus more people than last generation. It could well be that the *average* incident for the population is the same, but because the population is bigger, the number of incidents have increased. But people do not look at the average, but look at the total number.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

your point #6 is brilliant

joshwaxman said...

thanks

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