Monday, May 21, 2012

Cognitive Dissonance


In a recent post entitled Do Scientists Pray, Rabbi Slifkin appeals to his readers to pray for the welfare of Moshe Yehuda Yehoshua Michoel ben Chava. (May Hashem grant him a refuah sheleima b’karov). This request struck me as odd.

Back in June of 2011, Rabbi Slifkin bemoaned the state of affairs regarding segulos and in fact this blog concurred with his opinions in this matter. However, he went on to write as follows:
How much more inherently irrational are segulos than, say, tefillas haderech (which I am extremely makpid about)? True, one can draw distinctions, but the efficacy of petitionary prayer may be difficult to justify on a solely rational level.
So, is the Rationalist Blog making an irrational request from its readers?

Furthermore, Rabbi Slifkin fortifies the apparent irrationality of petitionary prayer by appealing to his favorite rationalist, the Rambam. He writes as follows:
In fact, it seems that according to Rambam, while petitionary prayer is of great religious importance, it does not actually serve to attain the object of one's requests. (See Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, for extensive discussion of this.)
So, if Rabbi Slifkin does not believe that praying for Rabbi Joshua Cohen is efficacious (and thus unjustifiable from a rational point of view), than why bother appealing to his readers to pray on his behalf? And if he does believe it could be efficacious (i.e. justifiable from a rational perspective), then how does he reconcile this belief with his interpretation of Rambam's opinion regarding the inefficacy of prayer?

Ironically Rabbi Slifkin’s appeal to prayer comes directly after he provides his readership with Fox’s paper on Rambam and petitionary prayer.

For our comments on Rabbi Slifkin’s original post, please see our post entitled Fair is Fair.

4 comments:

  1. Even if petitionary prayer is only of religious importance and does not actually serve to attain the object of one's requests, it may still be beneficial for Moshe Yehuda Yehoshua Michoel ben Chava because of the placebo effect that occurs when someone knows that people are praying for him.

    If Rabbi Slifkin does not believe that prayer is effective at attaining the object of one's requests but still believes he can induce a placebo effect that will benefit the health of this individual, then his request is consistent with his beliefs.

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  2. Avi!

    Shalom Aleichem! How are you doing? I hope you are doing well. From your picture I see you’ve maintained your grueling regimen at the gym. If this behavior keeps up your muscles will be too big to fit into one picture… :-) So, which med school was lucky enough to grab you up? Anyway, it’s great hearing from you again.

    Even if petitionary prayer is only of religious importance and does not actually serve to attain the object of one's requests, it may still be beneficial for Moshe Yehuda Yehoshua Michoel ben Chava because of the placebo effect that occurs when someone knows that people are praying for him.

    How does he know that people are praying for him? And let’s say people told him, so according to your logic people can also lie to a choleh and tell him that people are praying for him in order to generate the PE. Somehow I don’t think Rabbi Slifkin meant this. I bet he would request prayer even if the choleh was in a coma. After all, he personally admits to saying tefilas haderech, right? Or is he merely attempting to generate a PE in himself so he won’t be nervous as he travels?

    If Rabbi Slifkin does not believe that prayer is effective at attaining the object of one's requests but still believes he can induce a placebo effect that will benefit the health of this individual, then his request is consistent with his beliefs.

    No, its not. If he feels it is permissible to induce a PE by appealing to prayer, then why does he have a problem with segulos? Both are equally ineffective and both generate a PE. What’s the distinction?

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  3. Aleichem Shalom, Rabbi Coffer. I am doing great! Yes, I am still maintaining my gym regimen - I don't think I'll ever stop (I can show you some ripped old men in their 60s-70s who never stopped either). Thank you for the compliments!

    Jefferson Medical College picked me up with a scholarship. Although overall middle-tier, they are ranked #14 in Orthopedics (the field I want). They are also a legacy school (meaning my kids will have an easier time getting in there if they want to be doctors). The combination of these three factors led me to choose Jefferson.

    Oh also, I've graduated with the Salman Hamdani Memorial Award (the colleges pre-med award) and the Charles Darwin Award (from the Biology Department). Based on our previous discussions, I think the second award would make you smile, and perhaps give an eye-roll :-)

    After reading your response to my defense of Rabbi Slifkin, I agree the placebo effect is probably not why Rabbi slifkin asked people to pray - though I do have an alternative possibility.

    I do know that Rabbi Slifkin believes in a clear distinction between halacha and hashkafa - even if the halacha is founded on false premises, if it is the psak - one still does a mitzva by following the halacha regardless. I think he might have even wrote this in one of his books.

    So if Rabbi Slifkin believes that segulos are not part of halacha but believes tefilas haderech and praying for the sick are part of halacha, then it really wouldn't matter if his personal hashkafic beliefs do not coincide with any of these, a mitzva is still a mitzva because of the psak alone, is it not?

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  4. Avi,

    So if Rabbi Slifkin believes that segulos are not part of halacha but believes tefilas haderech and praying for the sick are part of halacha, then it really wouldn't matter if his personal hashkafic beliefs do not coincide with any of these, a mitzva is still a mitzva because of the psak alone, is it not?

    Ahhh…. now we’re talking. A well-reasoned and vigorous argument. So here’s the answer. You’re right. The difference between modern day segulos and tefilas haderech is that the latter is enjoined by halacha. But “praying for the sick” is not a halacha. It seems quite clear that Rabbi Slifkin was requesting that people pray for his friend because he hoped that the prayers would effect a change in the status quo, not because he felt that it is a mitzvah to get other people to pray. That’s why I made the comment that he was making an irrational request. On the other hand, see my original post on this matter wherein I explain that petitionary prayer is not irrational despite the fact that it does not necessarily achieve the desired results. That’s my real issue here. It is wrong to label petitionary prayers as irrational and lump them in the same category of irrationality as modern day segulos.

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