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A (Possible) Bombshell from Rabbi J. H. Hertz on the Great Flood in Parshas Noach

This week we read Parshas Noach. The focus of the parsha is the flood story. Most people are vaguely familiar with this story as it is told in the Bible.

God is disappointed in man, God decides to destroy mankind, God saves Noah by having Noah build a giant boat, Noah saves the animals in the boat, the rains come, the springs open up, the flood rages for 40 days and 40 nights, eventually the waters subside, Noah and his children settle back on dry land.

Moderns have three main issues with the flood narrative in the Bible. The first issue is the historicity of the event. The second issue is the confluence of deluge stories in other cultures, particular the Epic of Gilgamesh from the ancient Babylonians. The third issue is whether there are two flood narratives or just one.

Orthodox Jews rarely deal with these issues. The preferred method of handling these questions is to make a general statement about how the questions are flawed and then to change the subject.

However, the great Rabbi J.H. Hertz deals with these issues in his excellent Chumash. Everyone should have a copy. (Buy one here: Amazon). Although he only speaks briefly and somewhat superficially on the subject, the fact that he makes the effort to discuss these issues is very admirable and unique. I don’t believe he sufficiently tackles the issues and puts them to rest, but I do think it is laudable that he tries. This post will deal with his approach to the first two questions and an apparent bombshell therein. Inquiring minds can research his approach to the third question on their own.

R’ Hertz assumes that there was a flood. This is not solely based on the Biblical narrative, as he also mentions the support of the science of his day in dating the flood to 3800 BCE. Today, science can show that there was no worldwide flood in 3800 BCE, but there is much evidence for a flood at some prehistoric time. This explains why almost every single ancient civilization has a flood story.

The way R’ Hertz frames the comparison of the Bible’s flood story and the Epic of Gilgamesh is very fascinating. He says the our forefather Jacob studied the ancient traditions of man in the Study halls of Shem and Ever. One of the things they studied was the ancient memory of a terrifying flood that caused “a complete breach in the continuity of civilization in the primitive dwelling-place of mankind.”

Later, R’ Hertz compares it to the Babylonian tale. The similarities are uncanny. A great flood is doomed to destroy mankind, man and beast are saved in a boat, there is dove and then a raven sent to determine if the waters have subsided, and after leaving the ship the saved people bring sacrfices. He notes that the Biblical tale is far more hopeful and imparts an important moral lesson that the basis of humanity is justice and righteousness whereas the Babylonian tale is unethical, devoid of any morality. Specifically, Noah was saved because of his righteousness. The people were being punished for their evil sins. In contrast, the Babylonian tale tells the story of quarreling Gods who deceive one another and mankind. It is a story without moral value. Its primary purpose is to put fear in the hearts of the people. As much as the stories are similar, the differences tell the real story.

R’ Hertz concludes with this incredibly difficult tightrope act:

In its Babylonian form, Assyriologists tell us, the story seems to have been reduced to writing as early as the days of Abraham. It must have been known in substance to the children of Israel in Cannaan and later in Egypt. But in the form in which, under God’s Providence, the Patriarchs transmitted it to the their descendants, it was free of degrading elements, and became an assertion of the everlasting righteousness of One God.

I can’t be certain, but this sounds to me like a borderline controversial statement. It sounds like he is saying that the Torah incorporates legends that were part of Jacob’s family lore in a specific way and in turn they become Torah. In other words, the story of flood need not be taken as a literal narrative that was told to Moses by God in a vacuum. Rather, the Jewish people knew this story, it carried a valuable lesson, and God incorporated it into the Torah.

I think this is a remarkable assertion and certainly outside the mainstream view in orthodox Judaism today. I guess my question is if is should be outside the mainstream orthodox view? I don’t think so. Currently, the modus operandi for handling delicate questions such as these is to retreat to the fundamentalist, maximalist position. It is going to become harder and harder to maintain those views. Perhaps the methodology used by R’ Hertz is worth a  second glance.

(Thank you to Steg Belsky and Jacqueline Nichols for sending me images of the essays in the Hertz Chumash. Having recently moved, my copy seems to have gone missing, or been confiscated by the thought police).


33 Comments
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  • Holy Hyrax

    There is a fourth issue. The morality of a mass genocide of innocent babies and children for example:

    http://jewishatheist.tumblr.com/post/33772011348/noah-god-bible-morality

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Fair point.

    • Holy Hyrax

      Of course, to answer my own question PERHAPS is since the flood never really happened, the tale in its own context is not considering innocent babies and children. There were no innocent babies and children because the tale is dealing with man in general. That is the point.

      • John

        Then why mention all those innocent animals?

    • MarkSoFla

      I’m not sure if “genocide” is the correct word. Which national, racial,political, or cultural group do you think was targeted?

      And that brings up another, perhaps analogous, issue. If scientists eventually succeed in creating new life, when they create a strain that isn’t satisfactory and then destroy it, would that be considered “genocide” of a sort?

      • Holy Hyrax

        Call it what you want then. If genocide is only a specific narrow group of people then the Flood story could represent something worse

        • MarkSoFla

          What did you think of my analogy?

          • Holy Hyrax

            I understand your analogy. Just as the scientists are the creators of a new strand of beings, it supposedly gives them the right just like God had the right to wipe out the generation of the flood. So, again, since it never really happened, I guess the lesson is it discusses how all of humanity became evil. There are no innocents in the story.

            The difficulty is with those that believe that it actually happened. Do they really believe that everyone including the children were evil? How would God not distinguish between the good and the bad.

            The lesson of the story is not about trees, but about the forest. God demands moral integrity from his creation: man.

            • MarkSoFla

              Maybe an even better explanation is to take the “wiping out” part of the flood story as a [partial] explanation of history, specifically the complete eradication of Neanderthal man.

              In general why does the flood story bother you so much while the complete eradication of Neanderthal man not bother you as much? Or does it?

              • Holy Hyrax

                >In general why does the flood story bother you so much while the complete eradication of Neanderthal man not bother you as much? Or does it?

                Depends how you look at it. Were neanderthals wiped out on purpose? Or did they simply die out while the more evolved homo sapian live on?

                • ahg

                  Why would the theodicy of the flood be of more concern than any other biblical story, dictum, or post-biblical occurrence?

                  God wiped out the first born of Egypt, presumably even if they were infants, when he freed us.

                  Then there’s the seven nations and Amalek that were to be wiped out with their children.

                  Throughout history there have been various plagues, natural disasters, and evil regimes that wiped out people including children.

                  There’s no “good” theodicy, but those who are religious accept G-d anyway.

                  • Holy Hyrax

                    all good questions ahg. I wouldn’t mind Fink post about those as well. But this post was about the flood.

                • MarkSoFla

                  Depends how you look at it. Were neanderthals wiped out on purpose? Or did they simply die out while the more evolved homo sapien live on?

                  Aha!!!! If God controls the [natural] event of a flood that wiped out most of humanity, then God also controls the [natural] events that wiped out the Neanderthals. Logically consistent argument :)

                  • Holy Hyrax

                    I think it is different. One is a purposeful swift attack by an [un]natural flood. The other is slow dwindling of a species that could not compete. The flood bothers many people because of the seemingly unjust way he kills everyone including women, children and babies

  • Jon

    Seems like a variation on that legend that you hear. I don’t remember the Gadol who stars in it, but it goes “Person walks up to Gadol X with much drama about his belief in the Torah as a result of the fact that the archaeology indicates things like the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gadol X brushes off the question with a wave of his hand. Person asks ‘why is this no big deal to you?’ Gadol X goes ‘well what do you think they were studying in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever?’” Come to think of it I think it was in specific relation to Hammurabi’s Code. In any case, if I’ve heard this legend before, then it’s in the mainstream, even if the Gadol starring never actually had this conversation.

  • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

    > there
    is much evidence for a flood at some prehistoric time. This explains why
    almost every single ancient civilization has a flood story.

    There’s also that
    most ancient settlements (and many modern ones, too) were located near large bodies of water, which inevitably
    flooded every now and then. (New Orleans floods every sixty years or so.) Each
    time a town flooded, some elder would no doubt recount the even worse flood of
    his childhood – magnified through his then-childish- eyes. Then that story
    would be retold the next time, magnified through time and the childish memories
    of those who heard it… give it a few centuries, and the legendary great flood
    covered the whole world and wiped out everything.

    There’s also the
    Mesopotamian legend of the king who rode out a flood on a barge full of
    animals, and the theory about the Black Sea pouring through Bosporus and wiping
    out all of the civilizations that had been located on what’s now the sea floor.

    > In
    contrast, the Babylonian tale tells the story of quarreling Gods who deceive
    one another and mankind.

    And
    who try to wipe out humanity because we’re too noisy.

    > I
    can’t be certain, but this sounds to me like a borderline controversial
    statement. It sounds like he is saying that the Torah incorporates legends that
    were part of Jacob’s family lore in a specific way and in turn they become
    Torah.

    That’s not borderline controversial. In the
    yeshivish world, that’s kefirah, at least in the colloquial sense.

    Most frum (charedi?) people aren’t even aware
    that the ancient myths exist, and when told, most often the reaction is to
    assume that the myths are independent sources that are confirming the
    historicity of events described in Tanach. The notion that the Chumash incorporates
    myths that were in circulation in the
    ANE wouldn’t even occur to them.

  • http://twitter.com/SchreiberTweets Michael Schreiber

    Excellent piece. I stopped using an Artscroll chumash and switched to Hertz a year ago. It’s night and day.

    • tesyaa

      It’s so retro it’s in again. I grew up reading the Hertz every week in shul.

  • Dan_Daoust

    In other words, the story of flood need not be taken as a literal
    narrative that was told to Moses by God in a vacuum. Rather, the Jewish
    people knew this story, it carried a valuable lesson, and God
    incorporated it into the Torah.

    I’m not sure I understand why you’ve set this up as two mutually exclusive options. Why can’t Hashem have told over an already-known story to Moshe in His own words? Isn’t that what we assume to be the case for the stories of the Avos? Was, for example, Akeidas Yitzchok only revealed once it appeared in the Torah? I would have assumed that many, if not most, if not all of Klal Yisroel had already heard of it by the time they were at Sinai.

  • Beth

    Rabbi Fink, I really appreciate you tackling this issue because it is one that many Orthodox Rabbi’s wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. This post is a smaller microcosm for one my biggest problems with Orthodoxy-that the Torah is literally true and that everything in it is historically accurate. Whenever I read the Parsha, the first question I always ask myself is “Did this really happen/ Is there scientific evidence to back this up/how likely is it that this event actually occurred?” and the answer is almost always no. It is difficult for me to understand how someone can push all of that aside and tell me that their “faith” is the reason they’re able to believe that the Torah literally happened when we have no sufficient scientific evidence to back this claim up.

  • MP

    Two-part comment:
    (a) I’m not sure what’s controversial (or worse) about the concept of current/past events already being known to b’nei Yisrael when hQbH dictated to Moshe Rabbeinu precisely how and what to record. Just as another (besides the above-noted flood narrative/history) example: the speech(es) that Moshe Rabbeinu made/gave to b’nei Yisrael the month before he passed on are incorporated into Seifer D’varim, not necessarily as Moshe actually said them but yes necessarily as hQbH had Moshe record them (and one consequence is the question of whether Moshe actually recorded his own death or, instead, Y’hoshua recorded those eight verses).
    (b) I don’t see what you quoted R’Hertz as writing about the flood “story” to necessarily be saying “that the Torah incorporates legends that were part of Jacob’s family lore in a specific way and in turn they become Torah”; I do see that quote as saying that b’nei Yisrael had their own version of the “story” even though they knew of other versions. Perhaps your inference is based on “it…became an assertion”? in which case see my first point :). Thanks.

  • vladimir

    ‘confiscated by the thought police’
    What a stunning expression! …. R’ Fink, your writing provokes UNorthodox thinking.

    If God used Torah to create the Universe, I wonder if Noah took Torah with him. Who was the next after God that read Torah?

  • ahg

    There’s another “main issue” you can add into the idea of a recent global flood, and that’s science. There are all sorts of problems from how did he fit all the animals given the number of species we are aware of today, to how they stored enough food, to whether such a boat could have built from wood.

    However, I like the simple questions a child who frequents a zoo could ask like: How did the Kangaroos get back to Australia? (Even if you’re willing to buy into all the explanations of how before the flood all the land was still one continent, you’re still stuck with all these animals stranded on top of a mountain now, many who can’t climb, etc. ) I think you’re forced today to explain it as something other than a global flood covering Mt. Everest – even to children.

  • Jonah Halper

    There are numerous historical rabbinical authorities who say a lot of sefer Bereishis is allegorical. His “heretical” remarks aren’t new, and I would experience a lot more comfort from this kind of intellectual honesty if it went more mainstream. Would appreciate this subject explored further, Rabbi Fink. Just be aware that you WILL experience backlash if you go down that road…I know many who would appreciate it…

  • Georgie Porgie

    Wow, I thought the Hertz Chumash had gone the way of the Birnbaum siddur . . .

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      I’m bringing it back!

      • tesyaa

        My mother finally got used to the Artscroll siddur & chumash after years of bemoaning the lack of Birnbaum & Hertz… and you’re bringing them back?? :)

  • Jose

    The idea that the stories in the Torah were once oral traditions is put forth in the beginning of the Kuzari. Not horribly controversial.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      The nuance here is that it was a story known to ancient peoples and the Jewish people had their own twist on it.

  • ZAD

    This is why the Chumash has disappeared from most yeshivas and Orthodox shuls. When Soncino reprinted their Pentateuch volume they replaced it the more “kosher” commentary by A. Cohen.

  • DC

    It’s time to move up to the JPS Bible Commentary Chumash Set