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I believe this will be related to a similar question about a statement by Rabbi Sacks. Rabbi Jeremy Wieder said in a lecture titled Non Literal Interpretation of Scripture in Jewish Tradition (and elsewhere as I understand it) that based on principles mentioned by the Rambam and Rav Saadia Gaon that, in simple terms, you generally understand the plain meaning of the text except when reason doesn't allow such a literal understanding, provided doing so doesn't violate core principals of Judaism. One example he gives is that while the verse speaks of God creating a rainbow, upon being shown that a rainbow is a natural property of optics and refraction, Rambam reinterpreted it to mean that God simply used a rainbow as a sign.

However, he goes on to say that the whole of the first 11 chapters could be understood to be like a parable, not something that actually happened. (Perhaps for details like halachos based on this portion he would take a modified approach, not sure.) (Also he says it wouldn't be heresy to say the Avos never existed but he would personally be very uneasy about taking it that far. Basically he said the only thing that you must understand as literal was the revelation at Mt. Sinai.)

So my question is, is there any precedent for that position on such a large scale? It's much more than understanding the nature of a rainbow. It seems to go against all of Chazal's commentaries and Jewish tradition from Mt. Sinai to say that the events didn't happen. To be sure, if correct, his approach would basically answer my other question that asks for a reconciliation between science that seems to say human history goes well beyond 6,000 years ago and that it proceeded uninterrupted straight through the Mabul (as well as another detail I didn't ask about that the history of languages shows they developed with no dispersion at a tower 4,000 years ago). But the halachic basis for such a liberal approach seems questionable to me, hence the question.

EDIT: I added a bounty to try to draw more eyes to the answers and get some other people's feedback on them or improved answers so I can get help choosing one for the accepted answer.

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My take on the lecture mentioned machzikeihadas.blogspot.com/2009/04/… –  Yirmeyahu Jul 25 '13 at 2:24
    
@Yirmeyahu I read your post, it was very insightful. Can I ask you one thing, where you quote the Meiri as saying Creation must not be understood allegorically, does that directly argue with Rambam's statement about Ma'asei Bereishis not to be understood "in all its parts" as literal? As an aside I asked another rabbi who said it's "never understood k'pshuto, those who try to interpret it as such might be kefirah", so does he also argue with Meiri? (Then again the rabbi might not be so reliable, he did recommend to me Genesis and the Big Bang after all.... No need to critique that book here.) –  A L Jul 25 '13 at 5:10
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AL--I think we should try to be compliant with the policy against using the comments for discussion. Perhaps you could turn these into their own question or direct the questions in the comments to the article? –  Yirmeyahu Jul 25 '13 at 6:27
    
@Yirmeyahu Okay. I emailed you R' Weider's response to your post on his lecture, if you're interested. –  A L Jul 25 '13 at 17:31
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2 Answers

As mentioned in the question, its based on the principles of the Rambam and Rav Saadia Gaon. When there's (a) reason to understand the text non-literally you may do so. In the past, these rishonim (and others) applied this principle of interpretation to certain cases based on philosophical reasons, and nowadays it may apply to other areas for archeological reasons, but it follows the same basic principles.

Also, one does not need to understand everything as a parable, just that the literal meaning of the pesukim may not be giving a detailed scientific account. For example, the beginning of Berishis says that the world was created by God, but the specific account can be understood symbolically in various ways. One can say something similar for the Flood story, but you can't keep on insisting everything's a metaphor, since revelation at Sinai is a fundamental belief.

Update:
The comments raise the issue of what is a fundamental belief and therefore must be interpreted literally and the question already mentioned R. Wieder's view on this. The Rambam enumerates 13 principle of belief that he holds cannot be re-interpreted, but that means other things can be re-interpreted. The Rambam followed this in practice in many instances, e.g. he reinterprets every single appearance of an angel in Tanach as a vision. The Rambam did not have a mesorah about angels, but he re-interpreted them based on his philosophical views. Similarly nowadays one can re-interpret things based on science.

Commentators who did not have such philosophical or scientific issues may have interpreted these stories completely literally; there are many ways to interpret the Torah. While one can interpret almost everything literally nowadays too, there's no reason to insist that it's an ikkar to do so. As chazal say, כל המוסיף גורע.

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But I mean, for you to try to fit everything with science, you would have to put such large quantities of the first 11 chapters into the realm of parable that the rest would only make sense as parable as well (to a degree that it seems to seriously undermine the overall credibility). To go back to my question, is there precedent for such a scale (understanding large portions of events as being metaphorical, not just a particular word)? –  A L Jul 25 '13 at 2:53
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So how do you know what is what? Kriyas Yam Suf? Enslavement in Egypt? Korach? Mitzvos? –  Shmuel Brin Jul 25 '13 at 4:25
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@ShmuelBrin That indeed is a problem. If at one point in history all of Jewish knowledge can confidently say something happened as written, and then some archeological find or scientific development shows it to be an untenable position, and then the solution is to simply say it didn't happen after all, then how can any other statement that hasn't been thus far disproven be so confidently assumed as fact? On the other hand, if not afforded such a solution, it might seem that one would require Emunah that has been proven more conclusively than the existence of the problematic find itself. –  A L Jul 25 '13 at 5:33
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Noting your update, are you sure Rambam interprets angles to be as a dream because he's forced into that position from some external philosophy? I'm not sure why it would be for that reason (I can totally imagine a spiritual angel appearing in physical form). Also I'm not sure Rambam said anything in the Torah may be interpreted as desired so long as it doesn't violate the 13 principles. For example, he wouldn't accept a philosophical idea that precluded miracles even though there is no 14th principle of faith that says "miracles happen". –  A L Jul 26 '13 at 1:54
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@AL, While you can imagine it, the Rambam felt they couldn't. Note that he had a rather Aristotelian view of angels. –  Ariel K Jul 26 '13 at 2:40
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Briefly, such an interpretation is inconsistent with the text and trend of Rav Saadia Gaon's discussion of this topic in Emunos v'Deos. The entire context of his discussions on when one may interpret Scripture contrary to the plain meaning is one of restricting the practice. Regarding allegorical interpretation Rav Saadia warns:

The result of the application of such a method of interpretation would be that there would not be an item left in the entire story of the creation [of the world] that would not have been divest of its literal meaning, which is the creation and origination of things. (Ibn Tibbon treatise 7:5, Rosenblatt, page 425).

The Rambam also has language limiting the non-literal interpretation of scripture. While it might be argued that he is more open to exception he still does not provide any precedent for doing so beyond the creation account and his reasoning for doing so, and his method of doing so would not apply ("not interpreting literally" is not the same as offering a coherent non-literal interpretations).

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Could you please expand on your last parenthetical comment? "'not interpreting literally' is not the same as offering a coherent non-literal interpretations" –  A L Jul 25 '13 at 3:29
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What I mean is that although many people will suggest we interpret Torah non-literally, pointing to the Rambam or so forth, they will often fail to actually offer such an interpretation that explains what IS meant. –  Yirmeyahu Jul 25 '13 at 3:38
    
@Yirmeyahu Why is that a fundamental flaw in the method? All that says is current claims of non-literalness are unconvincing, not that they are untenable. –  Double AA Jul 25 '13 at 6:32
    
@DoubleAA, I'm sorry, I don't follow the question? –  Yirmeyahu Jul 25 '13 at 6:36
    
@Yirmeyahu You complained that people offering non-literal reads "often fail to actually offer [] an interpretation that explains what IS meant [by the allegory]". That isn't a valid complaint against the method, only about how convincing the instances of it that you have encountered are. –  Double AA Jul 25 '13 at 6:40
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