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Is there Torah inerrancy?

In other words, does the Torah contain no factual errors: the Noah flood did occur, Garden of Eden did exist, Adam and Eve did live there and were subsequently expelled, etc etc?

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See also:… –  WAF May 12 '11 at 8:10
Welcome to Judaism.SE, and thanks very much for this important question! –  Isaac Moses May 12 '11 at 12:18

6 Answers 6

up vote 35 down vote accepted

In short the answer is Yes.

Maimonides (also know as the Rambam) codifies 13 principles which are basic to Judaism. These principles are pretty much universally accepted as binding in all Orthodox forms of Judaism. Principle number 8 is, "The belief in the divine origin of the Torah." Principle number 9 is, "The belief in the immutability of the Torah."

This being said, it is important to differentiate between the idea of the Torah being perfect as understood in Judaism and the concept of "Biblical Inerrancy" as understood by many Christian groups.

Judaism believes that the Torah was revealed in two parts. The written text of the Torah was dictated to Moses exactly as we have it today. Together with this "Written Torah", much additional information about each commandment, as well as a complete system of Torah interpretation was was also given to Moses and passed down through the generations.

After the destruction of the Second Holy Temple in 70 CE, a process of collecting and recording these teachings was begun. The teachings of the Oral Torah were eventually codified in the Talmud, Midrash, Zohar etc. This process is explained in great detail in the Introduction of the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides.

This means that according to Judaism, one cannot just read the text of the Written Torah and fully understand what God wants from us. One needs to also consult the teachings of the Oral Torah. A classic example is the verse, "and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall serve as a symbol between your eyes". This verse cannot possibly be understood literally. According to the Oral Torah, it is referring to the practice of Tefillin. There are thousands of detailed rules regarding the preparation and use of Tefillin which are all detailed in the works of the Oral Torah.

This is quite different than the idea of "Biblical Inerrancy" as understood by many Christian groups. Those groups believe that the Bible is to be understood literally at face value. this is completely foreign to Judaism.

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Welcome to Judaism.SE, and thanks very much for the well-nuanced answer! –  Isaac Moses May 12 '11 at 12:18
"Those groups believe that the Bible is to be understood literally at face value." There is much to criticize about Christianity but this strikes me as a straw man, for example I know of no Christian group that would interpret the verse you cited about tefillin literally. Indeed virtually all of them would interpret it less literally than we do. –  Yirmeyahu Oct 5 '12 at 4:55
This is a great answer, but I think the Jewish "infallible" inerrancy your answering needs to be distinguished more clearly from the Christian "literal truth" inerrancy implied by the question. Although you bring tefillin as a proof text, one can more easily bring the historical sections of the Torah (e.g., Creation). That's where Christian "inerrancy" and Jewish "inerrancy" differ most. –  Charles Koppelman Oct 5 '12 at 16:57
"Midrash, Zohar, etc." Zohar is most certainly NOT mentioned by Rambam! (be nice to clarify) –  mevaqesh Feb 4 at 19:21

The dictionary defines inerrancy as "freedom from error", in which case, yes, the Torah has inerrancy. One of the cardinal beliefs of Judaism, according to the Rambam, is that God composed the Pentateuch; the others sorta imply he has inerrancy; combined, then, we get that according to the Rambam the Pentateuch has inerrancy. I have no source at the moment for the other books of Tanach, but I'm pretty sure they, too, have inerrancy.

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This answer was given when the question read only "Do the Jews believe in Torah inerrancy, like some Christians who believe in the Biblical Inerrancy?" without any explanation of what the asker meant by inerrancy. –  msh210 Sep 13 '11 at 0:50
This answer doesn't show that the text of the Pentateuch in our possession still has inerrancy. In fact it is hard if not impossible to say it does have inerrancy, given the different traditions of how to write it. –  Double AA May 22 '13 at 5:11

It's not all that unanimous. Very credible Orthodox Rabbis like R' Natan Slifkin will tell you that the Garden of Eden and Great Flood stories are not to be taken literally. See his blog, and description of the controversy that led to his books being banned.

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I don't think that allegorical interpretations make something errant. Even R' Slifkin would agree that the Torah is inerrant. In fact, the Rambam is the one who interpreted the Eden story as metaphorical, and he is the one who classified divinity of the Torah as an obligatory belief. –  jake May 12 '11 at 15:00

This is a matter of opinion, perhaps even amongst Rishonim.

For example, there is Ralbag, who says about the number of stars and Avraham's vision at the brit bein habetarim

לא יחוייב שיהיו אצל הנביא כל הדעות האמיתיות בענין סודות המציאות

Citing a post by Dr. Marc Shapiro:

According to Ralbag, this is an example of a prophet receiving false information in accord with his mistaken conception. Since Abraham falsely believed that there are many stars, his prophecy contained this false conception, while in reality according to Ralbag there are actually a limited number of stars.

As another example (from the same article), from Rav Kook, who refers to Rambam as a basis for the idea:

R. Kook explains that the Torah can describe events in a way not in accord with the astronomical or geological (i.e., historical) truth. This is done in order for the Torah to accomplish its goal, which is not focused on such matters but rather on ידיעת האלהות והמוסר וענפיהם בחיים ובפועל, בחיי הפרט, האומה והעולם

That is, based on the contemporary understanding of the world. The basis in Rambam is in factual errors in Yechezkel, so perhaps it would (according to Rambam) not extend to the Torah.

Another example is (same post) "[t]he fourteenth-century R. Eleazar Ashkenazi ben Nathan ha-Bavli". When discussing the extremely long lifespans, he suggested

that the Torah recorded what the popular belief was, no matter how exaggerated, and Moses was not concerned about these sorts of things. In other words, just like today people say that the Torah is not interested in a scientific presentation of how the world was created, R. Eleazar’s position is that the Torah is not interested in a historically accurate presentation. In his mind, this has nothing to do with the Torah’s goals, and therefore there was no reason for the Torah not to present matters as they were believed at the time, even if these perceptions were inaccurate. The important thing, he says, is that the people would know that from the creation of the world until Israel stood at Sinai was close to three thousand years. This would help solidify belief in creation. The records of lifespans are just a means to illustrate this information.[18] He adds that when it came to events closer to Moses’ time, Moses was careful in preserving a more accurate accounting, while leaving the stories of the distant past cloaked in legend.

For an example of a rishon propounding the idea that the Torah incorporates some necessary false beliefs, see Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi. So too Shadal. While I've written about it, so has Dr. Marc Shapiro. See this post on the Seforim blog. For instance:

I must now deal with R. Joseph Ibn Caspi, who is often described as holding a view similar to what we have seen already, but more radical in that he saw it as a general principle of interpretation. I refer to the notion that the Torah incorporates all sorts of untruths because these were what people believed at the time. It is said that this is how Ibn Caspi understands the rabbinic phrase “The Torah speaks in the language of men.”

I would note that various Rishonim are not accepted in the current ultra-Orthodox world. There is a no-true-Scotsman issue:

Person A: "No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."

Person B: "But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge."

Person A: "Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."

Various very religious and scholarly Jews held beliefs that nowadays are not standard frum theology, and the danger in rejecting them as non-Rishonim is that we first define who the Rishonim were based on theology and then assert we are following the Rishonim in matters of theology. (In similar manner, Abarbanel -- who rejected Ibn Caspi -- is himself considered 'not from our beis medrash' and Yes, some contemporaries strongly criticized him for taking philosophical positions that they disagreed with, but so were others criticized who are certainly considered Rishonim (e.g. Ibn Ezra, Rambam).

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From a quick skimming of the linked article: "While it is true that according to Ibn Caspi these beliefs are included in the Torah, they are not advocated by the Torah, but are to be understood as mistaken beliefs of the masses." It seems that even Ibn Caspi agrees that the Torah is factually correct in recording what people at that time mistakenly believed. –  Michoel Oct 5 '12 at 6:22
@Michoel What does "factually correct in recording what people at that time mistakenly believed" mean? That the Author made the right choice in presenting false statements or that it wrote True things? The former may be accurate, but it's a funny thing to then call the text "factually correct". –  Double AA May 22 '13 at 5:13
@DoubleAA The Torah may have presented a view that people believed at that time. While that particular opinion turned out to be false, it is not a factual error on the part of the Torah - it is factually correct that this was the view at the time. –  Michoel Aug 16 '13 at 15:14
calling Ibn Caspi a rishon is a bit misleading. Am I an acharon? was Benedict Spinoza? Obviously the answer is that these terms lack defined definitions. However, by practical usage the terms tanna...acharon, connote a certain amount of authority and acceptance. Thus Jesus is not generally regarded as a tanna (or zug). Thus there is obviously an undefined line between legitimate and illegitimate. Ibn Caspi certainly lies on the fringes of traditional judaism (e.g. view on eternity of world) and thus the presentation is a bit misleading. –  mevaqesh Feb 4 at 19:26
Furthermore, Dr. Shapiro himself notes (footnotes to his Maimonides Last Word in Orthodox Theology?) that Ibn Caspi is not acceptable as a voice of traditional Judaism, that his views dissenting with Maimonides are insignificant, given his fringe status, and that it is astounding that Artscroll included him in their book of Rishonim! (although to be fair, he is listed as a translator). –  mevaqesh Jun 23 at 21:34

After a generation of people have debated the Torah Codes,this should not be a question. The letters of the Torah are precise as are the words as are the characters.The details will not be known for now but the entire corpus should be seen by all of us as Divine ,not merely inspired. While there are legitimate concerns of the exactitude of minute detail,this is the best at preserving a text that can be humanly possible over 3323 years since first received.

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you seem to be addressing the historical integrity of the text rather than the literal truth of its contents, which the question is asking about. –  Isaac Moses Jun 23 '11 at 14:49

If your question is, "Can the Torah be wrong?," then the Orthodox will tell you "no" and Conservative and Reform may vary from rabbi to rabbi.

If you're asking "Can the Torah be taken not as face value in regard to historical events?," even in Orthodoxy its a matter of great controversy with many strong;y-worded tshuvos (responsa) and strongly-held opinions.

My personal belief is that the Torah is not wrong although some details may be subject to interpretation and "speaking in the manner of people."

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+1 for distinguishing between "wrong" and "not literal" –  Daniel Aug 16 '13 at 14:12
I like some of your answers, just please try to write in English, not txt lngwg. LOL :) –  Shmuel Brin Aug 16 '13 at 17:08

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