My first choice, when I rag on religion, is Judaism, just because I know it first-hand.  Of course, there's always more to learn.  Through my current wife, I became aware of what goes on in Jewish enclaves/ghettos (depends on who's herding Jews together, Jews or gentiles) -- the threats, the ostracism, the mind control, the obsession with ritual (these people REALLY observe all the Sabbath and milk/meat separation rules, and it is a major pain in the ass). 

I also became aware of sectarian rivalry -- no, make that contempt -- between the two major Jewish gene pools, the Ashkenazic (Eastern Europe/Poland) and the Sephardic (Spain/Muslim world).   My wife's family includes rabbis from both.  The Sephardic one thinks the Ashkenazic a bunch of dolts who can't read or understand Scripture and commentary properly.  I would assume the disdain is mutual.  At least they don't blow themselves up.

One Sephardic Jew argued with my wife on Facebook that "Sephardic" does not refer to a "sect" (yes, it does; check the dictionary)...but to a philosophy and a method of reading the holy texts.  Oy gevalt, gimme a break.  Religious people have to be SO special!

Needless to say, none of these folks would consider my family, with their four-day-a-year observance and opulent bar/bat mitzvahs, to be real Jews.  The same for everybody to the left of conservative -- Reform Jews, humanists, Reconstructionists, etc.  You don't count.  But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter.  If you say you're Jewish, that's enough.

Superstitious remnant

One bit of Jewishness that seems ubiquitous (I have to believe that the Orthodox, with all their superstition, use it) is what called "the three most important Jewish words."  I couldn't wait to see what they were; Judaism is full of Very Important Words.  Would they be God, Torah, mitzvah (a good deed?).

No. The three most important words were kein ayin hara, pronounced colloquially "kenna hurra."  It is to be uttered right after reporting or remarking on anything positive, e.g., "Your kids are getting so big, kenna hurra."

It's purpose is to ward off the Evil Eye, hard to pin down, but apparently a traditional malevolent force that seeks out good and gleefully balances it with misfortune.

Our language is the product of our history, so it's no surprise that there's so much God-talk.  Each atheist has to adapt his/her own strategy, and this has been a fruitful topic at A/N. Along with other substitutions, I advise not shouting God's name at the moment of orgasm, but rather the name of the person who is giving you said orgasm.

Atheists also have to deal with the remnants of superstitious ignorance that still occur in the language.  It's amazing (to me) that so many liberal Jews use "kenna hurra."  I've even had doctors usher me out of their offices with it.

On the jewniverse site, one article proclaims, with some pride, that the writer and her husband are getting more superstitious, using the phrase more and more (along with the old-country pu-pu-pu spitting gesture).  Yeah, well, the older you get, the more uncertain life looks.  But that's no reason to fall back on religion.  Sorry, but I find it the path of weak people. 

Intent of "kenna hurra"

I can understand the desire that another's circumstances go well (or continue to go well).  I can understand our powerlessness in the face of chance, and I can understand the need to acknowledge it.   And maybe uttering "kenna hurra" says to the listener, "Hey, I'm just as aware as you of the fragility of life." 

But I'm all for dropping the superstition.  I'll try to come up with alternatives, but for now, I replace the "kenna horra" with an expression of approval ("Your kids are getting so big - that's terrific!").

Of course, I have geography working for me.  Here in New Hampshire, nobody says "kenna hurra" to me (so I don't have to be a wiseass and say, "The Evil Eye??? Where???").   And nobody knows what it means. 


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Comment by Grinning Cat on November 1, 2013 at 5:55pm

Peter Leeson argues in "Justice, Medieval Style" that some superstitions may have evolved and persisted because they had practical effects:

Medieval legal systems leveraged citizens’ superstitious beliefs through ordeals, making it possible to secure criminal justice where it would have otherwise been impossible to do so. [...]

Ordeals were based on a medieval superstition called “iudicium Dei” [...] God, the thinking went, saved innocent defendants from being burned in hot ordeals and allowed guiltless men to sink in water “over which He hath thundered” in cold ones. [...]

How might these trials have worked, without divine intervention? The key insight is that ordeals weren’t just widely practiced. They were widely believed in. [...]

The only defendants who would have been willing to go through with the ordeal were therefore the innocent ones. Guilty defendants would have preferred to avoid the ordeal - by confessing their crimes, settling with their accusers, or fleeing the realm.

The next thing to understand is that clerics administrated ordeals and adjudged their outcomes [...] So priests could simply rig trials to exonerate defendants who were willing to go through with the ordeal. The rituals around the ordeals gave them plenty of cover to ensure the water wasn’t boiling, or the iron wasn’t burning, and so on. If rigging failed, a priest could interpret the ordeal’s outcome to exculpate the defendant nonetheless (“His arm is healing well!”).


(Then again, if priests were out to get someone, they could ensure that the trial was actually dangerous!)

Comment by Joan Denoo on November 1, 2013 at 5:33pm

A had a conversation yesterday with a colleague who is an atheist, a pragmatist, and also retains some of the mysticism of "old" thinking. I questioned her about her magical thinking and why she retains it, even as she very strongly supports thoughts about the role of superstition in all our lives. She pointed out that even our atheism is a superstition; we can't know the truth because it changes as science finds new clews. She has been with people as they die, as have I, and there is something very mystical about death's door. I don't mean one steps into the hallway and moves toward ancestors who earned their way into heaven. It is rather a change of energy that moves from living cells to dying cells to dead cells. Something happens and life goes away. I remember that feeling very clearly when each on of my parents, several aunts and friends died. Now here - Now gone. I watched the energy change in their eyes. 

My amygdalae seems to spark into action when I hear someone refer to women who take stands as "femi-nazi" and even someone who puts down, trivializes, discounts, or demonizes strong women. 

I am a strong woman with an attitude. I may hurt feminists and atheist; I don't justify or rationalize my energy, I recognize it for what it is: reaction in the face of personal experience. It doesn't mean I am wrong or bad; it means I reach into my fight/flight mechanism and use whichever eases my anxiety. It also doesn't mean I will always react in that fashion ... I once acquiesced in the face of conflict. The old classical transformation exists of dependent  > counter-dependent > independent > inter-dependent. That is what growing up is all about. 

Comment by Alan Perlman on November 1, 2013 at 4:25pm

Thanks, Joan.  I'm always torn between letting the superstition slide by without comment...and calling the person on his/her magical thinking, which makes me look churlish (can't tolerate a bit of innocent superstition, Alan?).  So I'd have to do it as genially as possible. 

People are unaware of how they've been implicitly taught the (magical) power of some words.  Example from recent skeptical mag: "Fred says not to covet."  Somehow doesn't have the power of "God says...".

Some words have immense power via meme: hear "nigger" from the wrong person, and you must respond violently. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on November 1, 2013 at 12:07pm
My fickle "Like" button intermittently doesn't work. So, I LIKE what you wrote. Awareness of this superstition and those of other faiths, provide more evidence that words have power in people's lives. If I had a comedic nature, I would have a response that makes others laugh. Sadly, my old pragmatic nature opens up and I ridicule.
Comment by Alan Perlman on November 1, 2013 at 11:10am

You're welcome...thanks for reading.

Comment by Čenek Sekavec on November 1, 2013 at 4:51am

Thanks I learned much :)



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