Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in this debate with Richard Dawkins says:

Rabbis in the 10th century laid down the following principle: If a biblical narrative is incompatible with established scientific fact, it is not to be read literally.... And in Judaism we take a strong view on this, and we have now for 2000 years, and we say reading the Bible literally is heresy.

Is this true? Which rabbis said this, and where exactly? Because while I can understand minor details being understood in the context of scientific knowledge, I'm unfamiliar with a principle that would allow one to throw out whole stories that have long been understood as historical, saying they're just symbolic as Rabbi Sacks does with Adam and Eve. Because with that method, as soon as science contradicts the Bible, then the event didn't happen, and that seems (to me) like taking the easy way and making a slightly different new religion every time just because the old one was proven wrong in a detail.

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    If you go as far as Sacks does, why not go further and just ask how you know anything is meant to be true until archaeologists prove that it did happen? – A L Jul 17 '13 at 23:25
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    I don't think I'll have time to watch that debate...but can someone tell me if the Rabbi represented us well? – Hacham Gabriel Jul 18 '13 at 4:32
  • @HachamGabriel I linked to the relevant part of the debate. – Aaliyah Jul 19 '13 at 2:09
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    What is the alternative? Continue to pretend to believe something that you know is untrue? – Wad Cheber Aug 20 '15 at 6:11
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    @HachamGabriel I just finished watching the conversation. IMHO R' Sacks does an absolutely stellar job of representing our tradition and Professor Dawkins seems simply dumbfounded by some of the Rabbi's hidushim (e.g. not to read Scripture literally). – Lee Mar 6 '17 at 11:02

The term "literal" and its Hebrew or English counter-parts are not terms with hard and fast meanings so any discussion must necessarily be careful to clarify how the terms are being used in the immediate context.

Generally "literal" meaning refers to the apparent meaning that the reader would reasonably be expected to take away from it. This can also be referred to as the "plain" meaning.

Sometimes "literal" is used in contrast to the "plain" meaning to indicate a meaning that would conform strictly to the words being used without regard to the internal or external context which would provide nuance to how they are used. I would tend to use the term "hyper-literal" for this.

In this later category we may find an excellent example of a "literal" or "hyper-literal" reading which would constitute heresy. Terms such as "the hand of God" or the like do not need to be taken as theological statements about God's anatomy, and those who make such an inference run afoul of one of the Rambam's 13 principles of faith (see also Mishneh Torah Yesodei HaTorah 1:8 and Hilchos Teshuvah 3:7).

Generally, however, we have the concept from Chazal that “אֵין מִקְרָא יוֹצֵא מִידֵי פְּשׁוּטוֹ” Scripture doesn't depart from its plain meaning. (Yevamos 24a and elsewhere). While this is a full discussion on its own, with its own limitations, this is a general principle that guided the Gedolei HaRishonim. Along these lines Rav Saadia Gaon wrote, “it is a well known fact that every statement found in the Bible is to be understood in its literal sense.” (Book of Belief and Opinions/Emunos v'Deos 7:2, Rosenblatt, page 265). And the Rambam explained that, “a mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text.” (Guide for the Perplexed II:25, Friedlander). There is precedent for taking interpretive liberties but one must beware of the limitations of both the Rishonim who speak on the matter as well as basic intellectual honesty.

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    But which rabbis was Rabbi Sacks referring to? Are you saying he is contradicting the Rambam? – Binyomin Trager May 30 '14 at 14:57
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    I would suggest, based on the evidence, that the statements quoted in the question are an overstatement. – Yirmeyahu May 30 '14 at 16:22
  • Interesting, so you're saying that perhaps R. Sacks purposely overstated this in order to emphasize that one must not read the bible literally and without the oral tradition? – Binyomin Trager May 30 '14 at 17:03

the quote about what Rav Saadia Gaon believed regarding literal vs. non-literal interpretation is correct but incomplete. After he writes "it is a well known fact that every statement found in the Bible is to be understood in its literal sense" - he then lists four cases when it is forbidden to take the Torah at literal understanding. They are (this can be found at the beginning of his long interpretation of the Torah): A) The sense (our sensory perception of the world) refutes the peshat. B) The intellect refutes the peshat. C) There are verses which contradict each other. D) The Sages’ tradition refutes the peshat. This is the textual basis for Rabbi Sacks claim above - similarly the Rambam wrote that IF the Aristotlean understanding of the universe was proven correct (which he didn't believe) - he would reinterpret the Torah accordingly (Moreh part 2:24-28)

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    Welcome to MiYodeya, Rav Yaakov, and thanks for this useful answer. It's great to have you here learning with us - hope to see you around! You may find this guide useful as an introduction to the site. – Joel K Jun 21 '18 at 11:44
  • Thanks for the details. Just curious does Rav Saadia Gaon then consider the Torah as unfalsifiable? Or are there things that must always be considered literally? – Aaliyah Jun 29 '18 at 0:39

I wrote to Rabbi Sacks and he said that he believes the story of Adam and Eve to be true and valid, but that he did not have the time to explain it to Richard Dawkins in the heat of a very demanding debate as there more important issues they were to get through. So he suggested to think of it more as a parable rather than as a historic fact for the debate. But he does believe that they were real people. This is a well-established precedent that other rabbis of the past had followed (e. g. Rs' Yohanan ben Zaikai to Parah Adumah).

It is always very important not to expose holy truths to ridicule. Because that is what people will do when they could not possibly understand.


It was taught in Beraisa: Rav Yehudah is saying:

Anyone who translates verse literally is a liar.

והתניא ר' יהודה אומר המתרגם פסוק כצורתו הרי זה בדאי קידושין מט. בסוף העמוד


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    It should be noted that Rashi's example seems to be an example of humorous hyper-literalness, rather than a sweeping principle about literal vs. non-literal interpretation. – mevaqesh Aug 19 '15 at 4:16
  • I don't think Rabbi Sacks translated the verse literally but that he believed they existed. – Turk Hill Jan 27 '19 at 23:26
  • But what about translating that statement of rabbi yehudah itself literally? Would one be a liar to do so, without referencing Rashi etc? The hebrew above says כצורתו which literally means "like it's form", that could mean anything, perhaps it's referring to how the verse exists in the world of yetzirah יצירה only – John Goshen Apr 18 at 22:46

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