Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Billam, and the closing of the Jewish mind

Go to Google. Type in the word "Billam." Read some of the devray torahs that pop up. Notice anything that they have in common? In almost all of them, Billam is identified as a true prophet.

Now, certainly there are some commentators who take this view, and say that Billam's prophetic abilities were equal to Moshe. But there is another view, the view of the Ramban among others, which holds that Billam was a charlatan, who earned his living
playing tricks and cons, until the climax of parshas Balak, when, for the sake of Israel he was given a one-time only prophetic gift. The rest of the time Billam was just like that divination teacher in the Potter books: A fake, a phony and a fraud.

Why is the Ramban's view so unpopular? When I first encountered it, at the age of 25, I was startled, first because it seemed impossible given what I had always been taught, but also because I couldn't understand why none of my teachers had ever mentioned it.

Every year since then, around parasha Balak, I've had the occasion to reference this Ramban, and the reaction I get is always the same: denial. "That can't be," I'm always told, as the other person's face scrunches into an angry mask, "You must have read the Ramban wrong." And even after I pull the volume off the shelf, and show them the offending passages, some stubborn souls insist that the Ramban doesn't really say what it says, or better yet, they'll cite a Rishon or (better still) an achron or (best of all) their third grade rebbe as "proof" that the Ramban was mistaken.

What is it about this little idea that is so frightening? Why do people "need" for Billam to have been a real prophet? Why is the Ramban so under-represented on online devray torah? Why do people who recognize that there are a multitude of opinions among the commentators when it comes to matters of halacha, demonstrate such hostility to the fact that the commentators disagreed on matters of aggada, too?

What do you think it means?