Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Meiri, Chidush HaOlam, and Allegorizing B'reshis

Previously I mentioned the position of the Meiri with respect to the issue of allegorizing B'reishis:

The Meiri has three classifications of Scripture with respect to allegorical interpretation, those which must be interpreted only allegorically, those which can have an additional allegorical meaning, and those which may not be interpreted allegorically at all. The Meiri includes the creation of the world in the latter category which is forbidden to interpret allegorically.(Beis HaBechira 3:11, cited in Interpretation and Allegory, page 205)

The Challenge of Creation notes that rather than the term we (or least I) might expect, ma'aseh b'reishis, the Meiri in his commentary to Avos (which I failed to specify in my citation) uses the term chidush haOlam and argues:
Meiri's mention of chiddush ha-olam should probably be understood as referring to the fact that the creation of the universe ex nihilo rather than to the specifics of how it was created. (page 115).
In difference to the tentative, reserved tone of this argument I will offer a tentative, reserved counter-argument, with my reader's knowing full well my ability to miss the obvious. From a philosophical perspective, I'm sure the practical concern with which the Meiri had in mind was Aristotle's (and/or Plato's) theory of the eternity of the universe. It seems to me, however, that this is not directly relevant for two reasons.

First of all, the primary text which is relevant to chidush haOlam is clearly the opening passage of B'reishis (Genesis). The Meiri isn't speaking about rejecting ideas, he's speaking about how to approach the text. It seems to me that it is simply not possible to proscribe non-literal interpretation ofchidush haOlam while interpreting the text non-literally. In other words, if his concern was simply that one retains the moral of the story (creation ex nihilo) then it would be sufficient to warn against rejecting the story's message without proscribing non-literal interpretation. Indeed this was the approach of the Rambam before him. Rather, in these instances he is concerned with the moral and the story (even if his concern for the later is on behalf of the former). The story in this case is the opening chapters of Genesis. I'll leave it up to the readers to decide whether I have made an excellent point in the most inelegant way imaginable or am using unintelligible writing to conceal a lack of a coherent argument.

Secondly I do not think the Meiri is simply taking a position because of apologetic concerns. While he may be concerned about the theory of the eternity of the universe, kadmanus I believe the term is in Ashkenaz transliteration, I don't think we can accuse him of taking the position that this cannot be understood non-literally because he disagrees with it. Rather, I think unless we have evidence otherwise I think we should presume that he does not think that these things can be taken non-literally therefore he rejects the theory of the eternity of the universe.

With all of that said, whether it is of primary or incidental concern, I think that based on the limited, but seemingly explicit, teachings of the Meiri I've seen he should be included among those who reject non-literal interpretations of the beginning of Genesis to the exclusion of it's peshat.

As a postscript, I would note that the above quote from Challenge of Creation is presented as derived from the fact that while creation can be understood as a miracle, there is evidence which suggest a different series of events transpired. While the flow of the passage makes it sound as if he is arguing that the scientific evidence should influence how we understand the Meiri, Rabbi SIifkin does not strike me as someone overly prone to ascribing modern concerns to medieval authorities. As such I think that this implication was not intended and that rather than trying to explain how to understand the Meiri he is expressing how he feels we should relate to his opinion. As such he is parenthetically alluding to difficulties he feels we are presented with which the Meiri was not that would cause us to take a different approach. As such I suspect that it is better not to make to much over this phrase but rather deal with the strengths of his arguments when he actually is making them in their fullest. Since has been known to, on occasion, visit here, perhaps he would like to clarify the flow of the aforementioned line of reasoning himself.

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