Monday, June 23, 2008

Quick Thought on Prayer and the Occult

There are two issues that we have touched upon on this blog, concerning which I had small insights today. Neither as it stands really merits its own post; the ideas can be deduced from the previous posts on the subjects. However, I would like to explicitly state them. Perhaps they will grow into posts of their own, and perhaps commenters will have something to add or criticize. They are works in progress, and represent unfinished lines of thought. Either way, they are presented here as kernels, for future expansion.

Previously, we have discussed different aspects of prayer. The question has been raised, why is it that we find no empirical evidence that prayer is effecacious? Perusing the internet for scientific studies done on the subject, one is not struck by any evidence that those who are prayed for heal more quickly than others.

First of all, the assumption that prayer should lead to immediate amelioration is dismissed: God knows what is best, and He does not need to take orders from us. Furthermore, to assume that we know what is best physically and spiritually for a subject is hubris. What we really want when we petition God is the best for our subject; complaining when it isn't what we think it should be is short-sighted.

Prayer gives us a way to commune with God; it is the language of our relationship, and, ultimately, we pray to become sensitized to the suffering around us, and to learn what is important to us. When we pray, we refocus our thoughts on what is important. We change ourselves as well, it is true, and demonstrate that the subject of our prayer matters to us, and is part of our circle of importance. These elements are new realities that grow from prayer, and help perhaps to change the lot of the subject.

However, even from a completely empirical perspective, the studies I have seen turn prayer into a formulaic, uninspired repetition of chosen words. It is a far cry from the prayer that religious people engage in usually. However, even if the study adequately demonstrated what it set out to, it would not change the deeper and more holistic benefits of prayer.


I have written about the Rambam's view of שדים or demons. It is clear that he dismissed the possibility of dark forces that can do evil without God's permission. I just wish to add to this that this is different than accepting the existence of, say, viruses. Viruses are a natural phenomenon that have no will of their own, and they function exactly as God intended, never straying from His will. The idea of supernatural evil entities with the ability to act independently is unacceptable to the Rambam. It is this belief that free will could have been given to a creature other than man that he finds so repulsive. The world is an ordered one, which we approach in an honest way. Only Man has free will. That there be an entity to fear that mankind must take into account other than God -- this borders on idolatry.


Who Would Have Thought?

Report of Gazan Arabs firing a mortar into Israel today show how much of a sham this "cease-fire" was.

I just never understood the idea: if they are a terrorist entity, why are we having a truce, anyway?

Either way, as everyone knew, it is now over, and the only one to benefit was the Hamas. Way to go, Olmert.

Speaking of him, it looks as though Olmert's government will fall in a long overdue vote of no-confidence. The man should be ashamed at how corrupt, weak and ineffectual the office of Israeli Prime Minister was under his command. I pray we vote for a real leader this time around.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Rabbis Can Make Mistakes

...Or, The Rabbis Were Not Infallible

Many readers will realize that this post presents no new idea and should not challenge anything we believe. I wish this post were not necessary, but it seems we must constantly remind ourselves of the basics of the halachik process and the dangers of hero-worship.

And so, the Talmud (Chulin 57a) discusses defects and injuries that render an animal (in this case, bird) טרפה, and unfit for consumption.

During the discussion, Chizkiyah (the Amorah, not the king) posits that birds do not have lungs. The rabbis immediately say, but we see empirically that birds do, indeed, have lungs! (Interesting fact: bird's lungs are circulatory as opposed to the "bellows" lungs mammals have. Air is not brought in, stored, and expelled tidally, but continues through a maze of para-bronchi that allow the air to travel in one direction from the moment it is brought in, until expelled. Of course, there are animals without any lungs at all, like the lungless salamander.)

After clarifying that this, ideed is what Chizkiyah meant, and could not be reconciled reasonably with the facts, Rabbi Yose concludes that Chizkiyah was not knowledgeable about avian anatomy.

The important point here is that the rabbis challenge Chizkiyah not from study, verses, or masorah, but from anatomical evidence. The conclusion of Rabbi Yose is that Chizkiyah lacks secular knowledge, and this renders him incapable of ruling on avian defects and injuries.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

B'ha'alotcha: Just Desserts

In this week's portion, the Jewish people are blessed with the gift of manna. The ultimate food, it was so light that no waste remained after consuming it. It looked like "z'ra gad" white seeds (11:7), and tasted wonderful. (Contrary to the verses, the midrash tells us that it could taste like anything one liked.) And what do the rabble of the nation complain of? "We recall the fish (dagah) that we ate in Egypt with a free feeling, the cucumbers, melons..."

It is extremely hard to understand this type of complaint in the context of the food of angels that the nation enjoyed at that very moment. What could motivate such an ungrateful, disrespectful complaint against divine leadership?

In order to understand this, Rabbi Shulman, in an article, turns to the Mesilat Yesharim. There, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato explains that, as a perfectly good Being, it is God's nature (as it were) to bestow good upon others. This is part of the reason for the creation of the world. However, it does not take one a long period of time treading the face of the globe to notice the tremendous lack of justice and thus, good, in our earthly domain. Infants suffer ghastly torture at the hands of monsters, and saintly men and women die in mass graves at the hands of murderers. On the other hand, evil men prosper, and abuse the advantages given to them. It is clear that the true good with which God blesses his creations is not to be expected to be fulfilled fully in this world. The world to come, the world of souls, and the world post-messiah, where humanity will enjoy a perfect harmony between the physical and spiritual sides of its existence, are the places one can hope to find this holy grail of "good", and soak in the bliss of God's radiant beneficence.

In this case, we must understand why Hashem would choose to place us in this world first? Why not put humanity in the redeemed world, instead of first in this world, where evil so often seems to triumph?

In response to this, Jewish thought responds with nahama d'kisufa, or the concept of shameful sustenance. God made us with a keen sense of shame at receiving things we do not deserve. The Ohev Yisrael (the Apter Rebbe) quotes the Talmud (Shabbat 104b) which explains that the letter gimel in the Hebrew alphabet stands for gomel, one who does acts of loving-kindness towards his peers. The letter dalet, on the other hand, stands for dal, a poor man. And why does the letter dalet face away from the gimel? Because it is human nature to be embarrassed at receiving charity. However, when the poor man is given a chance to do something of value for his patron, small as it may be, he thus is able to assure his benefactor that he is cognizant of his indebtedness, and this tempers his feeling of shame. He knows he owes the kind man, and he knows the kind man knows he knows. This is, at least, something.

And now, we can understand more sympathetically the actions of the rabble and the Jews who joined in their complaints. They were receiving manna, described as z'ra gad, from God. The gimel comes before the dalet, and the dal turns away in shame. The Jews felt the shame of receiving a tremendous blessing from God, even in their lowly spiritual level! They knew they did not deserve it. This hurt their human pride tremendously.

And so, they recalled the dagah (dalet before gimel, facing the gimel without shame). In Egypt, they were able to eat food without embarrassment. What they received there, at least, they knew, they deserved the little they got. Perhaps this is the meaning of "chinam" in the passage: they received the food in Egypt free of shame -- free of nahama d'kisufa. They longed for this feeling of self-sufficience, without worrying about the shame of receiving something for nothing.

If so, this seems an admirable trait. What is wrong with this feeling? And why does the Torah go out of its way to remind us that it was particularly the rabble who complained?

In order to understand this, we must recall that the foundation of the Jewish national life was the Exodus from Egypt. The fact that God took us out of the land of our captivity with an outstretched arm forms the basis of our relationship with Hashem. As the Talmud states, this was one of the three episodes that God arranged to occur in the middle of the day, as if to say, anyone who would like to attempt to stop me, is welcome to try.

In fact, the Torah made sure we would never err to think that Moshe was some type of charismatic leader who was able to, by the strength of his personality, redeem the Jews in a natural manner. He had a speech impediment; not exactly your first candidate for public speech. In addition, Rav Hirsch points out, immediately after the Exodus, Yitro is horrified by the lack of organizational skill Moshe demonstrates in his judicial system. Moshe so needs Yitro's help in these matters that he practically begs his father-in-law to stay with the nation earlier in our parasha. This lack of leadership ability is also meant to highlight to us that it is only an all-powerful Divinity that could effect the Jewish release from bondage. This is also the reason that Moshe's name does not appear in the Pesach Hagaddah.

In the same vein, God made our experience in the desert one which we could never attribute to our own powers. We were not to slaughter our own animals to support ourselves. On the contrary, God made our clothes grow with us miraculously, and fed us through direct heavenly decree. The lesson is clear: we had no part in our own salvation. We were completely dependant upon God for everything, and we continue to be indebted to Him to this day for his undeniable care then, as well as His continued care now.

It was this lesson that was so painful for the rabble, the asafsuf, to internalize. They would rather be chinam min hamitzvot, free from the yoke of the mitzvot, from this "debt" to God, even if it meant eating fish and melon instead of heavenly bread.

When we internalize this lesson and base our personal and national actions upon the miracles of the desert, may we come to deserve the ultimate redemption, quickly in our days.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Yom Yerushalayim

Jameel sent me this link, which allows you to read and listen to the radio transmission from the liberation of the Temple Mount. It is haunting and gave me goosebumps.

It really drives home my point about modern history as our generation's Har Sinai revelation, and my post for Israel's Independence Day.

May we continue to build our state and land, and may we not lose sight of the real and practical goal of redemption!