Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Three Weeks/Nine Days and Jewish Superstition

When I was in middle school, my doctor told me I needed a relatively complicated surgery. As a 13-year-old girl, this seemed like the end of the world.

I was sure something terrible would happen; and yet, the doctors assured me and my parents that if I didn't have the surgery, something terrible would happen. Catch 22.

After we exhausted all other options, my parents had decided that surgery was a must. And, of course, since they didn't want me to miss any school, they insisted upon a summer surgery.

But when the nurse opened the big book of summer surgery dates, the only available options were during the three weeks.

"But it's the three weeks!" my parents said to each other, alarmed - which, in the process, alarmed me even more.

Well, it was one of those dates or during the fall, said the nurse. And she didn't recommend waiting for the fall (more because of my medical condition than the school year).

So from the doctor's phone in the waiting room (people didn't have cell phones in those days), they called our rabbi. Thankfully (in retrospect), the rabbi said it was fine to have the surgery during the three weeks if need be. And so we scheduled the date.

As a child schooled in the terrible details of everything that had happened during the three weeks, I was now completely terrified. The surgery was sure to be a failure in some way. As I researched and read the details of what could go wrong in the surgery, I became increasingly convinced that I would die on the operating table or else come out paralyzed.

Well, lo and behold, although the surgery did have some slight complications, everything went fine -- the medical problem was resolved and by the next fall, I had completely recovered and was back in the school hallways with my friends.

Alongside all the teachings during my childhood about the high likelihood of tragedy during the three weeks/nine days, I was also taught this one magic phrase: "In Judaism, we do not believe in superstition."

This was something to be proud of, I was told. "We are not superstitious, not superstitious, don't believe in those superstitions, etc., etc., etc."

What's funny is, many Orthodox Jews I know really believe that they are not superstitious. Really. Even with all the talk of the nine days, three weeks -- to say nothing of the "b'li ayin hara"s, "poo poo poo"s, and hamsas.

Yes, Tisha B'Av commemorates a lot of terrible events to have befallen the Jewish people. Yes, some of those events (not all!) are believed or known to have happened during the three weeks/nine days. But let's not kid ourselves; there are lots and lots of terrible things that have happened (to the Jewish people as a whole and to individual Jews) during the rest of the year, as well.

If we want to say we will not go on a rafting trip during the nine days because said period is a time of mourning and rafting is fun, I can hear that argument (although I don't follow that line of thinking). But to say, we will not go on a rafting trip because rafting is dangerous and it's the 9 days and something will happen (I've heard many such arguments) is definitely superstitious and borders on absurd.

People should live how they want to live - sure. I would never get up and tell any Orthodox person that they are wrong not to do something they deem dangerous on the 9 days.

But it seems more than disingenuous to me to live life that way and then claim that they're not being superstitious.