Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Noach is the most difficult parsha: Answers

What should we do with Noach? In the post that follows I explain. But be advised. This isn't some new fangled modern approach, but an appeal to the wisdom and clarity of the past. As you'll see, I think our approach to Torah verses should be more like the approach demonstrated and recommended by the Tannaim, Rishonim and Geonim.

Believing Jews - and here I mean the fundamentalist, hard-core, Ultras - get very upset when you start asking questions about Noach, as I did in my previous post. For a taste, follow me on Twitter. The wild conversation provoked by my post and by some floater ideas I tweeted as I wrote, still isn't over.

I think the Ultras react this way because they don't understand the stakes. They fear that giving up one particular set of interpretations about Parshas Noach means giving up the belief in Torah, Moshe and mesorah. But this is nonsense. There's nothing sacred about an interpretation. They go in and out of style, and when they appear to be unfounded they are (informally) discarded.

For proof, page through any old book of midrash agada - be it Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer, Midrash Raba, Tanchuma, or any other. You'll find countless interpretations hardly anyone still knows or remembers. Old interpretations are dropped for any number of reasons, including when new facts are discovered that make an old interpretation suddenly untenable. Examples of this abound. Once upon a time we accepted interpretations of verses that supported strange beliefs - about the shape of the universe, the arrangement of the planets, the size of the stars, the role of the sun, the function of the heart, the reproductive habits of mice and lice, and so on. Once upon a time an interpretations of a verse in Psalms seemed to foreclose any possibility man could ever explore space or walk on the moon. Today such interpretations are, as they should be, completely out of favor and they are no longer considered authoritative.

The fact that this happens - and make no mistake that it does -  troubles the Ultras but it shouldn't. Chzal never asked us to put their interpretations on a pedestal, or to treat them as forever binding; in fact, the Geonim and Rishonim did the very opposite. They told us many times over that it is ok to discard interpretations that no longer seemed true, and, moreover, that these interpretations should not be considered part of the Torah. [See this.]

The Rabbis also told us when we should feel free to offer our own interpretations and when it is appropriate  to reject the plain meaning of a verse.  Over 1000 years ago, one of the great champions of rabbinic Judaism, Sa'adya Gaon, taught [Emunot v'Deyot 7:2] that there are four conditions under which the Torah is not to be taken according to its literal meaning (1) When the plain meaning is rejected by common experience, or your senses; (2) When it is repudiated by obvious logic; (3) When it is contradicted by scripture; or (4) When it is opposed by tradition. There's no doubt the Rishonim took this wise advice and reinterpreted verses that didn't fit the known facts.  This is why Ramabm, alone, teaches that the encounters between Abraham and the Three Man-angles, and between Jacob and the Night-stranger were visions, and not observable events. This is why Ramban rejects his predecessors and the plain meaning of the verse, and teaches that rainbows existed before the flood. And there are many other examples.

Given this, why should someone who reinterprets Noach in light of the known facts be considered a non-believer? What exactly has he done wrong? How has he disrespected the teachings and interpretive practices of the Rishonim? The Sages (according to many) accepted the knowledge of their times, and used it to inform their understanding of Torah -- in fact, it can be shown to have influenced some of their interpretations. Why should we do otherwise? Given the great stock some of  the Sages put in their own local wisdom, is there any doubt that some of them would, today, be interpreting verses in light of Einstein and Darwin? So why is such an approach out of bounds? And finally, why is deciding that the archeological and geological evidence militate against a global flood thought to be an attack on the Torah, when really the only  victim is a bad idea, i.e., an unfounded, untenable interpretation? Ultras may believe that its all or nothing - that dropping one set of interpretations means dropping all the interpretations and all the commandments, too - but Jewish experience shows otherwise. In every generation, we've discarded and created interpretations without losing shabbos and the rest. I see no reason why we can't continue to do this.

Search for more information about Noah at 4torah.com.

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