Of Darkness, Rationalism and Jewish Leadership
If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...
The last three plagues are described in the first part of this week’s parashah. A controversial approach to the ninth plague – darkness (Shemot 10:21-23) – appears in the Torah Temimah. This work, published in 1902 by Rabbi Baruch ha-Levi Epstein of Pinsk, comments on selected midrashim verse by verse. Analysing a midrash which claims that the darkness was ‘as thick as a coin’ (see Yalkut Shimoni to Tehillim 105), Rabbi Epstein says the following:
Were I not afraid to produce an entirely novel approach, I would have said that the darkness was not in the air, but in the Egyptians’ eyes – a kind of cataract obscuring their pupils. The rabbis point out that this cataract was tangible and was ‘as thick as a coin’. (Torah Temimah to Shemot 10:21, paraphrased, Hebrew text below)
Whenever a rabbi introduces an observation with the phrase ‘were I not afraid… I would have said’, he knows that what he is about to write will is contentious. Indeed, some critics viewed Rabbi Epstein’s understanding as an unacceptable deviation from ‘normative’ interpretation; to this day, some ultra-conservative groups treat the entire work with suspicion.
In fact, Rabbi Epstein was merely following a well-trodden, but unpopular, mode of interpretation, one based firmly in the writings of the Rambam:
It is incumbent upon us to combine Torah and rationalism, to explain matters as naturalistically as possible. Only when something is absolutely inexplicable by natural means, should one say that it is a ‘miracle’. (Rambam, Epistle on the Resuscitation of the Dead, section 2, paraphrased, Hebrew text below)
The Rambam means that one should only resort to a complex – supernatural explanation – of any event described in the Torah – when all simpler – read: naturalistic – explanations have been exhausted. I would term this a Maimonidean version of Occam’s Razor.
While of course, the opportune appearance of targeted cataracts can only be attributed to divine intervention, Rabbi Epstein’s explanation minimises the miraculous nature of the plague of darkness by rationalising it as far as possible. Apparently, this was something that Rabbi Epstein’s detractors found unforgivable.
This long-forgotten controversy highlights the tension between rationalistic and super-rationalistic approaches to Judaism that have existed since long before the publication of the Torah Temimah. It lies at the heart of the radically different world-views of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi’s Kuzari and the Rambam’s Moreh Nevochim – Guide for the Perplexed, and continues today.
Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the rationalistic approach to Torah interpretation and Jewish thought is in retreat and has gradually ceded to the super-or even anti-rationalism which now characterises much of Orthodox society. This is evident in every area of Jewish life: the content of popular works; the adulation of leaders; the immense growth in segulot – spiritual remedies of the ‘give your money to this cause and you’ll find a spouse, have a baby, be cured of an illness, or make a living’ variety.
There are too many negative spinoffs of this phenomenon to consider in a short space. They include the unwillingness to contextualise talmudic texts describing the observable universe and the subsequent rejection of the need to reconcile Torah with scientific discoveries, a naive, romanticised understanding of world history and a hagiographic approach to the lives of Jewish leaders. All of these and others make some prevalent forms of Jewish life deeply unattractive to thinking people and mean that there is little opportunity for those already within the system to find answers to genuine questions.
But a particularly worrying consequence of the super-rationalistic approach is the manner in which leaders of some parts of the community are appointed and the uncritical way in which their performance is evaluated. Sadly, rabbinical leaders are not always chosen because they have the appropriate qualifications, can identify with the lives and concerns of their charges and will fight for them. And when they remain silent in the face of injustice, as has happened too often in recent times, their disciples are willing to attribute this to the rabbis’ higher knowledge or holiness rather than to a failure of leadership. And while, of course, every system of governance can be abused by its leaders, Jewish leadership should be a beacon of good sense, fairness and transparency, not words one would immediately associate with some contemporary leaders.
A return to rationalism, a neglected, but bona fide Jewish alternative, is sorely needed, especially in Israel. It’s not the answer to every problem the Jewish world faces, but it will go a long way to making authentic Orthodox Judaism more attractive to intelligent people, better able to face the social and intellectual challenges of living a religious life in a modern world, and, perhaps most importantly, more capable of producing leaders who will actually lead our communities.
תורה תמימה, שמות י:כא
ומבואר במדרשים שהחושך כעובי דינר, וכלל הענין מופלא מאד, דמה שייך להתפיס שיעור ממשות בחושך, וגם צ"ע דלפי פירש"י שהיה כל משך המטל"ע כולו לילה ולא היה יום כלל א"כ נשתנו סדרי בראשית , וזה קשה מאד שהרי הקב"ה הבטיח לנח ולבניו ויום ולילה לא ישבותו.
ולולא מסתפינא להמציא דבר חדש מאד ה"א דענין החושך היה לא באויר רק בעיני האנשים, והיינו שהיה מתוח תבלול על אישון העין, ואמרו חכמים שאותו התבלול היה נמוש ביד וגם היה כעובי דינר, וניחא הכל.
רמב"ם, מאמר תחית המתים, קטע ב'
ואנחנו נשתדל לקבץ בין התורה והמשכל וננהיג הדברים על סדר טבעי אפשר בכל זה, אלא מה שהתבאר בו שהוא מופת ולא יתכן לפרשו כלל אז נצטרך לומר שהוא מופת.