To the puzzlement of my roommates, I have a peculiar habit of scouring our apartment and obsessively closing every single one of our closets before going to bed. It is like an inexplicable intuition that itches and nags at me until it finally rips through my sense of reason and moves me to act on imaginary stimuli. What is to blame for my apparent psychological imbalance?
Perhaps the most obvious reason for my superstitious paranoia is my Sephardic heritage. But nowhere in Sephardic legal literature is there a prescription to check one’s closet doors before going to sleep, to give a penny every time you receive a knife as a gift, or to avoid biting your nails. It is more likely that this habit found its way into my mind through my mother, who used to recount to me all sorts of spooky stories about dibbuks and other exotic spirits that hide in drawers and haunt little girls’ thoughts at night.
While I recently found out that these stories were mere stratagems to battle my disorderliness, my nightly routine is now too ingrained in my psyche to be reversed.
What does this nostalgic recollection of childhood naiveté have to do with superstition, one may ask? Everything. I will now begin to unravel the origin of my “protective” shticks, how they meddle with religious observance and daily life, and most crucially, how they differ from believing in and respecting Halakha.
These customs are often used in Sephardic parenting as an educational trick to silence childish inquiries, to instill children with guilt, and to frighten them into behaving. As a child, one does not question the metaphysical justification offered by the wise, it is only at a later point — if ever — that one begins to suspect foul play. In adult life, Sephardic Jews are tempted to keep these curious practices, thinking that their beliefs might give them an edge towards obtaining a coveted reward: fulfilling their life’s desires.
After all, it is comforting to think that there are benevolent mystic powers out there looking out for Jews and making sure they don’t spoil their chances at attaining favorable outcomes. It is also consoling to believe that there are greater forces that alleviate failure: one can always blame the outside forces and shrug it off by saying, “It was just not meant to be.”But where does this suspicion stop; if Sephardic Jews take that course to its limits, isn’t much of what they do superstitious nonsense? Moreover, how does one reconcile the notion that one can influence G-d’s actions by performing superstitious rituals if G-d has divine power and cannot be swayed by humans in the first place?
Do these overbearing forces conflict with G-d’s omniscient authority? Do we observe Jewish laws for the same reasons that we buy into the superstitious rubbish?
On the basis that they cannot be rationally justified and thoroughly demonstrated according to any empirical system, both superstitious and religious beliefs are very similar. However, people adhere to superstitious mores because they expect a tangible result. Sprinkling salt all over oneself worked like a charm in a past experience, which, according to flawed but popular logic, ultimately proves that this custom is worth keeping. On the other hand, many observant individuals do not keep Shabbat because they expect their beliefs to earn them extra karma points for good behavior.
Looking for proofs in Judaism and scientifically justifying every Halakhic specificity is missing the whole beauty of the religion. The purpose of Judaism’s complex system is not to elevate one’s soul through magical beliefs and powers, rather it is a specific tradition that offers a fulfilling and harmonious lifestyle instead of desired goals. In more simplistic terms, observing religious laws is more about enjoying the journey instead of chasing after the outcome — Judaism’s profits are to be enjoyed along the way.
In a college environment where occasionally, G-d is drowned in a red cup and superstitions often determine parts of daily routines, it is hard to keep religion separate from Grandma’s tales. The difference, however, is that Judaism is built on a strong and unique foundation that is represented by a finely woven framework of stories, laws, and other traditions, while superstitions are arbitrarily perpetuated.
While I feel doomed to keep cutting my hair on a full moon, restricted to live in a house in which the sum of the digits in the address is not 17, and confined to always finish my vegetables for fear that the Babaloulou (an extremely mean wolf) might come and make a mouthful out of me, I am able to understand the difference between the mezzuzah on my door and the Hamsa that I keep on my key chain. In the meantime, I try to hide my superstitious paranoia by saying that it is nothing but an acute and obscure form of obstinacy.