Sunday, November 27, 2022

Not blaming god for cancer

Mishpacha magazine had a story a while ago about a Rabbi Meister who died from cancer. They printed the following quote from him:
I have never had a problem accepting that Hashem has given me life-threatening cancer at age 54 in 2010. Our bodies contain trillions of cells, and every minute of every day millions of cells are dying and new cells are forming. Every new cell that forms has the potential to have cancerous mutations, and millions or billions of times a day our bodies have potential cancers forming. Hashem prevents that from happening through our immune systems and through metabolic processes we don’t even know about. By age 54, I probably had 500 trillion chances for a cancerous cell to form and survive and grow into a life-threatening cancer, and it only happened once. So Hashem stopped me from getting cancer 499,999,999,999,999 times and only let it happen once. I would call that remarkable protection. Considering I never took the time to thank Hashem 499,999,999,999,999 times for not giving me cancer, I don’t see how I could possibly complain that He let one cancerous cell survive and multiply. That would seem very ungrateful.
I fell out of my chair reading this. Let’s think about what he said. He is so grateful that Hashem protected him from those nasty cancer cells until he was 54. Well who does he think created cancer? That same Hashem. Hashem is the one who created us in such a way that there is such a great risk of cancer so why thank him for providing inadequate protection? The way he describes it Hashem is only responsible for the good, but the fact that people are made to get cancer isn’t Hashem’s fault, why not? 
He then gave a ridiculous analogy:
Put another way: Let’s say I was in a house surrounded by attacking Nazis and hundreds of American soldiers surrounded the house and fought off the Nazis for weeks, suffering hundreds of dead and wounded. Eventually the Nazis broke through and captured me. Could I possibly be mad at the American soldiers who defended my house for weeks and suffered hundreds of casualties? Of course not. That would be terribly ungrateful. I would thank them for the effort they put in and thank them for protecting me for so long, and I would not hold it against them that eventually the enemy won.
The difference is that in the case of cancer Hashem created the Nazis and sent them to your doorstep and then came to protect you and failed. 
IMHO a much better analogy is imagine a doctor who intentionally shoots someone in the chest and then performs a complex operation to try to save his life. Is anyone going to praise the doctor for his effort? Will the victim thank the doctor for saving his life? The answer is no, the victim will ask the doctor why did you shoot me?
The same applies here, why thank Hashem for rescuing you from a bad situation of his making? Hashem created a flawed human body which gets cancer, and created a flawed immune system which doesn’t always work, why is that praiseworthy?


Sunday, November 13, 2022

Avrahams impassioned defense of Sdom

 In Parshas וירא Avraham gives an impassioned defense of Sdom which is used by many liberal Jews to promote Judaism as being in favor of social justice. However, when you think about it a little, it is apparent that the whole story makes no sense given Judaisms conception of god.

Avraham has a disucssion/argument with God with 2 major themes:

  1. He tries to persuade God using logical arguments and shaming that destroying Sdom is not just. Avraham asks god השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט?
  2. Avraham tries to bargain with god. He starts out with 50 tzadikkim and gets down to 10.

How does this make any sense if God is omniscient, omnibenevolent and unchanging? How can any human being attempt to change God's mind using logical arguments? How can a human being bargain with god? If God's decrees are perfect and moral why does Avraham even attempt to change it? The clear sense you get from this story is that God is very much like human beings, just more powerful. God gets angry, he takes vengeance, and he can be reasoned with and persuaded to change his mind. Rambam's conception of an omniscient, unchanging God leaves zero room for this whole story, if god is unchanging how can Avraham even attempt to convince god to save Sdom?

This of course leads to a bigger question of how does prayer work in Judaism? We can ask the following questions about prayer:

  1. Why do we need to daven to God at all? Since he is omniscient he knows exactly what we need so why do we need to ask?
  2. How can we ask a perfect God to change his decree for us? God's decrees are perfect and just so how can we daven to change them?
  3. How can God be affected by our prayer if he is immutable and impassible?
There are a number of approaches to answer this question:
  1. The purpose of davening is to contemplate God (Rambam) and/or to change us
  2. This is the system that God setup
Lets take a closer look at both approaches.

I. The purpose of davening is to contemplate God (Rambam) and/or to change us

The first thing we have to realize is that the Gemara does not really address this question. There is no philosophy of Tefilla found in the Gemara. This issue is first discussed in the Rishonim. 

This approach is taken by many of the philosophical Rishonim like the Rambam. They explain that the purpose of davening is for us to get closer to God by contemplating God and realizing that everything is from God. 

The way davening works is that the person who davens changes and is not the same person and therefore whatever decree was on the person was on the old version not the new improved version. 

There are a number of issues with this approach:
  1. Why does shemoneh esrei have 12 berachos in the middle in which we ask God for things? How does asking God for health, income, etc. get you closer to God? Why would we ask for anything?
  2. How can I daven for someone else? If the purpose of davening is to get closer to God how can my prayer for someone else help them? My prayer certainly can't help them get closer to God?
  3. Avraham in his tefilla to God about Sedom asks God how a just God could kill Tzadikkim along with Reshaim. With this conception of prayer to make logical arguments to God makes no sense whatsoever.  God is omniscient and clearly took these arguments into account already. Of course this also makes no sense if the purpose of Tefilla is to contemplate God or get closer to God. 

II. That is the system that God setup

This is the kabbalistic approach, that God set up the world that to get anything you need to ask for it. This approach turns davening into a magical experience and answers the first 2 questions above. We ask for things because that is how God set up the system, no matter how strange that sounds. There is not much to say here you either take it or leave it.
Again, Avraham's prayer/discussion with God makes no sense according to this as well. Logical arguments and bargaining with God makes no sense whatsoever.