Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Useless Theological Questions

In a recent post, I commented, "These days I find myself much less interested in the question of why Gd created this world, and much more interested in the question of what we can do with it."

I want to explain this a bit, because it could be read as glib, and even patronizing to those who do wonder about these matters. That's not at all where I was going with it. [I was also not claiming to channel Rav Soloveitchik's distinction between those two questions; that's a discussion for another time.]

I am not suggesting that one question is more worthwhile than the other, or that I have progressed to some point which others have not yet achieved. Just the opposite; I'm not sure that I'm okay with this change in myself. I might prefer to be otherwise.

But to the person I am today, the questions of "Why did Gd do X" and "Would Gd do X" have no practical meaning. I might as well ask whether Gd can make a rock He can't lift – the answers are irrelevant in the real world.

Let's pretend that I asked, "Would Gd, as understood traditionally in Judaism, create someone with a deeply homosexual nature and prohibit him from fulfilling them?" and the answer was "No." What would I do then?

Would I stop believing in the traditional Jewish version of Gd, since there are people who claim to have been created with a deeply homosexual nature? Would I abandon Torah? Of course not.

Would I respond differently to people who say they have been created with a deeply homosexual nature? Very unlikely.

It's like asking, "Why does Gd allow good people to suffer?" There are numerous answers, of course, and they offer varying degrees of satisfaction. But none of them affect what I do, in practice.

If I'm not willing to change my ways due to the answer, the question doesn't matter much to me.

On one level I wonder if this is part of the narrowing that comes to many people with age. Pathways of thought can become more rigid with time, certainly. But I don't think that's what it is; I think it's a function of my shift from rabbinate to rosh kollelate.

Since leaving the pulpit, I have narrowed in certain predictable, often very regrettable ways. One way is that my sphere of interactions is reduced; I don't have many opportunities for deep philosophical discussions, between shiurim and chavrusos and shiur preparation. There is little time, if any, for random conversations. As a result, I don’t spend much time thinking about the Why of suffering, and my interest in them has waned in comparison with my interest in questions about the What Now of suffering.

It's not better or worse, regress or progress. It just is.


  1. Theodicy was not a problem for polytheism because there was no expectation in the first place that the gods would have any interest in man's good.
    By limiting the number of gods to one does not necessarily create a problem. It is only by the limitation and decision that he is only good does a problem arise. Once you have both of these premises in place you can say that there is free-will. Or you can do like I do and say that God is the thing in himself [das Ding an sich].
    But in either case not much progress has been made on this question for a few thousand years.

  2. If I'm not willing to change my ways due to the answer, the question doesn't matter much to me.
    but keep un mind that many folks will want to resolve the dissonance rather than not think about it (of course they might just say I'll continue to think about it but be a good soldier and wait for the olam haemet for answers, or they might say perhaps hkb"h gives tests that the best result an individual might achieve is a high failing grade or they might say [lo aleinu] i can no longer accept)
    Joel Rich

  3. We have to recognize that our understanding can never be like HaShem's, no matter how much He reveals to us or lets us discover.

  4. All these issues are avoided once you realise that there is no god.

  5. Adam-



    True - but is "avoiding issues" a rational thought process?

  6. There's nothing rational about believing in the existence of god.

  7. "There's nothing rational about believing in the existence of god."

    What breathes fire into the equations?

    There is nothing rational in believing that what a person can experience is all that exists.

  8. Rambam's introduction to his mishnah commentary:

    הקדמת הרמב"ם למשנה

    ועוד שכל הפעולות האלה משותפות הן לו ולשאר מיני בעלי החיים, והמדע הוא שמוסיף במהותו ומעתיקו ממצב למצב, ממצב שפל למצב נעלה, לפי שהיה אדם בכח ונעשה אדם בפועל, שהאדם לפני שילמד אינו אלא כבהמה, כי לא נבדל האדם משאר בעלי החיים אלא בהגיון, שהוא חי בעל הגיון, רצוני במלת הגיון השגת המושכלות, וגדול שבמושכלות השגת אחדות הבורא יתעלה וישתבח וכל הקשור בכך מן המדעים האלקיים, לפי ששאר המדעים אינם אלא כדי שיוכשר בהם עד אשר יגיע אל מדעי האלקות, והדבור על הענין הזה בשלימות יארך מאד.

  9. Al-
    But is "avoiding issues" a rational thought process?

    I'm not at that level.

  10. regarding the other anonymous's comment: you are correct, but there is no reason to believe anything that has no evidence. Of course there may be evidence, but then it is rational. If there isn't evidence, then one can imagine anything and say it is possible. No?

  11. "There is nothing rational in believing that what a person can experience is all that exists."

    We can only say with a level of certainty what is true. What we say we 'believe' is the product of our experiences including irrational and rational thoughts. There is nothing rational in believing that what a person does not experience can be believed.

    Perhaps God is just evil. What's so bad about God being evil if he wants to be? If he is happy watching people suffer, who is to say he is wrong? He is God after all. It is entirely futile to discuss about God's will. His will could change anytime to anything too. What if he made himself non-existent? Or evil? Or unreasonable? Why must the answer to these questions be satisfying?

    If you do not want to abandon the torah, you should not abandon the koran, new testament, book of mormon too. The reasoning is the same. The attempt to say what actually comes from God or is willed by God or the nature of God is futile. As long as two different answers surface it is impossible to tell.

    Therefore live as though he does not exist just as all of us lived as though Zeus, Thor, Hercules, Asagor, Shiva, Krishna and Archilles didn't exist. If he turns out to exist and turns out to be a tyrant and deceiver there is nothing we can do either.

    Read Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Hector Avalos, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, David Hume, Socrates, the Prophet Muhammed, Paul the Apostle, Buddha, Vedas.

    Study one religion, and you'll be hooked for life. Study two religions, and you're done in an hour - Unknown