5769 - #06
RATIONALISM AND GOD
Whenever I read the story of the Flood, I find myself with a question that continues to bother me. In fact, it is not a question that solely applies to the Flood per se but surfaces in connection to many episodes in the Torah. Why is it that in the midst of the most miraculous of occurrences, concerns regarding the most mundane elements of normative existence are still encountered? If God has already chosen to perform a miracle, why do we find, within the miracle, limitations that surface due to the parameters of derech hateva, natural reality? The statement in T.B. Sanhedrin 108b concerning the three floors within the Ark is an example of my problem. The gemara relates that the bottom floor was for excrement, the middle floor for the animals and the top floor for the humans. Maharsha explains that the gemara is bothered by the requirement for the Ark to be divided into three parts; this need is explained by the difference in usage for the three floors in reflection of the dignity required for proper life within the Ark. My problem is, while I understand the importance of maintaining this value of dignity, why not just include within this miracle a removal of the need for animal beings to excrete? If there is no excrement, there is no need for a floor for it. Why, instead, demand of Noach to build a three floor Ark? If God is already performing a miracle that defies the rules of science and nature – in fact, greatly defies these rules – why maintain this biological rule and necessitate the building of a three-floor Ark? It was clearly a miraculous time, why the concern for derech hateva? If God is already changing the rules, why does He still keep some of these rules within this obviously miraculous environment?
Some people may respond by indicating that the reality of miracles and derech hateva co-existing is actually the norm so why the problem with this case? Regularly, for example, as stated in Avot 5:7, there were 10 continuous miracles in the Temple; clearly this would seem to indicate that, throughout history, miracles co-existed and continue to co-exist1 with the realm of derech hateva, and this co-existence in the time of the Flood was not out of the ordinary. The co-existence in the time of the Flood, though, was different. In the time of the Temple, the norm was derech hateva; we, however, encountered deviations from this norm – the realm of miracles. The question was not: why derech hateva? The question was: why the miracles? In the time of the Flood – in fact, in any situation where the miraculous substantially became the norm – the question inverts: why the derech hateva? All the rules of nature are, effectively, being overridden – why are some rules, though, still maintained? We are told that the animals came on their own volition to the Ark2 – is that not already in defiance of nature; so why would God not amend their digestive process as well in the context of this overall, all-consuming, miraculous event?
The examples that reflect my problem are, in fact, numerous. Me’am Loez, Bereishit 6:163 presents various different explanations of the word tzohar, many of them, if not all, reflecting this strange union of the miraculous and the natural. One explanation of the word is that it refers to a skylight that was made of thick, strong glass so that the sunlight might enter the Ark yet the windows would still be protected from possible breakage due to the torrential rains. Why would God not just ensure that the window not break from these miraculous rains regardless of its strength? And according to another understanding of tzohar -- that it was a luminous stone used to light up the Ark -- would that not be a miracle in itself anyway, so why would God not just perform a more basic miracle and provide light without a stone? The whole world is engulfed with miracles and we encounter natural explanations for certain details within this broader context – why not just have an extended miracle?
The answer must lie in the very need for miracles and derech hateva to co-exist. Some such explanations are built upon a context when the latter is the dominant perception – such as our world. God’s Presence is not obvious within the realm of derech hateva and thus, it is offered, miracles highlight the reality of the Divine. When we encounter the miraculous and/or when we perceive a miracle within our everyday lives, we recognize Hashem. In the extreme, this was the case with Pharaoh4.whereby the miracles of the Plagues declared God’s Existence. But why the need for derech hateva in the realm of the miraculous where God’s Presence is obvious? Why the need to maintain a perceived removal of God’s Active Presence in the world through the assertion of derech hateva, even at a time when His Presence is obvious?Some people see derech hateva as the backdrop that provides us with the challenge of faith. Only if God’s Presence is not obvious, they contend, can there be a reality of free choice. There are many problems with that assertion but one clearly arises from the context of my problem. If miracles exist all around, God’s Presence cannot be challenged so why, if the purpose of derech hateva is simply to provide a contrast of faith, maintain it when a question on God’s Existence cannot possibly exist? 5 The answer may lie in a recognition of what the Existence of an Omnipotent God really means. Effectively, cause-and-effect is challenged. Anything becomes possible; there are no rules. God, as the “Random Factor”, makes one act able to be connected to any another act. The problem is that without cause-and-effect, without rules, thought is also challenged. No one can understand any connections, no one can develop theories, no one can think for the framework upon which we can think becomes non-existent. This was God’s great gift to us in giving us derech hateva – He gave us the possibility of using our minds and the possibility of “deriving one idea from another.” He, in His Mercy and Generosity, gave us the ability to become more Godlike through the use of our minds – and even in the realm of the miraculous, He did not wish to withdraw this gift from us.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail
1 I, specifically, offered the example of the Temple for, in our present realm of hester Panim, of God’s Presence being concealed, this co-existence is still not clearly obvious, and accepted by all. In the time of the Temple, this co-existence was obvious; people saw miracles that could not, in any way, be explained through the rules of nature and yet, they also experienced, in a different context, the parameters set by these very same rules of nature. The co-existence itself was obvious.
2 See, T.B. Sanhedrin 108b’s explanation of Bereishit 7:2. I have specifically chosen this example for one may contend that, through the miracles surrounding the Flood, God only amended the environment; He did not miraculously change the internal mechanism of a being. As such, God did not miraculously change the biological rules governing the animals. The fact, though, that the animals came to the Ark would challenge this explanation.
3 From the translation entitled Torah Anthology by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.
4 See, for example, Shemot 7:3-5.
5 Some may contend that the continued existence of derech hateva would still allow some to develop some challenges to God’s Omnipotence but, again for many reasons, there are problems with this.(c) Nishma, 2008
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