Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Balak, Baalam, the Atheist and the Ass

I was out of town this weekend and just got to finish this.  Food for thought.

Second week and I am already late to post.  Last Saturday we read Balak in synagogue.  Balak is a wonderful Torah portion where we get the prayer  “Mah Tovu” the blessing we say upon entering the synagogue.  “Mah Tovu” is not the words of a great Israelite but a hired diviner or prophet of Ba’al who was suppose to curse the People of Israel.  But God does not allow it and speaks these words through his mouth.  But part of the story that is most interesting is that when Baalam, the hired prophet, was asked by God not to go to give the curse.  On the way, an angel tries to stop him.  He doesn’t see it, but his donkey does.  God gives the donkey the gift of speech and he speaks to Baalam, who had been beating him.  Baalam is seen as dumber than his donkey and in the end when he attempts to curse the people a blessing comes forth.
This story is one that gets a lot of attention from those who want to discredit the Torah.  In debates with atheists I am often confronted with this as an example that the Bible is a fairytale.   We can discuss the difference between sacred literature and fairytales but I want to think about something a little more simplistically.  This argument from an atheist is a non-thinking and intellectually dishonest position.  It often sounds like an attempt to not engage anyone who uses Torah as a guideline in life but make fun of them.  But what does it say about the person who levels this charge? 
Let me be clear, atheism is a viable and can be an intellectually honest position.  Non-belief is as old as any belief structure in our society.  Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History shows how there has always been those who question the text and the God or Gods who are said to inspire them.  But many times modern atheists or more precisely anti-theists feel they are just going to make fun of people who connect with a religious tradition and use the most fantastical stories in the Bible to make their point.  “Only a fool would think that snakes and donkeys talk.”  But here is the thing most people who follow the traditions of Judaism and Christianity, who hold these texts sacred, do not believe the story of Balaam is a literal story.  In fact, one of the best ways to explain it is the words of one of my teachers, Rabbi Hanan Alexander who said, “The stories in the Bible are true, they just didn’t happen that way.”  The stories are not meant to be seen as a literal historical account, but a mythology that teaches the truth of our developing culture and they are still relevant today, not that we should look to donkeys to teach us how to live but that we can focus on the timeless ideas behind the stories.
Too often people reject religion in general and Judaism and Christianity in particular because of ignorance of what they mean to their adherence.  Many people who attack faith do it in the most juvenile ways because their understanding of the faith is juvenile.  They seek out the most outrageous people, who do believe in talking donkeys and snakes, build straw men, knock them down and claim victory.  It often makes them feel better about their position.  Again this is not to say that that is all atheists, but too often people who speak out in the infotainment world are not doing disbelief justice. 

The Bible is an enduring story for our people.  It has disturbing stories, funny stories, crazy stories and unbelievable stories.  But if we pick it apart and look for those things that we can’t believe we are missing the point.  The Torah is a human endeavor to understand God.  There are many timeless lessons and if the writers decided to use a donkey to teach one who is the ass for reacting the message because of the messenger?    


  1. One of the best explanations of what Torah is came from a Rabbi I used to work with. He used to say, "The Torah is our people's understanding of what happened to them and why." He'd go on to explain to students that understandings of what happens to people change over time - our understandings today will very probably differ from future generations' understandings.

  2. Beautiful quote, I love the fact that we can see Torah that way.