Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS
Book 5. Zen Judaism
Appendix 2. Prayer in uncertainty
The Rabbis have decreed that we should not utter a prayer for or against an event (or the negation of an event), if the latter is already a settled matter. This principle is logical enough – there is no point praying for something, if that thing has already happened or failed to happen. It is, as it were, a waste of God’s time– a mark of disrespect. For God does not undo facts that have occurred; he does not change the past ex post facto. What’s done is done and cannot be undone. Facts are facts. Prayer can only be concerned with facts that are not yet ontologically determined.
Most people are, of course, aware of this, and would not bother praying for something that cannot conceivably be changed. We often wish things were not as they already are, but we do not (if we are sane of mind) expect their reality to be overturned after the fact. We can still (quite rationally) pray that the bad future consequences of some past or present event be mitigated or annulled – assuming that this is within the realm of the possible, i.e. that the anticipated bad consequences are not tied to the unfortunate event by necessity.
Moreover, the Rabbis argue that in cases of uncertainty, where the fact may be in reality settled, but we cannot be sure of it one way or the other, we should not formulate prayers for or against it. An example given is: suppose you see smoke rising in the distance, in the direction of your home, you may not pray “May this fire not be in my house” – for if your house happens to be the one burning, it would be a prayer in vain (levatala). In my view, this second principle is not entirely reasonable.
It refers to an event that is epistemologically undetermined or undeterminable, note well. Just because the event might be ontologically settled, we are required to behave as if it is indeed settled. This sounds like an impractical principle to me, because:
(a) In most circumstances, we do not really know whether the event in question is materially settled or not; human knowledge is inductive and open to error, so we can rarely if ever be absolutely sure of anything, as this principle demands. This implies most prayer to be vain, by the said rabbinical standards. So, most prayers would be forbidden.
(b) In urgent situations (like in the example given above), we do not have time to ponder and decide whether we are uncertain enough to be allowed to pray or not. We just pray, and hope and wish. This spontaneous and heartfelt prayer is surely welcome and not faulted by God. He well knows the limits of our cognitive faculties.
(c) Many people are not sufficiently developed philosophically to be able to make the fine distinctions required by the proposed rabbinical principle. It is too intellectual and complicated, and so effectively blocks ordinary prayer.
But not wishing to be accused of often opposing the judgment of the Rabbis, I would propose the following simple solution to the problem they pose. Uncertainties inhibit prayer insofar as the latter is expressed categorically. Therefore, when praying for or against some event, just make your prayer implicitly if not explicitly conditional – saying or thinking: if the matter is not yet settled, dear God, please make it so and so. It would surely not offend God to thus formulate a prayer conditionally.
The following correspondence (dating back to mid-2007) provides an illustration of the issue here treated, and deals incidentally with a few other interesting issues.
To: firstname.lastname@example.org – Shalom:
Recently, during a lecture I attended at the Geneva Chabad center, the main rabbi mentioned a Talmudic ruling that it is permitted to pray for a son during the first 40 days of pregnancy but not thereafter.
I objected that the Talmudic Rabbis were mistaken, according to modern science, because it is now known that the sex of a child is genetically determined at conception. If the sex chromosomes in the first cell are XX the baby will be female, and if they are XY the baby will be male. This is the genetics of the first cell, which is reproduced thereafter in all cells.
The Rabbis could not know this, since genes were not discovered till the 19th Century, and fully understood till the 20th Century. There is no shame in ignorance or error, but of course to suppose that the Rabbis are not omniscient or infallible is contrary to Jewish dogma and very subversive.
Note that there is no “40 days” involved – nor less than 40 days, nor more than 40 days. If the Rabbis mentioned 40 days, it is possibly due to their observations of voluntary or involuntary abortions; they must have noticed that prior to about 40 days, the embryo is not morphologically sexually differentiated, whereas after that period (actually, many days later) sexual characters visible to the naked eye begin to appear.
A young rabbi wrote this objection to you, and asked you for a rebuttal. You replied that the Rabbis had in mind the problem of “testicular feminization”. According to your reply, this allows for the possibility of a male fetus that would have abnormally taken on female characteristics to return to a normal male development in the first 40 days, thanks to ardent prayer.
However, this answer is logically absurd on several counts.
First, it is scientifically unsound, in that the underlying problem here is not merely hormonal, but due to a genetic disorder, and this is inevitably operative since the first day (here again there is no justification for mention of 40 days, note). More on the scientific issues further down.
But secondly, it is dialectically inadequate, for if the Rabbis did not know about genetics, they could not know about a discrepancy between an embryo’s or fetus’ genotype (XY genetic makeup) and its phenotype (a female sex organ). To them, the fetus’ gender was simply identical with the physically visible character. They had no way to identify the genetic sexuality of a fetus or born child by medical tests.
If now you try to tell me that the Rabbis did know, by some sort of prophetic vision, about testicular feminization and about the genetic sexual status of actual individuals, I ask you to tell me where they mention it explicitly (do not confuse this issue with that of hermaphrodites, though – they knew about this disorder because it is visible to the naked eye).
Clearly, if they had known about testicular feminization, they would have discussed this halakhically extremely important question in detail. By the way, the incidence of this disease is estimated at about 1 in 20,000 (according to some; others say much less); it is rare, but enough to be significant.
Is the child with such a disease (effectively, a malformation) to be regarded as a boy or a girl? If we go by the genetic makeup, it is a boy, and therefore he should be forbidden to have sex with or marry other boys (to avoid homosexuality) and he should do his bar mitzvah, etc. If we go by the physical appearance (sex organ), it is a girl, even though she cannot reproduce, and she is exempt from male mitzvas.
In view of the dangerous ambiguities involved, they would doubtless have dealt with these important issues directly (not just with reference to hermaphrodites, to repeat). To my knowledge, they never did, which proves that they did not know about testicular feminization.
Your reply was thus not a valid answer to the question posed. I suspect your reply was only intended as a smoke screen or manipulation; i.e. you pretended to reply, hoping your word would naively not be questioned further.
So much for the dialectics. Now to return to the scientific, factual issues. If you type “testicular feminization” in your Google search bar, you will find many sites that tell you about it. I recommend you to study at least the following page:
This page contains an instructive diagram of the genetic disorder. As you can see, a mutant gene (hereditary from the mother’s side) causes normal androgen hormone reception to be blocked. As a result, male sexual characteristics are inhibited from developing normally. This mutant gene is found supposedly in all cells of the organism, since all cells contain the X chromosome where this gene is imbedded.
Much more is involved. But my conclusion is simply that no amount of prayer in the first 40 days (or less, or more) can change that condition, since it is genetic and therefore pervasive from conception onwards. One can suppose that genetic medicine will one day prevent this disease perhaps by some genetic manipulation in vitro on the first cell – but once the embryo/fetus/baby is allowed to develop, there is nothing to be done about it.
Do correct me if you think me wrong; I have an open mind.
Moreover, note, I wonder why you only mentioned testicular feminization. There are other “intersex” syndromes. Notably, a female genotype may develop as a male phenotype. So if people pray that their genetically male child does not turn out looking like a female, they should also pray that their genetically female child does not turn out looking like a male. For in either case, serious halakhic complications ensue.
Nowadays, it seems to me, genetic males who develop abnormally as apparent females ought to undergo masculinization therapy or sex change towards male features. Similarly, female genotypes with male phenotype might legitimately be treated or operated on (femininization). This would be a practical solution to the halakhic difficulties. But I am no expert or authority, of course.
With regard to the issue of 40 days, if you type “fetal development” in your Google search bar, you can learn a lot about that subject. See for instance:
According to my reading of these sources, sexual characteristics begin to be visible well after 40 days – some seem to suggest after the 8th, 9th or even 10th week of prenatal development. In that case, where did the Rabbis get the 40 days (6 weeks) figure, I wonder? Do tell me if you know.
Note in passing that I have nothing against prayer. The issue about prayer only arises because of the Rabbinic principle that you should not pray in the case of a known fait accompli. But the truth is, we could always pray in the way of a conditional statement rather than a categorical one. Instead of saying “please give me a boy” just say “if the matter is not settled, please give me a boy”. In that case there is no danger of a prayer in vain.
The truth is, people always pray when they do not personally know whether the facts of the matter are settled or not. If they know the case is closed, they won’t bother praying anyway. Prayer surely cannot be characterized as “in vain” when one does not know it is in vain; otherwise, one would almost never pray, fearing to pray in vain. So this aspect of the discussion seems to me much ado about nothing – just pilpul.
I await your pertinent and credible replies to all the above objections.
With best regards, A. S.
The reply received from medethics.org.il (without a signature identifying the particular writer) was:
“It seems to me that some of translation difficulties are at the root of our misunderstanding (as my original Responsa on the subject were in Hebrew). I shall therefore start with some clarifications:
1. I have no qualms to withdraw when I make a mistake. As a human being that is not so rare.
2. In my responsum, I never stated that the rabbis knew modern genetics, fifteen hundred years ago. I only wrote that the Babylonian Talmudic rule may be in accordance with some genetic phenomena known today, such as Testicular Feminization or Swyer syndrome.
3. In my last responsum to your young Rabbi I asked for a reference to show that the defect discussed exhibits a full or at least very high penetrance. ‘Penetrance is a term used in genetics that describes the extent to which the properties controlled by a gene, its phenotype, will be expressed.’ This is the definition given in wikipedia – not the fully reliable source needed, but enough for this correspondence. Later on the article asserts that:
‘However, relatively few of the genes in the genome show high penetrance. Most genes make their little contribution to a very complex milieu of biological interactions, to which many other genes are also contributing. As a result, most genes and their effects and mechanisms of action are very difficult to fully understand, because the required observations and experiments are complex and difficult to devise. Even if such observations and experiments were conducted, however, some theorists would still hold that because all traits are influenced by non-genetic factors as well as by genetic factors, no trait can be determined strictly by genes.’
4. Therefore, if you can supply a confirmed evidence that both syndromes (Testicular Feminization or Swyer syndrome) are determined solely genetically with no environmental component, I shall have to withdraw my suggested statement, and I shall do it without any hesitation. Otherwise, there is merit for prayer before some unknown environmental component may cause a significant effect, and my early reply is a valid one, as a different conclusion has no scientific backup.
5. According to Halachah, the sex of a newborn is determined by its phenotype. So with both syndromes, the baby is considered fully female in Halachic terms.
6. If you are interested in the Halachic considerations employed in dealing with severe ambiguous genitalia, please see Prof. Steinberg’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics (English version- Feldheim Publishers, 2003), Vol I, pp. 50-54.
I would be glad to hear from you again on this and other subjects.”
To which I in turn replied the following:
Concerning your point 1.
“1. I have no qualms to withdraw when I make a mistake. As a human being that is not so rare.”
When I mentioned unwillingness to admit mistakes – I was thinking of the Rabbis in general, not you personally.
Once a decision is handed down, it is never admitted in error, even if the assumed knowledge of nature on which it was based turns out to be incorrect. Our discussion here is a case in point. I know it is useless to argue, because they never change their minds. They simply cannot dare do so, because that would be a loss of authority. I guess you are probably in the same situation – to admit rabbinical error would in your view (I disagree) constitute a denial of Judaism.
Concerning your point 2.
“2. In my responsum I never stated that the rabbis knew modern genetics, fifteen hundred years ago. I only wrote that the Babylonian Talmudic rule may be in accordance with some genetic phenomena known today, such as Testicular Feminization or Swyer syndrome.”
This statement shows me that you missed the main point in my previous letter.
My point was that you commit the logical fallacy of anachronism when you try to justify past rabbinical statements by referring to present scientific knowledge which they lacked. The Talmud Rabbis did not know about genetic differences between males and females, and moreover had no physical means to test for such differences, even if they had guessed such differences might exist.
It follows logically that, just as they could not tell boys from girls by reference to anything other than phenotype, they could not know about or diagnose the diseases you mention, which depend for their identification on detecting a discrepancy between genotype and phenotype. It follows from this remark that it is irrelevant what the prognosis might be for such a disease (curable or incurable, and at what stage if curable), this is a discussion completely outside their purview.
Therefore, you logically cannot justify their statement ex post facto with reference to such genetic diseases. You might yourself today or tomorrow be justified to make a similar statement (about praying for a boy, etc) on the basis of modern medical knowledge – but it remains true and inescapable that the statement they made was in fact unjustified, i.e. based on (retrospectively viewed) wrong scientific assumptions.
This was the main point of my argument, which you evidently missed.
With regard to your point 3.
“3. In my last responsum to your young Rabbi I asked for a reference to show that the defect discussed exhibits a full or at least very high penetrance.”
Here, your thinking is fallacious in that you confuse two modes (or types) of modality.
You argue in effect that a cure might exist and eventually be found – and on that basis you feel justified in maintaining that prayer for a boy is justified. Moreover, you challenge me to prove that the disease in question is forever incurable. You are in effect saying, as far as we know, this disease might turn out to be curable, therefore I can readily assume it can be cured.
But a “might be” does not logically imply a “can be” – these are different modes of modality (one relates to context of knowledge, the other the established natural possibilities). You confuse that which is in principle conceivable or imaginable before the fact, and that which is already known and established to be a potential within the nature of the specific entities concerned.
Moreover, it is contrary to scientific method, i.e. inductive logic, to say: if I can imagine a hypothesis, the onus of proof is on you to prove me the opposite. NO – the responsibility is on the one conceiving an empirically not-yet confirmed hypothesis (viz. that this disease is curable) to provide empirical proof of his idea.
For example, no one can say “there’s life beyond the planet earth” simply on the basis of rational speculation; scientists have to bring concrete proof to this hypothesis before it is accepted as science.
Your fourth remark is therefore a wrong posture.
“4. Therefore, if you can supply a confirmed evidence that both syndromes (Testicular Feminization or Swyer syndrome) are determined solely genetically with no environmental component, I shall have to withdraw my suggested statement, and I shall do it without any hesitation.”
You could justifiably say that you reasonably expect or have faith that one day soon we will in fact discover a cure to the disease (i.e. inject an environmental component, a medicine, e.g. some hormones or other substance that would override the inhibition of normal development caused by the faulty gene), provided you admit this as scientifically speculative at this stage.
In my view (stated in my previous letter), you could indeed on this speculative basis (a “might be”) pray to G-d for a boy. Any personal uncertainty allows for prayer, whatever the facts of the case.
But, I hasten to add, you cannot consistently do so in the rabbinical view! Why, you ask? For the simple reason, that as far as present (though perhaps not future) scientific theoretical knowledge and practical skill are concerned, there’s absolutely no way (no “can be”) to cure that disease.
This being the case, to pray for a cure would be a prayer in vain (levatala), and you are thus contradicting another rabbinical principle in your attempt to thus buttress the one about baby’s sex. Do you understand this reasoning? It leaves you without a logical out – check mate.
Finally, concerning your point 5.
“5. According to Halachah, the sex of a newborn is determined by its phenotype.”
This I knew already, though to tell you the truth I had not known of these shocking genetic diseases till you mentioned them to us (so I learned something valuable from it all). But the whole point of my above critique is that this posture of the halakha is wrong – i.e. it is based on an erroneous knowledge context.
The Rabbis’ position in favor of phenotype was reasonable in their day and age, when there was no knowledge of genotype and of genetic diseases like those you mention. Today, the scientific/factual context is very different – and to ignore that difference is logically untenable. It is blind dogma, divorced from reality.
My point is that the Rabbis today must reconsider the issue in the light of new knowledge. Why must? Because if they do not, they allow ambiguities to subsist with regard to homosexual relations – i.e. they allow another, more important Torah law to be ignored.
Viewed objectively, testicular feminization is an abnormal development. The baby is in fact (genetically) a male but because of some genetic mutation it fails to develop as such (phenotype). It is as if a baby grows with an arm missing: it is not regarded as an armless new type of human being, but as an ordinary human being who developed abnormally due to some defect.
Considering that there is a incidence of 1 in 20’000 with this disease in the population at large, and considering that masculinization is nowadays medically possible, this is certainly an issue that should be dealt with urgently by the Rabbis of today, no matter what the Rabbis of yesteryear thought about it.
If a man marries a female phenotype with male genotype – is this homosexuality or not? Should not people with the wrong phenotype immediately “change sex”, i.e. correct their phenotype? Such people are certainly in a sad situation. It seems to me that this is a burning issue for modern medical ethics to consider.
As for your point 6:
“6. If you are interested in the Halachic considerations employed in dealing with severe ambiguous genitalia, please see Prof. Steinberg’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics (English version – Feldheim Publishers, 2003), Vol I, pp. 50-54.”
I do not here have access to this book. But if you send me an article on the subject I might look at it to inform myself. Please note that I cannot devote more time to this discussion, unless you have some radically new thing to say.
You don’t have to write back, in other words. But if you do, please inform me as to your name and qualifications. You speak of “Responsa” – are you a Rabbi? Also, do you have any medical education and training?
With thanks and best regards, A. S.
 We might here distinguish between four conditions of uncertainty: natural spontaneity (as in quantum mechanics); indeterminism due to volitional intervention (e.g. unpredictable human choices); uncertainty as to the applicable law of nature, though natural law is assumable; chance coincidence within natural determinism (e.g. lottery events). The first two cases imply real indeterminism, whereas the last two are issues of ignorance (the third relates to not knowing a generality, while the fourth relates to not knowing how known generalities are expressed in a particular case).