Wednesday, January 10, 2018


Here's something you likely don't know about the Holocaust.

Hasidic Judaism is recent, having originated in the 1700s and flourished in the 1800s. There are parallels with The Reformation. While Hasidism is, like all religious Judaism, codified up the wazoo, it offers - at least ideally - more sap and joy and immediate personal experience (as opposed to bloodlessly admiring one's spiritual betters) than the stodgy mainstream Judaism of that time.

When sap rises in a spiritual tradition, there's inevitable talk of "power". And the funny thing about spiritual power (the juju that makes people writhe at revivals and transform into fervid devotees) is that it doesn't really translate into worldly power. All traditions speak of miraculous healings and other abilities, but I suspect that's because strictly internal power doesn't make for inspiring stories!

The Hasids, with the heat and freshness of their recent semi-schism, were extreme. Their masters were said to be god-like beings, hopped up with superpowers (don't miss public radio show Studio 360's deconstruction of "Superman", which came straight out of Jewish mythology). But then came the Holocaust, where these spiritual titans were rounded up like vermin and shoved into cyanide showers. No fireballs, no plagues; nothing. They turned out, alas, to be merely human.

(Despite this extraordinarily painful lesson, the same stories of superhuman power continue to circulate. When the Lubavitcher rabbi died in 1994, teams of followers monitored his grave 24/7, with a fax machine at the ready to announce news of his resurrection to the worldwide faithful. So far as I know, those guys are still there.)

In 1964, the James Randi Educational Foundation, a group of skeptics led by a wily magician with a keen eye for sleight-of-hand, announced a "One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge". To oversimplify it, they offered a cool million to anyone proving ability to defy the laws of physics within a controlled environment.

In a half century, none managed it. It might be argued that the foundation went beyond skepticism to actually put their thumb on the scale ("I always have an out," confided Randi, and his claim of misquotation doesn't pass the smell test). It might be argued that the environmental controls were massively cumbersome. It might be argued that truly spiritual people don't need to prove anything or make money (though the $1 million would have fed an awful lot of poor people). Yet, despite all that, surely someone would have won if there was anything robustly demonstrable to any of this.

It must be conceded that the laws of physics cannot be broken by spiritual or other power. And that spiritual power is neither a weapon nor a defense against weaponry. Inner mastery is a thing, but it doesn't grant you cheat codes to universal law.

Miracles are nonetheless possible, just so long as they don't involve levitation, telekinesis, etc. The word "miracle", after all, is highly pliant. When a small child peers at a book of matches and schemes misbehavior, and Mother appears to read his mind, snatching away the matches, it seems, to the child, miraculous. Similarly, any sort of human sensitivity, awareness, skill, or intuition offers extreme cases indistinguishable from magic. Anything within the laws of physics is potentially fair game (note that James Randi and his foundation would strenuously object to this).

It's highly useful to know what's possible and what isn't. Between the Nazis and the James Randi Educational Foundation (not to equate them, of course), we've had incontrovertible boundaries drawn around possibilities that intrigued humanity for time immemorial. Anyone still clinging to this stuff has simply failed to get the message.

A third point of persuasion was offered last century via mere pithy insight. Some wit - perhaps Emile Zola - noted that Lourdes, site of supposed miraculous healings, was full of abandoned crutches and wheelchairs...yet not one glass eye or wooden leg. The observation shook the world, like a cold water plunge of hard reality. The persuasive big three on this topic were: Nazis, Randi, and Zola.

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