Sunday, September 21, 2008

What Problem?

In order to find a suitable approach to understanding the relationship between contemporary scientific theories and the creation of the world as described in the opening chapters of Genesis, it is necessary to first establish that there is indeed a conflict. It may sound counter-intuitive to suggest that we need to show that there is a “problem” insofar as this problem has been center stage in the public controversy between religion and science. The antagonism between the scientific community and “fundamentalist” Christianity over the theory of Evolution and how it and related issues are taught in public school is one which it is near impossible for anyone to be unfamiliar with. While most laity have various ways of bridging their religious and scientific beliefs, in truth most secularists (including the Jewish ones) have not found those methods any more compelling than the Christians who believe the Bible to actually be the Word of God do.

However among most religious Jews the situation is significantly different. Traditional Judaism’s acceptance of the Torah as the word of God matches if not surpasses that of fundamentalist Christianity. To speak of Mosaic authorship of the Torah is, essentially, heretical. Moshe Rebbeinu was not more that a transcriptionist of Hashem’s words. Nevertheless, or rather therefore, we approach the text with much more nuance than common among Fundamentalist Christians. Ours is the Psalmists plea, “Unveil my eyes that I my perceive wonders from Your Torah.” (Psalms 119:17). The Torah, not only from beginning to end but its depth as well, is plumbed.

The Midrashic literature springs from this depth of the Torah. The classic Midrashim are authoritative in Judaism and bring us lessons from the Torah on nearly any conceivable topic. Most importantly for our discussion are those Midrashim which discuss the creation of the world. It is in light of these Midrashim that many, if not most, religious Jews find little contention between their acceptance of the Torah and their acceptance of the contemporary scientific views of the origin of the man and the universe.

The solution is nevertheless more elusive. In addition to other difficulties which we will discuss in subsequent sections we are first and foremost confronted with the fact that allegorical interpretations are generally understood as additional meaning to the text, not meant to replace the literal meaning. The existence of these Midrashim does not cause the simple meaning of the opening chapters of Genesis to dissipate.

This concept is found explicitly in the Talmud in the saying, “אֵין מִקְרָא יוֹצֵא מִידֵי פְּשׁוּטוֹ”, “a verse doesn’t depart from its simple meaning” (see Yevamos 24a). The reluctance to depart from the simple meaning of the Torah is found even, or particularly, among those who discuss the permissibility of allegorizing. Rav Sa’adia Gaon writes, “We, the congregation of Israelites, accept in its literal sense and its universally recognized meaning whatever is recorded in the books of God and have been transmitted to us” (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, page 415). Although Sa’adia Gaon did recognize the permissibility of interpreting Torah narratives allegorically he established certain prerequisites. When a literal reading of scripture was not possible to reconcile with logic, i.e. science, it was permissible to understand it allegorically. Insofar as the truth of the Torah is axiomatic, apparent conflict demands resolution (even a difficult one) rather than dismissal.

In his article “On the Limits of Non-Literal Interpretation of Scripture from an Orthodox Perspective” (Torah U-Madda Journal, vol. 10), Josh L. Golding takes issue with this saying of Chazal as being the source for a preference for literal interpretation insofar as each instance it is used in the Talmud it is cited within the context of practical law. He speculatively infers that,
Therefore, the Sages of the Talmud may well have considered the Scriptural passages involving events and personalities wide open, even le-khatehillah (ab initio), to purely non-literal interpretation, while legal and penal passages are generally not.(page 42).
That this is an argument from silence is highlighted by he fact that he immediately proceeds challenge Sa’adia Goan’s source for saying that narratives cannot be taken non-literally! Nor does he seem to recognize that the Rambam, perhaps the best known authority to allegorize “liberally”, restricts when one may do so, giving preference to the literal meaning:“A mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument” (Guide to the Perplexed, Yale, page 199).

The truth is we do not need such maxim for us to take a work at face value when it presents us with no indication that it's author was simply allegorizing. This is especially true when only selection are to be understood as pure allegory while other parts of the narrative are to be taken literal.

Rav Sa'adia Gaon prohibits allegorizing the Torah except when there is not any other way to achieve reconciliation. The Rambam rejects it at least as long as another option is as acceptable. I have seen passages in the Guide that seem to go even further in resticting allegorizing. In either instance allegorization is essentially b'dieved. Allegorization (to the exclusion of the Peshat) is a way of reconciling two conflicting established "truths", it is only permissible when there IS a problem. This is a far cry from using allegorization as a way "accept" a narrative one finds otherwise untenable, to make it "possible" to accept a story one would otherwise object. In my opinion the latter is neither rationalism nor is it emunah peshuta.

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