Does Idolatry Work? Part II
Moshe Ben-Chaim
Following is a reader's response to our article "Does Idolatry Work" printed in last week's JewishTimes. In that article, we quoted Tractate Avoda Zara 55a deriving two principles from two cases; Case 1)a cripple "simultaneously" healed while praying to his wooden god, or Case 2)rain falling in "response" to idolaters' compliance with their godly commands in a dream. We stated that these are in fact nothing but coincidence, and falsely assumed cause and effect relationships, respectively. In Case 1, the healed idolater is nothing more than a coincidence with his idolatrous prayer. In Case 2, rain that falls immediately after an idolatrous practice, cannot be in "response" to idolatrous practices. The reason the Jew recorded in the Talmud had questioned the truth of such phenomena was due to his false sense that a relationship exists between two events that occur, either simultaneously, or subsequently. When phenomena coincide or appear in subsequent fashion, man is usually correct, and there is a relationship. But this cannot be the case when when we see phenomena occurring while idolatrous rites are performed. In such cases, there is no relationship between two events, except for the imagined relationship an idolater projects.
The reader's questions on the Talmud now follow.

Reader: Dear Mesora, in Case 1, the cripple who entered into a church and left in a recovered state is a singular, isolated event, so Rabbi Akiva's "coincidence" explanation seems acceptable. But if the same situation happened to several cripples, would the "coincidence" explanation still hold?
Mesora: Your question displays a misunderstanding of Rabbi Akiva. The Rabbi's theory is not valid due to a singular occurrence as you suggest. His theory is based on the fact that a stone or wood idol is a created thing, and therefore cannot manipulate laws of creation. Again, that which is created, is 'governed', and not the 'governor'. It is an unavoidable and irrefutable conclusion that objects - which by definition are created - must follow laws, and cannot manipulate laws. Therefore, a created stone, quarried thousands of years later, carved into an idolatrous form and prayed to, cannot change reality or laws set in motion millennia prior to itself. A chair cannot alter its form, much less, control the carpenter who created it.


Reader: I am a physicist. Your statement about "A real relationship is one where there is perceivable, physical interaction" follows perfect, physical logic. Your statement "In case 1, the relationship is baseless, as a simultaneous occurrence does not suffice to create a relationship between two events" is however not logically precise. It is a fundamental methodology in physics to search for simultaneous events to determine the POSSIBILITY of the existing relationship. The next thing a physicist would do is to see if these simultaneous events are repeatable. Only when the evidence shows no sign of reproducibility, do we conclude they are coincidence.
Mesora: To clarify, you suggest that when man repeatedly performs event "A", and each time that event is followed by event "B", that there is a proof that A causes B. So if ten times, dolaters pray to a stone for monetary success, and ten times, these ten idolaters see immediate success, you suggest that idolatry works.

How many times must event B follow event A before the physicist "determines" a relationship exists? If you respond with any number, you claim that a relationship is not based on true laws of cause and effect, but on hypothesized, unknown means. You have not determined laws explaining phenomenon, but simply suggest "there is a relationship based on repeated, identical results." This is not scientific, nor truth. Science explains what is real. It is based on fact, not theories forced onto reality simply to fill the void of our being answerless. A true scientist - as was Rabbi Akiva - will not accept repetition of cases as evidence for something being a cause of something else. Idols of stone cannot control themselves, let alone other things. Stone cannot hear a person's prayer. Stone cannot respond to anything, including prayer. Stone cannot alter reality. A rock cannot control God's unchangeable laws. Based on these unshakable laws, Rabbi Akiva's knowledge of reality - not his theory - determined that no matter how many times a fool prays to stone, the success witnessed following the prayer is in no way connected. Rabbi Akiva teaches us that we are to follow proven principles, not inexplicable seemingly "repeated" relationships. Proven principles can never change. Assumptions do.

Another problem with the "repetition" approach is this: When formulating theories based on repeated events, you do not know why the assumed "effect" is happening. All you say is that B always follows A in time. You make no determination of a real law explaining this phenomenon. You admit ignorance. You are therefore wrong to suggest a cause and effect relationship. When one witnesses B following A many times, all one can say is that "I see B after I see A." He cannot say that A caused B, if there is no principle explaining this phenomenon. Incorrectly, your scientific equation requires no proven principle, whereas Rabbi Akiva held that with no proven law, there is absolutely no relationship. Regardless of the amount of times one can "repeat" phenomena, one is wrong to suggest relationships exist, if no principle explains such a duplication. Coincidence is the only possible explanation. In truth, one merely thinks he is repeating a phenomenon. Also, be mindful that we do not see 10 people praying at different time to different idols, followed by immediate success. So there is no real question here.

It is truly an emotion which generates this question - not a clear understanding of reality.



Reader: There are two issues here. One, to search for physical cause or relationship. Second, to search for supernatural cause. I think the second issue is the real interest of the discussion. It is clear that one needs no supernatural events to draw the conclusion about G-d's existence. Abraham arrived at his conviction without or before experiencing apparent miracles (Am I right?)
Mesora: Yes you are.



Reader: However, were there no miracles as recorded in the Torah, Heaven forbid, would Judaism still be the same as we know it today? Do all miracles recorded in the Torah have physical causes? Should one view the event of the arrival of Moses' Army and the split of the See of Reed as merely simultaneous events? Can we say that G-d uses miracle to enforce people's faith or understanding on Him?
Mesora: You move to an area totally different an incomparable to natural causes, our first topic. You embark upon miracles, which are God's actions, not nature's laws. There is no comparison, but I will read what you have to say. And why God uses miracles is God's knowledge, something we are not anywhere near fathoming. We can seek a good possibility for His miracles though, and offer them as posible explanations.



Reader: For the Jews, it is natural not to be led by any other miracles into the belief of any other gods. But for a non-Jew, to closely exam a miracle. he can hardly be a fool.
Mesora: Jew and gentile alike must not be impressed with miraculous phenomena if they contradict truth. One may see all the miracles in the world, but this in no way can change 2+2=4 and make it 2+2=5. 2+2 will always equal 4. So too, miracles cannot make a person believe an idol controls the world. Yes, we may have a question how a phenomenon was performed, but our question is no match for a proven law. Seeing 25 idolaters healed subsequent to their foolish prayers will nit make a wise man even consider that the rock prayed to can hear, respond, reward or punish.

Reader: Maybe this is what people have in mind when they ask "Does Idolatry Work?" In this case, "A relationship where there is perceivable, physical interaction" is not a miraculous relationship and "A relationship where there is NO perceivable, physical interaction" could be a miraculous relationship. Is this reasonable? Of course, if one would argue that everything is a miracle, then there is no miracle. To identify a miraculous relationship one should use a rational method similar to what a physicist uses to identify a physical (real) relationship. If two events occur simultaneously with no other intervention, one may further explore if the phenomena is reproducible. If it is, then one should further explore if there is any possible perceivable, physical reason. If not, then this is a possible miraculous event. No?
Mesora: "Miracle" refers to a suspension of a natural law. If the sea splits in half, that is a miracle. If a staff composed of elements turns into a devouring serpent, that is a miracle. But this seems of the subject.

Reader: Back to Case I. Rabbi Akiva said about diseases, "they are to visit man for a certain time, and they are to leave at the certain day, at a certain hour, through a certain means, and by a certain medicine". It just so happened that the idolater left the church precisely when his disease expired. From common medical knowledge, we also know the probability for certain disease to be healed without special means (I am also a medical professional BTW). If medical statistics show 0% natural recovery rate of certain crippleness, when several such cases "naturally" recovered under certain event, only a fool will not raise question why.
Mesora: Yes, one should always investigate what his mind registers as curious, this is how we learn.


Reader: Of course, this is not the case in Case I, where the phenomenon is an isolated incident of one idolater praying, and healing at the same time. Normally, a person would immediately endeavor to offer a cause even if it is a singular event, just because the chance is so odd. Rabbi Akiva's immediate conclusion about Case I as coincidence implies (to me) a radical disbelief of the possibility that a miracle can come out from Idolatry. Is that a general view of the main stream Judaism?
Mesora: Yes, a miracle (i.e., God's intervention) will not be performed by God to endorse idolatry. This is the height of impossibilities, as God's primary concern for man is man's conviction in His absolute, exclusive control of all we see. To suggest that God would endorse idolatry is the most absurd of all assumptions.