Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Is the Torah Literal?

The Slifkin controversy has brought out an old discussion about the 'literal-ness' of much of the Torah, as well as comments and stories by Chazal, Gedolim, and others.

By matter of fact, the Jewish people have always considered the possibility that elements of the Torah are allegorical. Although many considered the Rambam in his time a Kofer (oh, how times have changed...), his comments are still interesting:
Know that also in Natural Science there are topics which are not to be fully explained. Our Sages laid down the rule," The Ma'aseb Bereshith must not be expounded in the presence of two." If an author were to explain these principles in writing, it would be equal to expounding them unto thousands of men. For this reason the prophets treat these subjects in figures, and our Sages, imitating the method of Scripture, speak of them in metaphors and allegories; because there is a close affinity between these subjects and metaphysics, and indeed they form part of its mysteries.
When attempting to understand what the Torah could mean when it describes Hashem 'talking,' either to Adam and Chava, or in the Maysei B'reishis itself, various commentators explicitly reject the literalist account.

In fact, a substantial source of controversy during the time of the Tana'im was whether the Torah should be taken literally. The Tana'im and Amora'im took the position that it should not, while the Tz'dukim took the position endorsed by today's anti-science fundies, that is should.

The back of the Vilna Shas contains an introduction by Rabbi Shmuel haNagid, which states:
Haggadah is any talmudic interpretation which does not concern commandments... and you need not learn anything but what seems reasonable. You should know that whatever Halacha Hazal maintained regarding a commandment from Moshe Rabeinu which he received from the Almighty may neither be added to nor subtracted from. But as regards the interpretation of verses which is framed according to individual intuition and personal opinion, one need learn from such explanations only that which seems reasonable; and as for the rest, one is not dependent on them.
This means that the back of the Shas that is used by the vast majority of those who learn Gemara contains a statement that what the Chazal say about things like Maysei B'reishis (which are not Halachic in nature) are not to be considered literally true, and that we may regard that which is unreasonable as allegorical. documents the condemnations of Slifkin's book. The following is from the address of Rav Uren Reich at the Young Israel Melava Malka:
…If the Gemara tells us a metziyus, it’s emes veyatziv. There’s nothing to think about. Anything we see with our eyes is less of a reality than something we see in the Gemara.
So Rav Reich, in condemning Slifkin, disagrees with the Rambam, a statement at the back of the Shas he probably used when learning throughout his life, and many other commentators. This is typical of the contemporary UO right, but it's certainly not been the case all along.

At its core, it seems that the anti-Slifkinites would be more comfortable with the Tz'dukim that Chazal. That's too bad.


Blogger Lucky Wolf said...

nice writing

4:26 PM  
Blogger Big-S Skeptic said...

Nice to see some people are still interested in the Slifkin business. I just recently read the Mysterious Creatures book (wanted to see what the excitement was about), but I realized that I was a year too late to get in on the big discussion. Seems like things have quieted down now, although I don't know where matters actually stand. I guess the book is still banned, and a lot of people are still confused about whether they can be religious and use their brains at the same time. Frankly, I didn't see what anyone would object to in the book, other than a couple of references to dates earlier than 6000 ago. Good luck with your blog!

11:20 PM  
Blogger happywithhislot said...

good blog.
Over at my blog, criticizes me for hyperationalism.
His contention is thet "THE" mesorah rejected rambam version of mesorah.

Your thoughts?

8:33 AM  
Blogger Yeshiva Bochur said...

"The mesorah"? What's that? If there was one, wouldn't the Rambam have known about it?

2:25 PM  

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