I remember laughing when I first heard the following fictional
Dad: "Jason, what did you learn in Talmud Torah today?"
Jason: "All about how the Jews crossed the Red Sea."
Dad: "So tell me the story."
Jason: "Y'see, Pharaoh and the Egyptians were chasing after
the Jews, so Moses built this big bridge and the Jews crossed
over to the other side of the Red Sea. Then Moses put some
dynamite under the bridge, and when the Egyptians tried
crossing, it exploded and they all drowned in the sea."
Dad: "Is that really how your rabbi taught you the story?"
Jason: "Well, no, not exactly, but if I told you what he
actually taught us you'd never believe me."
Somehow the joke doesn't seem so funny anymore. Not after the
Los Angeles Times, in a widely publicized front-page
story that appeared on April 13 -- the eve of Shevi'i shel
Pesach -- quoted a popular Conservative rabbi's Passover
sermon to the effect that modern archaeology has disproven the
Biblical account of Exodus.
And not after the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, following
up on the uproar created by the Times report, published
an article by another rabbi -- I presume of Reform persuasion -
- explaining that it was no big deal for the Conservative
rabbi to have sermonized that Exodus never really happened.
"For 150 years or more, Reform rabbis, and more recently
Conservative rabbis, have decided to call it like we (and
every non-Orthodox Jewish scholar I am aware of) see it when
it comes to the veracity of Torah. True, most Reform rabbis
have rejected a literal understanding of Torah out loud and
most Conservative rabbis have done it in a whisper; but
believe me, you could fit every non-Orthodox rabbi in the
world who believes the Torah is entirely factual on the head
of a pin and still have plenty of room left over."
One might assume that the ability to distinguish between
Biblical fact and truth is a special talent that is the
exclusive province of Reform and Conservative clergymembers
and that Orthodox rabbis are hopelessly mired in the
fundamentalist rut of believing that the events recounted in
the Torah actually occurred. But wait -- it would appear that
the Reform lesson is being taught in certain Orthodox circles
An author will often try to grab a reader's attention with a
catchy or provocative article title, and I must admit that the
author of the lead article in the Winter 1999 edition of
Tradition -- "The Biblical Stories of Creation, Garden
of Eden and the Flood: History or Metaphor?" -- succeeded in
grabbing mine. What kind of question is that, I wondered, and
why is it being featured in Tradition, "A Journal of
Orthodox Jewish Thought" published by the nation's largest
Orthodox rabbinical organization? But then it occurred to me:
Surely the author, a well-known Orthodox rabbi and professor
at Bar Ilan University, would use this forum to debunk the
heretical views of those in the non-Orthodox camp who deny the
truth -- er, factuality -- of our Holy Torah.
Surprise! The author had other debunking on his mind. The
Biblical accounts of the Garden of Eden and the Flood, he
concludes, are indeed both metaphor; and while the story of
Creation is historical (phew!), "the terms used must be
'stretched' considerably so that the text may accommodate the
discoveries of cosmology."
It would appear that our bridge-building, dynamite-exploding
friend Jason has grown up -- and that he has become a rabbi,
maybe even an Orthodox rabbi.
Emunah Peshuta -- Simple Faith
This is not the setting, and I am not the authority, to engage
the rabbinical "fact vs. truth" brigade in detailed debate, or
to elaborate on how dangerously destructive is their approach
toward Judaism. Suffice it to note that our parents and
rebbeim taught us otherwise. They taught us that, with all due
respect to archaeologists and cosmologists, science is the
handmaiden of Torah, not the other way around; and that while
there are dimensions of drush, remez and sod
alongside the plain pshat of Torah, at the same
time ein mikra yotzei midei peshuto, the Midrashic,
metaphoric and mystical do not disturb the plain and literal
meaning of the text.
That is the faith that was bequeathed to them, and that they
in turn bequeathed to us. It is our challenge to bequeath that
faith to our children -- when we take them to shul,
when we send them to school, even when we tuck them into
R' Chaim Dovid Zwiebel is Executive Vice President for
Government and Public Affairs Agudath Israel of