Parshat Toldot: How to differentiate between facts and beliefs

Rabbi Marc Israel
Rabbi Marc Israel (Jacqueline Hyman)

By Rabbi Marc Israel

Tthe book of Genesis is written as mythology, so we should not focus solely on its historicity. Its characters may be historical figures, but if that is our only question, we miss the point. Our rabbis understood this, as we can see in their commentary of Genesis 26:5. In this passage, God explains that all the promises made to Abraham are to be fulfilled through Isaac, because “Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws and My teachings.”

Rashi explains that each phrase conveys a different type of biblical or rabbinic law, indicating that Abraham followed all the mitzvot. As Ramban points out, “All this interpretation is posited on the opinion that Abraham fulfilled and observed the Torah before it was given on Sinai.”

But, Ramban continues, there is an inconsistency with this reading, pointing out various places where our ancestors clearly violated some of the basic biblical law: building monuments, marrying two sisters at the same time, etc. He asks, “How then was it possible that they should be permissive in matters of Torah which Abraham their ancestor had prohibited on himself.”

He then explains how those same phrases could refer to the Noahide laws, which already existed: “My charge” indicates prohibited marriages. “My commandments” is robbery and murder. “My laws” refer to tearing a limb from a live animal. And “My teachings” equals idol worship.

At the same time that Ramban offers this more rational explanation, he also recognizes the power of the myth that Rashi and the midrash convey.

And so Ramban continues by explaining how Abraham could have known the law before Sinai: “Our ancestor Abraham learned the entire Torah by ruach hakodesh [divine inspiration] and occupied himself with its study and the reason for its commandments and its secrets, and he observed it in its entirety as ‘one who is not commanded but nevertheless observes it.’”

By offering both explanations, Ramban preserves the Biblical timeline of the giving of the law with its observance, while also maintaining the sense of connection that Rashi’s mythological interpretation intends to convey.

Texts that convey scientific and historical fact teach us what is true, while mythological stories teach us great truths (beliefs). The Ramban teaches how to differentiate between the two, to value both and to not confuse one for the other.

Rabbi Marc Israel is the rabbi of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville.

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