March 30th, 2023

In a 2014 interview for the Huffington Post, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said something incredibly profound: “Our thoughts have power,” he told the interviewer, “They can create or destroy. They can heal or harm. They can inspire or depress. The way we think about ourselves and the world around us literally shapes our reality and determines our destiny.”

The idea that what we think results in what we do is deeply rooted in Judaism, and has also been adopted by modern psychology. But I believe Rabbi Sacks was trying to drive home a slightly different point. What Rabbi Sacks meant to say is that our thoughts are not just a series of electrochemical signals and processes that occur within the brain. Rather, as the neurons in our brain communicate with each other through the release of neurotransmitters which trigger further electrical activity – the scientific definition of “thoughts” – there is something else going on that cannot be monitored by an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine.

In fact, the brain power referenced by Rabbi Sacks – the power to create or destroy, or to heal or harm – the power that “literally shapes our reality” – is not the kind of brain activity that generates a reading of any kind, on any machine, in real-time. Although, it is certainly a power that can be measured, evaluated and quantified – if you know what you are looking for.

The question of whether human thought on its own has the power to change reality is a topic that has been explored and discussed for millennia by philosophers, spiritual teachers, and – more recently – by scientists. Truthfully, the results of scientific research studies are a mixed bag, and there is no shortage of skeptics and debunkers who dismiss any notion that what happens in someone’s head has any impact on the physical world beyond their head.

And yet, there is well-documented research into what is known as the “placebo effect” – a phenomenon that occurs when a person experiences a positive outcome from medical treatment which includes no known active ingredient. These “fake” medicines are effective because of the belief and expectations by those using them that they will improve their condition.

The placebo effect has been critically observed in clinical trials, with placebos used as a control or as a supplement to other treatments, and while the mechanism is not fully understood, it clearly demonstrates that if you think you are taking a medicine, it has a measurable impact well beyond your brain.

Dr. Ted Kaptchuk, a Harvard professor of medicine who has studied the placebo effect for many years, and has written countless books and articles on the topic, has this to say: “The placebo effect is not imaginary – it’s a real, biological response to an expectation of healing that is induced by a treatment. It is a reminder that our health and well-being are not just determined by our biology, but by our beliefs, attitudes, and social context.”

Remarkably, the placebo effect phenomenon was discovered by accident in the eighteenth century, as part of an attempt to discredit a charlatan doctor. In 1784, King Louis XVI of France asked Benjamin Franklin – who was the American Ambassador in Paris – to oversee the first-ever documented placebo-controlled trial.

The trial was set up to investigate the claims of a German physician named Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), who had become famous in Vienna for his “animal magnetism” therapy. Mesmer’s hypnotic effect on his followers in Paris (hence the word “mesmerized”) even included the French queen, Marie Antoinette.

The King was highly skeptical of Mesmer, and asked Franklin to investigate – and the results of the investigation were devastating. Franklin’s carefully chosen team of eminent scientists conducted several controlled experiments, which included asking a young boy to hug what he was told were magnetized trees that contained healing powers.

The boy hugged the trees and immediately began shaking and convulsing – but it was then revealed that the trees were not magnetic, and the boy had simply been tricked into believing they were. Mesmer was exposed as a fraud, but in the meantime, the power of a placebo had been demonstrated for posterity.

But while the placebo effect proves that thoughts have power beyond mere thinking, the power that thoughts have to change reality is still seemingly limited to the individual who has those thoughts. What about projecting that power beyond oneself? Is it possible? Scientific data is scant, and those who claim to have proven the efficacy of “thought power” have yet to convince the scientific community.

In her book “The Intention Experiment”, the alternative medicine practitioner, Lynne McTaggart, presents what she claims is scientific evidence. In a series of experiments, participants were asked to focus their thoughts – she refers to them as “intentions” – on a specific outcome, such as reducing violence in a particular area or improving the health of a particular group of people.

McTaggart asserts that the results of these experiments conclusively prove that the “power of intention” can be used to affect the physical world in measurable ways. But her claims have been contested by scientists, with her data being dismissed as half-baked and unscientific.

Judaism has always promoted the idea that thoughts and prayers can make a tangible difference to the world around us. Perhaps it is exactly because it can’t be proven and involves faith, that this idea is so important to religion.

No less an expert than Dr. Fred Rosner, an Orthodox Jew who is a well-known authority on Jewish medical ethics, has expressed doubts about the feasibility of subjecting prayer to empirical analysis, and he questions whether this subject even falls within the domain of science – even though he personally believes prayer works.

In Parshat Tzav we have the perfect example of thoughts intervening into reality, with a concept known as “pigul” relating to Temple offerings. The consumption of any intended offering is subject to two restrictions: the time and location of its consumption. The time frame for consuming certain sacrifices is limited to one day, while for others it’s two days. Meanwhile, some sacrifices can only be eaten within the Temple complex, and others can be eaten anywhere in Jerusalem.

According to the laws of “pigul”, if a priest thought to consume a sacrifice beyond the permitted time or outside the permitted location while offering it, the sacrifice is automatically disqualified. Even if the sacrifice is later consumed according to Jewish law, in the correct time and location, it is still no good, due to the initial “pigul” thought. The reality has changed as a result of a random thought.

Modern science is still in the very early stages of understanding the human brain, and the power it yields. But Judaism is clear – our thoughts have the power to alter reality, a message imparted in the Torah by the laws of “pigul”.

And while we may not have scientific evidence to back this idea up, the concept of “thought power” is certainly worth taking on board, so that our minds are finely tuned to become tools of positivity in our own lives, and for the lives of all those we know.

Or, as Rabbi Sacks put it: “The way we think about ourselves and the world around us literally shapes our reality and determines our destiny.” Powerful words indeed.

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