Monday, August 08, 2005

no divine jukebox, part 2

I got two emails today from the Efrat email list.

One had the subject "Cakes for Gush Katif".
The other had the subject "Hafrashat Chala for Gush Katif."

I have no problem with the former. Cakes to uplift the spirits of the settlers sounds like a wonderful idea. I also wouldn't have any problem with "Protest for Gush Katif" or "Lobbying for Gush Katif."

However, "Hafrashat Chala for Gush Katif" does not sit well with me. The only thing that works for me would be "Hafrashat Chala for kohanim" or "Hafrashat Chala for remembering the mitzva of chala." I also don't like the flyers I've seen around here recently for "Marathon of Torah for Gush Katif." We suddenly need a new reason to study Torah?

My problem with these is twofold. One is that it cheapens the mitzva. It makes it seem like God is playing a big version of "What would you do for a Klondike bar?". But worse than that, it indicates that the person organizing it somehow really knows which mitzva will cause God to take a certain action. It's a very short path from there to those who say that anyone who assists with the withdrawal will die of a car crash or terminal disease. The bottom line is that we don't, and can't understand the way God acts. We do the mitzvot either because we're told to (Leibowitz and Soloveitchik) or because we've entered into a covenant with God (Hartman.) Not to get a door prize.

(I haven't even discussed the serious problem of what happens when these "promises" don't work out. Can anyone honestly tell me that the Gedolim who died in the Holocaust didn't know or think to learn Torah or do hafrashat chala? And what does the generation who sees these promises fail think?)

There are however two religious observances that fall in between cakes and chala. The first is saying tehilim. This seems to be a fairly universally accepted way of requesting God's mercy. I just don't connect to it. In my yeshiva, they would prefer to learn mishnayot than say tehillim. I think tehillim are beautiful prayers, but the make a difference only when you really stop and think about what David HaMelech was saying. The recent emails where a rabbi insists that we say 10 particular chapters of tehillim seems far too jukeboxy for me.

The other more obvious mitzva is prayer itself. Here we have an obligation that is very hard to understand. Rabbi Shalom Carmy relates to this in a fascinating article called "Destiny, Freedom and the Logic of Petition" (Tradition, Winter 1989). He brings up a basic difficulty with the concept of prayer: "First of all, God knows the content of our petitions before we speak...Second...God not only knows what we want, He knows whether we ought to get what we want." If He has ordained that is best that we not get what we want, then it is wrong of us to attempt, as it were, to induce a change in His judgment. Besides, if God is immutable, it is not only wrong but foolish to think that anything we do can make Him change His mind."

In the end, Carmy says that "Judaism did not dissolve the paradox."He quotes Leibowitz as saying that tefillah has "absolutely no significance beyond fulfillment of a halachic imperative." But obviously, this "flies in the face of our experience. For the nature of petitionary prayer is not merely that of emitting prescribed sounds, but the request that God provide for our needs."

Carmy follows the path of Rav Soloveitchik, who says that "the purpose of prayer is to redeem man, through the tuition of his Creator, from ignorance of his true needs and legitimate goals." This makes a lot of sense, when referring to the set prayers that we pray daily. But as Hartman points out in A Living Covenant, the Rav said there is no place for spontaneous voluntary prayer in Judaism. He quotes the Rav: "An egotistic supplication which falls outside the form of prayer that was instituted by the men of the Great Assembly is forbidden." So in this sense, the Rav isn't so far from Leibowitz, in that they both believe that we pray because we were told to - and the Rav adds that the prayer that we say makes us much better people.

Hartman continues and explains why he feels tefilat nedava is critical. But the questions that Carmy bring up, and the Rav's strong statements against tefilat nedava still have a lot of weight. This is true in general, but even more so now. What category do the prayers for Gush Katif fall in?