For Week Six’s Interfaith Friday Series in the Hall of Philosophy, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, posed a series of questions to Rabbi Saul Berman, who spoke on behalf of Modern Orthodox Judaism.
Berman attended Yeshiva University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree and was ordained. He then studied law at New York University, and earned a master’s degree in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. Now, Berman balances teaching as a professor at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva, and at the Columbia University School of Law.
What follows is an abridged version of Berman’s conversation. Berman and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.
Robinson: Was the call to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac — was that asking Abraham to bend over backwards for God?
Berman: No. The Jewish tradition views that as a divine test and the test to Abraham was two-fold. One, would he be obedient? Two, would he use his judgment at the final moment to turn away from such action and to know that neither he nor anyone else could claim the right to take life at the sound of God that only he heard? Different Jewish commentators place greater or lesser emphasis on one or the other of those sides in the Bible. I believe that was a dual test and that Abraham succeeded. He succeeded, first, in his expression of willingness to submit to the divine command. But he also succeeded in gaining the understanding out of that experience that one could not be justified in taking the life of another human being simply because he believed that he had heard God tell him to do that.
Was it a bad thing for Adam and Eve to want to eat of the tree? Was that just a test, or is there something inherent about the knowledge of good and evil that God wanted them to steer clear of?
There are centuries of discourse around that particular issue. My own sense is that was not a test, but rather a description of the process by which we became human. And, humans needed to understand that, in fact, we had to be able to hear God’s command; we had the freedom to choose to disobey; and there are consequences to disobedience. In order for us to be fully human and in order for us to ultimately achieve God’s will in this world, we need to know all three of those things: that God’s will can be known, that we have the capacity to either submit or reject and that there are consequences to that decision.
If I have a seriously ill friend and I want to pray for her, what do I have a right to ask God to do, and what might God do in response to that request? And then, what is my responsibility?
First of all, the rabbinic thought in fact identifies the notion of inappropriate or wrongful prayer; that is, we do not have the right to ask God to reverse what already is factual. So, as the tongue would express it, if someone is returning home and sort of sees a fire in the distance, he should not pray to God, “Let that not be my home.” There are two reasons for that. First of all because, if it’s not yours, it’s somebody else’s. So, you should not pray in a manner that would simply shift the burden to somebody else. Secondly, because there’s a fire there already, it’s burning in a particular home. So, if it’s already burning in your home, you can’t ask God to reverse that and make it be that the fire never existed in your home. What you can ask God in prayer is that those who can still be saved will be saved; that those who are not injured should not be injured; and that the fire should be extinguished rapidly.
You can pray for things that are still possible, even though some of those things also related to the future may appear to require miraculous intervention. It might take miraculous intervention for somebody who is at risk to be saved. But, so long as the event has not yet occurred, you can still pray for God to intervene to prevent a particular event from occurring. A part of that also requires a sense of awareness of one’s own responsibility in relation to that circumstance. So, the prayer needs to give you the strength to comfort, the strength to give hope, the strength to manifest empathy, the strength to call that person and say, “How are you? I’m praying for you.” Rabbis insist that visiting the sick relieves one-60th of the illness of the suffering.
There was no question in my mind that people visiting someone who is sick take away a little bit of that. Sometimes it’s momentary and sometimes it’s long-lasting, but it takes away a little bit of the pain because it takes away a little bit of the isolation. For any one of us who have experienced illness ourselves or of those we love, we know that one of the deepest feelings in such an experience is the experience of being alone. And the ability to alleviate that sense of loneliness is a critical element that we can contribute.
So, you can want God to change what is, but it’s not right to expect it?
Expecting God to respond to our individual prayers is, of course, an extraordinarily difficult challenge. I struggle with that all of the time. The text often appears to us to be sort of a script. It’s a monologue; it’s us talking to God and then we ask ourselves, “How come he hasn’t responded?” The more I study the Jewish prayer book, the siddur, the more I realize that implanted into the text of the siddur is really a dialogue, not a monologue. Every few paragraphs, there is a paragraph which quotes what God said, as it were, on the assumption that God’s words are eternal. If God’s words are eternal, then they continue, as it were, to reverberate throughout the universe continuously.
So, when the Prophet said in the name of God, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth and I will fill it,” those are in the text of the siddur. That’s not us speaking to God. That has to be our hearing God say to us that God hears our prayers, that he is responsive to our prayers, that he is with us. “I am with you,” says God, “in your times of trouble.” We have to be able to hear and know the truth of that because we believe that God is responsive in that way. So does that mean that God will cure every illness and prevent any disaster from occurring? No. It doesn’t mean that, because God created the natural order and grants it, as it were, the maximum possible liberty to act in accordance with its rules — as he gave us free will and enables us to act as fully as we choose to in consonance with our free will, even when that is against the will of God. He allows that to take place except in those moments when he intervenes. And, thank God we do not know the moments of intervention, but we continue to pray for them.