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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The ancient pagan residents of Israel practiced widespread sorcery and black magic. Many of these rituals, including witchcraft, wizardry, necromancy and soothsaying, were aimed at divining future events. Living in a chaotic world, ancient man devised multiple “schemes” attempting to predict the future. In truth, these crude tools of black magic were partially effective in granting a blurry glimpse into the future.

As Jews, however, we are forbidden from engaging in these rituals and from associating with this undignified world. Even the “innocuous” process of “nichush,” basing decisions upon omens, is banned. As the gemara in Sanhedrin asserts, it is prohibited to render decisions based upon omens such as watching a deer cross our path or witnessing a broken branch. Despite the partial effectiveness of these rituals, the Torah sternly warns against adopting these premonitions. In part, this severe prohibition stems from the inherent affiliation with the world of paganism. Relying upon these portents would associate us too deeply with the dark world of idolatry. In addition to the prohibition based upon the association with paganism, these practices are banned because it blurs our vision of “freedom of choice” or bechira chafshit. The prohibition against “predicting the future” is based upon the notion that the future is undetermined. Obsessing about future events implies a world of pre-determinism and threatens the inalienability of bechira chafshit. “Nichush-predictors” are forbidden because they imperil our core belief in freedom of choice.

The launch of Elul and the buildup to the Great Days of Change demands a reaffirmation of the importance of freedom of choice. Our freedom of choice doesn’t only empower our “external” decisions, but also galvanizes us to determine and constantly reshape our very identities, our internal world. Teshuva is a constant year-round pursuit but it is amplified during this period of transformation—the period of man’s absolute freedom.

We live in an era of unprecedented personal, political, religious and economic freedom. Democracy has swept across the globe, relieving persecution and discrimination while liberating the entire gamut of human experience. Yet, ironically, in many ways our modern world sometimes feels more predetermined and less “free” than in past generations. How has this ironic transformation occurred? How have we achieved unprecedented political and economic liberty while sometimes abandoning personal freedom?

Much of this erosion of “behavioral” freedom stems from the development of the field of statistics. Over the past two centuries, as humanity has urbanized and amassed together in large populations, it became necessary to develop the field of statistics to enable the gathering and processing of information about large groups of people. At first, statistics assisted in gathering and documenting information, but ultimately trends of human behavior were noticed, yielding to the ability to predict “mass behavior.” Without these predictive skills, large-scale economies couldn’t function and advance planning would be impossible. The modern city is predicated upon our forecasting abilities. However, this emergent field of statistics has created the false impression that human behavior can be charted and predicted. The often-heard phrase “I feel like a number” reflects the depersonalization of the individual in the modern world. By contrast, the phrase “I feel like a statistic” reflects a sense of pre-determinism and the abdication of personal autonomy. If human behavior can be so easily predicted, how “free” are we to shape our future? Our exposure to statistics creates the mirage of a world of trends and mass habits; at some deep level we abdicate a sense of personal prerogative. Without question there are broad trends that govern general human behavior, but each individual remains free to render independent decisions.

More recently, the emergence of the internet has deepened the perception that human behavior is predictable and predetermined. We no longer merely conduct statistical surveys among “ourselves”—in our cities or even in our countries. The internet has allowed us to easily calculate worldwide trends in a global village. Sadly, sometimes life in this global village feels coerced. How often have we decided to view an online video based upon the number of “views” it received rather than based on personal interest or based on relevant “content.” The notion of a video going “viral” is, by definition, anti-democratic, as it is based upon “group think”: millions watch a video not because of personal interest but merely because that video is popular. At some point popularity feeds popularity rather than content creating interest and popularity. Furthermore, social media imprisons us in “echo chambers” within which our opinions ricochet off people almost identical to ourselves. Barricaded by these chambers from alternate viewpoints, our opinions seem very “protected,” unexamined and oftentimes simplistic. How truly free are we if our opinions and positions are not assessed but merely shaped by the cyber sphere?

As the internet has shrunk, our world science has dramatically expanded it. Space travel has expanded the “space” of human experience while science has greatly expanded the “space” of human inquiry. As our universe has swelled, it becomes more difficult to appreciate the centrality of a human being and the power of free choice. About 100 years ago, Franz Kafka commented, “We no longer live in space cut to human size but on a small lost star surrounded by millions of larger and smaller worlds. Solar space looms up like an act of vengeance. In its abysses we lose more and more of our freedom of movement day by day. I believe that it can’t last much longer… The world is changing into a ghetto....The world is opening out but we are driven into narrow defiles of paper.”

We are the only living creature gifted by God with freedom of choice. Unwavering belief in absolute freedom is crucial in general, but even more so during this period of teshuva. Sorcerers of the ancient world predicted the future through black magic, whereas “modern sorcerers” more accurately predict human trends through statistical analysis. This analysis is vital for collective planning but cannot eviscerate the belief in the personal freedom of the individual. Our ancestors were prohibited from entering the cave of a sorcerer; we must guard against the “graphs” of statistics. As with every instrument we must wield it in the service of human progress; however, we mustn’t allow the predictive ability of statistics to strip our individuality and our abiding sense of individualism and of bechira chafshit.

By Rabbi Moshe Taragin


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion, located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.