Bilam - Questions

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim


Reader: I'm puzzled by the caption on your illustration of Bilaam hitting the Donkey; The caption urges us to bring up the issue of "Metaphor" in explaining the incident to our children.Are you saying that the incident is a "metaphor" ie. that Bilaam's Donkey was not literally given the power of speech?

I know that there are those who offer this approach; However, very many of our Rabbis, in many periods, give exactly this passage as a "test case" for our emunah in HaShem's power to alter nature as He sees fit. It appears that your page totally ignores this opinion --held by some of the greatest scholars and kadoshim in our history.Am I understanding your intent correctly?If so, it would be shocking, disturbing, and a great shame --given your mission and energy and sincerity in pursuing it. I know you are very busy (doing, I know, very many very good things) but I would be grateful for a response when you have
time. kol tuv

Mesora: Would you feel it is a great shame if I told you that Rambam held this opinion? Well, he does. Or is it only a shame that Mesora holds this opinion?

If you feel Rambam is justified, but Mesora is not, on what basis do you feel Rambam has the right to think for himself, but Jews today do not?

Hashkafa, which this is, is not an area of psak (ruling), hence, their is no obligation to follow someone's opinion, how ever great he may be. One cannot be told to believe that which he does not believe. That would be a lie. In halacha, yes. One must follow psak. But again, Choshen Mishpat even says that if one studied an area thoroughly, he is allowed to oppose his superiors for his own actions. So even in psak, the mind is what rules. Not conformity to reputations. In gemara, the "rove" rules. But Choshen Mishpat says that individually, one is allowed to use his own mind to arrive at psak.

What do you do when RambaN argues on RambaM? They said themselves that they cannot BOTH be right. So if one said the donkey was a metaphor, and the other, actuality, do you say "it is a shame" for that one? Since he opposed the other?

I urge you to think for yourself. Following reputations is of no credit to yourself. You will be especially bewildered, should you accept one authority on a given topic, only to find another more authoritative view oppose the first.

By what merit will you remain with the first view, or by what merit will you change to the next view?


Reader: I was aware of the Rambam's approach on this; The "shame" is not that there is such an approach, but rather that the audience you reach would not know that it's not the only approach (and, perhaps, even a minority approach by some calculations) ---and so might come to some very wrong conclusions that would surely disturb you, too.

Consider: The Internet is a very popular medium, reaching all kinds of Jews with varied (and sometimes very little)background. For you to tell these Jews that Bilaam's donkey is a metaphor --and say nothing more on the subject at all, (as was done in your Balak issue) could easily lead some to assume that krias Yam Suf and Matan Torah are also metaphors!

Whatever opinion you may hold on a Torah subject, there is an added pedagogic concern in a popular medium about what others will understand. If you would have told people that there are various approaches among our Rabbis, there would have been much less room for error. Or, if you felt that you could only bring the metaphor position forward, then it would have been safer if you also explained to people that other non-natural occurrences in the Torah literally happened. But the way it went out, a large number of people could have been led to a real error.

In any case, although it's hard to tell the "tone" of someone's remarks from an email, I get the feeling that you might have felt insulted in some way by my letter; That was not my intent at all, and if it was insulting in any way, please accept my apologies.


Mesora: Why then didn't Rambam himself teach the views of other Sages?

You must answer this dilemma. You claim that people should present all sides, yet the very Baalei HaMesora (transmitters of the law) did not ascribe to this.

You must conclude that the great Sages were honest, teaching only the view they saw as correct, omitting others, how ever great they were. We must do the same.

Regarding yam Suf and Matan Torah being taken metaphorically, Rambam states his criteria quite clearly. Only when a "malach" (an angel) is mentioned to have talked or to have appeared in an account, does Rambam interpret the account and a vision, or something other than physical phenomena. This removes the possibility of metaphorizing biblical accounts when angels talked or appeared. See this article: Angels

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