Fiction is as Fiction Does

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By Rabbi Shai Cherry

Parshat B’shallach

Why would anyone hang their faith on a biblical hook?

This week’s Torah portion alone features pillars of cloud and fire, the splitting of the Red Sea, manna from heaven and military victory over the Amalekites because Moses — get this — held up his hands. On what basis would anyone believe any of that?

Our six-day creation story in Genesis I is equally implausible. It is, literally, incredible (i.e., unbelievable). That’s why we don’t read it literally. Genesis I is fiction. By the same token, our foundational story, the story of millions of Israelites being redeemed from slavery in Egypt, is also fiction. But fiction is as fiction does.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The method of creation in Genesis I is separation — light and darkness, upper waters and lower waters, and ocean and land. We humans, products of day six, are separated from other land animals by virtue of being created in the divine image. Yet we do not have our own distinct day; in Genesis I, all land animals emerge on the sixth day.

It’s not Darwinian evolution, but it certainly points to our continuity with the animal kingdom and some humans’ predisposition to beastliness. That beastliness is what the legal framework of the rest of the Torah is designed to contain, and our divine image gives us a fighting chance to succeed.

Given that we exist, we had to have been created. But, did we have to have been slaves? Why make slavery essential to our origins story? The ninth plague on our road to redemption, darkness, takes us back and reverses God’s very first act of separation, light from darkness (Genesis 1:4). The subsequent parting of the Red Sea has the waters separate horizontally rather than vertically (Genesis 1:6).

The message, clear as water, is that slavery is so ungodly that it threatens to undo God’s work of creation. When the waters reunite, drowning the Egyptian cavalry and saving the Israelites, that threat is eliminated.

But our Torah portion doesn’t conclude without introducing the next threat: Amalek attacked the weakest from the rear (Deut. 25:18). That threat, while temporarily neutralized for the remainder of the desert sojourn, was guaranteed to reemerge. “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:15). Amalek goes by different names throughout Jewish history. Today’s Amalek is cleverly named Amelia, Amelia Bedelia.

Amelia the Amalakite represents a wholly different danger to the Jewish people than did the Egyptians. Amelia reads Genesis One as science and the exodus as history. Amelia the Amalekite reads the Torah literally, not literarily. (Miluli, sharing the same root letters as Amelia, means “literal” in Hebrew.)

She attacks the Jews at the rear who haven’t caught up to those of us who understand, as did Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), that just because something is fiction does not mean it’s false. The Jews at the rear are prey to a naïve literalism that either infantilizes them through primitive beliefs by which they justify their adherence to atavistic elements of Jewish tradition, or it separates them from the living, enriching Jewish tradition by turning Torah into mere children’s stories.

Maimonides forcefully rejects both approaches. He teaches that when science contradicts the literal sense of the Torah, we must read the Torah figuratively, as literature.

There is a dispute in the Passover Haggadah about whether our degraded origins were rooted in slavery or idolatry. The Torah celebrates our victory over slavery to Pharaoh — freeing us to pledge our service to God. It also enshrines, through a whole host of laws, safeguards to prevent us from becoming pharaohs. In addition, the Torah warns us about the ongoing lure of idolatry.

Sometimes, idolatry manifests as a molten calf. The Chasidic master, Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Ishbitza (1802-1854), understood that the prohibition against making molten images included even the Torah’s own commandments. God forbid that the Tree of Life should become petrified wood by reading the Torah literally. That’s when Amelia Bedelia, the Amalakite, wins.

As religious literature, the Torah teaches that creation is hospitable to redemption. I believe that. I also believe that Judaism provides a moral compass and ritual stations to help us pilgrims move along the road to redemption.

Saadia Gaon, a 10th-century Arab Jew, wrote that the greatest miracle in the Torah was the manna because it lasted for the entire 40 years the Israelites wandered the desert. I don’t believe that manna fell from heaven. That’s fiction. I do have faith, though, born of my experience, that God provides us the strength and resources to travel in our desert along the road to redemption together.

My faith is not dependent on the Torah. The Torah confirms and strengthens my faith. That’s the power of fiction. Fiction is as fiction does.

Rabbi Shai Cherry is the rabbi at Congregation Adath Jeshurun. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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