Ethical Man 04 – Human as Plant

Chapter 1: Man as an Organic Being

Rabbi Soloveitchik shows how humans are similar to plants. In chapter 2 he will go on to show how humans are carnivorous beings. There are many parts to a person, which are evolutionary, going from a lower to a higher form.

He brings several verses showing the connection between mankind and plants: “Man is a tree of a field”; the instruction to be fruitful and multiply is given first to the plants, and then to humans in the same wording. etc.

Rabbi Soloveitchik also traces this deep connection between humans and plants on the halachic level.

On page 15 the Rav quotes Murphy who speaks about the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ structure of plants.

Rav Soloveitchik likens this to a fetus. He then begins a discussion based on Rambam’s ruling about when it is permitted to perform an abortion to save the life of the mother – based on when the fetus becomes a ‘nefesh’.

Rav Chaim (Beis HaLevi), Rav Soloveitchik’s grandfather, in his chidushim on Rambam, gives a different analysis and claims that the fetus is already called ‘nefesh’ even while in the womb.

Needless to say, this interpretation is not agreed to by everyone. In fact, Rabbi Triebitz claims that it does not fit very well with Rambam himself! In Moreh Nevuchim III:40 Rambam understands the concept of ‘rodef’ very differently. The reason it is permitted to kill a rodef is to save him from sin, rather than to save the life of the victim. Which is why Rambam here says ‘like a rodef’.

The fetus represents ‘man as a plant’.

At the other end of life, when a person is on death’s door (goses), in a vegetative state, they share qualities with a plant.

We see from all this that the Rav’s understanding of natural imminence is fundamental to his understanding of halacha.

Later in this chapter (p. 19), the Rav elaborates on the halachot of Zeraim. “These laws involve empirical study of plants, and classifications of structural, physiological and technical…. Scientific knowledge of the realia contributes…”

The Rav understands that Chazal are acting as scientists when they make claims about the physical world. This is not to say that they follow the modern scientific method, but nevertheless they are scientific.

It is interesting to compare and contrast this with the thoughts of the Chazon Ish. He understands the halachic system not as scientific, but rather as ‘prophetic’ – somehow connected to man’s inner understanding of the world.

This difference between the Chazon Ish and the Rav is a fundamental concept in all areas of halacha and Judaism.

A third idea within this chapter is brought out in a footnote on p. 17. He notes that man is rooted within the environment, and is ‘primitive’.

Certain philosophies are bent on freeing man from his confinement to a fixed environment. European intellectualism and rationalism and scientific technologism pursue it as a prime objective. Primitive man was more tied in with natural surroundings that the modern homo sapiens… Some philosophies proclaim the ideal fo return to nature… In the last century, European intellectuals thought that one becomes more man in proportion as one dissociates himself from his fatherland. The ideal of cosmopolitanism implies detachment from fixed surroundings… the method of abstraction, prima facie a logico-espistomological method, is also, at times, a way of living. Man abstracts his own existence from the concreteness of the environment; thus all those philosophies which saw in intellectual abstractionism the model of cognition display cosmopolitan tendencies. With the return of certain philosophers to the aboriginal sensuous apprehension of reality and with the rehabilitation of the primitive immediacy of naive knowledge, the contact between man and the world outside becomes more intimate. Such a romantic upsurge of man toward primordiality and oneness with the world outside has its effect upon political philosophy (Bergson’s elan vital, intuition).

Rabbi Soloveitchik understands that Judaism returns man to his earliest anthropology where he is enmeshed within his environment, within his land and his people.

From this Rabbi Triebitz claims that the Rav does not believe that Judaism is a ‘religion’ but rather a connection to a people. He also then shows that this is reflected in the halachot of conversion. He also claims that he changing definition of Judaism (and its becoming a religion) necessitated a changing definition of conversion.

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