Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Mass Formation Psychosis, Miracles, Magic or Technology Bava Metzia 26-28


Mass Formation Psychosis

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses social group dynamics.  If a coin fell from one of three people, the finder is not obligated to return it. What is the reason? The person from whom the coin fell certainly despairs of recovering it. He says, “After all, two other people were with me. If I seize this one, he will say: I did not take it. And if I seize that one, he will say: I did not take it.” Since he cannot make a definitive claim, he despairs of recovering his coin.

The sages were aware of the social dynamics that affect decision making and moral calculus, often affecting Halacha. Here are a number of other examples from the Talmud:

For example, the Gemara (Eiruvin 3a) discusses a high beam which requires a constant vigilance to remain halachically valid (for certain reasons explained over there), and makes a distinction between its status for a private Succah versus a public Eiruv. Even though it is technically Kosher, in regard to the private Succah, there is a high degree of confidence that he will continue to maintain it. However, regarding the public Eiruv, since no one individual has responsibility for it, there is a fear that its maintenance will be neglected. The Gemara quotes the following aphorism:

A pot belonging to partners is neither hot nor cold. 

That is to say, when responsibility falls upon more than one person, each relies on the other, and ultimately the task is not completed.

Similarly, The Gemara (Sotah 8a) discusses the way in which a sinner might be wrongfully encouraged by like-minded peers:

Two Sotah women are not given to drink simultaneously, in order that the heart of each one not be emboldened by the other, as there is a concern that when one sees that the other woman is not confessing, she will maintain her innocence even if she is guilty. 

Social psychology research calls this phenomenon ‘Diffusion of Responsibility’.  This is when the presence of others changes the behavior of the individual by making them feel less responsible for the consequences of their actions. 

Researchers Beyer, Sidarus, Bonicalzi, and  Haggard (Journal of Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience. 2017 Jan; 12(1):138–145. “Beyond self-serving bias: diffusion of responsibility reduces sense of agency and outcome monitoring”) report that Diffusion of Responsibility leads to decreased helping and increased aggression in group behavior. 

The researchers devised a clever experiment whereby they used a task in which a marble rolls down a bar, and an action is required to stop it from crashing. Participants either played alone or allegedly together with another player. If the participant acted, the marble stopped immediately, so they could unambiguously attribute the outcome to their own action. As the diffusion of responsibility concept is mostly used to explain behavior in situations where acting is somehow costly or effortful, or results in negative consequences, the researchers designed the task to exclusively produce negative outcomes. Stopping the marble incurred some cost for the participant, but this cost was avoided if the other player stopped the marble.  The researchers used EEG readings to measure and correlate similarity and differences between responses that indicated a sense of personal responsibility versus deflection of responsibility. 

Their findings were that the presence of another potential agent (person who could stop the marble) reduced participants’ sense of agency over those outcomes, even though it was always obvious who caused each outcome. Further, presence of another agent reduced the amplitude of feedback-related negativity evoked by outcome stimuli, suggesting reduced outcome monitoring. 

Of course, this has important implications on how mobs, or even like-minded, political groups can justify inhumane behavior, and on a personal level how we may rationalize our own misdeeds.  We only need to read the so-called news to see how this plays out in the social and political realm.


Miracles, Magic or Technology?

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the reluctance of a person to loan a wallet or purse to another person, because it is a bad sign.  That is, it symbolically portends that he will give his money to another person.

Tosafos (ibid) raises a concern that this paying attention to signs should be under the prohibition against divination, as stated in (Vayikra 19:26).  Tosafos answers, this is similar to what is taught in Shabbos (67a), “Anything that contains an element of healing, and seems to be effective, is not under the prohibition against following the ways of the Amorite.”

Tosafos seems to be drawing an analogy. Just as it is not considered divining when utilizing practices that seem to come from medical science as opposed to idolatrous or superstitious beliefs, so too attaching significance to this kind of symbolic act is permitted. Rashash (ibid) raises the obvious question: How can you compare medical agents or activities to seemingly magical acts? Presumably, the basis for permitting medical cures is that the intention is not coming from something magical, but more of a natural cure. Even if the agent is not completely known, or is some kind of mysterious procedure or incantation, if it is with the purpose of healing and has been demonstrated to be effective, it is probably due to some unknown effect and not magical or idolatrous. 

Interestingly, Rashbah (Shu”t I:413) makes this very point. Things that seem magical might only be due to an unknown natural effect. He compares this to a compass used by sailors, or the power of a magnet to draw another piece of metal toward it. He says, this is not magical, but it is due to some technology we do not understand. This brings to mind a quote from the famous futurist and science-fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

In any case, it is difficult to understand how Tosafos could use this as a way to explain an action that seems blatantly superstitious. It is one thing to use some kind of formula of herbs, or even an incantation, if it seems to be directed purposefully toward a proven method of cure even if through an unknown process. However, to respond to an omen or a sign does not fit in that category, and should be forbidden.

However, I believe there are two distinctions that will help us understand Tosafos. Tosafos holds the heter that allows practices designed for curative purposes is not because the purported or believed intervention was scientific/natural instead of superstitious/idolatrous. Rather, these medicinal practices were either to bring about an effect or to safeguard and prevent the occurrence of a problem. According to Tosafos, we can say that the prohibition against divination is only if it is done to predict the future. Solving a problem from the past, or even preventing a problem in the future is not the same as divination, which is predicting. If we say that, Tosafos’ comparison of fear of letting somebody use your wallet as a bad sign to medicine or cures, and even medicinal incantations is understandable. Because this is not about predicting the future, rather this is about somehow or another managing or enacting the future. (In this essay, I am discussing a handful of opinions. For Halacha lemaase refer to Shulchan Aruch (YD 179).

The reliance on using physical acts to channel and create spiritual activities, is well documented within Judaism. We all famously take new fruit and/or sweet fruit on Rosh Hashanah in order that we may have a sweet new year. Additionally, Gemara Horiyos (12a) speaks of a practice of anointing new kings, by a spring, in order that their kingdom will continue through the generations in an unending way, just as the water keeps flowing and doesn’t run out.

The Meiri (Horiyos ibid), typically aligned with Maimonides’ rational view of most spiritual matters, does not attribute these signs as the theurgical activities that induce a divine flow. Rather, these symbolic acts are done to arouse within ourselves an awareness, and cause us to pray and reach out to God with greater intensity and fervor.

This is the old argument between the kabbalists and the rationalists. For example, do we blow shofar to arouse us to repent (Rambam, Laws of Teshuva 3:4), or does it somehow stir and change something up in heaven directly (Zohar, Vayikra 18b). In Kabbalistic theology there is the concept of itaruta de-letata’a, a physical earthly arousal that induces an itaruta de-leaylah, an upper spiritual arousal (Zohar I:164a). 

It doesn’t matter if you are Moshe throwing ash up to the sky to cause boils or Harry Potter waving a magic wand, or some Indian Performing a rain dance, there seems to be a universal human way of inducing spirituality via a sympathetic physical act. Is that because of what it does for us, or does it somehow allow us to affect spiritual matters through some kind of resonance? I don’t know, but we’ve been doing it for as long as we are human.


The Circle of Life

Our Gemara on amud aleph discusses the obligation to announce a lost object to alert the owner.  One opinion is that it should be through the entire annual cycle of all three Jewish holidays, Pesach, Shavuous and Succos. Presumably, since people make pilgrimages to Eretz Yisrael at least once a year, this will allow for sufficient interaction that hopefully the person who lost the object will be notified. 

Akeidas Yitschok (69) discusses this phenomenon and ties it into an appreciation for Judaism’s respect for time and cycles.  The weekly cycle of Shabbos is reflective of a physical and spiritual pattern of work and then reflection, which expands to the seven year Shemitta cycle, and 7 x7 Yovel cycle, and even the human lifespan (Tehillim 90:1) of 70-80 years. He further draws comparison to the idea of taking 12 months to despair on a lost object to the twelve months that it takes to grieve a death or to assist a deceased in achieving forgiveness (Semachos  chapter 14.)  When one goes through an entire year, each season, each day, reminds and brings up various aspects of experience and reflection. This causes a person to recall various states of mind and process them. Even the Niddah cycle forces each couple to confront the biological clock. This is not only about having children.  It also stops sexual activity and intimacy to allow for reflection, assessment and a reset regarding the state of the emotional and physical union.

In both trauma treatment and in psychological development theory, there is an awareness that anniversaries can be powerful. They arouse old feelings and can cause distress but also be opportunities for repair.  Time may heal many wounds, but without conscious awareness of time and appropriate reflection, the benefit of time is less effective. Judaism’s strength is providing mindfulness and opportunities to reflect on life and self through annual cycles and rituals.

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
Related Topics
Related Posts