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.

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