Monday, October 19, 2009

Noach: The most difficult parsha of all

A few days ago, I provoked a little Twitter argument by calling Noach "the most difficult parsha of all." Why do I say this? Because the story of the flood leaves us with several serious questions that the Tradition never addresses*.

For instance:

- How did the kangaroos get to Australia after the Ark went aground in northern Mesopotamia? Did they swim? Why didn't any of them remain behind in the near east? You can ask the same about the llamas and Peru, the grizzly bears and North America, or any other of the thousands of animals that are unique to one geographic location or another. How did all of them all end up in their current place, without any of them leaving behind a shred of evidence that any of them were ever anywhere else?

- How did all those different animals, with all their food, fit on one little ark? Its just not possible.  Don't believe me? Make a list of every mammal, reptile, insect and bird you can think of and tell me how they all could fit on a vessel that was about the size of the Love Boat.

- Why isn't there any geological evidence of a global flood? I don't know how they do it, but experts who know where to look, and what to seek, say that there's not even weak evidence that the world was ever covered with water in the way the Torah describes (and forget the midrashic embellishments about the heat of the water. That's no help.)

* I don't know of any other section of the Written Torah that is this perplexing or problematic. Even the Creation Story(s) can be made to fit with the observed facts without deviating from the Traditional interpretations. If you want to believe the universe is several billion years old, you can: Yitzchak of Acco, a rishon, said it 800 years ago. If you want to call the Creation Story(s) myth or allegory or impossible to read according to the plain meaning, you can do that, too: The Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim, said so.

On Twitter, I've been knocking around some possible answers with my friends and enemies. I admit that the  most sensible solution seems to be that though the flood never happened, people who thought it had occurred added the story to the Torah because they judged the Torah's primeval history incomplete because it had no mention of such a well known historical event.* But along with seeing the appeal and simplicity of this solution,  I also concede that this answer isn't available to Jews who accept the 13 principles of faith, and operate under the assumption that all of the Torah was divinely revealed by God on Sinai.

There is however, another approach, one that is true to the evidence without being quite so offensive to the Tradition.

* Suggesting the story was added doesn't necessarily mean that God didn't reveal the rest of it. Indeed, Ibn Ezra appears to accept the possibility that five sentences and the last chapter of the Torah were added by someone other than Moshe. Suggesting the flood story was also added by someone other than Moses is categorically the same. Still, this sort of thinking isn't available in the wake of the Rambam's ikkarim. The flood story appears to have been well known in ancient Mesopotamia and it is recounted in the Epic of Gilgamesh. According to James Kugel even the most generous dating says the Gilgamesh fragments discovered in Tell Hadad are older than Genesis. If the story was very well known, as I speculate above, its not hard to imagine a pious but (by our standards) misguided first Temple Jew seeking to correct the Torah so that it would include a famous story. If this addition was made all it means, theologically, is that first Temple Jews didn't share our post Rambam idea of the sanctity and inviolability of the text. There's plenty of biblical evidence that this was true. I hope to post about it one day.

Was the flood global, or local? The problems I list above are only problems if we say the Torah demands that we believe the flood covered the entire planet, but does it? The verses aren't conclusive. It's certainly legitimate to read the story as saying that the entire earth was covered with water, but that's an interpretation, and one the Tradition doesn't necessarily share - at least not in full. According to Rashi on Nida 61A the flood did not extend to the Land of Israel. If this is true, we're not talking about a global flood, and if we're not talking about a global flood, the problems listed above disappear.  Problems solved?

I concede this answer goes one step further then Rashi but the proverbial ice has already been broken - he's already said the flood wasn't local. I'm merely going through the door he opened. I'm able to do this because I don't see anything theologically wrong with reinterpreting verses to fit new information. Likely, neither do you. Anyone who says the earth circles the sun is reinterpreting the verses about Joshua and the Sun and if you visit a doctor or accept what scientists say about the Milky Way, you're likely rejecting the medical theories of chazal and most of their cosmology. If no one blinks when we reinterpret psukim in the case of Joshua, or disregard open Talmudic teachings about medicine and cosmology, why is the old understanding of Noach's flood sacrosanct? Why can't we say we misunderstood the verses in Genesis, and that in light of what we know now the old view is untenable and must be replaced? It sounds deeply impious, but Judaism has done this before. Why can't we do it now?

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