Deep Theological Questions Volume 1

October 19, 2006

In my school we have a teacher at night who teaches us Medrash. With a lot of bored students theological tangents are just a way of filling up the time. Hopefully every Thursday (unless this bombs) I’ll put up a couple of questions for general discussion (its like a timewaster but you can never win)

1. The backround for this is a speech about how learning Torah is wonderful. A story quoted was a question to R’ Shach z’l about a Yeshiva doing an outreach program during the summer break. He said that if they would be learning during the break then they shouldn’t do it because the people learning are what really makes the outreach work.
I took issue with this because it seems to infringe upon free will that my decision on the margin is changed because somebody who doesn’t know me learns an extra page of Talmud. In addition, we have a principle that everything is controlled by G-d except for how well we follow his commands. This to seems to be violated by G-d controlling, based on the amount of learning done, how easy it is to follow his command.
The answer I was given is based on R’ Dessler’s idea that free will is not total it has an upper and lower bound which are based on our character. For example the average person has no free choice to rape somebody because it is so out of character, but also doesn’t have the free will to, say, let himself be killed rather than eat pork in public. I would say that this idea makes sense although I don’t think it is such an a sharp cut-off I would consider more of a continuum with reward and punishment based on the average behavior of those in your exact situation which is only known to G-d since every situation is unique.
So the answer was that those learning don’t take away free choice, they merely shift the parameters. I think that an external force changing your free-choice field without you having a role in it is a removal of free will.

2. The second question has to do with the nature of knowledge. One principle hammered into us frequently is that the Sages were not less knowledgable than us and that due to their knowledge of Torah they had significant knowledge of medicine for example. The question is two fold and the answer is unsatisfactory.
In the Talmud a book of medicine of Solomon is mentioned which was hidden away (the only book which could conceivably be called Natural Cures They Don’t Want you to Know About) given the nature of Talmudic cures I have a feeling that any effect these medicines had was very similar to placebo level and most modern medicines couldn’t have been manufactured then. In addition, if they had this medicine book and it was effective then how could they have condemned the millions to die from the various diseases.
The answer to this disturbed me a great deal because it seemed to have a ruthlessness far from Judaism. The answer was that people should rely on G-d instead of medicine and if the cost of that is a few million deaths that was an acceptable loss. The secondary answer was that knowledge of medicine wouldn’t change anything since G-d obviously wanted those who died to die at that time and that if you get the best medical care available then G-d treats you the same regardless of whether the medicine is effective or not. This point seems to be statistically disprovable since only recently did people staying at a hospital get increased life expectancy.

A bonus question: Are the prophets directly G-d as he spoke to them in their speeches to the people or are they putting G-d’s ideas in their own words?

Comments are as always welcome.