Living With Theological Contradictions

In most parts of life, it eventually becomes untenable to maintain contradictory beliefs.  Suppose someone is convinced that regular treadmill use generates substantial health benefits – but also believes that such use is detrimental to his well-being.  Mentally healthy people are not equipped to tolerate contradictions like this.  The resultant cognitive dissonance eventually will compel the adoption of only one of these as true or, more likely, the retraction of both and the admission of ignorance on the issue.

Not so as to religious matters.  Here, people comfortably live with plainly conflicting beliefs indefinitely and, indeed, the Jewish tradition has perpetuated theological inconsistencies for thousands of years.  Prayer, Tefilla, is one such area.

It is generally acknowledged that prayer has three functions in Judaism – to praise the Almighty, to both acknowledge His role in our lives and express gratitude for such involvement, and to petition Him for our needs.  It is the last of these where the contradictions arise.

Petitionary prayer has been well established as a cornerstone of Judaism.  In his Commentary on the Mishnah (Berachos 4:2, 9:4), the Rambam writes that the core meaning of “Tefilla” is “petition” (Bakkasha).  The classic example of this form of prayer, and the source for many principles associated with it, is in the Torah itself, where Moshe pleads to God for forgiveness on part of the Jewish people after the episode of the golden calf.  His petition is successful.  The Torah (Shemos 32:14) reports that “the Lord reconsidered the punishment that He had declared He would bring upon His people”.  The Talmud (Yevamos 64a) asserts that prayer continues to be effective in converting the mode of the Almighty from the attribute of anger to the attribute of mercy.

When King Shlomo completed construction of the first Temple (I Melachim 8:38-39, 41), his prayer to God made clear that the Temple’s essential purpose was to be a locale for all people to petition the Almighty for their needs:

In any prayer or supplication offered by any person among all Your people Israel – each of whom knows his own affliction – when he spreads his palms towards this House, oh, hear in Your heavenly abode and pardon and take action…  And also for the foreigner who is not of Your people, Israel … when he comes to pray in this House… grant all that he asks.

It is, indeed, hard to imagine a more fundamental tenet of Jewish theology than the idea that God is responsive to petitionary prayer.  But this stands in opposition to three other, equally fundamental, doctrines.

First, there is the principle of Divine immutability.  A perfect Deity is not subject to change, because perfection simply cannot be improved upon.  The precise contours of immutability greatly troubled medieval philosophers.  They grappled with the underpinnings of what makes God Divine – and the concept of God changing His mind, reversing course and deciding to intervene favorably into someone’s life as a result of prayer seemingly could not be meshed with God’s standing perfection.  Today, we may not give as much credence to the technical philosophical requirement of strict immutability, but it still appears to be incongruous for the Almighty to be reactive to people instead of the reverse.  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik articulated this incongruity as follows (Rosh Hashanah Machzor, page XXX):

Although Hashem as Creator is the absolute Nosei [i.e., a subject engaged in creative activity], there are occasions, paradoxically, when God acts as One Who can be influenced, as Nissa.  This attribute is specifically evident when we refer to Hashem as One Who listens to prayer…  The very concept of prayer is a mystery.  How is it possible that lowly man can influence the Master of the universe through prayer?

Second, Divine recognition of prayer is generally thought to be proportionate to the righteousness of the one who is doing the praying.  In other words, a favorable outcome serves as recompense for one’s good deeds.  Unrepentant sinners are not expected to have their prayers answered.  But this, in turn, contradicts another bedrock principle of Jewish theology: that rewards for righteousness are deferred to the afterlife, where existence is said to be pure and unsullied by materialistic and physical limitations.  As the Talmud says (Kiddushin 39b): “Reward for Mitzvos in this world is lacking”.

This is true notwithstanding an assortment of Scriptural verses that appear to promise this-wordly compensation for following the Commandments.  The Commentators are fairly united in explaining that there is a difference between rewards per se (which are deferred to the next world) and the establishment of benign conditions which may facilitate a deepening connection to God (and which God may indeed grace righteous people with in this world).  For this reason, when King Shlomo implores the Almighty for wisdom, God responds (I Melachim 3:11):

Because you asked for this – you did not ask for long life, you did not ask for riches, you did not ask for the life of your enemies, but you asked for discernment in dispensing justice – I now do as you have asked.

The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 9:1) makes the distinction clear:

Those benefits [referred to in the Biblical verses] are not the ultimate reward for the Mitzvos, nor are those evils the ultimate retribution to be exacted from someone who transgresses all the Mitzvos.  Rather…we are promised by the Torah that if we fulfill it with joy and good spirit and meditate on its wisdom at all times, [G-d] will remove all the obstacles which prevent us from fulfilling it, for example, sickness, war, famine and the like.  Similarly, He will grant us all the good which will reinforce our performance of the Torah, such as plenty, peace, and an abundance of silver and gold in order that … we will be enabled to sit unburdened, with the opportunity to study wisdom and perform Mitzvos so as to merit the life of Olam HaBah.

It is evident that an abundance of wealth, excellent health, peaceful surroundings, and the other trappings of a fortunate life are not primarily Divine rewards for prior good deeds, to be savored in a physical sense.  Rather, they typically are oriented towards the future, their sole function being to facilitate further spiritual growth.  Petitionary prayer, then, should seemingly be ineffective except in the relatively narrow circumstance where our requests are genuinely made for the sole purpose of prompting a closer connection to God.

Third, the entire premise of people petitioning the Almighty to implement favorable changes runs contrary to several core truths relating to Divine Providence.  Traditionally, we are called upon to believe that God is aware of absolutely everything that takes place, controls all occurrences (even if only by failing to intervene at times), loves us regardless of our faults, and arranges events solely for our benefit, even if the advantages are not apparent at the time the events occur.  For this reason, the Talmud (Berachos 60b) asserts that even ostensibly evil tidings need be appreciated in their proper perspective:

What is meant by being bound to bless for evil in the same way as for the good?…  Rava says: What it really means is that one must receive the evil with gladness.

In other words, Divinely imposed inflictions are always for the benefit of the person involved, typically for the purpose of erasing prior sins but sometimes to create an appropriate setting for future spiritual growth.  Petitioning the Almighty to reverse a given state of affairs must necessarily be based on one of two mistaken assumptions:  either that the events being addressed came about randomly from outside the realm of Divine Providence, or that the person knows better than God what is best for him.

For this reason, several prominent Jewish thinkers have concluded that private (as opposed to communal) petitionary prayer may indeed be inappropriate:

It is truly puzzling how it is possible to ask anything at all from God so that his suffering should be removed.  The issue is analogous to being cured from sickness.  The doctor gives him strong medicine or in extreme cases amputates a limb in order to prevent the spread of the poison causing the illness.  Does a person beg the doctor not to give the medicine or not to amputate the limb?  Without the suffering how is the sinful person to obtain atonement?  (Nefesh HaChaim 2:11)

Though it seems clear that a person should turn to prayer at a time that he is in need of assistance, in truth the primary benefit of prayer is the person’s emphasis on the prayer itself, not the expectation that his request will be fulfilled…  Because one must ask why prayer is in any event effective, given that all the events which motivate a person to pray stem from a decree of the Almighty.  (Sfas Emes, V’Eschanan 5633)

The transformative effect of prayer is also emphasized by Rabbi Soloveitchik (Tradition, 1978):

In short, through prayer man finds himself.  Prayer enlightens man about his needs.  It tells man the story of his hidden hopes and expectations.  It teaches him how to behold the vision and how to strive in order to realize this vision, when to be satisfied with what one possesses, when to reach out for more.  In a word, man finds his need-awareness, himself, in prayer.  Of course, the very instant he finds himself, he becomes a redeemed being.

Why do contradictory beliefs coexist comfortably in the religious arena when they cannot do so in other areas of the human psyche?  That is an excellent question, one that probably should be the subject of a future blog installment.  For now, it is sufficient to recognize that theological inconsistencies do exist, with prayer being a foremost example of this phenomenon.

Faith’s Slippery Slope; Sliding Into An Abyss

Why, indeed, does faith reside on such a slippery slope?  Why is it that all too often our crises of faith are monumental ones that go to the heart of the enterprise?  One would think that once we painstakingly construct an edifice of belief over an extended period, carefully considering and refining each of the constituent building blocks before we adopt it, we should be able to develop durable conclusions regarding the fundamental principles of faith.  After that, challenges should not be troubling enough to threaten the entire structure.  But universal experience is often otherwise.

The traditional sources are rife with examples of this.  Cain, who apprehends the Almighty sufficiently to bring the world’s very first offering, suffers a crisis when that offering is not acknowledged.  He commits murder, of his brother no less, in response.  The Jewish people of the Exodus, who palpably experience God at Mount Sinai, worship an idolatrous golden calf forty days later when they miscalculate the day of Moshe’s scheduled return.  Acher, whose disciple was the venerated Tanna, Rabbi Meir (the author of every anonymous Mishnaic ruling), turns to complete apostasy when he witnesses an event (the Talmud offers two possibilities) that betrays his world view.  That each of the above suffered a crisis of faith is understandable; the question is why the previously hard won spiritual achievements in each case could not temper the slide into an abyss.

More often than not – and this was certainly the case in the foregoing three examples – crises of this intensity stem from disappointments rooted in perceived failures of Divine Providence.  God is thought to be silent, perhaps even apathetic, in a situation where intervention is expected.  Disappointments in such circumstances sometimes get magnified into a piercing and absolute rejection of the Almighty – Les Din V’Les Dayan (there is no judgment and there is no judge), in the pithy  Talmudic formulation.  Four contributing factors to this dynamic can be identified.  Alone or in combination, these four are the usual suspects for amplifying the severity of religious crises.

The Nature of Faith.  We like to think that our faith develops as a rigorous logical system, where we combine undeniable assumptions and persuasive argumentation to produce a set of valid conclusions.  This would mesh well with the scientific method that has been so inculcated within us as to be second nature.  And if this truly was the case, most challenges could perhaps be limited to encapsulated parts of the whole,  perhaps to a suspect assumption here, or a faulty argument there.  If we are lucky, the doubt even may be similar to one that we have encountered before – and, if so, we can retrace the remedial steps that we successfully took previously.  But in any event, as long as the doubt is constrained to a part of the system, we would typically be comfortable holding on to our conclusions during the time that we work to dissolve the challenge.  By analogy, spouses typically do not lose faith in an entire marriage when discrete issues arise.

Unfortunately (or not), this is not how religious faith is achieved in real life, the dissonance with the scientific method notwithstanding.  Faith is not based on logic.  It is more a product of the will.  The exercise resembles an attempt to reach a raft in the midst of a turbulent sea.  We begin by flailing around in the water.  Sometimes we do reach the raft, but it is almost a certainty that at some point we will be cast once again into the raging sea of doubts.  The struggle unfortunately must then begin anew, and previous successes in reaching the raft will not be of any assistance.  In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Faith is not a sustained, comfortable state of consciousness but a painful hard-won and impermanent conviction – a breathing spell in the midst of an ongoing conflict.

 When faith is battled for in this manner, it does not take much to push us back into the water.  Unless doubts are entirely inconsequential to our faith, they can become deeply troubling.  Unless we are fully on the raft, we are fully in the water.

The Nature of God.  The Almighty is One, He is a Unity, He is perfect in a way that is unlike any other manner of perfection.  This goes to the core of what the Divinity represents.  Unfortunately, this also sets a very high standard.  Any perceived imperfection, any imagined flaw that may be prompted by a feeling of betrayal, has the capacity to undermine, in one’s mind, the essence of why God is Divine.  Perfection either exists or it doesn’t.  Here, too, there is no middle ground.

The Nature of Reality.  The events that comprise our lives cannot be neatly prioritized, in terms of the likelihood of God’s intervention into them.  If a person experiences God’s supposedly unjust absence, it is very difficult to devise a framework for why this may be a unique and isolated episode.  It is difficult, in other words, to maintain confidence that God will resume His presence in the future.

Take the weather, solely as an example.  The arrival of rain in a timely manner used to have life and death significance in Biblical Israel, and it still has important consequences for any country’s economy.  Not surprisingly, the provision, and the withholding, of rain is deemed to be Providential.  The second paragraph of the Shema refers to rain as the prototypical instrument of Divine reward and punishment.  The Talmud (Sanhedrin 113a) compares rain to the resurrection of the dead in terms of its Divine origin.  And, at the other extreme, extraordinary weather conditions like hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and droughts all the more are said to involve a measure of Divine retribution.

In an age of reasonably accurate weather forecasting, however, faith in the Providential nature of weather conditions has become more challenging.  For example, Chicago always has brutal, painful winters; San Diego has the most pleasant climate imaginable.  Whether nature functions on its own or whether God stands behind nature in each instance, it is difficult to imagine that God uses the routine weather conditions of these two cities to punish and reward their inhabitants, respectively, in the identical manner year after year.  “Normal” (i.e., predictable) weather just doesn’t seem to have theological ramifications.

But how do we then draw the line?  As one moves along the continuum of weather conditions, from normal to unusual to aberrant to extreme to freakish, there are no easily defined boundaries.  It is very difficult to credibly designate the precise point at which God enters the picture in order to manipulate weather to accomplish a specific purpose.  Even hundred-year storms are expected to occur once a century.  This is typical of most areas of life.  Once one domino topples, it is very difficult to keep the remaining ones upright.  Sliding down the slippery slope, in other words, is very difficult to arrest.

The Nature of People.  People of faith, in an expression of piety, often have inflated expectations about God’s involvement in their lives.  This occurs for several reasons.  Primarily, a great many people, scholars included, are simply unaware of the parameters of Divine Providence.  They do not appreciate, for example, the proportionality of Hashgacha to righteousness, the balance between Hashgacha and Mazal, the consequences of insufficient or ineffective Hishtadlus (one’s diligent efforts), the deferral of Hashgacha to free will in religious and interpersonal matters, or the primacy of communal Hashgacha.  This is a prescription for continuous disappointment, as God is perceived as being regularly absent in situations where He mistakenly is expected to be thoroughly engaged.  Sadly, this produces an unceasing supply of stimuli that have the capacity to propel an individual into a state of disbelief.

Is It Enough to Believe in God?

How seriously should we take discussions regarding specific Divine intervention into human affairs? Is the entire issue a purely academic anachronism, with little practical relevance? Or is it important to develop a systematic understanding of the extent of God’s involvement in our lives? This was a hot issue for medieval theologians, but has been much less so during the past couple of centuries.

It is the opinion of this writer that the issue does have real relevance. A fundamental understanding of the parameters of God’s Providence is inextricably linked to a belief in His existence. In other words, in striving to develop and maintain a belief in God (to the Rambam, belief in God constitutes the first of the 613 Commandments; to others, it is a threshold condition that hovers over each of the Commandments), it is critical to incorporate into such belief the governing principles of Divine Providence.

A belief that is limited to God’s existence, without staking out a position as to His interaction with the world, is empty and hollow. There is neither risk nor responsibility in a belief that is limited in such a fashion. No consequence stems from such a belief. This was always the problem with the “philosophical” god that was declared to exist in a state of self-contemplation, without any awareness of, or any interaction with, humanity. A god so constrained could never meet the minimum qualifications to be considered a Deity in the eyes of common believers. Such a god was even too irrelevant for philosophers to expend much effort validating.

The essence of the Divinity, in other words, is Its providential engagement with the world and its inhabitants. God is God primarily because He rewards, punishes, loves, protects, challenges, responds to, and generally cares for, His creations. In the words of Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel,

Divine concern means His taking interest in the fate of man; it means that the moral and spiritual state of man engages His attention. It is true that His concern is, to most of us, one of the most baffling mysteries, but it is just as true that to those whose life is open to God, His care and love are a constant experience.

In truth, too much Divine involvement can be fatal, as God is described as a “consuming fire (Devarim 4:24)”. However, too little involvement, in the sense of God “hiding His countenance (Devarim 31:17)”, is equally catastrophic. There is a safe middle ground, probably a range for different individuals, where people can safely co-exist with God. Understanding the contours of this optimal level of engagement should comprise the essence of a well-developed belief in His existence. The main part of believing in God is a belief that He is part of our lives in a very specific sense. For this reason, no doubt, the first of the Ten Commandments links the belief requirement to the Divine role in the Exodus from Egypt.

The prophet Yirmiah expressly mandated more than faith in God’s mere existence; glory, he said (Yirmiah 9:23), comes to those who “understand and know” the Almighty. The traditional commentators have been similarly explicit about the inseparable link between belief in God’s existence and His involvement. For example, when God promises (Shemos 6:7) that “I will be for you as a God”, the Netziv points out that the essence of this Godliness is “the exercise of individualized Divine Providence”.

In his recent book, Professor Moshe Halbertal argues that the Rambam innovatively broadened the notion of idolatry from the external to the internal. Eight hundred years ago, the most prevalent theological problem was anthropomorphism. The Rambam posited that worship of a god to whom human characteristics are attributed is actually a more egregious version of idolatry than standard idol worship. And if the attribution to God of incidental physical and emotional features so adversely taints religious belief, it may be just as idolatrous to attribute inertness to God or to have other dramatically incorrect beliefs as to Divine Providence. These elements go to the heart of what the Deity represents. Similarly, agnosticism as to God’s role should be at least as intolerable as agnosticism as to His existence.

This is not to say that it is feasible to develop an ironclad perception as to whether God stands behind any specific event. To the contrary, it is impossible to do that. While anything at all may be Providential, one cannot know for sure which events are in that category and which are not. But an awareness of the fundamental principles that shape Divine Providence, as prescribed by the Sages, does seem to be an inherent element of the belief requirement. And, interestingly, developing a sensitivity to God’s involvement is one of the best ways to fortify the belief in His existence.

It certainly is not fashionable to talk seriously about God’s direct presence in our lives. True, there are times when we subconsciously acknowledge God’s involvement, say when we speak of something being “bashert”, or when we say that our course will follow “whatever is meant to be” or when we protest that “we are not deserving” of a given misfortune. But generally, most people do not bother trying to develop a systematic understanding of the general parameters that govern Divine Providence. In large part, that may be because the exercise is assumed to be fruitless. We typically are content to rely on religious faith as support for the relatively benign belief in God’s mere existence, but we are reluctant to place credence in faith when the belief affects the practical and day to day. We should not be surprised, then, that in the recent Pew report, over two thirds of Jews surveyed said that it is not necessary to have a belief in God in order to be held in good standing as Jews.

The Limits of Divine Control: Lessons From Barroom Mishaps

Guy walks into a lavish hotel bar. Ceremoniously plunks down two crisp hundred dollar bills. Loudly orders a double of 40-year Macallan from the limited edition bottle prominently displayed high above the bar. Bartender rings the cowbells twice, as per protocol, then ascends the ladder to pour the drink. With all eyes upon him, he stumbles on the descent, falls on his patron and kills him. The drink is lost as well.

Question: What is God’s role in all this?

The Torah draws the obvious distinction between intentional and accidental homicides, with capital punishment reserved only for the former. For accidents, the punishment is banishment to a city of refuge. But in setting out the prototype of an accidental murder, the relevant verse (Shemos 21:13) curiously, and ambiguously, brings God into the picture: “one who had not lain in ambush and God had caused it to come to his hand…”.

What is the implication of this reference to the Divine? Rashi, following the Talmud, understands the verse as teaching that accidents are not haphazard, but are orchestrated by God as part of His extensive engagement with the physical world. Specifically, Rashi asserts that the accidental murder in the Torah verse did not take place randomly. In actuality, there was some history to it. The accidental murderer must have done the same thing another time, but evaded the law, thereby avoiding banishment; and the victim must have killed intentionally before, but escaped the death penalty. So God now arranges for the two to meet in a hotel, where, using a ladder as a prop (in the Talmud’s supposition), He orchestrates an “accident” that results in each participant getting his due, death to the homicidal patron and banishment for the hapless bartender. The outcome is neat even if, in our case, the drink never wound up getting served that way.

Rashi’s implication seems to be that all accidental homicides are similarly orchestrated by God. However, as several commentators point out, this does not hold firm under analysis. For if God is responsible for all accidents, He must have caused the prior accidental murder too. This is problematic theologically. Neither our bartender, nor any other accidental murderer, should ever be subject to banishment if, indeed, God is the one responsible for the loss of life. Punishment for an accidental murder can be fairly imposed only if, either now or at some time in the past, the alleged perpetrator killed someone as a result of a true accident that he precipitated. This alone could justify the punishment. But this is only possible if accidents are sometimes not designed by God.

In truth, Rashi does not say explicitly that all accidents are caused by God, though his analysis prompts that conclusion (i.e., there would be no reason for the Torah verse to involve God at all if accidents sometimes occur naturally). The Artscroll Stone Chumash does understand Rashi to say that all accidents are manufactured by God. It tries to solve the logical problem by suggesting that the prior culpability inducing event was not necessarily an accidental murder:

“It is a fundamental principle of the Torah that events are not haphazard. Always there is the guiding hand of God… [In this case,] he must have committed some sin or crime that went unpunished and… his current victim must have been guilty of a capital offense that went undetected…. God was squaring the accounts.” (Emphasis added)

This avoids the quagmire of the bartender being banished for a string of Divinely caused accidental homicides. However, it comes at a different theological cost – the bartender will be punished in a manner (banishment) that is inappropriate for his earlier “sin or crime”. One would surmise that, surely, God would avoid such mismatches in His orchestration of retributive “accidents”.

In any event, a bigger problem with Artscroll’s interpretation is that it appears contrived. It is just not intuitive that all accidents are arranged by God so as to achieve a necessary purpose. Sometimes it seems obvious that an accident is just an accident. Some people are inherently clumsy; others are accident prone. Indeed, for most garden variety accidents, the perpetrator, even if negligent, typically goes unpunished.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the Netziv, is sensitive to this cognitive dissonance. Unlike Artscroll, he does not take the position that Rashi is advocating the idea that God orchestrates all accidents. He brilliantly reads the relevant verse as having separate clauses: “one who has not lain in ambush [or where] God has caused it to come to his hand”. On this reading, two different scenarios are being addressed by the verse, one where a negligent accidental murder does happen naturally, and another where it is in fact caused by God. Either of these is a legitimate possibility. The lesson to be drawn is not the theological rejection of chance events, but rather that the Torah’s penal system applies even where there is a strong suspicion, perhaps due to the outcome being just too coincidental, that the debacle did indeed emanate from the hand of God.