“If your friend jumped off the Empire State Building, would you jump too?” Arguments of this form are important bulwarks against thoughtless conformity. So it is disconcerting to find a beraita on Pesachim 53b apparently saying that you should be willing to jump, at least if your friend is a frog.
Todos of Rome teaches that the prophets Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah refused to worship an idol, and instead allowed Nevuchadnezzar to (publicly) throw them into a burning furnace, because they took as binding halakhic precedent the willingness of the plague frogs to enter Egyptian ovens. Rashi explains that Chananiah et al were considering whether the verse “and you shall live by them,” with the rabbinic corollary “and not die by them,” applied to their situation. The evidence of the frogs convinced them that it did not.
How seriously should we take frogs as halakhic authorities? On one level the answer is clear: not at all. Frogs do not have free will, or moral responsibility, and anyone one who thinks this midrash believes otherwise defames Chazal. Froggish martyrdom cannot teach us proper Jewish behavior, any more than froggish diet can teach us that insects are kosher. The real question is not whether frogs have halakhic authority, but whether imaginative texts about responsible frogs have halakhic authority. More sharply, the question is whether fantastical aggadot can deliberately and legitimately stretch halakhic as well as physical reality.
Let’s look at the frog story in Talmudic context. A beraita reports that Todos of Rome instituted a local custom of eating a faux Pesach sacrifice on the night of the seder. Halakhic authorities believed that this practice crossed the thin but critical line separating desirable commemoration of the Temple, zekher lamikdash, from substitution for the Temple. They accordingly sent him a stern message saying that they would have put him in cherem “were he not Todos”.
Why was Todos beyond the reach of normal halakhic authority? Berakot 19a frames two alternatives: a) he was a great man, whom the rabbis did not wish to ostracize. b) he was a powerful man, and the rabbis feared retaliation. Our beraita of the frogs is then cited as evidence. But what is our beraita evidence for? Does its ingenuity demonstrate that Todos was a great man, or rather does its implausibility demonstrate that he wasn’t?
Rabi Yose bar Avin splits the difference. He asserts that Todos was neither great nor wicked, but rather an assistant to the great. Netziv understands this position as deriving from our beraita – the fact that Todos is quoted demonstrates that he wasn’t evil, but that the argument-from-frogs was his best original Torah interpretation demonstrates that he wasn’t much of a scholar.
Netziv’s approach, however, seems idiosyncratic. Rashi, Tosafot, and Rabbeinu Tam each address this sugya with every expectation of rigor, and acharonim such as Maharsha and Chatam Sofer offering brilliant and highly involved defenses of Todos’ derashah.
How are we to take these interpreters? Surely every participant in the discourse was aware that frogs have no moral personality, and therefore no one thinks that Chananyah Mishael and Azaryah actually derived halakhic norms from their behavior. But they thought this was the only fiction, that the imaginary frogs were set in a real halakhah garden.
I wonder if this assumption is necessary, for two reasons.
First, aggadic heroes do the right thing rather than the halakhic thing; they go lifnim mishurat hadin (further in than the line of the law), and sometimes they act on the basis of hora’at sha’ah (the teleological suspension of the halakhic). For example: according to Rabbeinu Tam, Chananiah Mishael and Azaryah defied Nevuchadnezzar only because they were sure they would miraculously survive, and no halakhic precedent should be derived from their reliance on a miracle.
Second, if aggadists can take liberties with physical reality for the sake of a story, perhaps they can take liberties with halakhic reality as well. This is poetic license, not carelessness. For example, an aggada may rest on the assumption that a vow to kill one’s daughter can be binding, or that disobedience of a royal whim is a capital crime (mored b’malkhut). The authors of these aggadot would be shocked to discover that anyone took these assumptions more seriously than the conceit of philosopher-frogs.
In other words: Todos found a clever precedent for the willingness of Chananyah Mishael and Azaryah to be thrown into a furnace. For the sake of the derashah he ignored that halakhah forbids deliberately entering such situations, or perhaps he presented both frogs and prophets as acting on the basis of hora’at sha’ah. A hora’at sha’ah by definition is not a precedent for our behavior.
Both frogs and prophets should inspire us to self-sacrifice in the service of G-d. But thoughtless conformity is as dangerous in religion as in the rest of life.