It’s a famous Talmudic dictum: These and those are the words of the living God (Eiruvin 13b). Cool! Not only did these two differing points of view on a legal issue coexist, but there was loving tolerance for each side. This is attested to by this Braita: Beit Shamai never abstained from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel abstain from marrying those of Beit Shamai (Yevamot 14b). And those debates were about very serious Halachic issues, not piddling things like what color clothing to wear or the fabric of a KIPPAH. My how times have changed!
Rav Sacks discussed this issue, and wrote:
Truth on earth is not, nor can be, the whole truth. It is limited, not comprehensive; particular, not universal. When two propositions conflict it is not necessarily because one is true the other false. It may be, and often is, that each represents a different perspective on reality, an alternative way of structuring order…In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths (The Dignity of Diversity, p. 64).
Our parsha presents us with a very famous argument with no easy path to reconcile all the opinions. The debates surround this famous incident: Then God opened the mouth of the donkey (Bamidbar 22:28). The Ibn Ezra presents many sides of this issue, but begins with the most famous: The rabbis, of blessed memory, said that ten things were created on Sabbath eve at twilight, and the mouth of the donkey was amongst them (Pirkei Avot 5:6). He then presents other points of view, but let’s deal with the Mishne first.
Seemingly, the Mishne expects God to have created a world where the laws of nature would always prevail, but the items listed in the Mishne defy those established guidelines. Somehow the issue is less problematic if the exceptions were prearranged into the system, and therefore are less supernatural. The system had these outliers built into the fabric of reality.
However, I could imagine a Torah scholar saying that this arrangement didn’t have to predate that event, because as we recite every morning, ‘God renews the act of Creation everyday’. The Mishneh, perhaps, doesn’t take that statement literally.
On the other hand, we have the Rambam, who famously explains in the Moreh Nevuchim:
The theory that imagination was an essential element in prophecy is supported by the fact that figurative speech predominates in the prophetic writings…The symbolic acts which are described in connection with the visions of the prophets, such as…Jacob’s wrestling with the angel (Gen. 32:17), and the speaking of Balaam’s ass (Num. 22:28), had no positive reality. The prophets, employed an elliptical style, frequently utilized to state that a certain event related by them was part of a vision or a dream.
Interestingly, there is a middle position proposed by Rav Shmuel David Luzzato, who pointed out that if you look carefully within the text, it never writes that the donkey speaks (d-v-r). He argued that in reality the donkey did not express a full, well-articulated statement. Rather, the donkey brayed and bellowed as a response to getting hit, as if to say, “why are you hitting me?” Bilaam responded to the donkey’s cries by saying that she humiliated him, the same as any pet owner may converse with his or her pet. Animals may not be able to talk using speech to formulate sentences in the way we do, but they can use forms of language to communicate.
The Kli Yakar, who espouses the miraculous approach, looks at this supernatural story and sees it as a perfect foreshadowing of the later conflict between Bilaam and his benefactor, Balak. The donkey misbehaving three times annoys Bilaam just as his own failure to curse the Jews three times drives King Balak crazy. Both the brute and the prophet can only speak what God puts into their mouths.
Rav Gad Eldad wrote on this subject: Thus, in his relations with Balak, Bilaam plays the role of the donkey. This prompts the question of why the Torah needs to create this preview of what will happen later on, with an exchange of roles for Bilaam…It seems that the confrontation between Bilaam and his donkey is the key to understanding God’s seemingly ambivalent position with regard to Bilaam’s undertaking. The donkey tries in every possible way to evade the angel, but to the observer it is clear that the donkey stands no chance…This comparison sheds light on the way in which God deals with Bilaam. From God’s perspective (the observer), it is clear from the outset that the initiative to curse Bnei Yisrael stands no chance. Balak beseeches and Bilaam who asks permission again and again, drawing out the process as God “plays along” with him. Finally, the outcome, which had been obvious all along, is what indeed happens.
I don’t know if there really was an ancient version of Mr. Ed who performed in the Torah, and part of me doesn’t care. The bottom line is that the real issues were not played out on the plains of Moav; they had previously been decided in the Holy Halls of Heaven. There are many mundane historic events that just happen but the events which affect the destiny of the Jewish nation are determined by God, not the actors down here. The story is really about God’s love and protection for the Jewish people.
But are we okay with an allegorical interpretation to our Torah? Do we demand that every word in the Torah must be taken literally? If someone minimizes the miraculous nature of a Torah event, are they a non-believer? I certainly vote a resounding, ‘No!’ The giants of the Mishne could live with disagreement and diversity. Can we?
Repeat after me: These and those are the words of the living God!