Monday, May 2, 2011

“Frogs” Challenge Materialism, not Rationalism

What is “Rationalist Judaism”? What do we mean when we say that Rav Saadya Gaon, the Rambam, and others, adopted the “Rationalist Approach” to Judaism?

What it means is that these great men strove to explicate the Torah in a manner which corresponds to our human frame of reference. That is, it accords with our daily experiences of the world. They sought explanations which could be deduced by the unaided human intellect as opposed to explanations which require an appeal to especial “revealed” knowledge. But this does not mean that they rejected revelation chs’v. They understood that the explanations Chazal offered were true beyond a shadow of doubt. As Rambam writes in his preface to his Pirush Mishnayos (my translation):

“And this fourth matter, that is, the exegetical sayings found in the Talmud, should not be considered trivial or of little benefit, for they are of enormous benefit in that they encompass within them the most profound allusions and wondrous ideas. When an appropriately deep examination of these sayings is conducted, the absolute good which cannot be surpassed can be gleaned from them. All of the lofty concepts and profound verities that the greatest of wise men concealed in their teachings, all of the conclusions that the philosophers toiled over throughout the generations, all can be revealed in their [Chazal’s] words…” (Kapach ed. pg. 19)

Why the Rambam in the Moreh and others chose to develop the Rationalist approach is not our topic. Suffice to say that there are sound historical, sociological and theological bases for their decisions. What we need to clarify is the following. Is the “Rationalist Approach” limited to purely naturalistic explanations, or is it also able to accommodate the supernatural? Ostensibly, the answer would seem to be the former. After all, the Rationalist approach eschews an appeal to revealed knowledge, does it not?

No, it does not! The supernatural fits perfectly well with the Rationalist approach. Here’s an example. An individual approaches the owner of an apple orchard and informs him that if he does not repent God will change all of the apples on his trees to rotten oranges. The farmer does not repent and lo and behold the apples transform to inedible oranges the very next day. What does rationality demand from us? Does it demand that we search for a naturalistic explanation for this phenomenon or does it enjoin us to admit to the supernatural?

Let’s say we are stubborn. Let’s say we decide to look for a materialistic explanation, no matter how improbable. But what happens if this type of phenomenon occurs again? What happens if the aforementioned individual approaches the orchard owner once again and informs him that if he does not repent every firstborn animal in his farm will die the next day? What happens if this actually occurs? What would rationality dictate to us then? Would we still look for naturalistic explanations?

The plagues in Egypt were all supernatural. Every single Rishon maintains this view, without exception. The Rambam writes that one of the reasons we have a mitzvah of sipur yetzias mitzraim on Pesach night is because the events that happened there were so fantastic they serve as proof positive that Prophecy is a real phenomenon! The Rambam didn’t look for naturalistic explanations for the plagues. The Rambam was the consummate rationalist and yet he understood that rationality can lead us to adopt conclusions that fall squarely outside of the parameters of “political, social and psychological” causes.

Rabbi Slifkin would like to understand every event in history within the parameters of naturalistic explanations. He wants to understand the word tzfardea in the Torah as referring to the plague in general rather than a single frog. Presumably he possesses a naturalistic explanation for each one of the ten plagues, including the death of the first-born. But suddenly he finds a species of frog that gives birth from its back and begins to question his allegiance to rationalism. He writes:

Remarkably, then, the same extraordinary birthing procedures that are attributed to the frog of Egypt are actually found in real frogs today. What are we to make of this?

To be sure, he does not find any chizuk from this phenomenon as a parallel to the plague in Egypt. On the contrary he writes:

I would not infer that it was those species of frogs that acted in the Egyptian plague. After all, these frogs are not found anywhere near Egypt and were unknown until quite recently; nor are they capable of giving birth to enough young to swarm over the entire country.

Nevertheless, the fact that Rabbi Slifkin happens to have now encountered a vague physical counterpart to the supernatural explanation of Chazal causes him to admit that:

it seems just too extraordinary to dismiss as coincidence - that the two bizarre methods of reproduction described in the Midrash just so happen to actually occur with frogs, of all the different creatures in the world

Rabbi Slifkin’s confusion is borne of a simple error; rationalism does not equal materialism.

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