Around 15 years ago, back when I was still living in London, my husband brought home a book from the Golders Green branch of Steimatzky called ‘Galia: Messages from Heaven’. Galia was a severely disabled young woman who couldn’t speak or communicate.
At that time, ‘facilitated communication’ – a process of using a keyboard of alphabet board and a ‘facilitator’ to help severely disabled people ‘communicate’ – was just becoming all the rage, so Galia’s mother tried it – and opened up a flood of what she believed to be ‘messages from Heaven’, via Galia.
My husband was so taken with that book, he read it in one sitting. I was so taken with that book, I stayed up to 2am to read it. We bought 50 copies, and distributed it to everyone we knew.
And so, our obsession with ‘facilitated communication’ and ‘messages from Heaven’ via autistic children began.
For years, I held the messages from the autistics to be a sort of modern-day prophecy, and they impacted my life in a number of profound, and with hindsight nearly always negative ways. The autistics gave rise to my obsession with ferreting out ‘erev rav’ people in every corner of my life.
They gave rise to my shrill and judgmental insistence that family members and friends should make aliya NOW, before the end of the world occurred.
(So many people stopped responding to my emails at that stage, and who the heck can blame them?!)
The autistics stoked my paranoia about all the bad and evil things in the world; they encouraged my harshly judgmental tendencies about other Jews and other Jewish groups; and they fed my arrogant belief that only ‘true believers’ like myself who lived in Israel would make it through to geula.
THE SPELL FINALLY BREAKS
Around five years’ ago, after spending the best part of a decade waiting for the autistics ‘prophecies’ to finally materialize as promised, the spell finally started to break, and I realized that something was quite wrong with the picture.
I’d followed the path laid out by the autistics, and it had only lead to enormous relationship issues, an enormous flowering of my own bad middot, and a tendency to see the world as all bad and black, instead of the beautiful, good place that Hashem created – and that chassidut encourages us to acknowledge and uncover every single moment.
That is the path of emuna. To see the good in yourself, and in your fellow Jew, and in the world, and in God.
And the path of the autistics seemed to have led me to a place where I was doing the exact opposite.
Still, I didn’t want to cause a stir and speak out against the autistics at that point, because maybe I was wrong? And also, there were still a lot of people who held the autistics to be ‘good and holy’, and I wasn’t going to spark off a machloket for no reason.
But over the years, as the dire prophecies and predictions have continued, and as I’ve watched the formerly good and thoughtful people who peddle them dissolve into a puddle of paranoid hatred of Jews who aren’t exactly ‘like them’, I’ve increasingly come to the conclusion that the ‘messages’ the autistics are given over are coming from a bad place, and are actually akin to witch-craft.
I know that’s a strong statement.
Read on, to learn the information and halachot that I am basing it on.
'ALPHABET BOARD' OR OUIJA BOARD?
The first hint I had that maybe facilitated communication was really not a spiritually good thing for Jews to be engaging in was a couple of years’ back, when I happened to read a one-liner by someone comparing the ‘alphabet board’ used by the autistics to a Ouija board, that’s used to communicate with evil spirits.
That was kind of shocking to me at the time, so I filed the idea away until the time when I would be really ready to explore it properly.
Then a few months’ back, my husband came home from shul with one of those glossy leaflets they print out in Israel, where they publicise people’s clinical deaths stories, to try to encourage others to make teshuva.
Some are better than others, but this one happened to be about a séance a bunch of secular Israeli soldiers had conducted on their army base during the Gulf War. And what I read made my hair stand on end, because it just sounded so familiar.
THE GULF WAR SEANCE
Here’s a free translation of the relevant bits:
Sharon: “I got to the tiny room where 50 other people were waiting. There was a table, and four of my friends were around it, and they were in the middle of the séance. They ‘brought down’ the soul of the father of one of the guys sitting by the table, ‘Aryeh’, the father of Nimrod, and starting asking him questions.
“I suddenly yelled out: ‘What are my parents doing right now, in their home in Jerusalem?’ The spirit replied: ‘Your mother is talking on the telephone, and your father and brothers are watching T.V. in the salon.’ I ran to the communal telephone in the hall, and called home. He was right! I’d got my first ‘true’ answer, personally, from the séance.”
(Before we continue, I just want to point out that these disembodied spirits that were being talked to via the séances often give a lot of right answers and correct predictions and useful information, and even encouraged more mitzvah observance at the beginning of the process, to ‘hook’ people into believing in them and relying on them.)
ONE PROBLEM AFTER ANOTHER
Let’s get back to the story, where another participant, Yonah, explains that at the time the soldiers were receiving all these ‘messages’, they were being hit with one difficulty, problem and issue after another in their personal lives – which is exactly what happened to me, the whole time I was SO into the autistics:
Yoni: “This was a very difficult period of time incidents and problems – car accidents, very bad luck, everything going wrong and failing, mamash! Anyone who so much as touched a finger to the séance, anyone who participated in it, even just for a minute, found that their personal circumstances suddenly became very difficult.
“Me and Sharon got into a car crash. This was the time when one of the ‘spirits’ had been telling us all about the Treblinka death camps, during a séance that lasted for four hours. There wasn’t a single person in the room that who didn’t return to his bed in tears.”
Sharon: “During one of the séances, we ‘brought down’ the dead father of one of the guys, and he started talking to his dad and asking him all these questions that only he would really know the answer to.
“At the end of the séance, he asked his dad: ‘Is there something I can do for you, dad?’ His father replied: ‘Yes! Go and pray shacharit in base’s synagogue tomorrow morning, and say kaddish for me.’ And honestly, that’s what he did. We tried to ‘bring down’ his dead father again after that, but we weren’t successful. In the merit of the kaddish, he’d gone up a level and he’d managed to leave the Kaf HaKela.”
[The spirits that ‘talk’ via séances and facilitated communication are the ones who are ‘stuck’ in the world of chaos, due to their many, unrectified, sins. Holy, rectified souls in Gan Eden don’t contact people via Ouija boards.]
Sharon continues: “We tried to say the name of Hashem during the séance – and the glass we were using exploded!”
Yoni: “One time we got a ‘lying spirit’, who made a lot of confusion and balagan. He gave everyone there the date when he said they would die. He told one soldier: ‘You’re going to die from a bullet fired with a hand-gun’. Another one he told: ‘You’re going to get stabbed to death.’ Another one he said: ‘You’re going to die in a car accident.’ He gave 10 guys a date, and the way they would die…”
THE EVIL SPIRITS GIVE OVER A ‘TRUE’ PROPHECY
And to ‘prove’ that its words were true, this spirit also gave them a ‘prophecy’ about the exact time the Gulf War would begin – which turned out to be correct. So the poor soldiers were hooked, and believed ‘everything’s true!’ They started holding séances almost every night for a year and a half, except for Shabbat, when they couldn’t get hold of any of these evil spirits in the Kaf HaKela.
Yoni continues: “Again during this time, we received a lot of blows, one after the other. Car accidents, illnesses, injuries…”
The account continues with how finally, the Satan himself showed up to what ended up being their last séance, and that one of the participants suddenly ‘died’ during that session, and stayed dead for a whole hour while the doors to the room ‘magically’ locked themselves shut and no-one could get in or out. The forces of darkness had taken over, and it’s only the merit of the pious grandfather of the soldier who ‘died’ that enabled him to return to this world.
Needless to say, all those soldiers tried to make teshuva afterwards, and they went to visit a big kabbalist for a blessing who first refused to see them or have them enter his home, they were so deep in spiritual tumah. The Rav upbraided them for trying to summon dead spirits – before they’d even told him their story – and told them they had to go and use a mikvah ASAP, before he’d even speak to them.
Ad can. (You can find this story for yourself in the original Hebrew on the www.b-h.org.il website.)
WHAT’S THE CONNECTION WITH FC AND THE AUTISTICS?
So what does this have to do with facilitated communication and the autistics? For the answer, we need to now go over to a book called Alternative Medicine in Halacha, by Rabbi Rephoel Szmerla, which has hundreds of pages of careful notations and halachic sources.
The chapters on Kinesiology and Dowsing bring down a number of pertinent halachas that are also relevant to facilitated communication with severely mentally disabled people. The question is posed as to whether using muscle testing to determine the physical state of a person’s body or health constitutes:
NICHUSH – the prohibition against following omens
KISHUF – the prohibition against engaging in sorcery
KESIMAH – the prohibition against trying to ‘divine’ information about the future.
Here’s some of what the author has to say about this subject:
“The Torah commands: There shall not be found among you…a diviner…a follower of omens, or a sorcerer. (Devarim 18:10).
“Nichush means acting in accordance with irrational and illusory signs….Kishuf is the performance of a miraculous act…Kesimah is the art of divining, exploring the unknown by hidden means….Additionally, some have raised the concern that verbal testing may violate the commandment: You shall be wholehearted with Hashem your God (Devarim 18:13), which the Gemara interprets as prohibiting consulting fortune tellers and astrologers.”
Let’s go down to the passages on Kishuf and Kesimah, as those two are the most pertinent to our discussion here on whether FC with autistic children is actually permissible or not. Rav Szmerla continues:
“Any act that defies the laws of nature is suspect of being achieved through sorcery, and is forbidden.”
(In case you’re wondering, muscle testing doesn’t defy the laws of nature and is permitted, but with one important caveat about asking questions about the future, that we’ll cover in a moment.)
The passages on Kesimah are even more interesting. Rav Szmerla continues:
“Rambam describes kesimah as follows (Mishna Torah, Hilchot Avoda Zara 11:6):
“What is a kosem [diviner of hidden information]? It is a person who performs some act in order to empty and disconnect his mind from all things, to the point that he predicts the future and says: ‘This thing will happen; this will not happen; it is wise to act thus; beware of that.’
“Some kosems manipulate sand or stones, others screech at the ground, swaying and screaming, yet others gaze upon a metallic mirror or glass bowl. They do so until they start to envision and relate the future.”
Sefer HaChinuch (#510) explains further:
“Rambam means to say that a kosem mentally disconnects [from the physical world] and focuses all his intent and senses on the concept he wishes to know. As a result of this strong mental isolation and disconnection of the mind from all worldly things, his spirit mingles with the spiritual entities that have knowledge of near future events.”
But here’s another crucial piece of information about Kesimah:
“All Rishonim agree that kesimah prohibits only divination of the future. Uncovering hidden information from the past or present is unquestionably permitted.”
Basically, if you want to use FC to question an autistic person about themselves, and what sort of food they’d prefer, and whether they are comfortable in their new bed, or happy in their living arrangements, while that still could be problematic for a different reason (which we’ll come onto in a moment), in terms of whether you’re performing witchcraft, sorcery and divination, you probably don’t have so much to worry about.
But as soon as you use FC to try to find out information about the future, or to get ‘prophecies’ about what might be about to occur, you are 100% transgressing the very strict prohibitions against kishuf and kesimah, and you are also transgressing the prohibition against tamim tihyeh – i.e. consulting astrologers and fortune tellers.
(As a side note, this is also true of kinesiology and dowsing, too. If you use muscle testing to try to predict the future, or ask a ‘dowsing’ pendant who you should marry, you also just tripped deep up to your neck into the realm of the forces of tumah. It can be a very narrow bridge.)
THERE IS NO SCIENTIFIC BASIS FOR THE VALIDITY OF FACILITATED COMMUNICATION
The last bit of the puzzle, in terms of who is actually ‘giving over’ all these messages about the future that come from the autistics comes via a bunch of sources on Wikipedia, which you can read for yourselves HERE.
Wikipedia usually has a very anti-holistic health bent, and is written from a perspective that doesn’t believe in the spiritual realm, so I take it with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, what I discovered about FC is that since that bright start around 25 years’ ago, when everyone started hailing it as a communication breakthrough for seriously mentally disabled individuals, it’s now being almost universally condemned as a bogus and dangerous practice.
Here's a small part of what that entry has to say:
The concept and technique of facilitated communication is one that has been increasingly debated over the last few decades with the vast majority of evidence indicating that it is not scientifically valid. However, this information has not stopped many individuals from using this technique under various circumstances and furthermore, advocating for its effectiveness.
The overwhelming majority of evidence from studies conducted on the efficacy of this technique has revealed that the likely explanation for any "positive" results—that is, anything indicating that facilitated communication has worked—can be attributed to the facilitators themselves. Be it the facilitator attributing their own beliefs and views onto the individual, or the creating a pseudo-personality for the disabled individual based on their previous encounters with them, it is clear that the facilitator is really the one doing all the communicating.
Further examination into this technique has discovered various examples in which the disabled individual using facilitated communication could correctly respond to simple questions only when the facilitator was in the room to hear the questions. This included asking the facilitator to leave and then proceeding to show the disabled individual a picture of an animal. Next, the facilitator would return to the room and be asked to help the individual answer the question: "what animal did I just show you?"
In all of these cases, the questions were answered incorrectly. However, when asked questions while the facilitator was in the room, the correct response would be made. Shockingly, this technique has also led to a series of false s***** abuse cases in which the facilitator would indicate that the disabled individual revealed that they had been abused. Unsurprisingly, these cases were later dismissed upon the discovery that these false accusations were actually a result of the facilitator fabricating these stories.
Finally, even further defining facilitated communication as a pseudoscience, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a statement indicating that facilitated communication studies have repeatedly demonstrated that it is not a scientifically valid technique and that it is a controversial and unproved communicative procedure with no scientifically demonstrated support for its efficacy.
Organizations that oppose facilitated communication
DOES THIS SOUND LIKE ‘KESIMAH’ TO YOU?
Here’s a bit more from Wikipedia, which brings the account of a facilitator who stopped doing FC when she realized she herself was the source of all the ‘messages’ being given over:
Former facilitator Janyce Boynton, who came to reject the technique after taking part in double-blind trials, later reported that she received training from Syracuse University that took for granted that the process worked, and that the complexity of facilitation made it hard to realise that messages were coming from her expectations and not from her patients:
"When you’re facilitating, you’re so distracted by other things. You’re carrying on conversations, you’re asking and answering questions, you’re trying to look at the person to see if they’re looking at the keyboard...Your brain is so engaged that you lose sight of what’s happening with your hand...that’s what makes it feel like it’s working because the more you practice it, the more the movements feel really fluid.”.
Doesn’t this sound so very similar to how the Rambam describes how a Kosem ‘empties their mind’ by repetitive rituals as a prelude to making their predictions about the future?
TO SUM UP:
So, let’s sum up where we’ve got to with this, and then please do go and make your own minds up whether the autistics’ ‘messages’ about the future are really coming from heaven, as claimed, or some other place.
a) The ‘messages’ are actually coming from the facilitator themselves, who is consciously aware of this. If this is done consciously, then while it’s still deceptive, it’s much less of a problem halachically when it comes to the question of whether witchcraft and divination is involved (but also doesn’t say much for the quality of the information being given over.)
b) The ‘messages’ are actually coming from the facilitator themselves, but this is happening ‘unconsciously’ – which means that the facilitator may well be taking the role of a kosem, as described by the Rambam and Sefer HaChinuch, even if this is not their intention, and ‘channeling’ messages from other spiritual entities which we can generally assume are those lost souls trapped in the World of Chaos.
c) The messages are coming from some other place or force external to either the facilitator or autistic person themselves, i.e. the same forces of tumah that show up during séance sessions with Ouija boards.
2) Halacha absolutely forbids FC to be used to try to answer questions about the future, or to give over ‘messages’ or ‘prophecies’ about the future.
May God help us all to stay far away from all these forces of tumah in the world, and to only follow in the path of simplicity, emuna, and a whole-hearted belief in God’s goodness, and our true tsaddikim.
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