Saturday, January 16, 2010

Mechanistic Metaphysics

I went to a shiur tonight where the speaker discussed differing minhagim various communities have, particularly differing nusachs for davening. He said that it is brought down in kaballah that there are twelve windows through which prayers travel into heaven, corresponding to each of the twelve shevatim. If a member of one shevet attempts to daven using the nusach of another shevet, it will try the window dedicated to his shevet and will fail to pass through because it is the wrong kind of prayer for that window. Today no one knows which shevet he’s from, and further, no one knows the proper nusach for each shevet. Therefore it is important that we each keep the nussach we inherited from our forefathers, because that is the one most likely to be the proper match for the shevet we come from.

Leaving aside that the various nussachs we have today evolved slowly, developing regional differences (and to be fair, the speaker did address the various additions that have accumulated over the years), and that it is very unlikely that these differences have any real relationship to differences that may have existed between the prayers used by the various shevatim, this represents a very mechanistic view of the spiritual world. In this view, our prayers aren’t praise and pleas listened to directly by an omniscient Being, but rather are more like an email packet sent over the internet that must be encoded in the proper language and sent to an appropriate decoder to be unpacked and rendered so that the recipient can read it. If the teffilos are in the wrong nusach, they don’t get through, much like a corrupted email lost forever in cyberspace.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across this idea of the spiritual world functioning according to rigid rules much like the ones that govern physical reality. Perhaps the most unfair halachos are those that apply to a mamzer, a child born of an adulterous or incestuous relationship. The child, through no fault of his own, is a spiritual pariah, denied many of the spiritual rights of other Jews and forbidden to marry anyone except for another mamzer. When I complained about the inherent unfairness of such laws, one of my rabbeim compared a mamzer to a crack baby. It’s not the baby’s fault that his mother used cocaine while she was pregnant, but he is still born with physical and mental impairments. Fair doesn’t enter into the equation. That’s just the way it is.

At the time, I really liked his explanation. It changed the halachos of mamzer from the punishment of an innocent to an unfortunate side effect of his parent’s actions. But it also, like the windows for davening, implies that the spiritual world is a place with natural laws. This concept is found, subtly and not-so-subtly, through much of Judaism. It is very different from the intuitive way we think about a spiritual realm. It implies that, were we able to scientifically investigate this realm, we would be able to form the same sorts of theories we do about the physical world, and perhaps even develop technologies. How about an auto-prayer, guaranteed to deliver your tefilos to the right place every time?

More importantly, it reflects a view that the way the world is, including the spiritual world, is the way it must be. The analogy between the mamzer and the crack baby could just as easily be posed the other way. Just as it is unfair that someone suffer spiritually for his parents’ actions, it is also unfair that someone should suffer physically for his parent’s actions. A mechanistic approach absolves God of blame only if He didn’t actively choose to make the world the way it is. If He did, then He is ultimately to blame for both the mamzer and the crack baby.

This in turn would bring us to a discussion of exactly what “omnipotent” means, but I’m already too far from my original point.

According to the speaker I heard tonight, davening is not a direct communication between a supplicant and an omniscient Listener. It is instead an incantation that must be precisely fitted to the individual in order to be effective; if it is not, God can’t hear you. It is a redefinition of “prayer” from the way we typically understand it to a ritual which, if not performed in a way properly fitted to our particular tribal heritage, we get neither credit for nor benefit from, regardless of our intentions or even of our ability to know the proper way to pray.

During the question and answer session that followed the speech, not one person addressed this point.

1 comment:

  1. They always do this, G*3. It'a akin to magic, and they use it to rationalize the inefficacy of prayer. God is omnipotent - until he isn't. They use it, effectively, to let him off the hook, and thereby hold on to the ontological security blanket. They can have their cake and eat it, too.

    Jeff Eyges (DK's friend)