Bamidbar 5766 — The Da Vinci Code, 603,550 men in the desert, and heresy

The DaVinci code is a heretical movie.

At least from the point of view of the Catholic church.

From a Jewish perspective, on the other hand, if the DaVinci Code’s take on Jesus is correct, it would make Jesus a figure much more acceptable to Jews.

In case you’ve been living in a cave for the last year, the central premise in the DaVinci code is that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, and they had children. There is a secret society that protects the very few physical descendants of Jesus. One of the leading figures in the film points out, therefore, that Jesus was not Divine, but rather was human.

Which is a point of view which would render Jesus into a person much more in line with Jewish teachings. By us, the idea of Jesus as Divine, is, frankly, a heresy. We believe God is God, Man is Man, and no one is more God than anyone else. We are all equally created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. Sure, some people are more “Godly,” in that the way they live their lives manifests more of what we believe to be God’s positive characteristics. But even those saintly people are not in any sense “Divine.” So Jesus as human would remove a big theological objection Judaism has to Jesus.

In the New Testament, Jesus is called “rabbi.” If Jesus did NOT have children, we would find him suspect as a rabbi. Rabbis are expected to be role models, and the very first commandment given to people is “be fruitful and multiply.” The Talmud tells us that anyone who does not engage in procreation of the race – who refrains from having children – is like someone who sheds blood. A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but the idea is that if you don’t have kids you are somehow “blocking” the people who would have come into the world through you. One rabbi, Ben Azzai, failed to marry and have children, and his colleagues chastised him. He said “what can I do, seeing my soul is in love with the Torah?” But that was not an acceptable answer. Studying Torah was not seen as an excuse to withdraw from the world. So if Jesus was a rabbi, we certainly would have expected him to have children.

So we see heresy is clearly in the eye of the beholder. What Catholics would consider heresy, we would consider REMOVAL of the heresy.

This week’s Torah portion, in fact provides an opportunity to look at heresy from a Jewish perspective. Today we started reading the book of Bamidbar, called “Numbers” in English because it is filled with numbers. This week’s parsha starts out with a very detailed count of how many men of fighting age were there: 603,550. Now 603,550 men would mean a total population of about 2 million people wandering around the Sinai desert for forty years.

Five years ago, on Passover morning in 2001, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, the flagship Conservative synagogue on the West Coast, stood in front of his congregation and told them that there was no reliable evidence that the Exodus took place–and that it almost certainly did not take place the way the Bible recounts it. There is just no way that there could have been 2 million people wandering around the desert for that long. Furthermore, current estimates say the total population on the planet was less than 50 million people at that time – 2 million people would have been 5% of the population of the world, which seems very unlikely. To put it in perspective, 5% of today’s population would be 300 million. And furthermore, there is no way that the sudden influx of an astonishingly large number of people into a land – into Canaan – would have happened without leaving substantial archeological evidence.

You would think Rabbi Wolpe stood up in shul and said there is no God. He was attacked mercilessly. Six Orthodox rabbis in LA took out a half page ad in the LA Times – an ad which I’m sure cost many thousands of dollars – to denounce Wolpe. The ad read “Should we amend it to read, ‘I am the Lord your G-d who may or may not have taken you out of the land of Egypt’?”

Wolpe’s sermon was doing nothing more than publicizing something that seems plain and obvious to most Conservative Jews. In fact Wolpe didn’t say anything that you can’t find in the Etz Hayim Chumash sitting right in front of you. Regarding the numbers in this week’s parsha, on page 773 of our Chumash it says “The numbers are impossibly large.” The commentary goes on to explain a couple of different ways we can interpret those numbers—maybe they refer to a different later census. Maybe “elef” refers to a smaller military unit, like a squad, not the number 1,000.

There’s more heresy in your Bible. There is an article by Lee Levine in the back of the Chumash about Biblical Archeology, starting on page 1339. In his article Dr. Levine says “Archeological finds, however, at times call into question the historicity of the biblical narrative.” He also points out “There is no reference in Egyptian sources to Israel’s sojourn in that country, and the evidence that does exist is negligible and indirect.” But bolstering our faith, Levine also allows that there are numerous indications of our people having spent some time in Egypt.

I guess most people don’t read the footnotes and don’t read the essays in the back of the Chumash. Or maybe Rabbi Wolpe got so much heat for daring to speak up about these issues to his congregation.

The reaction of the rabbis who objected to Wolpe’s sermon seems to be based on a notion that religion and science cannot co-exist. It seems to be based on the idea that if any detail in the Torah is wrong – the whole thing is a bunch of hooey.

And that’s simply NOT the case.

Rabbi Wolpe did not say the Exodus never happened. He simply said there is no evidence it did happen. It’s impossible to prove that something didn’t happen. His real point wasn’t that it didn’t happen, but rather that it didn’t happen the way it’s described in the Bible.

And that I would agree with. I believe the Exodus happened. I believe our people found themselves enslaved in Egypt and managed, with the help of God, to leave Egypt and slavery and resettle in the Promised Land.

Archeology can never prove that never happened. It doesn’t bother me in the least that there is no evidence for it.

At the same time, my belief about what DID actually happen is shaped by science. It does not detract from my belief in God or devotion to the mitzvot to think that it was probably 20,000 people, not 2 million who left Egypt.

Many rabbis in the Orthodox world believe that every letter in the Torah literally came from God, Moses took dictation, and the Torah we have today is literally the book that Moses wrote down, without a single error. Of course, there were some scribal errors along the way…even most Orthodox rabbis would agree that the Masoretes in the 7th to 10th centuries compiled all the manuscripts of Torah they could get their hands on and tried to come up with the “correct” version.

But this insistence that every letter in the Torah comes from Moses is what has led, sadly, to the breach between the Orthodox and the Conservative. Many Orthodox rabbis—including the chief rabbinate in Israel—will not recognize Conservative conversions or weddings. Not because we don’t follow the procedures properly. We do. Not because we don’t observe the laws properly – because halacha, Jewish law, teaches that even if the witnesses aren’t “kosher” witnesses, after the fact the wedding or conversion is still valid. The rejection of ceremonies performed by Conservative rabbis is because some say we are “kofrim,” we are deniers, we are heretics, because we allow that the Torah may not be 100% accurate in every last detail and that people writing it down later may have embellished some of the details.

But why wouldn’t a legendary story be told in a dramatic fashion? Look at the Jews who left Ethiopia starting in the 1980s. People who had been living rural agrarian existences, living in poverty in Africa. Can you imagine how they would tell the story of their being brought to Israel? “We were led to an amazingly large city, where a silver bird swooped down out of the sky and carried us away to the Promised Land…”

But if it is heresy to say there may have been some editing in the Torah, it’s nothing new. Ibn Ezra, a great and respected rabbi of the 11th century, hints that there is a line in the Torah which may have been written by someone other than Moses. Genesis chapter 12:6 says “And Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, to the terebinth of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land.” But of course, Canaan was still in the hands of the Canaanites in the days of Moses; why would the verse say “was then in the land,” implying they are no longer in the land? Ibn Ezra says perhaps it means the Canaanites had conquered someone else, and the verse tells us they were already there in the land, they had made their conquest.

But he allows for another possibility. After making this point, Ibn Ezra says “and if that’s not the explanation, there is a secret there. And the enlightened are quiet.” In other words, he wasn’t going to go around talking about it too much—probably out of a fear he would be accused of heresy. He makes similar observations regarding a few other passages in the Torah, for example one which seems to be written from the perspective of being on the Israeli side of the Jordan before that event was supposed to happen.

The rabbis who protested David Wolpe’s sermon on the Exodus blithely ignore what Wolpe’s real message was. He didn’t give the sermon to be the Jewish equivalent of the “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” He had an important message. And his message was that it makes no difference whatsoever that archeology cannot prove the Exodus happened, and it makes no difference whatsoever if the story probably unfolded somewhat differently

One scholar gave Rabbi Wolpe Ibn Ezra’s advice: he said “what you say is true, of course, but we shouldn’t speak about it.”

Now here is where we have our divergence between the so-called heresies of the Conservative interpretation of this week’s parsha and the heresies of the Da Vinci Code. There are many scholars, rabbis, and committed Jews who believe we have the correct interpretation, and this interpretation—saying it probably was not 2 million people wandering the desert—is in fact true. On the other hand there are no serious people who go around saying the DaVinci Code is fact. Everyone agrees it’s a novel. A work of fiction. Opus Dei doesn’t even have any monks, contrary to the depiction in the book.

But there is a similarity. The similarity is that neither the “Documentary Hypothesis” which says there were human editors to the Torah or author Dan Brown and The DaVinci Code are heresies worth losing any sleep over. No one abandons Judaism because some scholars say there are details in the Exodus story that may differ from the Biblical account and no one abandons Catholicism because they saw a movie claiming Jesus had children.

None of the details of these events can ever be proven. In the Da Vinci code they claim they have the body of Mary Magdalene, and DNA testing could prove that a certain person is descended from her. But how do the prove that the body was actually Mary Magdalene? How do they prove that Jesus was the father?

Similarly, no scientist will ever be able to say, definitively, that the Exodus never happened. They might argue that some of the details seem unlikely, but there’s simply no way to prove what happened 3,000 years ago.

These are not the dangerous heresies of our time. The dangerous heresy of our time is that God does not matter.

The dangerous heresy of our time is being seduced away from living a life according to the values of our faith in favor of living a life according to the values of our secular society.

When the Da Vinci Code movie was being hyped prior to its premiere, there were Catholic calls for boycotts of the film. We don’t hear so much of that anymore. Especially after a review of the movie that appeared in the Vatican’s newspaper last week.
The Vatican basically said the movie was boring. The Vatican paper, L’Osservatore Romano said the film was “much ado about nothing’ and the fuss surrounding it was nothing more than a clever marketing strategy to increase sales at the box office.”
The review continued to pan the film, saying “In fact, after a catchy beginning, the film version of Dan Brown’s novel is a dull watch and has little to recommend it.”

I saw the movie last week. I’m not going to give you a detailed review of it, because Lauri and I have an understanding that she does the movie reviews and I do the sermons. If you want to read her review, pick up a copy of last week’s Toledo Free Press. You can read it online at

However, I will tell you that Lauri and I agree with the Vatican’s assessment: what made the book good was its breakneck pace. The movie snoozes along by comparison.

The Vatican was right not to worry about the movie. Boring movies, regardless of the heretical ideas, are no threat.

What’s dangerous is really good movies. And really exciting football games. And really sexy ads on TV.

The greatest challenge to religion in America is not heresy. I don’t care whether the so called heresy is the Da Vinci Code, the Documentary Hypothesis, or the theory of evolution.

The greatest challenge is keeping people dedicated to God and dedicated to following the stodgy old teachings of their religions, like be kind to your neighbor, be honest, and love God in the face of a society that glorifies materialism, “me-firstism,” and violence.

The Vatican gave up the battle on the Da Vince Code because it’s a boring movie. Therefore no threat.

But what do we do about the really good movies—and for us Jews, especially the ones that premiere on Friday night? What do we do about the Michigan – Ohio State game being on Shabbat?

Shabbat Shalom

If you want to know whether it was a good movie, CLICK HERE to read my wife Lauri Donahue’s review in the Toledo Free Press.

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

One thought on “Bamidbar 5766 — The Da Vinci Code, 603,550 men in the desert, and heresy

  • William Leff

    Alternative histories can be quite entertaining, like what if the south won the Civil War. What if Nazi Germany didn’t fight Russia, and on and on. The Da Vinci Code was entertaining reading, less entertaining as a movie because the spin couldn’t be put out in detail.
    To see the Catholic church squirm with this movie is not surprising. They squirm when reminded of their neutrality, (some call it complicity), in WWII.
    Entertainment should be placed in the file of entertainment and to take it so seriously could almost be taken as more entertainment.


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