Limits of Rationalism (Vayikra)

rulersGod tells Moshe: people will bring offerings: cattle, goats, sheep, birds, grain. Make sure Aaron and his crew know how to prepare each kind for the altar! After giving those instructions, God explains which circumstances require which offerings (Parshat Vayikra, Exodus 1:1-5:26).

And here, medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides throws in the towel. It’s true, he says, all of Torah’s instructions are given with good reason. And careful thinkers can discern many of those reasons. But we need to know what kind of reason to look for. Sometimes it’s best not to analyze the rationale for every instruction. Instead, try to understand the purpose of a set of instructions.

Take the offerings, for example. Animals are precious, edible, and biologically close to human beings. Thus, animal offerings teach us to give, feed others, and confront mortality. But why offer two bulls for the new month, seven sheep for Passover and two birds for healing? Don’t even go there, Maimonides says. You’ll enter a maze of questions, hypotheses, symbolic interpretations — and you’ll never find your way out.

This week, I read an essay on religious pluralism by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. All human beings, says Greenberg, are created in the image of God. Thus, each person deserves to be heard when they speak about their Creator.

Of course, Greenberg continues, many understand their view of God as absolute truth. But absolutists can dialogue. Because absolute truths have a limited range, plural absolutes can exist. How does this work? Imagine reality as a line marked with numbers 1-10. Some truths may be absolute with respect to, say, points 4-6 only — within a particular range of times, places, and cases.

So I tried Greenberg’s thought experiment. I understood not to take it literally. And yet. Maimonides’ cautions flashed through my mind. When sharing theologies, must we be so specific? Should we aim at an integrated God theory? Award each tradition a percentage of the scale? Quantify our respective insights into absolute truth? No, no, no, and no! Because that’s a maze we would never exit.

For more reflections on Parshat Vayikra (Exodus 1:1-5:26), click hereGreenberg’s terrific essay “Pluralism and Partnership” can be found in his book For the Sake of Heaven and Earth. Image:


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