Parshat Kedoshim: What Does “Nature” Mean? Rambam, Yam Suf, and Rationalism

I was raised on the belief/understanding that Rambam was a rationalist; it’s taken a long time for me to absorb the evidence Rambam himself gives that that’s not quite accurate. One example is his presentation of the Splitting of the Sea, Keriyat Yam Suf. His comments on that event suggest to me that he had a less “natural” view of Nature than we tend to assume, and that his rationalism cared about different issues than today’s version.

Not Just Miracles, Miracles

Avot 5;4 tells us that ten miracles were performed for our ancestors at the Sea. Rambam gives us his tradition of what those miracles were (a tradition I have not found in any one source, although some of his examples are found in Avot de-Rabbi Natan and other Midrashim).

Note that Rambam could have sidestepped the issue. In his first comment on Avot, he announced his intention to explain only those comments that teach us character traits to adopt, and the hard words.  He elucidates other lists in the fifth chapter, such as the miracles in Egypt and the trials of Avraham—but it would not have been a glaring omission had he left this lift unexplained.

Once he chose to give the whole list, I find it also interesting that it’s such a miraculous one.  Because Rambam’s list is:

1) the Sea split,

2) it then formed an archway for the Jews to pass under, so they were surrounded on all sides by water (which, incidentally, is not the easiest reading of the verses that speak of the water being a wall to the Jews’ right and left),

3) the ground solidified and dried up,

4) for the Egyptians, the ground was muddy and sticky,

5) the Sea split into twelve arches, one nestled under the other, so that each tribe walked within its own arch (Rambam doesn’t discuss if Menashe and Efrayim joined in one Yosef arch, or if the tribe of Levi went with some other tribe),

6) the water became so hard that people who fell into it cracked their skulls (Rabbenu Yonah understands this to mean that happened to the Egyptians as they slipped on the muddy seabed),

7) the water froze in the shape of bricks or stones, so it looked like an actual wall,

8) the water was transparent, so each tribe could see the rest of their brethren,

9) sweet water dripped down the walls for the Jews to drink, and

10) any water that wasn’t drunk froze before it reached the ground.

The Problem with Miracles

Rambam doesn’t just accept the miracles here, he follows a tradition that adds violations of ordinary nature that seem unnecessary.  Later in the chapter, Rambam articulates a view of the difference between the miraculous and the natural that shows he felt no discomfort with the literal reading of the miracles he had mentioned.

The fourth Mishnah in the chapter speaks of Hashem creating ten items on the sixth day of Creation, בין השמשות, with the very end of the day.  Rambam reminds us that in the eighth chapter of his introduction to Avot (known as שמונה פרקים, Eight Chapters), he had rejected the possibility that Chazal had believed in any sort of change in Hashem (because perfection is unchanging, in Rambam’s view).  That being said, we cannot believe that Hashem “performs” miracles, since that involves change in Hashem.

Natural Miracles

Regardless of whether we accept that this is how the world actually works, Rambam’s view shows us where his rationalism took him.  He says that since Hashem doesn’t change (the issue that really concerned him), Hashem embedded in Nature, from Creation, all the changes that would happen in the future.  We call the ordinary course of events Nature, that which happens only infrequently we call a miracle.

But for Rambam they aren’t fundamentally different.  Since Creation, there have been pathways that are used often and other pathways used as little as once or twice in all of history, but they were all there from the start.  Water splitting at the commands of Moshe, Yehoshua, Eliyahu, and Elisha and the sun standing still for Yehoshua are the examples Rambam himself gives.  (I assume Rambam meant that water has in its nature that it splits when righteous people have a deep need for that to happen, and the same for the sun).

A Humean Version of Nature

The theory yields a Nature radically different from what scientifically minded people assume today.  Rambam assumes a Nature whose laws have always contained the exceptions we would call miracles. The Sea split, in an astounding way, but that’s because Hashem created a world in which certain humans have the power to split bodies of water or stop the sun in its tracks.

It reminds me of the 18th century David Hume’s famous comment that just because the sun has risen every day of human history doesn’t necessarily mean it will rise again tomorrow. He meant it as a comment on the flaw in assuming that many examples establish a general rule, but Rambam meant it as an actual characteristic of the world around us—just because it’s always operated a certain way does not mean we have full knowledge of how it works. A remarkable exception could be lurking around any corner.

Which doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, Rambam saw no value in our attempts to understand Nature.  As a doctor and rationalist, he did believe the world was generally open to our attempts to understand it better. True as that is, we may at any time confront a new rule that allows for exceptions that will appear to us to be miracles.

So if you hear a scientist confidently assert how Nature must work, know that not only did Ramban think Hashem could change that, radically, at any time, Rambam thought the scientist was speaking beyond his or her pay grade, since we don’t begin to know all the rules, sub-rules, and exceptions Hashem inserted into Nature at Creation.

Remembering the Splitting of the Sea Daily

Hagahot Maimoniyot, glossing Rambam’s presentation of the Siddur, mentions a Yerushalmi that records Rebbe’s view that our daily recall of the Exodus should include the Splitting of the Sea and the death of the firstborn.  R. Ovadya Yosef, to whose name we now, sadly, have to append the same zt”l as the other sages of Jewish tradition who have gone to their reward, accepted this as the preferable way to act (in Yabia Omer Orach Chayyim 2;6).

If so, we are supposed to be saying, daily, that we remember not only that we left Egypt, but that as part of that leaving, Hashem struck down their first-born in one night and then split the Sea for us so that we could walk through on dry land. We are supposed to be telling ourselves, every day, that we don’t accept the view of Nature the scientific society around us confidently asserts is the only reasonable one in which to believe.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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