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Apologies if this is an ignorant, foolish or offensive question. I am not Jewish, and am asking to satisfy my curiosity.

Some time ago, on a political forum online, I was discussing religious literalism, the tendency of some religions to insist that their holy texts are the revealed word of the divine and thus cannot ever be contradicted by modern research, philosophy or belief systems.

A poster claiming to be an Orthodox Jew turned up, and said that Judaism finds this concept bizarre. That it is understood that the scripture was written a long time ago, by fallible humans who lacked modern understanding, and might thus be flawed. He went on to say that Jews maintain books of Rabbinical law which are updated as a result of discussion amongst learned Rabbis down the ages and which are given almost equal weight to the Torah.

He stated that it is generally agreed amongst Rabbis that the original creation story, for example, can be understood as a metaphor rather than the literal truth. And that this explains why there is little or no opposition to modern evolutionary science amongst Jews.

Is this partially or wholly correct? And if so, are there any particular cultural or scriptural reasons why Judaism differs in this regard from other Abrahamic religions? Given that a number of Jewish practices appear somewhat anachronistic to other cultures, on what basis do Rabbis decide which laws and views should be updated, and which should be kept?

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Either what was posted on that forum is about half-correct, or your understanding of what was said was about half-correct. Traditional Judaism does believe that "[H]oly texts are the revealed word of the divine and thus cannot ever be contradicted by modern research, philosophy or belief systems." It is not true "[t]hat it is understood that the scripture was written a long time ago, by fallible humans who lacked modern understanding, and might thus be flawed." We believe that scripture was written directly by God and that it is 100% truth.

This does not mean, however, that we cannot understand the Torah in the context of modern knowledge. To use your example, it is not outside the range of orthodoxy to believe that the creation story in Genesis is written metaphorically. To be clear, it is not wrong; it is metaphorical. Imagine the Torah being given thousands of years ago explaining modern physics. The pre-scientific people of the time couldn't possibly understand it. Even today, the exact mechanism for creation could not possibly be understood by anybody but the most brilliant scientists (and probably not even them). Instead, we have a metaphorical version that gives enough of the details in order to convey the message that needed to be passed on. The Torah is not a science manual, so if some scientific details have to be glossed over to make us understand its underlying message, so be it. Again, that does not subtract from the likelihood of having been written by an all-knowing being.

As far as the rabbinical books of laws, those do exist, though they're not afforded quite the same level of sanctity as the scripture. Those laws are not really updated as much as they are constantly being reinterpreted in order to understand how they apply today.

So in short, we believe that scripture was written by God and that it is 100% true; however, we do not discredit science and modern knowledge. Instead, we try to use modern knowledge to have an even better understanding of what the Torah is teaching us. In other words, the Torah is totally true but not totally literal.

  • Thanks for both replies - I accepted this one as it seems clearer to me as a non-Jew. Both interesting and much appreciated, though. – Matt Thrower Mar 24 '15 at 9:35
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    "Written directly by God"? Hazal make no such claims,but rather to the contrary. The Scripture was written by prophets on varying levels of prophetic "clarity" and insight. Kol tuv. – user3342 Aug 18 '15 at 20:05
  • Too add to @Maimonist the claim that it is 100% truth is also debatable. Many suggest, for example that outmoded science may be present that reflects then current beliefs. – mevaqesh Aug 12 '16 at 18:38
  • This would be greatly improved with sources. – mevaqesh Aug 12 '16 at 18:38
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I agree with the answer Daniel gave, but I would clarify things slightly differently.

1) Orthodox Judaism believes that the Torah is the literal Word of G-d. This is one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith as brought down by Maimonides:

"We do not know exactly how the Torah was transmitted to Moses. But when it was transmitted, Moses merely wrote it down like a secretary taking dictation....[Thus] every verse in the Torah is equally holy, as they all originate from God, and are all part of God's Torah, which is perfect, holy and true."

2) The laws of Orthodox Judaism do not however come from reading the text literally, but are interpreted via an oral tradition leading back to Moses (e.g. when it says "An eye for an eye", it actually means monetary compensation, not mutilation).

Again Maimonides (introduction to the Mishneh Torah):

3 But the Commandment, which is the interpretation of the Law--he did not write it down, but gave orders concerning it to the elders, to Yehoshua, and to all the rest of Israel, as it is written "all this word which I command you, that shall ye observe to do . . ." (Deuteronomy 13,1). For this reason, it is called the Oral Law.

4 Although the Oral Law was not written down, Moshe Our Teacher taught all of it in his court to the seventy elders; and El`azar, Pinehas, and Yehoshua, all three received it from Moshe. And to his student Yehoshua, Moshe Our Teacher passed on the Oral Law and ordered him concerning it. And so Yehoshua throughout his life taught it orally.

While our understanding of the Torah may have been corrupted over time, Orthodox Judaism holds that the core interpretation of the Torah does not morph to fit the changing notions of morality or modern understanding.

Note that this does not say that bottom line practices cannot change. Consider the analogy of driving a car: Physics says that if you crash into something fast enough you will have a fatal accident, but the legal speed limit is derived by human laws that take the safety of cars and the way people drive into consideration. Thus, the bottom line legal speed limit may change due to scientific advances (safer cars) and social norms, but the physics of it is still immutable.

3) Finally, regarding things like evolution/creation, etc. Orthodox Judaism generally has quite the open mind. As long as there is no impact on the core interpretation of the Torah, then any amount of allegorical understanding is valid.

Maimonides (intro to Perek Helek):

It is often difficult for us to interpret words and to educe their true meaning from the form in which they are contained so that their real inner meaning conforms to reason and corresponds with truth......when you encounter a word of the sages which seems to conflict with reason, you will pause, consider it, and realize that this utterance must be a riddle or a parable. You will sleep on it, trying anxiously to grasp its logic and its expression, so that you may find its genuine intellectual intention and lay hold of a direct faith, as Scripture says: “To find out words of delight, and that which was written uprightly, even words of truth”

Now technically Maimonides is addressing here the words of the Sages, not the actual Torah. Still this is completely in line with his understanding of (e.g.) the story of Creation in his "Guide to the Perplexed", and I would argue what most Orthodox Jews follow.


Final note. Maimonides is not the end-all answer for what Orthodox Judaism believes (there were considerable debates even in his day), but his writing are generally considered to be one of the pillars of our understanding.

  • Nice answer (+1), but what exactly are you referring to when you mention "core interpretation of the Torah"? – Daniel Mar 23 '15 at 14:57
  • I guess my issue is that there are biblical commandments that are explicitly affected by human values/science and so some aspects of those commandments can potentially change. Hard for me to come up with a really good example right now, but something like Avoda Zara depends on if the object is actually actively worshiped, so an action that used to be prohibited might now be ok (or vice versa).... This is not a great example, but was my rational for adding the word "core". – Nic Mar 23 '15 at 15:10
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    +1 for tipping the iceberg of complexity with the "Final note". – WAF Mar 23 '15 at 18:10
  • "the Torah is the literal Word of G-d" seems to be contradicted by "laws... do not however come from reading the text literally". Unless you mean that it's meant literally but we don't get our laws that way? – msh210 Mar 24 '15 at 3:29
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    I meant that G-d wrote those exact words (hence "word of g-d", no mistakes possible), but that the laws of Judaism are not derived from their literal meaning, but rather through careful interpretations that come from an oral tradition. Does this clarify things? – Nic Mar 24 '15 at 11:52

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