Sunday, October 05, 2008

Reading a Theological or an Historical Text -

Although there is some overlap between the categories and there also is some controversy among the interpreters to which category certain texts belong, the Torah, the Five Books of Moshe, contain legal, theological and historical texts. While legal texts are almost exclusively found in the Torah, the other two categories are common to all the prophetic books including Nach, the Books of the Prophets. The legal portions are addressed in the Halachik discourse and comprise what is generally known as Talmud Torah, the learning done in Yeshivot and on a daily basis by most observant Jews. Although generally ignored, there is a very important theological and philosophical foundation to the Halachik discourse which therefore affects legal decisions and how Mitzvot are practiced. Practice however can be defined while theology and philosophy are much more fluid and therefore much more controversial. Furthermore, philosophy and theology should be seen as developmental processes that span millennia and generations. As I explained in earlier posts, the scriptures posit beliefs that we are then tasked to convince ourselves of their veracity and correctness. It is this process of learning and searching that moves us along as individuals, a people and through us the whole world towards the goal of attaining the ultimate Truth,

כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ, דֵּעָה אֶת-יְהוָה, כַּמַּיִם, לַיָּם מְכַסִּים.

For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. (Yeshayahu 11:9)

It is with this in mind that we have to approach the theological texts as we try to understand them and interpret them.

The way I understand it, Torah theology is a way of looking and interpreting our observations of our surroundings and existence. In other words, we observe and try to understand the science underlying the physical world we live in, a developmental process in itself that also spans millennia and generations, and at the same time try to make sense of our raison d’etre, why we are here and what is the purpose of this whole enterprise. For ease, I will refer to all science as physics while metaphysics is included in theology. Looking at physics, although we are still far from having a complete understanding of it and may never understand it all the way, at least theoretically we should eventually be able to acquire full knowledge thereof. That is so, because physics is an objective and empirical science. Theology with its underlying belief system and metaphysical theories, on the other hand, is subjective and cannot be proven empirically. It is a way of looking at things based on a combination of deductive thinking, intuition and prophecy, revelation. However, these two different types of knowledge go together and are interdependent. As humanity develops its knowledge of physics, it also develops its understanding of theology which is de facto a commentary and interpretation of the first.

The Torah sets down an axiom – God exists. Rambam holds that it is empirically provable but requires a lot of work and effort. He therefore considers it a Mitzvah – a commandment – to “know” that God exists.

…יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות, לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון
וידיעת דבר זה מצות עשה, שנאמר "אנוכי ה' אלוהיך

The way I understand Rambam is that this axiom is at the intersection of physics and theology. That God “exists” is empirically provable however, what God “is” and even how the word “exists” relates to Him is a matter that belongs to the realm of theology. Everything about God, omniscience, omnipotence, will, whether He created the world from nothingness, His providence and His relationship to our own existence, all belongs to theology and is subjective, a way we look at things rather than something empirically provable. It is theology that the Torah presents in its non-legal texts and is the subject of Nach. It tells us how we should look at things and it lays out markers that we should follow as we try to understand and make sense of it all but it ultimately leaves it to us to fill in the blanks. It is through the combination of this process of thinking, keeping the Mitzvot and understanding them, which in itself depends on our theological insights, that we will eventually fulfill the first Mitzvah of “knowing” that God exists.

It is with this in mind that the Torah starts off by describing creation. It certainly does not intend to tell us a scientific truth as that is left to us to discover – it therefore should not be read literally, even if the literal reading were to agree with current science which it does not. It is teaching us that as we observe our world and develop an understanding of how it works, we have to keep in mind that it was willed into existence by HKBH from nothingness. Whatever scientific theory for the world’s beginning is in vogue, whether it is the Big Bang or any other such theory that may arise, the prior cause for that singularity is God and His will and not some other subjective explanation. The Torah presentation of creation also tells us that all components of the universe are interrelated and interdependent and all, including humans have a role to play in its continuity. It also tells us that God has put into place in this universe a self-sustaining system that does not require any further intervention on His part – He “rested” on the seventh day. It also tells us about man and his mental and psychological makeup, abilities and responsibilities. What it does not tell us is the scientific and physical makeup of the world.

First, the account given in Scripture of the Creation is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal. For if this were the case, wise men would not have kept its explanation secret, and our Sages would not have employed figurative speech [in treating of the Creation] in order to hide its true meaning, nor would they have objected to discuss it in the presence of the common people. The literal meaning of the words might lead us to conceive corrupt ideas and to form false opinions about God, or even entirely to abandon and reject the principles of our Faith. It is therefore right to abstain and refrain from examining this subject superficially and unscientifically. We must blame the practice of some ignorant preachers and expounders of the Bible, who think that wisdom consists in knowing the explanation of words, and that greater perfection is attained by employing more words and longer speech.” (MN 2:29)

This is the approach that we have to take to every text that deals with theology. Its purpose is to tell us how we should look at our physical reality, the world we live in, at things that happen to us as a nation, as individuals and as humanity. It tells us how we should interpret the good and bad things that happen to us and how we should act when we are presented with choices, basing ourselves on certain ethical or moral imperatives. The same thinking applies to historical events. The Torah is not interested in passing along to us historical events but rather how we should look at them and learn from them.

Know that all stories that you will find mentioned in the Torah serve a certain purpose in connection with religious teaching. They either help to establish a principle of faith, or to regulate our actions, and to prevent wrong and injustice among men.” (MN 3:50)

Although I see no reason why I should question the historicity of most of the events related in the Torah, it is really irrelevant to the insight it is intended to teach. The point is the teaching that it is transmitting which is the same regardless of the fine details of the actual event. The story of the flood to me is a lesson on how human beings should behave when they see a calamity coming and how they should interpret it. Unlike the pagan world that developed the Gilgamesh myth to explain the cataclysmic floods that were still alive in human memory thereby shifting the responsibility to the gods, the Torah teaches that Noach acted with foresight when he became aware of the forthcoming cataclysm. Apparently the way the rabbis read it, there were early signs over several centuries that global warming was occurring and a cataclysm was about to occur. The Torah also teaches lessons about the breakdown of society and how that affected its ability to prepare or even foresee the cataclysm. To me that is, among others, the important messages the story sends and not the historical details of how widespread it was and so on. I believe a similar approach should be taken with every Torah narrative.

More to come…

Gmar Chatima Tova.


  1. David

    MN (2:29) refers specifically to Creation. Does Rambam elsewhere indicate that some other parts of Chumash are also not to be taken literally?

    The mabul - I accept the Torah is not intended as a history book but you seem to question eg how widespread the mabul was, when the Torah tells us it affected the entire world? I am not aware of any of our tanaim, amoraim, rishonim etc who deny the story of the flood in its detail as stated in chumash. Perhaps that is just ignorance on my part though.

    Another difficulty I have with this is, once we start treating some non halachic elements of the chumash in a non literal way where does it end? Do we now question the 10 makos, yetsias mitsrayim? Also, if some parts of the Chumash are not meant to be taken literally then why not say that other elements too i.e. those relating to halacha, should also be understood in a less rigid way?

    Theologically, why not believe, for instance, the story of the mabul literally? Is it because the idea of world civilisation being brought to an end by a flood save for hundreds of animals living in harmony on a boat, just seems too fantastic? But is that more far fetched than believing in Creation, yetias mitsrayim? The point being, once one believes in RBSO anything is possible, even things that may seem fantastic to the rational mind may be true.

    Your help please.

    G'mar tov

  2. >how widespread the mabul was, when the Torah tells us it affected the entire world?

    see Zevachim 113 re if it was in EY. R. Gedalia Nadel brings proof from a gemara in bechorot that it was only in the fertile crescent.

    >Does Rambam elsewhere indicate that some other parts of Chumash are also not to be taken literally?

    Oh yes many places! The first chelek in MN discusses the allegorical references to God. 2:29 from the beginning discusses all the metaphors in Neviim. You know his approach to Avraham and the malachim and everywhere there is an angel it is only a vision!

    Re the Makos, the fact thaey happened did not make them miracupous. In fact Rashba lauds the people for questioning them and seeing them as natural events although Moshe foretold them.

    Re theologically, God cannot or rather does not do the impossible.See MN 3:15 quite complicated but that is the outcome.