Monday, April 20, 2009

Critique of Rabbi Jeremy Wieder's "When the Torah Doesn't Mean What it Says"

It is by no means a secret that allegorical interpretation plays a central role in traditional Jewish belief. Nor is it some obscure fact that allegorical interpretation was used as a way to confront conflicts between Judaism and science/philosophy by major Jewish authorities such as the Rambam. It is therefore natural that the use of allegorical interpretation will be explored as an option for approaching the difficulties presented by modern science such as evolution and the age of the Universe. It is precisely this that Rabbi Jeremy Wieder shlita does in his lecture “When the Torah Doesn’t Mean What it Says: Non-Literal Interpretation of Scripture and the Controversy over the Works of Nosson Slifkin.”[1]

Rabbi Wieder begins by making several very important distinctions. He notes that discussion of non-literal interpretation pertains specifically to supplanting the simple meaning of the text, not supplementing it. He also notes that idiomatic language is a separate issue which falls under the category of the simple meaning of the text. He explains that pshat, the simple meaning of the text, is best understood as the meaning which would be apparent to its initial audience. While each of these points is significant, the relevance in several of the sources discussed was not explored.

Prior to delving into sources which deal directly with the question of when and if it is permissible to allegorically interpret scripture, to the exclusion of its simple meaning, Rabbi Wieder discusses whether there are any Talmudic sources which would be relevant. In anticipation of those who might suggest the statement of Chazal that “אֵין מִקְרָא יוֹצֵא מִידֵי פְּשׁוּטוֹ” (Yevamos 24a and elsewhere) would provide such a source, Rabbi Wieder argues that while the later authorities had a “literalist preference” they did not frame it as based on this concept. This argument is reminiscent of Rabbi Wieder’s warning later that, “I don’t want to be sort of glib in using this line but I like to quote this because it’s 95% true, which is: ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’” As we will see, despite caveats about when allegorical interpretation is permissible, the literal approach is not simply a preference but an imperative. While sources are not cited, the otherwise obligatory nature of literal interpretation is taken as an established principle, and “אֵין מִקְרָא יוֹצֵא מִידֵי פְּשׁוּטוֹ” provides the most obvious and direct statement of such a concept.[Subsequently I have found secondary sources which cite a Gaon who identified this Chazal as the source for Saadia Gaon's position, as well as other relevant information...]

The first source explored, rightly so I believe, was the opinion of Saadia Gaon found in Emunos v’Deos 7:2. But although this passage cited is directly relevant, I believe the presentation of the Gaon’s position was incomplete and understated. The Gaon was very much an opponent of allegorizing scripture. While Rabbi Wieder almost takes it for granted that halachic passages not be taken allegorically, the Gaon sees this as a very real potential risk once allegorical interpretation is allowed to replace the simple meaning, and its application to narratives is an additional concern, “if this kind of interpretation is necessary for the legal section of Scripture, it must likewise apply to the narrative portion.” (E.D. 7:4).[2] Although Rabbi Wieder’s presentation of the Gaon’s position as representing when one must interpret allegorically is technically correct, in truth it was brought as exceptions to the general rule that “it is a well known fact that every statement found in the Bible is to be understood in its literal sense.” (E.D. 7:2, page 265).

Of the four exceptions to what amounts to a prohibition against allegorical interpretation removing the simple meaning, Rav Wieder correctly points out that the latter two involve resolving internal conflicts in Scripture and are not entirely relevant to our discussion. The other two are instances where Scripture cannot be understood according to its simple meaning since to do so conflicts with the observation of our senses or reason. It is noteworthy that Saadia Gaon’s language (as well as some of the examples he discusses in light of the philosophical debates surrounding them) implies a mere difficulty is insufficient but the observation or logic must be mutually exclusive with the simple meaning. Even if one does not wish to take his words so strictly it would seem that the Gaon would not be comfortable with an allegorical approach except as a last resort.

It is interesting to note that either example given for when one may/must interpret allegorically because of conflict with observation or reason can be understood as included in those categories which Rabbi Wieder correctly excluded from the parameters of the discussion in his introduction. The equivocal language of Genesis 3:20 where Eve is called the “Mother of all Living” was certainly not understood by its original audience as indicating all living species descended from Eve, and this is made clear by the context. Likewise the description of God as a “devouring fire” found in Deuteronomy 4:24 is a more or less clear example of figurative speech and would have been understood as such by its original audience.

While the position of Saadia Gaon might be called understated, in a way the position of the Rambam is overstated. Rabbi Wieder notes that the Rambam distinguished between two competing theories, both of which claimed that the Universe had always existed. Arguing that if necessary he could interpret the passages which imply the Universe had been created allegorically, the Rambam said he did not feel compelled to do so since the theory of Plato was not convincing. With respect to the theory of Aristotle; however, the Rambam conceded that allegorical interpretation would not be fruitful since accepting it would be to affirm the impossibility of miracles which would entirely undermine Judaism. It is here that Rabbi Wieder seems to overstate the Rambam’s position, asserting that the Rambam would reject the heretical but otherwise compelling view of Aristotle in favor of the simple meaning of the text. This does not, however, appear to be the Rambam’s position. The Rambam wrote, “If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions.” (Moreh Nevuchim 2:25).[3] To the Rambam, Aristotle’s theory regarding the eternity of the Universe and Judaism were mutually exclusive and to prove the former meant that the latter was falsified. While this may seem bold, the Rambam is clearly speaking hypothetically in a manner similar to that found in the first chapter of Yesodei HaTorah. Rambam certainly felt there the evidence did not support Aristotle’s view but he didn’t hesitate to make it clear that had it been correct allegorical interpretation would not have helped, the positions were mutually exclusive. Indeed if we were to assume that he meant to simply turn a blind eye had the evidence been convincing it is curious why he would refuse to minimize the conflict by an otherwise possible allegorical interpretation. If the universe had been demonstrated to be eternal, then allegorical interpretation would be every bit as useful with respect to the primary issue as it would be with Plato’s theory, even if in the end the secondary issues were irreconcilable.

Either way, we see that the Rambam concedes that regarding fundamental principles allegorical interpretation is ineffective at resolving such conflicts. Rabbi Wieder suggest that Saadia Gaon would have essentially agreed, “So the Rambam in effect accepts Saadia’s position, although he adds the modification, I’m not sure that Saadia Gaon would have disagreed, that if there is a conflict with some fundamental principle of Torah, then you cannot reinterpret Scripture.” In truth we do not need to speculate about Saadia Gaon’s position because although it is true that he does not address the issue when listing the exceptions to the prohibition against allegorical interpretation, he makes it clear that through inappropriate allegorical interpretation one can exclude “oneself from the entire Jewish religion.” (E.D. page 426).[4]

It does not seem to me accurate, however, to equate the Rambam’s position with Saadia Gaon’s, even with the recognition that the Rambam would also concede that allegorical interpretation has limits to its effectiveness. Saadia Gaon’s threshold for allegorical interpretation seems higher. The Rambam’s standard seems to be one of “compelling” evidence while the position of Saadia Gaon is that allegorical interpretation is only acceptable when the passage “cannot be so construed” (E.D. page 265). While the general tone of Saadia Gaon’s position (which we will explore more below) would suggest that he means this strictly, that only demonstrative proof contrary to the simple meaning is sufficient, even if one understands his position more liberally it appears to be a higher threshold than that found in the Moreh Nevuchim.

Conversely, the Rambam’s approach to allegorical interpretation when his lower threshold has not been met is also somewhat understated. Rabbi Wieder says:

[A]nd in the absence of compelling logic, in the Hebrew terms as it was translated hisboer b’mofeis [התבאר במופת, M.N. II:25], in the absence of compelling logic one opts to interpret haMikra k’peshuto, like Saadia Gaon in effect said, what we call the ‘literalist preference’ ….but because Plato didn’t prove his view, the Rambam says he doesn’t really feel any need to reinterpret scripture.

The Rambam’s position is really stronger than not feeling “any need” or a “literalist preferences. When one is not compelled to do so, one is not allowed to interpret allegorically to the exclusion of the simple meaning, “a mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text.” (M.N. II:25).[5] In the absence of being compelled otherwise, “we take the Bible literally” (ibid).

Regarding the Rashba, Rabbi Wieder presents his opinion as similar, albeit more conservative to those of Saadia Gaon and the Rambam. In truth the source[6] discussed by Rabbi Wieder would imply that in instances where allegorical interpretation is conceivable according to the Rashba then his threshold for permitting one to do so may be even lower that that of the Rambam. While Saadia Gaon reserves allegorical interpretation for when observation or reason prevents one from accepting the simple meaning, and the Rambam rejects allegorical interpretation when there is an equally plausible explanation which preserves the simple meaning, the Rashba seems to allow allegorical interpretation to uproot the simple meaning of the text whenever one is confronted with a conflict with “science”, as Rabbi Wieder quotes, “If any one of our Chachmei HaTorah finds something in philosophy which he believes to be correct and then when he reaches pesukim that seem to teach the opposite he explains them in such a way that fits with the philosophical investigation and he interprets Scripture non-literally.”[7]

Nevertheless it is not difficult to understand Rabbi Wieder’s portrayal of the Rashba as more conservative. In addition to the relative liberalness which we have suggested being obscured by a de-emphasis of Saadia Gaon and Rambam’s reservations about allegorical interpretation, the Rashba’s general position is overshadowed by a more expansive category of cases which cannot be allegorically interpreted. The Rashba contends that when a scientific position conflicts with a tradition (kabalah) we follow the tradition and do not interpret the passage allegorically.[8] While Rabbi Wieder seems to equate the notion of a “tradition” with the “Yesodei Emunah”, corresponding to his description of Saadia Gaon and the Rambam, in the question and answer period after the lecture he concedes that the Rashba’s position was much broader. Indeed the Rashba’s opinion that any position in tradition which was accepted generally by the Jewish people should be accepted even in the face of conflicting scientific opinion.

While it is perhaps fair to assume, without evidence otherwise, that the position of the Ramban was similar to that of his disciple the Rashba, the example cited does not seem entirely relevant. In his commentary to parshas Noach the Ramban argues that we are forced to accept the position of the Greeks that a rainbow is caused by light passing through the rain since we can observe the same phenomenon by holding a glass of water to the light. It is significant, and alluded to by Rabbi Wieder, that the Ramban does not use this information to offer an allegorical interpretation but makes a grammatical argument that the simple meaning of the text was that the rainbow had been made previously but was given a symbolic meaning after the flood. There is little, if any, that we can really infer from this about the Ramban’s willingness to interpret allegorically.

Likewise, Rabbi Wieder’s mention of the Tosefos’ acceptance of the opinion that the sun went above the sky at night (despite the Gemara’s apparent rejection of that opinion in favor of the view of the non-Jewish scholars) served no real purpose that to undermine the distinction he tried to make several times that religion deals with theological/ethical questions while science deals with the physical. It is difficult to understand why a modern philosophical approach to the division of labor between religion and science can in and of itself serve as reconciliation between the two when one encroaches into the territory designated to the other. And while passages which deal with the opinion of the Chachmei Ashkenaz on this topic may be allusive, it might have been instructive investigate their general approach to studying Greek philosophy. For better or worse it essentially represented “mainstream” scientific opinion, and analyzing their approach would indirectly illuminate their view on our topic to a degree. In other words, while the Rambam may have rejected the opinion of Aristotle or Plato when he did not find their proofs convincing, it may be relevant to consider those authorities who rejected their opinions/approach despite their proofs.

I do not think it would be entirely unfair to accuse my remarks this far as being somewhat “nit-picking”. I would still maintain that they are justified since while the distinctions I draw between Rabbi Wieder’s presentation and what I feel are the actual views of the Rishonim he cites may seem small, in application there is a great divergence between what Rabbi Wieder views as acceptable allegorical interpretation and what these authorities find acceptable. Rabbi Weider argues, "I think it becomes pretty clear that unless either of these theories, or either of these issues, would conflict with one of the ikkarei haemunah there is simply no problem by definition, because anything that doesn't come into conflict, any passage which doesn't touch upon ikkarei emunah, can simply be reinterpreted in a fashion of mashal." Rather than a difficult, if necessary, solution to a philosophical dilemma, allegorical interpretation becomes a magic wand which erases any conflict between Torah narrative and contemporary scientific/historical understanding. A step taken by the Rishonim with an abudance of caution is presented as an easy alternative.

Rabbi Wieder rules out the possibility of allegorically interpreting Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah, correctly noting that it is among the most fundamental of the fundamentals. Regarding allegorically interpreting Yitziyas Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, he expresses some reservations about saying it is forbidden categorically but argues that it is “safek heresy” since whatever would cause one to interpret Yitziyas Mitzrayim allegorically would logically compel one to do so with Matan Torah. This is what I would call “avak kefirah,” the dust of heresy. An idea may not in and of itself infringe upon a fundamental principle but if one follows such logic to its conclusion it would infringe upon a fundamental principle.

Rabbi Wiider continues to suggest hypothetically that it would be permissible interpret the existence of the Avos allegorically. Here, I believe we can say with certainty that based on what we have seen the Rashba would view this as contrary to our mesorah and reject allegorical interpretation. Furthermore, in a letter included in Minchas Kenaos,[9] of which the Rashba is a signatory, he specifically objects to an opinion which viewed the Patriarchs as allegorical symbols. Nor do I think that it is entirely clear that Saadia Gaon would not include such an approach in the category of one who “excludes oneself from the entire Jewish religion.” Saadia Gaon was very cognizant that allegorical interpretation could unravel the fabric of the Jewish faith and it would be very difficult to reconcile his criticism of allegorical interpretation with applying such an approach to the Patriarchs. The Ramban in is commentary on the Torah criticizes the Rambam (which is cited with approval by the Ribash[10]) for saying that certain encounters with angels which the Patriarch’s experienced had really occurred in dreams. If the Ramban objected to what amounts to a slight modification of how a handful of events in the lives of the Patriarchs transpired then it is hard to imagine that he would find interpreting allegorically their entire lives palatable. Of all the authorities mentioned it would seem most likely that the Rambam would countenance such an approach, but I think we will see it is not at all clear that he would.

Based on his presentation of the opinion of the Rishonim, and the strength of the scientific evidence, Rabbi Wieder takes it as obvious that an allegorical interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis is both permissible and necessary, and then proceeds to discuss whether one may theoretically interpret the accounts between Creation and the Patriarchs allegorically. While it is not immediately clear why we should find it more difficult to interpret these generations allegorically than those of the Patriarchs, his glossing over propriety of interpreting the Creation account allegorically strikes me as premature.

Again the Rambam is clearly the best source to justify interpreting the Creation account allegorically since he does precisely this in the Moreh Nevuchim. It is still far from clear that that the Rambam can be cited as an authority that would support allegorizing. He writes, “First, the account given in Scripture of the Creation is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal.” (ibid, page 211). While it is quite correct to note that he accepts allegorizing the Creation account (perhaps entirely for all practical purposes) it must be recognized that he does not do so to the whole account indiscriminately. Furthermore in suggesting the relevance of those very chapters between the Creation and the Patriarch’s, the Rambam writes, “It is one of the fundamental principles of the Law that the Universe has been created ex nihilo, and that of the human race, one individual being, Adam, was created.” (M.N. III:50, page 381). While it may not constitute one of the “13 Fundamental Principles of Faith” it is nevertheless a “fundamental principle of the Torah” that mankind descended from Adam similar to Creation ex nihilo.[11] About such principles the Rambam had already written,

I mention this lest you be deceived; for a person might some day, by some objection which he raises, shake your belief in the theory of the Creation, and then easily mislead you; you would then adopt the theory [of the Eternity of the Universe] which is contrary to the fundamental principles of our religion, and leads to ‘speaking words that turn away from God.’ You must rather have suspicion against your own reason, and accept the theory taught by two prophets who have laid the foundation for the existing order in the religious and social relations of mankind. Only demonstrative proof should be able to make you abandon the theory of the Creation; but such a proof does not exist in nature. (M.N. 2:23, page 195, italic mine).

Common decent from Adam would appear to be included in this latter category by the Rambam, which means that without deductive proof it is not appropriate to interpret this account (Adam HaRishon as the founder of the human race) allegorically. The science which would conflict with this notion is inductive by nature, so it would seem that “such a proof does not exist in nature” in this case as well. That is not to suggest, by any means, that the inductive evidence is lacking in any way, it means that we have to exercise epistemological modesty, “have suspicion against your own reason” and recognize that induction of even the highest caliber does not trump Divine testimony.

The Rambam’s position might nevertheless allow one to interpret those aspects of the Creation prior to Adam allegorically, although it is not at all clear to me how one could reach a reconciliation with the details of evolution without utilizing other approaches which themselves would provide a less problematic way of addressing the conflict at large, doing so does not seem to be an option according to Saadia Gaon: “The result of the application of such a method of interpretation would be that there would not be an item left of the entire story of the creation [of the world] that would not be divested of its literal meaning, which is the creation and origination of things.” (E.D. page 425). It is significant to note that despite things which are difficult to relate to, such as evening and morning prior to the existence of the sun, Saadia Gaon felt that the primary message being conveyed is the actual origin of the Universe, and he found interpreting it entirely allegorically is an absurd option, the bottom of the “slippery slope”. Indeed it is with regard to taking such an approach to its logical conclusion with respect to the creation of the world and the commandments that he wrote, “if one adopts such an attitude, one automatically excludes oneself from the entire Jewish religion” (E.D. page 426).

We have already discussed that the Rashba’s position about when we are not allowed to allegorically interpret a passage is a broad one and it would seem from the question and answer session that the Rashba actually rejects allegorical interpretation which would reject the traditional understanding of when the world was created. There is another Rishon who took somewhat of an opposing position to the Rashba in the controversy which led him to elaborate on this topic, the Meiri. 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.[12] And it is interesting to note that while Rabbi Wieder says he doesn’t like the term allegory because of its Christian connotation, both the Meiri and the Rashba draw unfavorable parallels between Jewish allegorists and Christian interpretation[13], and irony only highlighted by the fact that he refuses to use his preferred translation (“Myth”) because of even worse connotation.

Also lacking was a discussion of the logic behind such an approach. Rabbi Wieder said, “if there were no geological evidence otherwise… I then probably would read the story of B’reishis as historical.” Why is it that when presented with conflicting evidence one should interpret allegorically rather than reject the account? Why is this more “intellectually honest” than to let the question stand or otherwise ignore the contradictory evidence. While it is true that a pliable approach which allows for liberal allegorical interpretation makes a belief system less vulnerable to contradiction, less falsifiable, this does not make it more reasonable. Each account which is allegorized, simply because it seems false otherwise, tests one’s credulity. I do believe that the case can be made to justify allegorical interpretation as a mean for reconciling conflicts with science. But to do so we must consider Torah as a rationally defensible truth which must be taken into account when weighing the various issues. It seems to me, however, that those who are most inclined towards the “rationalist” position today are the least likely to appreciate attempts to use reason to establish the Divine Revelation of the Torah.

Rabbi Wieder’s presentation is a polemic one. In light of the controversy which precipitated it, it is understandable that those who share his approach would seek to encourage themselves by focusing on the strengths of their position, real or perceived. But more than a somewhat one-sided pep-talk, Rabbi Wieder systematically dismissed the more conservative position as essentially baseless while glossing over significant sources from the same authorities which would suggest much more hesitancy about allegorical interpretation. There may certainly be room to debate how far each authority would go and under what circumstances, but there is no doubt that they found allegorical interpretation which replaced the simple meaning of the text to be an exception and exceptional. Insofar as there are other approaches to reconciling science with Torah which can be utilized, alone or in combination, it does not seem at all clear that allegorical interpretation is an appropriate route. And while I can understand that others will disagree and find the allegorical approach “better” it should not be debatable that allegorical interpretation is something that should be undertaken with an abundance of caution and the greatest possible effort to maintain the simple meaning of the text.

[2]Saadia Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, translated by Samuel Rosenblatt, page 272-3, Yale Press. All translations and page numbers refer to this edition.
[3] Rabbi Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, page 200, translated M. Friedlander, Dover Publications, Inc. All translations and page numbers refer to this edition.
[4] From 7:5 of the variant used in the Ibn Tibbon Hebrew translation of Emunos v’Deos Treatise 7.
[5] Guide, page 199.
[6] While Rabbi Wieder’s source would seem to be Sheilos u’Teshuvos HaRashba vol. 1:9 it is included almost verbatim in the Chidushei HaRashba, Perushei HaHagados on Bava Basra 74:b
[7] See Chidushei HaRashba, Perushei HaHagados, Mosad HaRav Kook edition page 102.
[8] Ibid page 104.
[9] See Interpretation and Allegory: Antiquity to the Modern Period, Patricia Lee Gauch and Jon Whitman, page 197. Brill, 2003.
See Menachem Kellner’s translation, Rabbi Isaac Bar Sheshet’s Responsum Concerning the Study of Greek Philosophy, Tradition Vol. 15 (Fall 1975), pages 110-118.
[11] Relevant to the permissibility of interpreting the Exodus from Egypt allegorically, the Rambam classifies this as a “fundamental principle” as well (page 346).
[12] Beis HaBechira 3:11, cited in Interpretation and Allegory, page 205.
[13] See Interpretation and Allegory, page 198.

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