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Thought for the Day: G-d is Not a Vending Machine

... that takes prayer in the top slot and dispenses results in the bottom tray.

You are wondering why I am pointing out the obvious?  Then I guess you don't know me so well; but I am saying it now davka because the fact that many people (mostly non-religious and non-orthodox Jewish) think this way came up recently.  A former colleague who is both a statistician and a religious atheist (i.e., dogmatic in her belief that reality just "poof" came into existence for no reason) very gleefully reported that a case study had been performed with two groups of sick people; one group had people praying for them, the other did not.  She told me with a note of triumph that  there was no statistically significant difference in their cure rates.  I told her my conclusion from those results: Sounds like proof that G-d doesn't always do exactly what you ask, even if you ask nicely; I am not shocked.

Not to let it rest so easily (after all, she is a religious atheist and feels compelled to go around proselytizing to misguided religious people):  "I stand by the statement that there is no statistical evidence that prayer (as is commonly practiced by monotheistic individuals) impacts medical outcomes. Yes, there could be a god that kills people to screw with statisticians. Anything is possible if proof is optional."  (I really like that last last part... somehow statistics is the one true proof.)  At this point if you are wondering why I didn't just let it rest, I guess you really don't know me very well.  I love taking bait.

So, I replied: "I am 100% behind you on that one. Of course, neither is there any statistical evidence that changing the oil in your car affects medical outcomes.  Since I didn't expect that either would, however, I am not sure what all the hoopla is about."

At this point she retreated (finally!) to making a testable statement: "Many religious people do pray so that their god will intervene on their behalf. So this was a study to empirically test that hypothesis. But it's interesting that you wouldn't expect to see an effect?" (Now she's taking my bait...)

Now that she was out of broadcast mode and listening, I could finally explain both what prayer is and why the test was irrelevant: My religion dictates that G-d wants me to pray. I pray because G-d wants me to, not because I want Him to do something for me. In fact, it is not the least bit logical to expect that I can "get G-d to do something". He already knows what... I need and what is best for me. When I had chemo I didn't tell the doctor what drugs to give me, either. I did thank the doctor, of course, as I recognized that he we doing everything he could for me and I needed his help. That is (in very simplified terms) is how Orthodox Judaism views prayer.

Its not at all a complete answer, but it is a true answer.  R' Elazar tells us (Avos 2:19): know what to answer an apikorus.  He doesn't say try to convince the apikorus, just know what to answer.  That means you need simple "sound bites" that even an apikorus can process to the kinds of questions that came up frequently.  I found engaging in this discussion was fun (leitzanus is permitted and even encouraged in this case) and helped me to focus on finding the most succinct way to package and important idea.  I find these sorts of discussions useful for honing my skills for the real battle -- the one with the apikorus who lives inside me.


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