Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Response to Tuvia: Rebbe Stories

Hi Skeptitcher Rebbe:

I am a sort of BT - enjoying your blog. I spend time with Chabad. I like the Chabad / Lubavitch distinction you draw. Never thought of it that way, but it is a good insight (your wife's I guess).

Anyway: stories of the Rebbe. What are your thoughts? There just seem to be some very amazing ones.

There is one on the Chabad site that kind of blew my mind, because I know the family somewhat. It is the one of Diane Abrams who naturally conceived a child at the age of 50 after visiting the Rebbe who knew (somehow) that she wanted another child.

How do you feel about Rebbe stories? I can never help but be respectful of him.




Thanks for visiting. I have heard plenty of stories about the Rebbe and the supposed miracles that occur. The Rebbe probably gave hundreds of blessings and had hundreds of interactions every day. Out of all of those interactions there are bound to be some who have had something positive happen to them after the encounter. It's like playing the lottery, someones got to win.

The stories that are told are only the positive ones about the blessings that come to fruition because those are the ones that are inspiring. There is no reason to tell a story about a person who went to the Rebbe and then nothing happened, there isn't any kick to that, no punchline. Similarly you wont ever read a news article about a person who played the lottery and didn't win anything (maybe you will on The Onion).

In addition to this you have all sorts of things that could happen. Sure you got a brachah from the Rebbe, but then you could get pregnant, get a bank refund, not get hit by a bus, have a smooth drive to work, find a job, etc. and there is no way to distinguish what the brachah was for so anything good at all that happens is attributed to the brachah and anything negative that happens is simply ignored and not spoken about. It's a cognitive bias called selective perception and it is really very common.

I have heard some stories where there are people who claimed that the Rebbe gave them specifics and things came to be just as the Rebbe claimed. One such story is about a person who comes to the Rebbe and says that a friend of his has some sort of disease and must have a very serious operation done. The Rebbe tells him that his friend will have the surgery and have a full recovery after 3 days and be home from the hospital after that. Not only this but the Rebbe informed the man that he should call his friend and tell him what will come to pass. The man did not want to call his friend and tell him the story. Maybe he didn't want to inform his friend so as not to get his hopes up only to be dashed when the event doesn't occur as described, thus making the Rebbe look bad, or maybe he was just being a good skeptic ;). Regardless the Rebbe's secretary calls the man the next day asking him why he didn't tell his friend what the Rebbe said and that he should call his friend right away. Now the man knew the Rebbe was some sort of mystic so he calls his friend, tells him the story, and lo and behold everything occurs as predicted.

Now to many Chassidim this is airtight proof that the Rebbe is magical. The problem is that this story is totally based on one persons account of the events. I haven't seen testimony from his friend attesting to the validity of this story. I haven't seen any video recording of the Rebbe actually saying this to him or any doctors saying that the patient healed quicker than expected, or anything like that. I wouldn't say that the man was lying (even though that is a possibility), I would rather say the events that took place were greatly exaggerated and if there were more testimonies of the story or any other evidence I have a feeling that the there may be plenty of things that were left out of the story that would explain the phenomena in a totally natural way. People tend to exaggerate stories and leave out important information in order to make the events seem all the more mystical than they really are.

Lastly there is the important point that since the Rebbe has interacted with hundreds of people everyday and thousands every year, it is likely that he may have picked up on queues that people give off that betray their inner thoughts. It is definitely possible that the Rebbe has trained himself to be in tune with the emotions that people constantly give off. This allows him to connect with certain issues they may be having and in the frum community there usually aren't a great many of different issues that people seek advice for, many of them are the same problems over and over again. Also I don't remember any video footage (and there is a lot of footage) of the Rebbe actually looking into the persons soul and telling them their issues before they themselves bringing it up. If there was I am sure I would have seen it, why wouldn't they want to propagate such clear evidence of the Rebbe's greatness. What I have seen is people retelling an experience they had with the Rebbe and when compared to the actual video of the event there were significant differences in the persons account of what the Rebbe said and what the Rebbe actually said.

You may ask, why am I being so skeptical. Here I have an account of supernatural forces at work, isn't it just my own biases that are directing me to throw out the "evidence" so that I don't have to deal with the implications of the Rebbe havinga strong supernatural connection. To this I would counter that this can hardly be called evidence, it is merely a claim not supported by any evidence which could have been made up entirely or altered greatly. Also I have nothing to gain from throwing out this story, if anything I wish it were true. I wish there was hard evidence for the claims about the Torah, Hashem and the Rebbe. It would make my life in the frum community so much more meaningful. Lastly had this story occurred with the Pope instead of the Rebbe, the Chassidim would be just as skeptical of it as I am now. It is just hypocritical in my opinion to apply one set of standards for supernatural claims outside of ones faith and another less critical set of standards for claims within ones faith.

I haven't read the precise story you mentioned, if you want to provide a link feel free, but I have a feeling that what I wrote above could easily apply to this situation as well.

Although I have never met the Rebbe I do have a lot of respect for him and not because he has some supernatural connection, but because he has such an amazing human connection. His love for his people, his constant devotion, his tolerance of many different types of Jews and non Jews all point to his greatness. Fairy tale stories about him only diminish this beautiful story, because his story is about the greatness a normal person can accomplish. What each and every one of us can accomplish.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This is a common strain with superstitions belief systems; magical stories which aren't properly substantiated but are told by "reliable sources" pop up. There are crazy stories about Uri Geller and Sylvia Browne too. The differences are twofold: 1) They're manipulative frauds while I think we can assume the Rebbe fully believed in yiddishkeit. 2) They were debunked by James Randi.

  3. Hi Skepticher R':

    This is the link.

    For the record, I never know what I feel for very long with Judaism. But I believe that as I get to know myself better, I will be more in control - and in a very important way, a better Jew too. I hope this is true at any rate.


  4. Thanks for the link.

    Like i said above the story doesn't seem to be much of a proof of any amazing miracle. What it does show is the Rebbe's great character traits as indicated in the beginning section and in the last few paragraphs of the story.

  5. If it is a reliable story, if the narrator is not fudging -- all i can say as a man in my forties listening to IVF stories from many of my female friends ---- no one age fifty can do what she did. after forty one the eggs plunge in viability. the blessing out of no where from the Rebbe is peculiar; her conceiving naturally right after is...well, it just don't happen!

    but, i do also prefer not to get over-excited by it.

    interestingly: the girls, the oldest is a rebbetzin in Jerusalem (what else is new?), and the youngest is marrying now -- an orthodox style life I am pretty sure. She is marrying young, and I believe to a frum guy.
    parents are much more modern -- now with at least one ultra black hat daughter in Jerusalem.

    so i guess it gave the kids a kick towards yiddishkeit.


  6. First off there is no reason to assume the story is reliable. There is indeed a motivating force to make it appear as if the Rebbe's brachah led to the pregnancy, so either consciously or sub-consciously the story is likely to be either over-emphacizing certain points and leaving out other more vital points to the story and we would be none the wiser. It is not an objective account of the events that took place, but rather a very subjective one. I am not saying she is purposefully being deceptive.

    Please,watch this video as an example of how this occurs to understand my point:

    Secondly, your claim that "no one age fifty can do what she did" is just simply false. There are plenty of other women who concieve and give birth to healthy children at age 50, although rare, with and without blessings from Rabbis, Priests, friends, etc.

    Thirdly, The blessing from the Rebbe that a person should have a baby within a year is by no means out of nowhere or peculiar. People many times try to hide their intentions of wanting to have a baby, or other things, and while thinking they are being very secretive can at many times be very transparent. The Rebbe with decades of meeting with thousands of individuals many of whom with the exact same desire is likely able to pick up on the queues they give off indicating that they are hoping to have a child. Bear in mind that this blessing was also subtle. There may have been numerous other times the Rebbe subtly gave the same blessing, all falling on deaf ears since they may not have caught it. They may have remembered the words he spoke incorrectly as well, leading them to believe it was a prediction. There may have been numerous other individual giving them the same blessing, so why is it the Rebbes blessing in particular the one that "worked"? There is so much more that could be known about this situation which makes it very hard to tell if what is implied (the Rebbe has a supernatural connection/power) is indeed correct.

    It is interesting to note that the children have brought their parents nachas. It would be more interesting to know if maybe some of children grew up to be orthoprax also, but we may never know that.

  7. Skeptitcher:

    Probably shouldn't go round and round on this.

    But, yes women in their fifties conceive today -- but they either have frozen their eggs earlier in life, or have used donor eggs. The uterus (i have so many friends who have educated me on this) lasts way longer than a woman's ability to produce decent eggs. The decline is steep after age 41.

    Twenty plus years ago the artificial insemination business was (compared to today) pretty primitive: Women just didn't think to freeze their eggs back then - it may not have been offered even.

    So I will dispute the idea that women who are fifty today conceive naturally. I think we are talking 1 in 100,000 kind of odds. So it happens, but it doesn't happen.

    Second: your point that the story (told by her it seems) is fudged. Well that is getting to the heart of this particular matter for sure. This is where the rubber meets the road on this particular story.

    I spoke to a family friend and the Rebbe part he is not aware of. But yes, she birthed a kid that was hers (genetically) and naturally conceived, and at the age of fifty.

    Look, maybe even he has something wrong with his account of the story. But he was pretty darn close to them.

    I will conclude by saying: if the story is accurate, holy moley.

    If the story is fudged, that is a bummer.

    Finally, if you ever speak to someone in the IVF world -- like a doctor -- I think you will find that the likelihood of naturally conceiving at 49 is much smaller than you think.

    That's it...I would not base my relationship to Chabad on that one story. But when I read it -- yes it was pretty weird.


  8. not to beLABOR the point (pun intended), did a quick search and picked this out of some website, a woman had this to say in 2008:

    "I was told by my Reproductive Endocrinologist, who is very up to date on all of the statistics, that the odds of a natural conception at age 45 are 1 in 200 (or 1/2%). After 45, fertility drops off dramatically (and most women that age aren't trying to conceive), so they don't even track the statistics after that point. Also at 45, the miscarriage rate is 75-80%."


  9. I have never denied that she naturally concieved at age 50, I just am very skeptical that it was due to supernatural reasons.

    Here is an example on how this story could be understood in a natural rather than a supernatural way:

    A healthy woman, married at age 45, hoped to have their child without delay. She and her
    husband subsequently decided to pursue in-vitro-fertilization and embryo transfer (IVF-ET).
    In the succeeding year, ET was performed twice from four oocyte retrieval attempts, which
    represented six ovarian stimulation cycles. Pregnancy was not achieved. Because of her poor
    responses to ovarian stimulation, inferior oocyte grading and prohibition of donor oocyte
    usage in Japan, the couple decided to discontinue further IVF treatment at age 48 years, 10 months. One and one-half years later, at age 50 years, 3 months she presented to our clinic eight weeks pregnant. At term she delivered vaginally a 2740 g healthy infant at 38 weeks gestation; Apgar scores were 9 and 10. During her pregnancy, she willingly participated in our questionnaire designed to provide information about her psychological well-being during the past three years. During the time spanning her treatment for infertility, anxiety, depression, irritability, fatigue and grief were revealed to coexist with her high hopes of having a child.

    After termination of infertility treatments these adverse psychological findings were markedly lessened and her vigour was restored. Stopping infertility treatment might be a viable
    alternative for achieving pregnancy in similarly psychologically-challenged infertile women.

    Now this story above shows that natural conception at age 50 is possible without a blessing from the Rebbe. Also it shows how that after all the work the parents did could have resulted in anxiety, depression, irritability, fatigue and grief from their high hopes of having a child, which made it even more unlikely to have a child. When the Rebbe reassured them they would have a child it is entirely possible that the psychological effect of being told by the Rebbe that they would have a child calmed her down considerably and thus she was able to concieve and bring a healthy baby to term.

    Now in a sense it could easily have been the Rebbe's blessing that caused them to be able to have the baby, but it wasn't due to supernatural reasons, but natural ones. If that person was a catholic and the Pope or a cardinal told her the same thing the Rebbe told her it could have had the exact same effect and both women would use this anecdote as evidence of their religious leaders having supernatural powers/connections when in fact this may not be the case at all.

  10. Look at some other cases of women who naturally concieved over age 50, without the aid of a blessing from the Rebbe:

    Aracelia Garcia of Sunnyside, Washington astounded doctors when she naturally conceived (without hormonal treatment) all-female triplets in 1999 at the age of 54. She delivered three healthy girls Arianna, Brianna and CeCelia by Caesarean section in January 2000

    Ruth Kistler of Portland, Oregon gave birth to a daughter in Los Angeles, California on October 18, 1956, at the age of 57. The birth predated the advent of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) making Kistler one of the oldest women known to have conceived naturally

    Kathleen Campbell of Kimberley, Nottinghamshire gave birth to a son in 1987 at the age of 55, having conceived naturally

    Dawn Brooke of Guernsey gave birth to a son by caesarian section on August 20, 1997, at the age of 59. She became pregnant unexpectedly, initially mistaking the symptoms she experienced for cancer, and is the oldest mother currently known to have conceived naturally. It has been speculated that the hormone replacement therapy which Brooke had may have contributed to her ability to ovulate past menopause

    All I am saying is that there is no evidence that blessing from the Rebbe to this woman somehow led to her concieving and giving birth supernaturally.

  11. Also think about the hundreds or thousands of blessings the Rebbe gave that didn't come to fruition. It isn't like this is the first and only blessing for children the Rebbe gave. Had it not come about they would have interpreted the words "an addition to the family within the next year" in another way. Maybe they would have gotten a pet, or a new job, or adopted, or any number of possibilities. The vagueness of the blessing is what really drives my point that the blessing likely did not have a supernatural effect, since it would have been basically impossible for the family not to have an addition of something in that year. Also do you have any idea how many times the Rebbe said this phrase? I don't think I've seen a Rebbe passing out dollars video where he doesn't say this or something similar to it, but do you think that every woman he told this to had a baby? What about all the women over 50 he said this to who never had a child since?

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. Skepticher:

    Sent you an email begging for leniency here...please remove all posts from me. Not ready to heap this on the Rebbe when he is not here to answer.

    But I hope your blog continues -- I am looking for clarity and reality like so many who find their way to Yiddishkeit.

    Tuvia Todd