In a recent film review in the Jewish Review of Books, Prof. Gavriel Rosenberg blames Holocaust denial on a postmodernist ethos. According to Rosenberg, this ethos has allowed dangerous extremists to make up their own truth and present it as an equal narrative to one actually based on facts. Indeed, postmodernism is often decried as making everything artificially subjective. But that is not the only perspective on the topic. Indeed, there is another Rosenberg, who saw things quite differently. I am referring to Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (more popularly known as Rav Shagar), a well-known Israeli rabbi, who saw postmodernism as something that Jews should appreciate. Here is not the place for a long exposition about Judaism and postmodernism, but suffice it to say that the second Rosenberg certainly had good grounds for his argument. As I discussed in a recent interview, the Torah itself presents parallel narratives of the same stories, thereby showing that the same events can truthfully be constructed in more than one way.
And yet with all of that, facts remain facts. A nice illustration of the latter is presented in an unexpected source. Rabbi Chaim ben Attar is the only writer in the Mikraot Gedolot who is known primarily for his mystical, kabbalistic, take on the Torah (Ramban only mentioning such insights here and there, and very much in the shadow of his more mainstream observations and analyses). And yet though I don’t think we would be mistaken to align postmodernism and Jewish mysticism, Ohr HaChaim shows us is that even mystics recognize the sanctity of facts:
One of the perplexing facets of the story of the Tower of Bavel is trying to understand exactly what its builders did wrong. When not much evidence is provided – as in this case – interpretations understandably vary widely. Among the most homiletically pleasing, however, is Rashi’s understanding that the men of the Tower wanted to fight against God (Bereshit 11:1, 9). It is not pleasing because of the position staked, but rather because of its answer to the obvious question: The punishment that they received doesn’t seem to fit the crime – all that happened was that God destroyed the Tower and divided them into different language groups, making sure that they would disperse and settle among their own groups. To this Rashi (11:9) responds that they got special consideration for ‘good behavior’ – their goal may have been diabolical, but they got along with one another. And that alone was worth suspending what should otherwise have been a clear and immediate death sentence.
Ohr HaChaim (Bereshit 11:1) however rejects this explanation, as something that does damage to the integrity of the text, citing the famous Talmudic rubric, “ein hamikra yotzei midei peshuto.” He is not disputing that the homilies that Rashi cites have value. What he does dispute is their advancement as an interpretation of the facts presented in the text. The question Rashi anticipated is one he asks as well, but the notion that one can be exonerated for fighting against God by being a good citizen is one that Ohr Chaim does not even dignify with a mention. Yes, being good to your neighbor is important – perhaps even more important than being good to God – but there is absolutely no way that it cancels out the death penalty that fighting against God rightly deserves. Moreover, the focus of the story seems to have very little to do with any struggle against God to begin with, thereby making Rashi’s words seem even more far-fetched. Rather, the men of Bavel just wanted to provide a better, more secure future for mankind. In order to do so, they used the only three things at their disposal: their labor, their unity and the natural resources around them. The plan was to pool these things and make a city stronger and more secure than what they had known before.
So what did they do wrong? Says Ohr HaChaim, go back to the rest of the facts: How did God respond? Simply by vetoing their plan. He had already given man a charge to conquer the earth and subdue it. And this would certainly not be accomplished by everybody staying in one nice safe city. In a word, they chose security over destiny, when God had already mandated the latter over the former. Given that this was the case, God overruled them and forced them to establish multiple areas of inhabitation.
While there may be room to disagree with both his critique and his interpretation, Ohr HaChaim does us a great favor by showing us the seriousness with which we must approach the holy text. In truth, even serious postmodernism does not create a free-for-all of ignoring facts and saying whatever one wants. And if that is true in postmodernism, all the more so should it be true in parshanut. Doing so is more than a good idea – it is an indelible cornerstone of Kavod HaTorah.