Alternative piety, Holistic medicine and all that jazz

It is my custom, when I am fortunate enough to be in Israel, to spend half a day at the כותל in the covered alcove to the left. I sit in the same place, and simply say תהילים. I’m not a תהילים זאגער but I’m drawn to it at the כותל. Some years are more inspirational than others. I surmise that lack of inspiration is due to my shortcomings.

On Monday, as I said תהילים, a gentleman who looked to be about 45 years of age, came up behind me with four American tourists in tow. He carefully asked each of them their names and the name of their fathers, after which he began making a special מי שברך for each. As he finished, he informed them that his own son was becoming בר מצווה and that given that he needed to buy two sets of תפילין, would they be kind enough to help out with some financial assistance. An awkward silence ensued. Two of the guys wandered away and one of them must have obliged. I resumed my תהילים and after a few moments he returned with another set of dewy-eyed tourists.

The scene troubled me. Even assuming he needed the money for his son, I felt uneasy. At a time when each religious Jew needs to stand and be counted, and try to counteract negative images, this scene came across as opportunistic.

Do one’s prayers get answered more readily at the כותל than 10 miles away from that spot? We have no tradition that this is the case today. Is a מי שברך from a gentleman with Payos, long black coat and hat more likely to find favour in Hashem’s eyes than if these tourists had personally felt inspired enough to issue their own prayer from the heart?

I’m tired of the fiscal opportunism. Can we leave our religion pure and holy? Are we able to refocus on a less predatory approach? The commercialisation of religion is disturbing. The booming business of the red kabbala string is void of meaning. Being addressed as ‘צדיק’ as a method of getting one’s attention and inflating their ego is self-defeating; if anything, I found it annoying. Why all this focus on paying someone to pray for you? Call me a cynic, but will a set of kabbalists davening at Amuka for shiduchim help?

Jews have a direct line to God. If we are sincere, we improve our chances of being heard. On Erev Shabbos, there was a group of about 60 individuals all chanting some Kabbalistic prayer for removing this and the other. I had never seen the prayer. I do know though that it wasn’t authored by the אנשי כנסת הגדולה. If someone took the trouble to compile all these special prayers and varying segulos (which the spell checker wanted to correct as “seagulls”), they could probably fill an Airbus A380. אם כן אין לדבר סוף

Can we get back to basics perhaps?

This phenomenon is not restricted to Jews or orthodoxy. In desperately seeking non standard or scientific solutions to health problems, alternatives are being pursued more and more radically. Some Rabbis, as pointed out in this article, have begun warning about the possibly עבודה זרה based “holistic/alternative” approaches to  health care. Perhaps there is a parallel here, להבדילֹ. It is natural (sic) for people to try something different when all the normal possibilities have been exhausted:

  1. If you weren’t listened to after 3 Yom Kippur’s of solemn davening and תשובה why not try going to the Oomba Poomba and tie a green thread on your little toe while reciting a passage of a fragment of a תפילה found in the Cairo Geniza
  2. If conventional medicine isn’t working, and the doctors have “given up”, why not mix some partick thistle and cats paw and cook it in a bunsen burner, smearing the mixture on your forehead as a רפואה.

More seriously, when people become desperate, they use desperate measures, but we are in trouble when we ignore and avoid the standard approaches, be they basic, Torah and Mitzvos, or להבדיל basic Medical Science and supplant them with hip alternatives that often do much more harm than good.

Author: pitputim

I've enjoyed being a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia, as well as band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel and later in life at Machon L'Hora'ah, Yeshivas Halichos Olam.

2 thoughts on “Alternative piety, Holistic medicine and all that jazz”

  1. your point of our direct line to G-d and getting back to basics remind of 2 funny/sad scenes that I saw on my recent trip overseas.
    1. The Israeli girl on the El Al flight returning from India with a bindi (red dot) on her forehead
    2. the postcard at Phuket Chabad that have 2 israelis in full tibetan ‘dalai lama’ type garb while laying tefillin

    Just a reminder of how far removed we can get from the “direct line” you refer to….

    p.s. send regards to the fam


  2. [lightly edited]
    I just happened across this site somehow. People at the Kotel offering “brochos” for a fee? People in Yerushalayim (and now throughout Israel) have a long tradition of living off other people’s donations, going way back to the early Yishuv. And when donations are hard to collect (which is always), people resort to sneaky stories, tricks and other schemes to get your money. I recall Dijkstra saying that when he realized that the Soviets had copied the horrid IBM 360 architecture, he considered it the greatest victory of the Cold War. The so-called Palis have also learned many (good and bad) things from their Jewish neighbors. It shouldn’t surprise us that the Palis are now the world’s greatest schnorrers. Have a nice visit and a good trip home.


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