Thursday, August 06, 2009

Ibn Ezra: Swings and Misses

Continued from yesterday

When a Torah verse suggests a miracle, the Ibn Ezra often attempts to rationalize it. Here's an example from this week, in which he makes such an attempt but fails badly:

THE VERSE: Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years.

IBN EZRA'S EXPLANATION (paraphrased and elucidated): During the 40 years in the desert, the Jews never produced perspiration. This is why their clothing didn't wear out. And why didn't they sweat? Not because of a direct miracle, but because according to the accepted science of the time, high quality food like the mon was entirely absorbed by the body, producing no waste, and sweat, in those days, was believed to be a human waste product.

Today, we know this is absurd: We don't expel waste via perspiration. We sweat to regulate our body temperature. If the Ibn Ezra's "rational" explanation of the verse is correct, a second, greater miracle is needed. His suggestion eliminates the need for a miracle that explains why their clothing never wore out, but it leaves us needing a miracle to explain how human beings lasted 40 years without sweating.

Rashi explains the verse with a different miracle, saying the Clouds of Glory washed and refreshed clothing, but I wonder what's preventing us from taking Moshe's statement as a figure of speech. Couldn't Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee simply be a poetic way of saying that God took care of things? We believe God takes care of us now, and without obvious miracles, so what requires us to say that the care provided in the desert was delivered via obvious miracles?

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