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For example, angels cried into Yitzchak's eyes when he was about to be sacrificed. However, it is usually agreed this is to be taken literally (i.e. angels did exist and their tears did fall into his eyes) but not physically (they were spiritual beings not something that can be physically seen). Thus, here it can be understood as literally but not physically.

At what point can we say the Torah metaphorical/allegorical/not to be taken literally? Is there a danger of a slippery slope? Does it even matter? I.e. does it take away from the meaningfulness of the Torah if it's not to be interpreted in a literal way?

  • VTC as Too Broad? – Double AA Aug 18 '15 at 16:40
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    What does meaningfulness have to do with physical/literal/straightforward-ness? If something really happened, it may or may not be meaningful, and something meaningful may or may not have happened. I don't see the connection. – Double AA Aug 18 '15 at 16:41
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    What you have cited is from Midrash. My rabbi often relays a general phrase, "Midrash does not like a vacuum". I.e. - its main purpose is to explain missing time frames, anonymous people and apparent "impossibilities". Often, it does this by relating stories. Many of these stories probably should NOT be taken literally. I noticed while typing this, that @Loewian has offered a more comprehensive answer, better-phrased than what I could comprise. – DanF Aug 18 '15 at 17:33
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    if it seems really far-fetched than usually you can assume it is not literal. ex. the story of the rabbis on an island which turned out to be a fish... – ray Aug 18 '15 at 18:04
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    I would not conflate the questions of the historicity of a fantastic story found in Tanakh with one found in Oral Torah. – Micha Berger Aug 18 '15 at 18:21
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When it comes to Tanakh... Well, we have Oral Torah to guide us back to how the text was understood when we first got it.

When it comes to Medrash... This has been asked and answered before; @mevaqesh pointed me to Belief in midrashim yesterday.

RSR Hirsch's non-literalist position on medrashim, as described by R' Breuer: http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/faxes/hirschAgadaEnglish.pdf. And from the same pamphlet, R' Yisrael Salanter's position http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/faxes/rysAgadaEnglish.pdf. (Both tr. Yehoshua Leiman.)

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Generally speaking, whether or not a biblical passage can/should be taken literally depends on the context as well as reliable traditions, both of which depend on an acquired level of discernment. An important distinction in this regard is the difference between narrative passages and legal ones (i.e. mitzvoth-commandments). Many symbolic mitzvoth, such as tefillin (e.g. Exodus 13:9), traditionally involve a literal component which cannot be fulfilled with the associated symbolism alone. Nonetheless, other commandments are traditionally (at least according to most authorities) assumed to be "nonliteral", e.g. not placing a stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:14).

Similarly, historical narratives are generally assumed to be literal, even when incorporating events or ideas not prevalent nowadays, such as miracles or unusually long life-spans. However, some narratives if understood in an overly literal fashion, can comprise heresy according to halacha, e.g. corporeality. In addition, many historical passages have been understood allegorically by traditional scholars (see e.g. the Moreh Nevukhim on the first sin; It's also worth noting that traditional scholars [e.g. Rambam, Maharal, Ramchal, Vilna Gaon] reject the literal interpretation of Aggada/Medrash.)

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    "It's also worth noting that traditional scholars [e.g. Rambam, Maharal, Ramchal, Vilna Gaon] reject the literal interpretation of Aggada/Medrash." Do you mean that they understand that they are never literal, or that they may be non-literal? – mevaqesh Aug 18 '15 at 18:03
  • @mevaqesh At least with regard to the Maharal, I would say that he understands Midrash as primarily non-literal/conceptual with the caveat that explicit/physical reality trends toward the conceptual reality conveyed by the medrash, but without actually violating natural norms (e.g. Chazal may report that a certain historical figure was e.g. 10 amoth tall in order to convey an idea about what that figure represents on a conceptual level; the Maharal would suggest that even on a "literal" level that figure's height would be substantial, albeit within the normal range of heights.) – Loewian Aug 18 '15 at 18:12
  • @mevaqesh The Maharal maintains that Chazal are not concerned with the trivial/incidental aspects of history, only the fundamental/conceptual ones. As such, if the fundamental concepts have no reason to exceed the typical limits of nature, I assume in those cases the Midrash would indeed be also literal. Still that could almost be described as a side-effect of the conceptual reality that is the primary concern of the midrash. – Loewian Aug 18 '15 at 18:16
  • I would say that the Maharal believes that historicity was a non-issue to Chazal. Some of the stories may have happened, some may not -- and none of them cared enough about which was which to bother making a systematic study of it. Placing emphasis on the question itself, rather than treating historicity as nothing more than a curiosity (at most), itself is non-traditional. This is unlike the Rambam, who seems to presume that any violation of nature would have made it into Tanakh. – Micha Berger Aug 18 '15 at 18:21
  • @MichaBerger I would say that that framing itself would be objectionable to the Maharal who would maintain that the events/attributes did indeed "occur" "historically", but within the underlying conceptual foundation that molds the events of the physical stratum about which literal historians are concerned. – Loewian Aug 18 '15 at 18:30

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