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The Ark Encounter
Kentucky Christians vs. Modern Charedim on Noah's Ark
(This post was written for those who are committed to the tenets of Judaism, but also respect the scientific enterprise and possess an advanced education in the natural sciences, and who acknowledge the challenges that it raises. Others may not possess as extensive a background in the sciences or may dispute the validity of the modern scientific enterprise. Accordingly, it’s easy for them to just disqualify approaches that they consider theologically problematic, without having to actually deal with the challenges that the people in the aforementioned category are grappling with. I would hope that they would recognize this and keep their opinions to themselves, unless they are comfortable with making people feel that they cannot be part of the religious Jewish community.)
In my post on Adam and the Dinosaurs, I discussed the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and contrasted the Creationist Christian interest in exploring Creation with the Charedi insistence on avoiding it. As well as visiting the Creation Museum, I also visited its sister institution, the Ark Encounter. This is a magnificent life-size reproduction of Noah’s Ark and is the largest timber frame structure in the USA. Interpreting a cubit as 20 inches rather than 18, it’s over five hundred feet long! (Unfortunately my photo does not do justice to the size of it, since I am standing quite far from it; but note that the white door is at least ten feet tall!)
I have lots to discuss about both institutions, but in this post I’d like to focus on one aspect of how, as with Creation, the fundamentalist Christian approach to Noah’s Ark contrasts sharply with the modern charedi approach.
The Ark Encounter has some theological messages (largely Christian), but its primary focus is about the logistics of the Ark. How did it work? How did all the animals fit on it? How did they survive without the conditions that they require in the wild? What did they all eat? How did Noah and his family look after them all? How was there light? How was there ventilation? How did all the animals get back home afterwards? How did they survive on their way back home through various habitats? With tremendous ingenuity and effort (and a willingness to utterly disregard science and plausibility), the Ark Encounter does not shy away from these questions, and instead tackles them in great detail and with fabulously creative exhibits.
Contrast that with the modern Charedi approach. As with the creation and development of the world, they generally just Don’t Want To Discuss How It Happened. Rabbi Moshe Meiselman goes to the opposite extreme - he explains at length that the logistics don’t work at all, and therefore the whole thing must have been miraculous. Note that this also requires positing an extraordinary range of miracles to erase evidence of a global deluge having taken place, and to create fake histories of several civilizations stretching back many thousands of years.
Ironically, it is the fundamentalist Christian approach which is more similar to traditional Judaism.
Let’s start with the Chumash. While the unleashing of the Flood (though not the source of the water) is presented as a supernatural act, and there is a description of the animals arriving on their own (which is probably intended to be supernatural), there is no mention of anything miraculous regarding the Ark. On the contrary - it is described as being huge, which is logistically necessary to contain many creatures, and covered with pitch, for the logistics of waterproofing. There is no mention whatsoever of all the extraordinary miracles - far greater than that of Kriyas Yam Suf - which Rabbi Meiselman’s approach requires.
Then we move to Chazal, the Sages of the Talmud. Again, they discuss the logistics. They describe the different kinds of food that Noah had to bring for each type of animal. They also discuss the number and size of compartments. And they describe the extreme difficulties involved in managing so large a task, rather than saying that Noach had supernatural assistance.
Then we have the Rishonim (medieval rabbinic authorities). Rambam does not discuss the logistics of the Ark, but with his general strong preference to minimize the supernatural, it’s safe to assume that he would not have been willing to say that such miracles occurred with the Ark. Ramban, on the other hand, famously asks that the Ark could not have been big enough to hold all the animals, especially including such things as elephants, and answers that this was a miracle. But this does not mean that he was content to simply accept it all as being supernatural. First of all, if that was the case, then he wouldn’t have needed to even ask his question in the first place. Second, he doesn’t simply wave it off as being all miracles, but rather fits it into a previous known category of miracles in which something small can encompass something large.
Meanwhile, others preferred not to resort to saying that it was a miracle. The Ran (commentary to Genesis 6:14-15) says that there were much fewer types of animals back then; the current multitude rapidly evolved from those that survived on the Ark. The same approach is adopted by R. Dovid Luria in his commentary to Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 23. This is the exact approach presented in the Ark Encounter!
Among the Acharonim (later rabbinic authorities), most were leading insular or non-rationalist lives, and were not aware of the challenges posed by modern science, or of their strength. But those who were aware of these challenges did not just write it all off as being miracles. Instead, they attempted to solve the difficulties by proposing that the Flood was limited in scope. And more recent rabbinic authorities, such as my own mentor Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz”l, preferred to see the story as being designed to impart powerful theological messages. (See my post The Noah’s Ark Challenge for a list of such sources.)
What would the Rishonim say if they were alive today, and knew of all the challenges from modern science to the story of Noah’s Ark? We can see that they did not want to just write everything off as being miraculous, and they would have been especially opposed to miracles that are designed to mislead. Given their extensive expertise with whatever science was contemporary, I think it unlikely that they would have gone for the approach of the Ark Encounter, and given their theological openness, I don’t think that they would have found it necessary.
But the truth is that it’s meaningless to talk about what the Rishonim would say if they were alive today. The Rishonim were who they were because they were formed by the world in which they lived, which is not the world in which we live. Everyone is a product of their society, and so we can’t really talk about how someone from a different society would feel if they lived in ours. Someone recently wrote to me that “Rambam would be rolling in his grave if he were alive today and saw what’s going on in Judaism,” but all I said in response was that if Rambam were alive today, he’d be very surprised to find himself in a grave.
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