Friday, June 4, 2021

But is it really a coincidence?

 But is it really a coincidence?

By Aaron Ginsburg

At Jewish Newport

June 4, 2021

Edited by Vicki Kaplan

Also at

A couple of weeks ago, Touro Synagogue welcomed members for the first Shabbat since Covid-19 struck over a year ago.

It was a warm day.

As is customary, there was a trickle of men going out and in during the Torah reading and repetition of the Musaf. There is one bathroom accessible only by going outside and reentering the building’s wing, which has the stairs to the women's gallery. There is also only one door out of the sanctuary. 

I bided my time, being careful to say, ”Amen,” at the appropriate times. 

Finally, the coast was clear and it was my turn. Usually I make a right when I exit, and head right to the door. This time, I paused to enjoy the fresh air. It was warm and stuffy in shul, as it often is on a hot day.  As I scanned Touro Street, there was some commotion. A couple with a baby carriage was waving at me, saying,  "Aaron, Aaron, don’t you recognize us?" It took me a moment to do that, and I am still recovering from the shock.

I barely knew Isaac, Inessa, and baby David and I didn't know they were visiting Newport from their home in Westchester County, New York. They were walking up Touro Street and paused to get a good look at the synagogue at just the moment that I exited, pausing long enough for them to see me. We agreed to rendezvous a few minutes later when services were over so I could give a personal tour.

Isaac is the son of a friend who lives in the Boston area who didn't know about the visit to Newport. That faux pas was rectified before you could say Adon Olam!

I was totally stunned by the coincidence, and reiterated to myself to always be on my best behavior. We never know who is watching.

So what is a coincidence? It happens when things coincide in an unexpected, seemingly random way.

I asked Rabbi Marc Mandel of Touro Synagogue to write some Torah about this. He avoided coincidences.

A little research seems to indicate that Judaism does not believe in random events, in other words, coincidences.  Random events contradict the idea that the Ubershter is all-knowing. Judaism does believe that man has free will. I am not sure how that circle is squared!

The joke is because coincidences are hard to swallow, we are driven to find a message or an insight from them. This has been carried to extremes. Psychologist Carl Jung coined a word, synchronicity, "to describe circumstances that appear meaningfully related yet lack a causal connection."[3]  In a kind of voodoo psychology, Jung encouraged people to find meaning. Often people ignore the randomness of the coincidences because that contradicts the explanations and meanings.  

The writer Arthur Koestler wrote a book in 1982, The Roots of Coincidence. He did Jung one better, and linked coincidences to ESP. Keostler was so convinced, he left one million British pounds, most of his estate, to a British University, to promote research into the paranormal at the University level. Oxford, Cambridge, King's College London and University College London all refused. The day was saved when the University of Edinburgh stepped up to the plate and set up an ESP chair. I assume that the powers that be in Edinburgh had several shots of Scotch Whiskey before making the decision.

Koestler wrote about other things that have been debunked, particularly The Thirteenth Tribe where he claimed that Ashkenazi Jews were descended from the Khazars, a Turkic people whose rulers converted to Judaism.

Koestler wrote a very moving piece about the atrocities in Europe for the New York TImes on January 9, 1944, “The Nightmare That is a Reality.” His most famous and influential book, “Darkness at Noon” was a novel about the show trials in Soviet Russia in 1938, when communists confessed to the most bizarre accusations. He wrote the book while in France in 1940, while trying to avoid being murdered for his anti-Nazi beliefs.

Which brings us back to coincidences. Statistically they are bound to happen. The birthday paradox is the probability that in a group of 23 people, the odds are more than 50% that two people will have the same birthday. It is only a paradox until you look at the mathematics.

So, Isaac, don’t let me know when you’re coming back to Newport. I love coincidences!

Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!

photo by Gerardus @toursynagoguenewport