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
    Commented Jul 17, 2013 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? Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 4:32
  • @HachamGabriel I linked to the relevant part of the debate.
    – Aaliyah
    Commented Jul 19, 2013 at 2:09
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    What is the alternative? Continue to pretend to believe something that you know is untrue?
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 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
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 11:02

4 Answers 4


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
    Commented Jun 21, 2018 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
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 0:39

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? Commented May 30, 2014 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
    Commented May 30, 2014 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? Commented May 30, 2014 at 17:03

I wrote to Rabbi Sacks and he said that he believes the story of Adam and Eve to be true, but that he did not have the time to explain it to Richard Dawkins in the debate. He, therefore, suggested thinking of it more as a parable rather than as a historic fact. 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).

Here are Rabbi Sacks' own words. This was what he wrote me:

Thank you for your email. Below is Rabbi Sacks’ response to this question;

The truth is that I believe the story of Adam and Eve is true and valid, but I simply did not have the time or the circumstance to explain that to Richard Dawkins in the heat of a very demanding debate, so I suggested we think of it as a parable rather than as a historical fact.

For the record, I believe Adam and Eve were real people. They represent the birth of Homo religiosus, that is to say, the first people to conceive of God as a unity and as Creator of the universe. Their story is true, real, profound, and deeply consequential. I was not, however, prepared to argue the matter in detail in public with an atheist when there were more important issues at hand that we had agreed would form the basis of our conversation. In giving such an answer to someone who would neither accept nor understand the true one, I was following the well-established precedent of, among others, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, when he explained the rite of the Parah Adumah to a Roman (see Tanhuma, Hukkat, 8; see also Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:1; Yerushalmi Shabbat 3:3; Yerushalmi Betzah 2:5; Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 1:2, and many other places).

There are certain things which we believe with perfect faith but which we cannot always fully explain, and it is very important not to expose holy truths to ridicule.

I do thank you for taking the trouble to write. I deeply appreciate the thought that went into your words. May Hashem be with you in all you do.

With blessings and best wishes,

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The Office of Rabbi Sacks Postal address: The Office of Rabbi Sacks, P.O. Box 72007, London NW6 6RW www.rabbisacks.org | [email protected]

As Rabbi Sacks wrote, 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.

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  • Can you provide an image of what he wrote, or at least his exact wording? Elsewhere he states as follows: "...Newton was quite willing to accept the biblical dating of the universe but, subsequent to Newton, the idea that the universe was 5761 years old seemed a little eccentric. It turned out to be very old indeed. And, if the universe is very old indeed, that destroys a literal reading of many of the stories of Bereishit, certainly Creation in six days, Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, and so on." rabbisacks.org/faith-lectures-creation-where-did-we-come-from
    – user262055
    Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 1:33
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    @user262055 Thank you for your comment. Your comment helped improved this answer. I added both the written statement and a screenshot of what Rabbi Sacks wrote. However, some years later when the rabbi had passed away, and when I brought this email to someone's attention (apparently a close student of Rabbi Sacks') wrote to me saying that the rabbis did not believe that Adam and Eve were real people. This was what he wrote to me:
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 20:58
  • @user262055 "Let me try to set the record straight about R.Sacks,zt'l, my Rabbi, and the creation story. I have no idea what Reuven and Mizrachi said. If they said he denied Divine creation,that would be incorrect, indeed that would be heresy. However, R.Sack's position on the creation STORY, is that it is myth. With which I heartily concur, as do most of the readers of this blog."
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 20:58
  • And "Turk, I think you might want to look at your question to R. Sacks and his answer again. The closest R. Sacks would have said Adam and Eve were real people, is that the Biblical story had them as archetypal early humans. Cheers, mb"
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 20:58
  • So I am not sure what the rabbi actually believed in his private life. On the other hand, what he wrote (above in my answer) seems to me to be his true view. Or, at least I like to think so.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 20:59

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
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 4:16
  • I don't think Rabbi Sacks translated the verse literally but that he believed they existed.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Jan 27, 2019 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 Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 22:46

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