Dialog on the Red String

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12/31/03 The Red String

Several people have recently asked me my thoughts regarding the power of a “red string” that has been wrapped around the tomb of Rachel to ward off the evil eye.  My thoughts on this topic involve a meditation on the views of certain Kabbalists that “faith” lies at the foundation of our world (Azriel) and that the world as we know it is a construction of the imagination (Schneur Zalman). My views here are not meant to be final. Perhaps they can be regarded as a starting point for further discussion.


The use of amulets to ward off the “evil eye” has a long and controversial history within Judaism. The rabbis of the Talmud seem to have taken their use and efficacy for granted, though later Rabbis, such as the Rambam (Maimonides) considered them folly. Sefer Yetzirah gives instructions for their preparation and Nachmanides and others sympathetic to the mystical strand of Judaism supported their use. They became an important part of the “magical” traditions of the practical Kabbalah.

There is certainly a tradition of wearing a string that was wrapped around the tomb of Rachel as a means of warding off the harmful effects of the evil eye (i.e. other’s envy).  I have also heard it said that this simple string is a sign of humility and that when one sees it on one’s own wrist it is a reminder of one’s lowly origins, and that it is in this way that the string counteracts our own narcissism and (thus) other’s envy. Finally, there is an old tradition that since Rachel is a matriarch of Israel the red string is particularly efficacious in warding off danger to pregnant women and children.

While not everyone will find them meaningful, I do believe that objects like the red string have the power to channel one’s own faith and spiritual/psychological energy in a positive manner. Indeed, many spiritual symbols function in this way, and their impact is directly proportional to the faith of those who participate in them (i.e. the individual who wears the string him or herself and the community around him/her that invests the string with their own spiritual energy). As a psychologist I might call this power “suggestion” but it is not “mere suggestion.”  It is a very important power indeed, one that is responsible for a large percentage of the healing that occurs not only in psychotherapy, but in medicine in general. It is the power of mind, and especially the imagination, over our minds, our bodies and even our world. It is an extremely powerful force that is constitutive of much of what we call personality, identity, mental illness, and mental health. The power of the imagination is evident in myth, art, and spirituality, and engenders within us a faith that can transform our lives. The “magic” involved in the red string is not supernatural, rather it is a magic that is omnipresent: it is the magic of the collective imaginal and symbolic worlds within which we live.


The imaginary order is a very powerful one.  While we may think that we are living exclusively in and functioning according to the rules of an objective world, described by an objective, scientific language, we are all also actually living in collective “imaginal” worlds that are subject to rules and effects that are not readily accounted for within objective/scientific systems of thought and discourse. Psychologists call the effects of the imaginal realm the power of “suggestion,” “transference,” “auto-hypnosis,” the “placebo effect” or “hysteria” but this is only from the perspective of an objective point of view that seeks to minimize, derogate and control the imagination. From within the perspective of the imagination itself these effects are far more varied, and are known by the names of their corresponding images and symbols, names that are actually much closer to our lived experience than the language of psychology: “Torah,” the “red string,” the “Zohar,” the “Wailing Wall” in Jerusalem, etc.


It is important not to be trapped by the idea that there is something wrong with or inferior about the imagination. While we should always subject our imagination to the scrutiny of intellect and reason, “imagination” and “faith” are neither inferior forms of thinking nor psychological states that somehow supervene upon “objective reality.” Rather “imagination” and “faith” are foundational for any view we take upon ourselves and the world. According to the Kabbalist Azriel, “faith” is actually at the very origin of the world: it is “the place where the Nought is connected to Being” (Scholem.  Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 423). For this reason, when one channels one’s faith, one is channeling the very power of creation itself. My understanding of this is that the faith each of us has in life, in ourselves, in our community, in humanity in general, in science and God (to take several important examples), is the existential ground not only of our view of the world but of the world itself, for without such faith we would have no cause for interacting with being in such a manner as to experience a world at all.


We should also note that in the Chabad interpretation of the Kabbalistic doctrine of Tzimtzum, the whole of creation lies within the imaginative order: According to the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Schneur Zalman of Lyadi:


Such acosmism led the Chabad Hasidim to boldly assert that the world as we know it is an illusion.  According to Schneur Zalman:


Earth and heaven are like a curtain that separates, for they do not see His blessed unity, and in truth they are merely fantasies for it is imagined that there is a world, but in truth there is only simple unity…and our seeing the existence of the world is only imagination” (Schneur Zalman, Boneh Yerushalayim, p. 54, sig. 50. As quoted in Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent to God, p. 108.)


This is a very complex topic and one should not get the idea that for Schneur Zalman the fact that the world of finite things is in the order of the imagination means that this world does not matter (as there is also a sense in which this “imaginary” world is fully real and necessary for the completion of God Himself!). The point I am making here is that Schneur Zalman held that, at least from a certain point of view, the world of everyday life is an imaginative construction. It thus stands to reason that our imagination can have a profound impact upon it.


We are all continually re-imagining ourselves and re-imagining our world, and it is the faith that what we imagine today is a possible reality for tomorrow that both makes the world alive, and allows us to participate in its reform or Tikkun. The phenomenon of the red string participates in this imaginative aspect of earthly life.


Sanford L. Drob


Comments on The Red String 1/3/04: Charlie Coon




I thought I would send along a few comments on your very interesting "The Red String."  The connection between "imagination" and "faith" seems to be most significant.  You list  examples of various elements of faith, such as ourselves, our community, humanity in general, science, and God.  Might we treat these elements (and perhaps others), as they are formed in the imagination, in a manner analogous to how we consider the components of the Sefirot, expecting that there are dynamic interactions among the elements, inclusions of each in all of the others, so that faith would indeed become the "simple unity" which Schneur Zalman envisioned?  The imagination would then be much larger than perhaps is normally thought, and would be unique for each person.  For example, a scientist would have a heavy element of technical understanding, or a literary person would have a heavy component of understanding of human personality.  But real faith in all persons would necessarily be characterized and qualified as a simple unity.  Then, might we say that when faith does exist as this unity (understanding that faith, and vision, do not exist, or are degraded, unless there is such a unity), our worldview is most truthful, and this view would then in actuality constitute, as you say, the existential ground of the world itself?  (Faith as building blocks of Tikkun.)


So are imagination and faith a unity? Is faith most simply a recognition of the "spark" within?


Thanks and Best Wishes,


Charlie Coon


 The Lurianic Kabbalah is treated in detail in Sanford Drob's Symbols of the Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Metaphors .

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