Letters III - May 2006



Your Prayers are Answered


Reader: Dear Rabbi, I read with great interest your recent article “Reward & Punishment” and have a question with respect to a possible distinction.  First of all, please be assured that I am neither a heretic nor an extremist so that you may not need to be concerned of the source and motive for the question; I am not attempting to advocate or controvert.  I have Judaic learning during my youth at a Yeshiva in New Jersey.

The article addresses a phenomenon that is quite prevalent these days, especially in some orthodox circles.  My personal disposition has always been that the practice of believing that any entity, no matter how much of a Tzaddik, can be “utilized” to directly intercede is, in fact, a form of idolatry…no matter how well-intentioned the protagonist, or the value of the “intermediary”.  So your article struck a note for me to be sure.

By the same token, I do have personal experience that would suggest something more than natural and certainly less than an open miracle.  So now your article really has me thinking, since I did not consider my approach to be what your article, or I, would determine as “heretic”.  In attempting to understand and harmonize the point of the article (and its authority) as against my experience, I felt compelled to send this email and ask for your esteemed opinion.

Without elaboration as to my experience, and without particulars as to circumstances or identities, my event was out of the norm, immediate, and symbolically earmarked.  My “enlistment” however was not for direct intercession of any kind but, rather, for independent prayer of a Tzaddik (and others) in addition to my own direct prayers to G-d.  I therefore sense a distinction from what Rambam was addressing in that there was no “agency” requested but, instead, the independent supplication of others (of worth) for the same result.  As such,  I humbly sense a significant difference between asking an entity to pray for ones-self, and asking an entity (alive or not) to also pray with ones-self.   In thinking further, it occurred to me that every orthodox denomination, in one manner or another, espouses that its Rabbi/Tzaddik/congregant/etc. will pray for/with you in times of need or other circumstance.  And, in fact, it also reminds me of the Chazan’s personal prayer on behalf of the congregation during the Hinneni before Musaf during Rosh Hashana.

So...is there a distinction that is clearly not idolatrous even, and especially, when Rambam’s passage is applied?

Thank you for your consideration and a “Gitten Shabbos” to you and yours.

Respectfully, Rick Schuller


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Moshe Rabbeinu, Eliyahu, and the Tanaaim in the Talmud prayed for others. This is acceptable before God...but it is not at all the topic I addressed: the false notions of intermediaries and mystical powers, supported by those two organizations. This refers to beliefs that one cannot approach God directly, that one needs an “advocate”, that one communicates with the dead Rabbis somehow, that one merits others by newly invented rituals, or that another existence or thing possesses greater and even supernatural abilities.

As you raised the important issue of man praying for another, I will cite Rabbi Reuven Mann’s explanation regarding praying for others. (I don’t see much of a distinction between praying “for”, or “with” others, as you suggested.)

We see the patriarchs prayed for their barren wives, and Moses for the Jews. They understood that a person is punished for their own sins, and that all things being equal, repentance is required to reverse a person’s fate. Extraneous events are irrelevant and inconsequential. However, from the prayers made by these righteous individuals for others, we learn that God will consider how Reuven’s punishment might negatively impact Shimone’s life. And if Shimone is righteous, God may very well save Reuven – not for his own merit – but because it impacts Shimone. In this manner, Shimone’s prayer may affect Reuven’s fate. Giving charity works in a similar way.






Demons are Demons


Reader: How do we know, using rational proof of course, that demons or spirits don’t exist? I have no reason to believe that they do, but many people do believe it. I’m not sure how to answer them. 


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: The method of rational thought is this: we do not accept anything as true, without proof. Thus, until one proves the elephant is in the room, I do not suggest, “Maybe it is, even though I cannot prove it.” For with this reasoning, one is also justified to say, “Maybe elephants do not exist at all”.  

Now, a person will immediately say, “I know elephants DO in fact exist...I’ve seen them.” The person thereby claims “evidence” is what provided him with proof of elephants. To be consistent, and in line with rational thought, the person must also maintain that “evidence” is required to prove the elephant is in the room. Referring to what a person resorts to for obtaining proof, we have shown his allegiance to, and need of evidence to validate anything as true. Thus, with no evidence, suggesting, “Maybe demons exist”, is inconsistent.






What Do You Know?


Anasazi: Why the Tanach hasn’t stated straightforwardly that God is indivisible. Especially, if according to Rambam, a failure to accept this idea denies a person of Olam Haba. This would have spared the world from ideas like the trinity or pantheism, which has found its way into the minds of many observant Jews.


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Moses tells the people “you saw no form” (on Sinai), God tells Moses, “Man cannot know me while alive”. The Torah clearly states that we cannot fathom God. Thus, any idea of the physical, i.e., “division” cannot apply to God. God created laws, and they do not govern Him.


Jack: I understand the logic, but still it seems that you are projecting ideas onto the Torah--ideas that may be “obviously” correct, or at least have solid evidence, but are not necessarily directly derived from the Torah. God says, “Man cannot know me while alive”, but why must it be that he has no parts, just from this phrase? I believe this question came up before, and I still do not understand. While Anasazi’s answer was clear, I do not see how we can claim that that phrase necessitates God’s absolute unity. If we literally take it to mean that nothing can be related to him that we understand, how can He “exist”, if He created existent beings?

I do, in fact, think that it is a good argument of God’s unity, just not one that is directly implied by the Torah. However, as you say, “God created laws, and He is not governed by them.” If I understand correctly, it is not possible for a law or description to both be created and applied to the same entity. This leads to another question that I posted up before, of which the answer still eludes me. If God created good, then He, by the same logic, is not good. If we can call him good, on the other hand, then that means He did not create the idea of Good, and therefore it is defined outside of His control. This may not be a necessarily bad outcome, but it is a bit crazy.


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: In as much as we are human with limited perceptive abilities compared to God’s absolute knowledge, and God gave us intelligence, thereby telling us we are able to apprehend truths…we are forced to answer that we can in fact understand matters concerning God.

True…God is not governed by His creations, and “existence” is God’s creation. Does this mean “existence” cannot apply to God? Yes…”created existence” cannot apply to God. But God’s existence, what ever it is, is not a created existence. God allows man to acquire true knowledge. So ideas the Torah conveys like God’s existence and His role as Creator must be truths. This is also true regarding God’s goodness. He did create “good”, but why can’t created good be modeled after His very values?

Note that there are two realms: 1) creation, and 2) eternal truths, like goodness. Speaking loosely, creation is less like God in as much as it is physical, and compares nothing to God’s being. However, “truths” like righteousness, goodness, and other matters which we call “God’s Attributes” must be discussed in a different manner, and are more “closely” related to Him. Although the first realm has nothing to do with God’s nature, the second realm lends itself to an equation between God and our partaking of those values. For this reason, God’s opening words of Parshas Kedoshim are, “Be Holy, for I am holy”. God equates what is true about Him with what is true about us. God addresses your question directly.









Ozzy: Another answer to the apparent contradiction between hilchos Avodah Zara (2:5) and Teshuva (3:14) regarding whether a specific sin is ever forgiven is given by R’ Bachaye (quoted in a footnote to hilchos teshuva in Rambam L’am). He explains that in hilchos teshuva the Rambam is writing about man’s relationship to Hashem. For this teshuva always works (ain lecha davar she’omaid bifnei teshuva). In hilchos Avoda Zara the Rambam is talking about how the rest of Bnei Yisroel should treat him. We shall never accept his repentance because we can’t know if his teshuva is genuine or not.