Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

10 Ellul 5761 - August 29, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
A Not-So-Funny Joke

by R' Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

I remember laughing when I first heard the following fictional father-son exchange:

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."

California Dreaming

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. After all:

"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 as well.

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 bed.

R' Chaim Dovid Zwiebel is Executive Vice President for Government and Public Affairs Agudath Israel of America.

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