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Fairy Tales, History, or Something Else

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Saturday, August 8, 2015

T.J. raises some interesting questions when he asks about the stories in the Torah. Are they fairy tales? Are they true? What is the Torah anyway?

Because some sections of the Torah are narratives, they sometimes seem like history. But the Torah itself tells us that it is not a history book. It does that by referring on several different occasions to books which are history books. For example, it says in the book of II Kings that if you want to know more about a particular king’s life and activities then go to the history book- sefer divrei hayamim- the chronicles of that king.

“The other events of Jeroboam’s reign and all his actions and exploits, how he fought and recovered Damascus and Hamath for Judah in Israel are recorded in the Annals of the Kings of Israel.”

Similarly about King Azariah,”the other events of Azariah’s reign and all his actions are recorded in the Annals of the Kings of Judah.”

I also find evidence within the Torah that it was not designed as a science book.

Stump the rabbi has been a popular pursuit for generations and one of the repeating questions in that game has been- who did Cain marry? After all if God created Adam and Eve alone, and they had two sons Cain and Abel, after Cain killed Abel, who was he afraid would take revenge ( his parents?) and who did he marry?  Though later generations of rabbis had complicated answers to this question- Cain and Abel each having twin sisters, and other farfetched explanations, the real answers seems to me that the Torah wasn’t concerned with that question because it wasn’t trying to provide that kind of explanation. It isn’t about the science of creation. Its focus on Adam and Eve, as representatives of all humanity, wasn’t an anti-evolution message. Rather it was meant to remind us about our own lives- about how all humanity are essentially one family, and about our own growth from dependence to independence, from naivety; to embarrassment, from entitlement to meaningful work.

The stories from Deuteronomy are particularly interesting as often they repeat something we read about in Exodus but with a somewhat different twist. That difference might represent a different point of view or sometimes the needs of a society at a different point in its growth. Centralization, which is not at all the issue in Exodus, when the Jewish people were a nomadic extended family, is a big issue in Deuteronomy, when Israelite society had become larger and more complex. Deuteronomy is charged with the question: How can the Torah be a force that helps unite the 12 tribes, or at least some of them, a force that will give the Israelites an identify to withstand the disruption of Exile?

The rabbis describe the Torah as being like a diamond in that it has many facets, many different sides that can look very different. They say the Torah has 70 facets, and thus speaks to us in 70 different ways. That is one reason why Judaism is not uncomfortable with people reading the Torah differently. We don’t believe that there is one right way to interpret each verse.

I’ve been reading the novel All The Light We Cannot See, and in that story a diamond plays an important role. Early on in the story, while one of the protagonists, a blind girl, is visiting a scientist at the Paris Museum of Natural History, diamonds are explained to her in this way:

“You know how diamonds- how all crystals grow? By adding microscopic layers, a few thousand atoms every month, each atop the next. Millennia after millennia. That’s how stories accumulate too.”  The Jewish idea of Torah is like diamonds in this way as well. It is not just the 5 books of Moses ( remember the Samaritans who value only the Torah and not the Prophets or the Writings and how they aren’t considered Jewish) or the Tanach, the Hebrew Scripture, ( remember the Sadducees who didn’t accept the Oral Torah and who are gone from history) or the Talmud and the Codes and the Commentaries. We believe that the Torah is constantly growing, adding layers in each generation.

Finally, in that same book coal also plays a role, and coal is very different. Coal is a compression of things that were once living, perhaps a green plant, a fern, or a reed from a long long time ago, that got compressed and compressed over very long periods of time until it finally became a source of energy. I think of the Torah like that as well- all of our human experiences distilled over long periods of time, until something new is created- wisdom.

T.J., Your interest in what really happened and how it really was for people in the time of the Bible was instructive to us all. I hope thinking about these two natural phenomena diamonds and coal, as models of what Torah is and can be, will be helpful to you as well.


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