Thursday, September 25, 2008

Textual Literalness - Law and Theology.

In the latest issue of Tradition, Rabbi Marc Angel writes an article criticizing the move in Yeshivot and schools towards teaching literalism when reading Aggadot Chazal. The article states the obvious but is something that needs to be said over and over again and Rabbi Angel does a great service to our community in doing so. The article however does not discuss literalism in Torah and Nach, other than in passing regarding the age of the universe. That is a much more controversial issue and needs to be addressed too. I would like to address it in coming posts as it is a question that I have been asked about many times and I believe needs to be fleshed out.

Rambam in the introduction to MN presents the problem very succinctly.

“… is to give indications to a religious man for whom the validity of our Torah has become established in his soul and has become actual in his belief – such a man being perfect in his religion and character, and having studied the sciences of the philosophers and come to know what they signify. The human intellect having drawn him on and led him to dwell within its province, he must have felt distressed by the externals of the Torah and by the meaning of the above mentioned equivocal, derivative or amphibolous terms , as he continued to understand them by himself or was made to understand them by others.”

Rambam describes a person who has become convinced by his knowledge and understanding of the Torah, the ideas that underlie the laws and what they are meant to teach us, that it is a valid system to follow for a person that wants to perfect himself. Having accepted the practical aspect of the Law, he now is confronted by the seemingly incongruous philosophical and scientific presented as the underlying basis for that same Law. The way it is presented, the words it uses to describe the theological underpinnings are perplexing. They do not agree with his perceived reality.

“Hence he would remain in a state of perplexity and confusion as to whether he should follow his intellect, renounce what he knew concerning the terms in question, and consequently consider that he has renounced the foundations of the Torah. Or he should hold fast to his understanding of these terms and not let himself be drawn on together with his intellect, rather turning his back on it and moving away from it, while at the same time perceiving that he has brought loss to himself and harm to his religion. He would be left with those imaginary beliefs to which he owes his fear and difficulty and would not cease to suffer from heartache and great perplexity.”

The first option is the one taken by many especially those that have already left the religion. They go with their intellect and abandon the Laws that seem to be based on flawed logic and theology. But the real tragic figure is the person who opts for the second choice. That person lives a life of pain closing off his own mind and submits to what he considers an illogical system. The tragedy is that he is submitting to a figment of his imagination. In reality, this person is submitting himself to a flawed theology - “imaginary beliefs” - while the rejectionist too is distancing himself from a theology that is false and never intended. Our Torah is not called Torat Emet in vain. Not only is it true but it is teaching how to find the ultimate Truth. It is intended to develop our intellect not stifle it!

When we read a book, we try to identify the goal the author has set himself when he conceived it. Understanding that will explain the style, the meaning of the different chapters and generally the concepts in it. A law book is not written in the same style as a book on mathematics or physics nor is poetry similar to prose. As we are discussing here the Torah and the books of prophecy, we must take the same approach to them.

When we look at the Torah itself, the five books of Moshe, as compared to the rest of the books of prophecy – Nach - we see commonality and difference. Torah contains Laws, detailed rules of behavior, what we refer to as the 613 Mitzvot while the rest of Nach has almost no laws. The few laws found in Nach are all derivatives or variations on the laws already found in the Torah. On the other hand, both Torah and Nach contain non-legal, theological teachings in different forms ranging from interpretation of historical or natural events and the relationship of man to nature and God to exhortation for ethical and moral behavior beyond the purely legal. There are very few purely philosophical discussions in the whole of Tanach as it is almost always cloaked in a story or presented as the underlying motivation for practical actions.

Like all books of law, the language in the sections dealing with legal matters is precise and defined. It is accompanied by an oral tradition that teaches how to implement the laws in practice. However, in the sections of Torah as well the rest of Nach that deal with the theological, whether interpretation of historical events or descriptions of God, His interaction with the world and human beings and generally the physical and metaphysical, the language is much more vague and equivocal. As its name implies - Torah stems from Hora’ah - teaching – it is a system that teaches people not only how to act but also how to look at the world they live in. These two goals define the composition of the Torah and how it is presented.

Laws that deal with behavior and actions have to be able to adapt to circumstances. They cannot be static and rigid. The same thing that may be correct under one circumstance may be wrong under another. A radical example would be killing another human being. The Law states that taking a life is criminal, however is killing Hitler a crime? Paradoxically it is the precise language of the law accompanied by the oral Law that supplies the hermeneutical rules and tells us how to read, interpret and put into practice that same precise text, gives the law its required flexibility. There is much to be written about this and I plan to do so in the future. Here I want to focus on the theological component of Tanach first.

Unlike the practical Laws that require flexibility because their truth depends on circumstances, the underlying basis for theology, science and the laws of nature, are unchanging and inflexible. The rules that regulate the universe are rigid and predictable. We just have to discover and understand them, which is never easy but attainable at least in theory. So too is theology which is the way we look at our existence and interpret its raison d’etre. We are searching for the one unchanging and inalienable Truth. Here the Torah gives us the goal that we are trying to reach but leaves the method how we arrive at those insights up to us. The proofs and methods that convince us of these Truths have to be arrived at by each person on their own. For example, the Torah tells us that God exists and is unique. Understanding why that is so is our goal. The process that brings us to that recognition is in itself a teaching and a goal in its own right. It is therefore a very individualized process that cannot be laid out in a precise manner. The Torah therefore concentrates more in presenting the end result, the belief and Truths that we have to convince ourselves on rather than the proofs themselves and how to arrive at these Truths. Vagueness is therefore the proper teaching tool.

To be continued…


  1. How do we know where to draw the line between those parts of chumash/ nach/ chazal that are to be taken literally and those that are not to be understood literally?

  2. Ergo,

    I will address this as we go along. Generally anything that is not Halacha should be looked at very carefully and we should not assume that Torah is giving a course in History or Science but rather about how to look at events and nature from a theological standpoint.