Rabbi Jonah Rank is the Maskil ("Teacher of tradition") at Shaar Shalom Synagogue in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Rabbi Rank was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2015.
When the humorist Dave Barry released his book Dave Barry’s Bad Habits: A 100% Fact-Free Book in 1987, he might not have foreseen that, just three decades later, the United States would have become such a major player in promoting fact-free political discourse. The low bar of entry that permits most Americans access to the internet and the only slightly higher bar that permits most Americans to create web content of any kind have helped bring us to where we are today. When reading articles shared on digital media, if the facts don’t sound like the facts we’ve previously heard, we might ask if this news is real or not: Was it perhaps created from a fake-news website? Is this article actually based on found facts? Is this publication the eloquence of a gullible writer mistaking The Onion for news? Is this piece of journalism simply a collection of conspiracy theories all rooted in a series of truth-contorting tweets?
The Jewish people have long been acquainted with a fact-free diet of food-for-thought. Anti-semitic rhetoric has long accused Jews of blood libels, of poisoning local water sources, and other misdeeds that had their bases in suspicion but never in factuality. In times of great anxiety, every generation is liable to see charismatic leadership scapegoat a population who has the courage to persevere. But this vulnerability has not always discouraged the spread of slander from among those against whom malicious rumors have spread. Sadly Jewish history witnesses that on occasion our sages took to telling certain stories that amounted to mere storytelling.
A curious lack of data sticks out in Parashat Vayyeshev, as well. Nearing the end of an action-packed Torah portion, Genesis 40:1 sets the scene of the Egyptian king’s cupbearer and baker being imprisoned. Their crime? As Nahum Sarna notes in his JPS Torah Commentary, the cause for this incarceration is unknown. All the text tells us is: chate’u, “they sinned.” Inquiring minds wanted to know though--and our tradition is one permeated with great inquiry. Perhaps the most literalist of the medieval Aramaic “translations” of the Torah, Targum Onkelos uses the word serachu, which means “they sinned” but also carries a sense of having done something foul. (In fact, the related Hebrew word masri’ach means “stink!”) Picking up on this word serachu’s multiple meanings, Targum Yonatan, a more playful Aramaic rendering of the Torah, claims that the cupbearer and baker were counseled to put a fatal spice into the food and drink of the King of Egypt. (Foul play--and foul wordplay--for sure!)
Though all translations are interpretations, the interpretations that have best outlived their authors in the Jewish tradition are certainly those of the rabbinic commentators who wrote in Hebrew. In 11th-12th century France, the classic commentator Rashi explained that the ambiguous wrongdoing in Genesis 40:1 was, though rocky, of minor--even insectile--proportions. The cupbearer let a fly into his cup, and there was a pebble that found its way into one of the baker’s pastries. So much for authentic living, with stone ovens and no pesticides! The downfall of the baker and cupbearer seem to be, as Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro comments, not intentional malpractice but errors. Understanding the nearly unspoken misdemeanor as unspeakably removed from these two officers, the uncle of Rabbi Yosef Karo, Rabbi Yitzchak Karo wrote in his Toledot Yitzchak that it was not the officers’ direct responsibility for whatever wrongness that was done. Officers in the Egyptian court were appointed by the King, and they in turn appointed their own staff--in our case, a gang of bakers and a cupbearing cabinet. Though somehow some underlings of the cupbearer and the baker went astray, the Egyptian King turned his anger towards the two men whom he himself had assigned the improperly executed tasks. (The cupbearer and the baker, after all, could have done well with a little more quality control.)
Though this is far from where rabbinic speculation ends, it is a worthy place for our curiosity to reign itself in. James Kugel’s How To Read The Bible eloquently makes the point that the only way for the modern reader to understand how the Bible was first appreciated is to study whatever early oral traditions may have been fossilized in post-biblical (or para-biblical) texts--such as in those of the interpretive, midrashic, words of the classical rabbinic sages. Yet, there is a theological danger in conjecturing transgressions that may or may not have ever taken place. In the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 96b), Rabbi Akiva is recorded to have presupposed that Zelophehad, whom the Torah recalls most famously for his estate having to be divided among his daughters (for he bore no sons), must have chopped down trees on, and thereby violated, Shabbat. Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteyra is outraged at Rabbi Akiva, for either Rabbi Akiva is right and has unveiled something that the Torah had purposely veiled (perhaps so as not to attribute such a sinful reputation to Zelophehad), or Rabbi Akiva is wrong and is unduly besmirching this innocent man. Surmising unknown faults may lead us to defaming without reason or breaching confidences that grant security in our lives--physical, spiritual or otherwise.
Misinformation indeed permeates Jewish dialogue surrounding Israel. In recent years, media outlets have provided a space for pundits to argue that organizations working toward a two-state solution, such as Americans for Peace Now and J Street are antagonistic toward Israel or are blatantly antisemitic. Indeed, the belief that there is a long road ahead of us towards a two-state solution is just one of many loving expressions of Zionism. It often happens that a lack of familiarity with APN or J Street leads one to conclude that there is ill will, when in fact the Jewish left has come to recognize its own array of truths that forge uniquely Jewish expressions of responsibility and aspirations that may differ from those of the right.
The Jewish tradition has a time and place for creativity--for the development of fiction that motivates us to imagine the emotional and intellectual dimensions of profound holiness. Contemplating the good life serves us well, but fantasizing what evils may exist serves no purpose when this pursuit has no foundation in reality. When we read the story of two or more people or peoples in conflict, we must not let a desire to presume the worst possibility occupy that unknown gap between the facts that we do know. It may be nerve-wracking not to know, for example, what action or thought it was that has sparked any cycle of violence that might arise between Palestinian and Israeli entities, but Jewish tradition urges us to speculate not the origins of evils but the path forward to peace. The Torah, as both a document and a way of life that promotes peace, can be most truly lived when the Jewish appetite is sated with an intentional digest of a high-fact diet.