Psychics

Jewish Crystal Balls

Rabbi Yossi: A person does not place himself in a situation of uncertainty.
— BT Kiddushin 51b

I laughed out loud this week when I read Michael Wilson's article "Tarot Cards in the Age of Yelp" in The New York Times. How on earth do you rate a psychic? Is it based on a prediction you like? Maybe you get fewer stars for a negative prediction. It seems like a rough business, but at least any psychic worth his or her salt (crystals) knows in advance what rating you are going to give.
 
Psychics have been in the news quite a bit lately, mostly for crazy scams that have led to law suits. I even noticed, for the first time, a radio advertisement for California Psychics. On their website, they claim that two reasons that people choose them is that they are very selective. Only two out of every 100 are deemed worthy. They also have a policy  that "if it's not the best psychic reading you've ever had, it's FREE." Another laugh out loud moment. I think people must choose them for the weather.
 
So what does Jewish law have to say about this? Maimonides, the rationalist, had quite a bit to say, actually, and he never knew that there was a California. In his "Laws of Idol Worship" he devotes an entire chapter to defining different aspects of astrology and divination and why they are prohibited.  Here is a brief sampling from chapter eleven:


It is forbidden to practice soothsaying as idolaters do: "Do not act as a soothsayer." [Leviticus 19:26] What is a soothsayer? For example, those who say: Since my piece of bread fell out of my mouth, or my staff  fell from my hand, I will not travel to this place today, since if I were to go I would not be able to accomplish my goals. [Excerpt from law #4]
What is a diviner? This is a person who does particular acts that cause him to fall into a trance, clear his mind of thought and then predict the future, saying, "This will happen" or "This will not happen;" or "You must do such and such or be careful to do so." Some diviners who use sand or stones. Others bow to the ground, make strange motions and scream. Others look at a metal or crystal mirror, use their imaginations and speak. Still others carry a staff, lean on it and tap it until they fall into a trance and speak. [Excerpt from law #6]
Who is a fortuneteller? A person who tries to predict auspicious times, using astrology saying, "This day will be a good day" or "This day will be a bad day," "It is appropriate to perform a particular task on a certain day"; or "This year" or "This month will not be opportune for this particular matter." [Law #8]
It is forbidden to tell fortunes, even if one does not act on it but merely relates the falsehoods that the fools consider to be words of truth and wisdom. Anyone who performs a deed because of an astrological calculation or arranges his work or his travels to accommodate a time that was suggested by the astrologers is punishable, as it states: "Do not tell fortunes." [Leviticus 19:26] [Law #9]

Maimonides wrote these laws over 850 years ago, but they seem eerily resonant given the popularity of psychics today. The question is why this surge in popularity. I believe it can be explained by Rabbi Yossi's observation made over two thousand years ago in the Talmud: "A person does not place himself in a situation of uncertainty." The drive to predict the future is the ultimate way humans confront the insecurity of a life unknown. People hate uncertainty and will go to great and irrational lengths to avoid it. Today we are arguably in a time of great uncertainty. We face global political instability, threats of terrorism and are just recovering from financial recession. Is it a wonder that people want to know what's next?
 
Maimonides fought against this need ferociously because he believed in the fundamental power of free will and argued against any practice that vitiated it. He did not want people to predict the future. He wanted people to shape the future. He closed chapter 11 with the rationale for the Torah taking a strident approach to prediction of any kind. It is "emptiness and vanity that attracts the feebleminded and causes them to abandon all the paths of truth."
 
Shaping the future requires a lot more autonomy, energy and honesty than predicting it.
 
Shabbat Shalom