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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Mysticism (Part 3: Solution)

We suggest that a unification between placebo effect and mysticism can help us resolve the contradicting facts between the two camps, thereby uncovering a deeper understanding of the Torah's prohibition against all forms of mysticism.

It is true that the world model of mysticism can be observed to correspond to statistically significant improvement in the welfare of an individual who believes in them, especially if they are administered by an expert in science.  Yet it is likewise true, that the speculated forces of mysticism, as separate from the placebo effect, are totally false.  No intelligent person believes in their existence.  (See the wiki article on the one million dollar paranormal challenge by James Randi for the best modern day proof.)

The Torah states in Devarim (18:15) that the art of mysticism is something the other nations of the do.  The practice of mysticism persists to this day only because it is rooted in some truth.  Mysticism works because the placebo effect is real.

There are situations where we have no other method of curing other that the power of placebo.  This situation raises an ethical dilemma   Should the person seek out a mystic, someone trained in the art of inducing the placebo effect?  Why didn't the Torah promote a society of mysticism   What is wrong with a society availing itself of the placebo effect?

We believe that the reasons of the Rambam and the Ramban apply to this question.  The path of mysticism might start out from the placebo effect, but the path quickly branches out to include a life spent pursuing fantasy and imagination.  This is necessarily so as the art of belief is most powerful when it grabs hold of deep, primitive fantasies in the unconscious mind.  This path ultimately leads to total destruction of both the individual and society as a whole.

The Torah states in Bamidbar 23:23 that the Jewish nation is different.  We do not have mysticism  but we do not lack the benefits if the placebo effect.  We have available to us a different method.  We turn towards Hashem in prayer.  We know from the words of the Torah and our prophets that prayer works.

A person can never be sure Hashem will answer their prayers.  There is no absolutely guaranteed method for bring about every cure.  But you can have perfect confidence that the best method for success is to follow God's ways in all your deeds, and to turn to God in your time of need.  The true belief of a Jew is much deeper, and greater than other nation's belief in mysticism.

The Jew does not lack the benefits of the placebo effects.  On the contrary, we benefit from the true efficacy of Divine Providence, as well as a greater, enhanced placebo effect through the natural law.

How full of wisdom is our Torah's solution for troubles in our lives.  It steers us away from the paths of desolation, and guides us towards the Name of Hashem.  The prescription of the Torah is encapsulated in one verse in Devarim 18:13תמים תהיה עם ה' אלהיך.  You shall be perfect with Hashem your God


  1. In the end, what is the machlokes between the Rambam and Ramban (if any)? Is your position that the Ramban did not know about the placebo effect since it wasn't known in his time, but he would agree with the Rambam after the placebo effect was discovered?

    1. We are saying that there is a scientific argument about whether these things actually work. Depending upon your understanding of the science, you have to interpret the Torah’s prohibition of these things differently. The fact that they can have a scientific argument about something which you would think can be empirically tested is based upon the placebo effect making it hard to tell whether something actually works or not.

      We think that either the Ramban wasn't aware of the placebo effect or that he didn't realize its full power. We think that if he had, he would've been more skeptical of those who empirically claimed that these things worked. (See for instance Ramban on Dvarim 18:9 where he discusses this kind of empirical evidence).

  2. +1 to JL's questions.

    Also, "We know from empirical evidence...that prayer works." Can you explain what you mean by this? If someone were to propose the alternative hypothesis, namely that prayer is placebo, how would you prove that they are incorrect, leaving aside the words of our prophets?

    1. Good question!
      We wrote this piece a long time ago and cannot recall exactly what we meant. Perhaps we meant that we know prayer works because (a) the prophets tell us that Hashem is shomei'ah tefilla and (b) we have stories in Tanach of Hashem answering tefilla.

      While these are technically separate, one may argue that the only way we know (b) is because of the words of our prophets. So are these truly two things? Perhaps an argument can be made that there is historical evidence for the stories being true, irrespective of the words of the prophets. However, this isn't so clear and is certainly not the plain meaning of empirical evidence. As such, we have removed this claim from the post. The main point in the post in unaffected.

  3. Is this answer intended to address the question people have on rationality-based Judaism, namely, that the Ramban and others believed in mysticism? By saying that the apparent effectiveness of mysticism that convinced the Ramban and others was really a placebo effect?

    1. Yes. It is a partial answer to that question. As quoted, Ramban accepted "magic" as real based upon reported empirical observations. If we maintain that magic is not real, how do we explain these observations? One major way is the placebo effect. Other ways involve uncovering other tricks that magicians, psychics, and other charlatans use to trick people. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MFAvH8m8aI&safesearch=1&app=desktop for a great illustration by James Randi of some of these methods.

  4. This strikes me as a tremendous chiddush! Are you saying that the Ramban maintains that it would be assur to take, for example, anti-depressants which have been shown to have no greater efficacy than a placebo effect and are therefore likely making use of the placebo effect?

    In that same vein, would the Rambam matir or oser a medical therapy that made use of the Placebo effect?

    1. The Torah prohibited sorcery (and other like practices).The argument regards if the Torah is prohibiting something which is fake (Rambam) or something which is real (Ramban). Why did the Ramban hold it is real given that we know today that it is not? We are answering that the Ramban accepted the observations of those of his time who mistook the placebo effect for sorcery and thereby thought sorcery is real.

      However, this does not mean the Torah prohibits the placebo effect. It only prohibits that which is claimed to be sorcery (whether one believes it to be real or not). In fact, the gemara in Shabbos 67a says "anything which is based upon refuah, is not prohibited under darchei emoree." Presumably this would go by the medical knowledge of your times.

    2. But where is the line drawn? Would Homeopathy, Acupuncture, or Crystals be "sorcery"?

      When does reliance upon the effect become asur?

  5. The are many issurim in this area- each is its own sugya. In general, it seems the issur is to be involved in some form of sorcery, magic, witchcraft, etc. Sanhedrin researched these ares to determine what was and wasn’t assur. It doesn’t seem that any of these issurim apply to engaging in a claimed medical practice which may be working via placebo.

    That being said, if you know it’s placebo, it’s likely not to work. If you think it may work medically, then it seems to come under the heter in the Gemara.

    1. There is evidence that placebos are effective even when the patient knows it's a placebo:


      Would you say this even for anxiety or depression like I could go to a wizard to put a spell on me to be free from anxiety or fear?

    2. Interesting.
      You’d have to look into the details of the sugyos but presumably the wizard would come under the issurim.

    3. I would have thought the opposite.

      Isn't that a refuah? Can I not go to a wizard for a spell to cure my chicken pox? Or are you saying that treatment for anxiety and depression might not fall under the refuah exemption? (I'm sorry to pepper you with questions about this one; I'm not familiar with the heter and don't know how it applies.)

      Another question:

      I’m not familiar with the evidence upon which the Ramban relies.

      Were they instances of refuah?

      If they were, it seems odd to me for him to use them as a source when it is mutar to go to the sorcerer for refuah. If they were not, your approach to reconcile the Ramban and Rambam would seem faulty since the debate, according to you, hinges upon the Placebo effect being observed and accepted by the Ramban and categorically denied according to the Rambam. But if it isn’t a refuah type situation it’s hard to imagine a non-refuah application of the Placebo effect.

    4. We haven't gone through the halachic applications of this sugya in depth, but from what we've seen there appears to be a specific issur on magic and sorcery (irrespective on whether it is for refuah or not).

      What exactly constitutes magic and sorcery is defined by the actual wizards and sorcerers (much in the same way as idol worshipers define how a particular idol is worshiped). It is for this reason that the courts must be familiar with sorcery. It is not possible to infer a priori the craziness that the wizards can come up with.

      We don't know what evidence the Ramban thought he saw, as he doesn't tell us. We do know that if it's technically magic done by wizards then it is prohibited, whether it really works (as the Ramban believed) or it is only effective through the placebo effect.

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