Every year about this time it happens. No, not an attack of killer bees during an otherwise pleasant Sukkos meal, or the Toronto Maple Leafs stumbling out the gate on the way to a losing season yet again. No, I'm taking about the two most controversial stories in the Torah - Bereshis and Noach.
Most of the controversy occurs for 3 simple reasons:
1) A group of people who label their understanding of the first two parshioyos of the Torah as the only authentic understanding insist we must understand the narratives literally. The world is 5771 years old. Period. The universe was created over 144 hours. Period.
2) A group of people who insist that the universe consists of only those things we can sense and measure. These people point out that it is scientifically proven that the universe is some 13.5 billion years old and that a literal reading of Bereshis and Noach is untenable.
3) Both groups refuse to consider a middle ground in which an interpretive understanding of the beginning of the Torah is acceptable. (1) dismiss that approach as apikorsus. (2) dismiss it as apologetics. This leaves both groups happy on their side of the fence. For (1) the idea that God planted fake dinosaur bones in the ground as a test of faith is perfectly logical. For (2) that same idea is proof that genuine religious belief is illogical and therefore best avoided.
And those of us in the middle sigh... again.
Here's what is most frustrating about this annual debate: it's not about anything fundamentally important to Judaism overall. Out of the entire first section of Bereshis, there are a few limited dogmas that matter to the believing Jew - God created the universe and everything in it by Himself. He continues to be active in the development of that universe and cares about how humanity turns out. Done. A literal vs non-literal understanding of Creation or the Mabul is not fundamentally defining to Judaism. For those who insist it is, a situation is created in which one is asked to either shut one's brain off in order to be observant or to leave the faith which is not something geniune Torah Judaism demands. This turns out to the be the lynchpin in the argument. Without a mandatory literal interpretation of Creation and the Mabul, (2) lose the basis of their objection to religion as well which leaves (3) as the only logical choice.
I was happy to find out over Simchas Torah that Rav Avraham Yitchak Kook, ztk"l, in Igros HaRe'iyah also notes something quite similar. He first states the obvious (something noted by Ramban and other Rishonim): the account of Creation contains great mystical secrets. This is why it's listed alongside the maaseh merkavah in the gemara in Chagigah as one of those parts of Scripture that is best left to deep experts to understand. Come on, read the first chapter of Yechezkel and tell me you can visualize precisely what he's describing. You can't, and Rav Kook reminds that to use that same caution when reading the first chapters of Bereshis.
He also makes a devastating point against the literalists as well based on that same understanding. If the gemara in Chagigah is correct, then a literalist approach is completely wrong because it eliminated the possibility of the deeply mystical. (1) cannot have it both ways.
It is therefore incumbent for Torah Jews to remember that the point of the Torah is to establish God's ownership of the universe, His choice of the Jewish people as His standard bearers and to give us a physical way to fufill His will in this world, the halacha. As the Rav once noted, discussions on the historical veracity of the literal understanding of Bereshis were meaningless to him. God created the world, gave us the Torah and here we are. How do we go from here in a way that keeps us in sync with Him is the question we should be asking ourselves at all times, not whether or not dinosaur bones are genuine.