Tuesday, May 31, 2011

HOW THE “RATIONALIST” UNDERSTANDS THE “FIRMAMENT” or: The Floundering and Vacillating On the Rakia

Rabbi Slifkin, for his own reasons, has incessantly repeated a mantra that Chazal thought the sky to be flat, solid and hard.[1]

One may be forgiven for thinking that by “solid” and “hard” he really means a really hard surface. After all, his proofs include the “tarkia” verse from Iyov which he mistranslates to say that the sky is “hard”[2] (I will elaborate on this in another post), and Chazal’s application of that to the original formation of the “rakia.[3] His proofs also include his comment on the Hirhurim blog (“What do you think the spheres are made of? They are certainly solid, as the stars and planets are embedded within them!”),[4] where someone invoked the fact that space ships went to the moon and beyond unhindered by anything in the way, as means of proof against the Rambam’s belief in the existence of celestial spheres.[5]

One can also be forgiven for accepting the “Rationalist’s” claims that the belief in spheres that were hard, solid material, such as crystal or glass, was adopted by Chazal from the ancient Babylonians. However, recognized experts (including one Rabbi Slifkin considers the best) opine that the ancients themselves did not necessarily consider the spheres to be solid substances, or even anything beyond mathematical abstractions. (A Not-So-Solid Proof About The Spheres)[6] When this was pointed out, Rabbi Slifkin thereupon clarified his position. He reported that,

My point was NOT that Chazal, or Rambam, held the spheres to be solid in the scientific sense of solid as opposed to liquid or gas. Rather, it was that the sphere is something with substance i.e. it is not the atmosphere, or outer space.

After I then challenged this absurd claim that the atmosphere has no substance, the “Rationalist” was forced to introduce a further clarification:

The only reason why I am qualifying my use of the word "solid" as not a scientific term is that one view in Chazal was that the rakia is made out of water, which congealed. "Congealed water" is not ice, and is not a scientifically-acknowledged phenomenon, so it can be misleading to describe it as a "solid."[7] But it is substantive, by which I mean it is firm. Unlike the atmosphere, which while being substantive in the modern scientific sense of being made of molecules, is not firm and is not what Chazal were describing when they spoke of the rakia, which the sun travels on both sides of. (January 6, 2011 11:24 PM)

So you see, when Rabbi Slifkin described the atmosphere as non-substantive, he did not mean it in the modern scientific sense of being comprised of molecules. He meant it in a non-scientific sense—something not “firm.” But the difference is that whereas the atmosphere cannot be called “firm” in any sense, the celestial sphere was definitely considered firm in some sense. And anyway, they thought it was opaque and that the sun travels on both sides of it.

This is why, you see, the assertion that everyone believed in a solid celestial sphere is not contradicted by the fact that Rabbi Slifkin’s own expert, among others, is not certain at all that the ancients considered the celestial spheres to be solids, or even physical realities at all.

Clear?

Does one get a sense of someone confused and floundering over his position, twisting and turning his own words to unsuccessfully avoid self-contradiction and absurdity?

In any case, dear readers, be not misled. Rabbi Slifkin in the end does not really think Chazal believed in really hard spheres which, only because of their hard solidity, could envelope and grip the stars and planets, would be shattered by rocket ships, and whose existence has been thereby disproven.

Never mind that he had written, and resumed to assert, repeatedly, “it was obvious to them all that the basic nature of the firmament is something hard and flat” (The Firming and The Flattening of the Rakia).

Yes, they thought it was hard. The facts are otherwise? Well, I didn’t mean hard. I mean substantive. No, wait. I mean firm. Look at the Gemora Pesachim which indicates they were thought to be opaque, and don’t forget about the Iyov verse and how Chazal applied it. So you see, Chazal thought the rakia was something hard.

But this is not an aberrant occurrence. It’s no less equivocal than saying the Blind Watchmaker Theory—which by definition means there is no divine guidance, manifest or hidden, behind the process of life development—is compatible with the Torah. It’s no less disingenuous than mistranslating “חזק” as “hard” rather than “strong,” or mistranslating Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s statement to hide the fact there was no mesorah about the existence of celestial spheres. Rabbi Slifkin and his admirers will ignore or declare irrelevant these errors that destroy his “proofs” and conclusions. What counts is the conclusion, regardless of how one gets there, that the mesorah of Creation must be rejected in face of cherished belief in academia’s methodologies, presumptions and consensus.


[1] When taken to task about this, Rabbi Slifkin diverts attention to another claim, that Chazal universally, according to all rishonim, had a mesorah that there is an opaque dome over the earth behind which the sun travels at night (see note 3). This will be dealt with in a separate post.

[2] “There was an unequivocal mesorah that there is a … a dome above the earth, made of some sort of substantial matter (i.e. not air or space)…. This was the universal, uncontested, view of Chazal, based on Pesukim such as that in Iyov 37:18: "Can you spread out the heavens with Him, hard as a mirror of cast metal?" …(Wednesday, January 26, 2011, What the Firmament Really Is).

[3] In addition to the above note’s citation (and other available citations): “… [I]t was obvious to them all that the basic nature of the firmament is something hard and flat; after all, there are numerous explicit pesukim describing the nature of the firmament, as well as other pesukim which shed light upon the basic etymology of the word” (The Firming and Flattening of the Firmament, Ratioanlist Judaism Blog, Sunday, November 28, 2010).

[4] (Natan Slifkin on September 7, 2010 at 2:50 pm Hirhurim blog, “Rabbis and Traveling to the Moon” comment section). Evidently, the “Rationalist” reasons that massive, heavy bodies such as stars can be contained by a body only if that body is a very hard solid. This is poor evidence, because (a) the “Chachmei Yisrael” of Pesachim 94b argued that the stars were not embedded within the spheres, but simply glided along them; and (b) more importantly, as in my reply loc. cit, it is more likely that Chazal held, as the rishonim did, that the spheres were ethereal, so their grip on the (less ethereal) stars was not thought to be that of a simple corporeal solid material.

[5] To this I responded, “The Rambam does not say the bodies of the spheres are bodies so solid that they would perceptively slow down rockets or would make an impact on them or vice versa. What he says indicates otherwise:

רמב”ם הלכות יסודי התורה פרק ג הלכה ג

כל הגלגלים אינן לא קלים ולא כבדים ואין להם לא עין אדום ולא עין שחור ולא שאר עינות וזה שאנו רואין אותם כעין התכלת למראית העין בלבד הוא לפי גובה האויר וכן אין להם לא טעם ולא ריח לפי שאין אלו המאורעין מצויין אלא בגופות שלמטה מהן.

“All the spheres are neither light in weight nor heavy, and they have no color...We only see them as bluish because of the height of the air...."

(Rabbi Slifkin, whose admirers regard as most civil in his interactions with those who disagree with him, went on to reply to my remarks, “It was standard Ptolemaic cosmology. Learn up about it, and you will understand what they thought the spheres are” (Natan Slifkin on September 7, 2010 at 2:50 pm ).

[6] See also: Wikipedia, “Celestial Spheres”: “Through an extensive examination of a wide range of scholastic texts, Edward Grant has demonstrated that scholastic philosophers generally considered the celestial spheres to be solid in the sense of three-dimensional or continuous, but most did not consider them solid in the sense of hard. The consensus was that the celestial spheres were made of some kind of continuous fluid (Grant, Planets, Stars, and Orbs, pp. 328–30). The very person the “Rationalist” names the expert on ancient cosmology contradicts his claim that “in the ancient world everyone believed that the sky is solid” in the sense of hard, rather than a fluid, or vaporous substance.”

[7] One wonders why is it only the “one view in Chazal …that the rakia is made out of water, which congealed,” that leads one to realize that we are not dealing with “a scientifically-acknowledged phenomenon, so it can be misleading to describe it as a ‘solid.’”? Is the other view, that the rakia was formed from “water” and “fire” any more a scientifically-acknowledged phenomenon? According to both views of the rakia’s origin, then, one should conclude that “it can be misleading to describe it as a solid.”

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Meaning of Time

In this recent post, Rabbi Slifkin continues his critique of Rabbi Meiselman’s article "A Question of Time". Before we begin it is important to reiterate that our objective is not to defend the opinions found in Dialogue. Rather, it is to provide critical analyses of Rabbi Slifkin’s views as expressed on his Rationalist blog.

Rabbi Slifkin takes Rabbi Meiselman to task for what he considers a theologically faulty position. Before we address Rabbi Slifkin’s issue, let’s synopsize Rabbi Meiselman’s view. In a nutshell, Rabbi Meiselman maintains that the laws of nature which obtained during the six days of creation differ fundamentally from the laws of nature which govern the post-Creation universe. Scientists are limited in their descriptions to a reliance on currently operating laws. Thus science, by definition, is incapable of contributing anything significant to the question of the origin of the universe.

Rabbi Slifkin poses the following problem with this thesis. If indeed the currently operating laws find no parallel at all to those that functioned during the Creation event, in what way is it meaningful to assign six regular days to maaseh bereishis? Once we’ve dispensed with the current laws of nature, anything is possible. Why not interpret six days as six epochs, or six hierarchal categories? In fact, why not dispense with the doctrine of recent Creation entirely and adopt the scientific view of an ancient universe? As Rabbi Slifkin puts it, we have "gained nothing" with this approach, meaning that this approach (seemingly) does not possess any explanatory power; it seems incapable of resolving anything…

Good question…

Here’s the answer.

On page 32 of the Dialogue journal, Rabbi Meiselman supports his thesis from non other than the Rambam himself. He quotes the Moreh 2:30 as follows (my translation):

And all the wise men concur that this episode (Adam and Chava in Gan Eden) occurred on the sixth day of Creation and that nothing (of the laws of nature) will change after the six days of Creation. And therefore it [the episode of Adam and Chava in Gan Eden] is entirely plausible because the laws of nature had not yet solidified…

Here’s what Rabbi Meiselman probably meant. The Torah says that the universe and all which is contained within it was created in six days. The Torah then goes on to describe the details of this creation. It is obvious from the Torah’s description that the physical processes which occurred during this period differed fundamentally from those which obtain today. But does this mean that there are no parallels at all between Creation and post-Creation periods; no, of course not.

When Hashem suspended the sun in the heavens on the fourth day, surely photosynthesis began functioning. When Hashem created animal life on the sixth day, surely animal metabolism began to function. Nevertheless, it remains obvious that when the Creative Process employed by Hashem during maaseh bereishis first initialized the laws of nature, this process was not subsequently bound by the laws it created. Thus we find fish suddenly filling the oceans, vegetation suddenly sprouting from the ground, and animals emerging suddenly from the earth etc. Does this mean that a maaseh bereishis cow was different than a cow in the year 5771? Probably not. But the creative process which was responsible for bringing about all of the phenomena of the beriah and their attendant laws was a one time phenomenon which finds no expression whatsoever in the current laws of nature. It was the progenitor of these laws, and subsequently receded from activity "kisheh-amar l’olamo dai". But in no way was the creative process limited to those laws. Accordingly, any number of violations of the currently operating laws of nature was possible during the period when the "creative process" was still in force. This then makes it impossible for scientists to extrapolate backwards with any authority since anything could have happened during maaseh bereishis.

I don’t know if this is what Rabbi Meiselman meant. But if it is, then to my mind his approach is logically consistent and Rabbi Slifkin’s questions fall away.

I believe I have responded to Rabbi Slifkin’s issue adequately. Comments are encouraged.

To be continued…

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dialogue – The Expression of Fundamental Beliefs

Recently, some individuals took upon themselves the task of publishing a new Torah Journal. The raison d’être of this journal is the discussion (hence; Dialogue) of contemporary issues in Judaism by writers that possess an a priori commitment to the values of our mesorah. The foundational premise which informs the articles in Dialogue is the idea that the [majority] consensus of our mesorah is inviolate. This distinguishes Dialogue from similar journals currently in circulation while firmly establishing its target market (i.e. Israeli chareidim and American yeshivishe)

This post is the first in a series of missives which are meant to respond to Rabbi Slifkin’s current treatment of the Dialogue Journal. Nevertheless, it is not designed as a defence of any of the articles found in Dialogue per se. This I will leave to the respective authors. It is rather dedicated to an analysis of the stated opinions of Rabbi Slifkin in keeping with the stated mandate of this blog.

One of the articles in Dialogue, entitled A Question of Time, addresses the issue of the age of the universe. It is written by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman of Yeshivas Toras Moshe. Rabbi Slifkin quotes Rabbi Meiselman as follows:

The issue [of the age of the universe] is not a new one. It was first discussed in our sources in medieval times. Ever since Aristotle, science had claimed that the world had no beginning... Neither the philosophic/scientific proofs of Aristotle, however, nor the scientific proofs of Newton and Laplace moved our Mesorah (transmitted tradition). None of the chachmei hamesorah who confronted the issue ever suggested that the received position be re-evaluated. Creation ex nihilo always remained a fundamental belief. The scientific approach was simply rejected, even in the face of so-called proofs.

As a stand alone selection, this paragraph makes a powerful statement about the unchanging nature of our mesorah in the face of opposing views or ideologies. The unanimous view of our mesorah is that the world is a product of recent, ex-nihilo Creation. In Grecian times gentile philosophers rejected this view on two fronts; they claimed that a) the world was not created, and b) it was eternal. In recent times the apparent phenomenon of universal expansion has led many scientists to reject the ancient concept of an eternal universe. Nevertheless, science still opposes the primary postulate of our mesorah; recent Creation. To my mind, the above paragraph was designed to impart a very simple and clear message. Just as our nation categorically rejects the conclusions of Greek naturalism when it clashes with the dictates of our mesorah, so too does it reject the conclusions of modern science when it is in opposition to the view of our received tradition. Simple and clear, right?

Not for Rabbi Slifkin. He writes:

R. Meiselman claims that the issue is not a new one - thereby blurring the distinction between the question of whether the universe was created, and the question of how old it is

What "blurring" is he referring to? There is no distinction between "the question of whether the universe was created, and the question of how old it is". Our mesorah is unequivocal on both these issues. Undeterred, Rabbi Slifkin sets out to create a distinction. Unfortunately, not only is his distinction irrelevant, it actually happens to be false.

Rabbi Slifkin claims that there is a fundamental distinction between the age of the universe and Creation ex-nihilo. In order to demonstrate his point, he quotes the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim 2:25. The Rambam there contrasts the Platonic view of an eternal universe with that of Aristotle and, amongst one of two reasons, concludes that the Aristotelian view of an eternal universe contradicts the foundations of the Torah such as miracles, prophecy, reward and punishment. Consequently, it must be rejected. On the other hand, the Platonic view does not contradict the aforementioned foundations of Torah and therefore does not have to be rejected. Nevertheless, the Rambam goes on to explain that we do indeed reject the Platonic view for reasons the Rambam explains there.

Based on this, Rabbi Slifkin would like to distinguish between the age of the universe, which Rambam seems to allow for, and Creation ex-nihilo which the Rambam categorically rejects. Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows:

But these are as different as chalk and cheese. The reason why creation ex nihilo was not re-evaluated was precisely because it was a fundamental belief. As Rambam states: "The belief in eternity in the way that Aristotle sees it - that is, the belief according to which the world exists by necessity, that nature does not change at all, and that the ordinary course of events cannot be modified in any aspect - this uproots the Torah from its foundation, and utterly denies all the miracles, and erases all the hopes and threats that the Torah assures." (Guide For The Perplexed 2:25)

Before we demonstrate Rabbi Slifkin’s glaring error of interpretation, it should be pointed out that even if Rabbi Slifkin’s interpretation of this Rambam is correct, which it is not, it is irrelevant to Rabbi Meiselman’s point. This perek (2:25) in the Moreh deals with the Rambam’s contrast of Platonic and Aristotelian Eternality (kadmus) vis-à-vis the plain meaning of the verses in the Torah. The Rambam felt that there was simply no way to shoehorn Aristotelian kadmus into the verses of the Torah. But true as Rambam’s contention might be, it does not serve as Rabbi Meiselman’s point of departure. Instead, Rabbi Meiselman appeals to the immutability of our mesorah. He points out that in the final analysis our baalei mesorah have never rejected our received traditions in favor of scientific arguments. It is a factual observation, gloriously compelling in its simplicity.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned, Rabbi Slifkin’s criticism fails on an entirely different front. He has made a fundamental error in his interpretation of the Rambam. He claims that "The reason why creation ex nihilo was not re-evaluated was precisely because it was a fundamental belief". This is just plain false. Rambam does re-evaluate creation ex-nihilo and in fact states that Platonic Eternality does not necessarily contradict the foundations of the Torah. Strictly speaking, creation ex-materia is compatible with the doctrines of the Torah, at least according to the Rambam. If so, why does he reject it? Because the plain meaning of the verses indicate otherwise! This, according to the Rambam, is enough to eschew any re-interpretation of the verses. The only thing that might move one to reinterpret the plain meaning of the verses of the Torah is the presence of unassailable proof to the contrary!

I haven’t yet read Rabbi Meiselman’s article but I’m pretty sure that his approach incorporates the idea that science does not possess concrete proof for the age of the universe. Furthermore, as far as this writer is concerned the only time the Rambam ever acknowledges the presence of unassailable proof against the pashtus of the pesukim is in reference to the anthropomorphic verses in the Torah. That’s it. Nothing else.

This important thread will continue bi’ezras Hashem…

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Setting the Record Straight

In a recent post, Rabbi Slifkin characterizes my position as follows:

True, in his primary post about evolution, he was forced to concede that theistic evolutionists also legitimately see God's presence in creation, and had to content himself with arguing that they are irrational for seeing direct design in the laws of nature but not in the specific features of the animal kingdom

Although I understand Rabbi Slifkin’s interpretation of my view, ultimately he is not correct. I believe that theistic evolutionists do not see God’s presence in creation. Anyone who is capable of ignoring God’s Hand in the formation of the cell is fooling himself if he thinks he sees God’s Hand in the laws of nature. This is not the time or place to explain my position. I just wanted to set the record straight.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Books of Heresy

Ami Magazine recently highlighted the story of a ben-Torah who, nebach, lost his emunah. His wife wrote a letter to the magazine documenting the events which led to this unfortunate state of affairs. She writes as follows:

Of course I noticed the telltale signs. I watched with great concern as my kollel husband no longer resembled his peers. I inwardly cringed as books, radio, Internet replaced the Talmud, Chumash, sefarim.

Rabbi Slifkin makes the following comments:

The situation with this husband and wife is, of course, sad. But what I personally find especially painful is how some of this tragedy is so unnecessary and possibly made worse by the wife. Was it such a tragedy that he brought secular books into the home?

Apparently so! First of all, the wife was referring to a general trend of replacing Torah learning with secular books, radio and Internet. Second of all, yes, secular books are eminently capable of dragging a person off the path of emunah! The gemara in Chagiga (15b) relates that the great sage Elisha ben Avuya went off the derech because he was influenced by Greek culture (he was always whistling Greek tunes) and Greek attitudes (books of heresy).

Secular books are, for the most part, anti-Torah; they contain the attitudes of the gentile nations which are diametrically opposed to the attitude of the Torah. Even innocuous books, such as those on science, are tainted with the attitudes of the goyim. It is extremely dangerous for an innocent ben-Torah to start taking unwarranted and unsupervised excursions in the fields of gentile literature. Human beings, all human beings, are extremely impressionable and thus it is a sakana gedolah to allow oneself to be exposed to foreign ideologies. This is the most obvious lesson that can be learned from this Ami article.

(I'll bet she doesn't know that Rav Dessler studied Uncle Tom's Cabin.)

This comment was particularly distasteful to me. Rav Dessler studied secular disciplines under the close supervision of his father and his Rabbeim in yeshiva. Like the aforementioned gemara in Chagiga mentions (regarding learning from one who is tainted by heresy), it is indeed possible to “extract the kernel and discard the chaff” but only under certain circumstances. By no means can it be used as a blanket heter to read secular books indiscriminately; i.e. without any discretion or supervision.

She cried so terribly when he attended a conference on evolution? Goodness, it's not as though it was a conference on Bible criticism or atheism!

It was worse! If an innocent ben-Torah makes the tragic mistake of attending a conference on evolution, it is like attending a conference on Bible criticism and atheism combined! He would have been better off visiting a house of ill repute! Far better. A conference on evolution is populated one hundred percent by atheists, Bible critics, and every other form of human degradation. Everyone there is no doubt an avowed enemy of Hashem and His Torah. Rabbi Slifkin’s comments demonstrate that, unfortunately, he has lost any semblance of sensitivity to the dangers of being influenced by gentile attitudes.

There are many fine, frum, OrthoDOX people who attend conferences on evolution, which is not at all incompatible with Torah.

What an unfortunate attitude. There is nothing more incompatible with the Torah than evolution. Even Avodah Zara is preferable. This is not my attitude. The Rambam states that atheism is worse than Avodah Zara. And evolution is nothing but atheism dressed up in scientific garb. Any Orthodox Jew who attends conferences on evolution is taking his life in his hands. Even if he manages to hold on to his emunah, he is tainted. No less than the garbage man who reeks to high heaven even though he is cleaning out the garbage.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Single-Minded People

Rabbi Slifkin’s strident and ongoing disparagement of Chazal's wisdom remains unchecked. This is demonstrated most keenly in his treatment of the halachic definition of death. In this recent post, Rabbi Slifkin reiterates several of his previous assertions regarding this issue and even adds one for good measure. His shoddy scholarship is actually shocking. Here are a few examples.

And so, while Dr. Stadlan is absolutely correct to state that when babies are born with extra appendages or organs, they are considered to be two persons when they have two heads - it should be noted that Chazal did not view it that way!

This is unbelievable! Anyone opening a gemara Menachos 37a-b will see that a two-headed firstborn requires 10 selaim for pidyon haben! This gemara is juxtaposed with Rabbi Slifkin’s gemara regarding Palemo and Rebbi. If anything, this gemara can be brought as proof that Chazal understood a two-headed person as two distinct persons, not one.

In my monograph The Question of the Kidneys' Counsel, I showed how Chazal believed that significant components of the mind are located in the chest cavity - in the heart, kidneys, and other innards - rather than in the brain.

This assertion was already refuted here and here and yet Rabbi Slifkin continues to repeat the same error. Incidentally, Rabbi Slifkin did not claim that “significant components of the mind are located in the heart, kidneys, and other innards - rather than in the brain”. He claimed that Chazal believed that the mind was located in the heart and kidneys and not the brain, period. He seems to be engaging in some creative back-pedaling.

Accordingly, dicephalus twins — conjoined twins with a single trunk and one head — were regarded as a single person with two heads. We see this in the way that the Gemara presents the question mentioned above. The Gemara discusses the question of upon which head such a person (described in the singular!) should place tefillin.

We see nothing of the sort. Mee'ma nafshach; even if Palemo and the rest of Chazal held that a two headed person was definitely only one person, Palemo should still have asked the question differently. He should have asked, “Does a two-headed person need to put tefilin on both heads or can he be yotzeh the mitvah by putting on tefilin on one head”? The format of Palemo’s question is equally puzzling regardless of Chazal’s position regarding “two-headed personage”. Accordingly, Rabbi Slifkin’s “proof” is no proof at all.

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.

"Frogs" According to Chazal

A few months ago, Rabbi Slifkin posted the following complaint.

This past Shabbos was a case in point. The passuk says ותעל הצפרדע - "And the frog came up, and covered the land of Egypt." Why does it say "frog" in the singular? As Junior told me, there was originally only one monstrous frog, and when the Egyptians beat the awesome amphibian, it became many millions.

In fairness to his teacher, I'd bet that 95% of Orthodox Jews think that this is the peshat. Or at least, they will claim that it's Rashi's peshat. But it isn't.

The aforementioned explanation is a Midrash. Rashi does indeed mention it - explicitly describing it as the derush. And Rashi also notes that the peshat is that a swarm of frogs is called "frog" in the singular - just as in English we speak of a "frog plague," not a "frogs plague."

Rabbi Slifkin is making a category error. There are midrashim which are rachok (distant) from the peshuto shel mikra (plain meaning of the verses) and there are aggados which are karov (close) to the peshuto shel mikra. The latter form of derush is used constantly by Rashi in conjunction with, and as a reinforcement of the peshuto shel mikra. Rashi explains his modus operandi clearly in Bereishis 3:8 and other places. The fact is, the vast majority of Rashi’s peirush al haTorah is comprised of drashos Chazal which are karov to pshat and Rashi uses these drashos to be miyashev the pesukim in the Torah "davar dibur al ofanav".

Sometimes Rashi brings drashos which are distant from the pashut pshat (plain meaning) of the pesukim. But whenever he does, he mentions them second (e.g. Vayikra 26:17, Bamidbar 15:41, Bamidbar 19:22). If the midrash appears first, this is a sign that Rashi felt that the drasha was karov to the pashut pshat if not pshat itself. In the case of the frogs, Rashi brings Rabbi Slifkin’s medrash right at the beginning which indicates that this is the pashut psaht of the term tzfardea in the Torah.

The proper way to understand this Rashi is as follows. The term tzfardea does indeed mean one frog. After all, the term tzfardea is singular making “one frog” the simple translation of this term. However, Rashi then goes on to explain that even if Chazal would not have revealed this drasha to us, the pesukim could still have maintained grammatical consistency because often times the singular form is used to modify the plural in the Hebrew language. Thus, both interpretations are pashut pshat! The Torah wants to tell us that the plague of frogs came upon the Egyptians while simultaneously telling us the method. It thus uses the singular term and kills two birds with one stone (or rather, one frog with several smacks).