Oct 27, 2010

Magical Thinking

Magical thinking is a term that means the idea of "I can make things happen by wanting them." It is used to describe causal reasoning that looks for correlation between acts or utterances and certain events like the (non-Jewish) idea of wearing a "lucky shirt" when you go play ball. 

Those who study child development observe that in a young child's (preschooler's) view, it is very possible that it rains because the sky is sad. If your baby brother gets sick and goes to the hospital, it could be your fault if you were mad at him the day before and wished he would go away. If you want something very, very badly and it happens, then your wanting caused it to happen.

They are also examples of egocentric thinking--not that the young child is selfish. It's just that he cannot take anyone else's perspective, so that everything in the world revolves around him. When he's sad, he cries. So, it must be that the sky does, too.  And if he had a bad thought about his brother then that must be the reason he went to the hospital.

Okay.  So the questions are as follows: Can we make things happen by wanting them? Are there correlations between certain things we think or say or do and events that happen that are not as obviously connected as letting go of something and seeing it fall to the floor because of gravity? Do our thoughts affect anything outside of us? Does the world revolve around us?

The secular world would have us believe that the answer is the same to all these question: No.  But as religious Jews, don't we know we can make things happen by wanting them and praying for them? Haven't we read numerous stories in which the unlikely connection between events and a thought, utterance, or action that precipitated them was the point of the story? Isn't that what a segula is? Haven't we learned that thinking positively leads to positive outcomes? That "as waters reflect a face" - our attitudes about others affect their feelings towards us? That bringing someone to mind has the effect of arousing that person's innermost powers? That being jealous of someone or otherwise looking at them negatively with an ayin ra (evil eye), can make bad things happen? That bitachon, the feeling of trust in Hashem, can bring about what we desire? That "the world was created for my sake"?

I'm bringing this up because despite my disagreement with R' AJ Twerski on many important issues, I decided to read one of his books on relationships, a book written for the frum reader.  Early on in the book he refers to magical thinking and speaks about it in purely secular terms, i.e. that it's childish thinking.  And it stopped me short in my reading.  Whoa! One minute here! Surely he believes in prayer and bitachon and all the rest.  How does he reconcile the psychological/child developmental term with his religious beliefs?

I don't know, but it reinforced for me yet again that secularly educated frum people are confused.  Secularly well-read frum people are confused.  Ideas out in the world that are accepted as givens, do not necessarily reflect our Torah beliefs.  Beware - Be aware.


  1. Where I would see magical thinking as something detrimental to frum people is where frum people who committed fraud did so thinking that the giving of tzedukah from that money made it kosher. They felt that certainly Hashem would protect them because much of the money was for the frum community.
    What is not magical thinking is to "think good and all will be good." Certainly there are numerous stories where Torah, tefillah and tzedukah turned desperate situations around. Obviously if we think positive thoughts about the people in our lives, they will rise to our positive expectations.

  2. have you seen the previews all over the net for "the secret"?

    I haven't seen the actual movie but I've seen clips and previews. It's all about this magical thinking concept that if you focus on what you want you will get it.
    I've heard a lot of it sounds like it could have been taken from Chassidus.

    Someone discussing the movie once at a shiur brought up the story of the Talmid Chochom who struggled for a really long time on something in Gemora. Finally he figured it out, not long after he was at a shiur and a simple person answered the question he had been laboring over for so long. The lesson of the story is that once he answered the question he brought it down so that it became attainable for others to obtain that knowledge. This story was told to explain how goyim are coming up with deep concepts that we already know.
    I don't have a problem with the concept that our thinking affects happenings. I do have a problem that other people's thinking may affect others negatively. i.e jealousy and ayin hora. I choose not to believe in Ayin hora.
    It's really the same thing regarding thoughts affecting you. They say if you believe in AH then it can affect you but if you don't then it doesn't. Again it's about how you think.

  3. My understanding with ayin hora is something that I read recently about the roita bendel, the red string from kever Rochel that most feel will ward off an ayin hora if worn on the wrist. Someone wrote an article about it and said that if the red string reminds the person not to flaunt his or her good fortune, it will help the person avoid an ayin hora.
    People can and do get jealous, even if they try not to. If they are jealous over something that we were granted by Hashem but that we do not brag about or flaunt, we do not have to worry about an ayin hora. However, if we create jealousy, we risk that we intensify the jealous feelings of the other person to the point where they will no longer fight their jealous feelings and jealousy will turn to hostility and anger. Hashem grants us his protection through unity or achdus and when people flaunt their good fortune, it could chas v'sholem disrupt his unity. It is a hard thing to do because most people are proud of what they have and want to look good to the world. They want their houses, families, and selves to look prosperous and that is normal but to go beyond that could cause jealousy.

  4. yeah I get the whole not flaunting thing. But some people it seems, go over board with Ayin Hara and it consumes them.

  5. Yes, I've heard and read about The Secret.

    The story you refer to (found online) is:

    Rav Yosef Karo (of Shulchan Aruch fame) once spent a long time struggling over a very complex and difficult halachic question, until at long last he reached a resolution. Not long afterward, he overheard a student of average intelligence study that very topic, pose that very question, and immediately reach the very solution that Rav Yosef Karo had invested so much time and effort to attain!

    Rav Yosef Karo was very disheartened. “How could it be,” he wondered, “that I had to struggle for so long, and this beginner realized the solution immediately?”

    When he approached his teacher, the Alshich (or, some say, the Arizal), his teacher explained that on the contrary, through Rav Yosef Karo’s grueling exertion, he had brought the topic down into the world in a way that made it accessible to everyone. This enabled even that average student to arrive at Rav Yosef Karo’s solution with ease!

  6. The Gemara says "man d'kopid kapdinan leh" (ayin hara only harms someone who worries about it/ gives it credence.

  7. why then, does every thing that we say end in, keneinahora?

  8. I suppose because most people give it credence!

    Also, although you might not give it credence, since others do you say it as a prayer that they be protected.

  9. thanks for the details of the story.

    Regarding Ayin Hara Rosie, not everyone uses the expression that loosely. And there are other terms to use. "Kein Yirbu" regarding children for example. "Boruch Hashem" etc.

    Regarding positive thinking versus negative, I also prefer the expression "b'ezras Hashem" over the expression "im yirtze Hashem".
    Why be so iffy? "Im"= "If" Hashem wants.
    I prefer to think Hashem wants and WILL help so "with Hashem's help" being a more definite expression

  10. re iffy and wording - good point