Rambam famously asserts that the eschatological description of the wolf dwelling with the lamb and the leopard and the kid lying down together is metaphoric rather than literal:
אל יעלה על הלב שבימות המשיח יבטל דבר ממנהגו של עולם. או יהיה שם חידוש במעשה בראשית. אלא עולם כמנהגו נוהג. וזה שנאמר בישעיה וגר זאב עם כבש ונמר עם גדי ירבץ משל וחידה. ענין הדבר שיהיו ישראל יושבין לבטח עם רשעי עכו”ם המשולים כזאב ונמר. שנאמר זאב ערבות ישדדם ונמר שוקד על עריהם. ויחזרו כולם לדת האמת. ולא יגזלו ולא ישחיתו. אלא יאכלו דבר המותר בנחת עם ישראל. שנאמר ואריה כבקר יאכל תבן. וכן כל כיוצא באלו הדברים בענין המשיח הם משלים. ובימות המלך המשיח יודע לכל לאי זה דבר היה משל. ומה ענין רמזו בהן:
אמרו חכמים אין בין העולם הזה לימות המשיח אלא שיעבוד מלכיות בלבד. …1
Raavad tersely objects:
והלא כתוב בתורה והשבתי חיה רעה מן הארץ
As Radvaz retorts, Raavad’s objection is puzzling: Rambam’s whole point here is that various Biblical verses that prophecy eventual peace between creatures that are currently mortal enemies are not to be understood literally, so what has Raavad added to the discussion by supplying yet another verse to this effect?
ואין זו השגה, כמו ששאר הכתובים משל גם זה משל על אומה רעה כמו שדרשו על חיה רעה אכלתהו.2
The מרכבת המשנה explains that Raavad’s point is that although prophecies in general are conveyed via metaphor, Pentateuchal prophecy must always be understood literally:
עיין השגות נראה כוונתו דדברי תורה אין לפרש דרך משל (כמו נביאים) ואין מקרא שבתורה יוצא מידי פשוטו3
This is presumably based upon the famous set of dichotomies established by Rambam between the prophecy of Moshe and that of other prophets:
ומה הפרש יש בין נבואת משה לשאר כל הנביאים שכל הנביאים בחלום או במראה ומשה רבינו מתנבא והוא ער ועומד שנאמר ובבוא משה אל אהל מועד לדבר אתו וישמע הקול מדבר אליו. כל הנביאים על ידי מלאך. לפיכך רואים מה שהם רואים במשל וחידה. משה רבינו לא על ידי מלאך שנאמר פה אל פה אדבר בו. ונאמר ודבר ה’ אל משה פנים אל פנים. ונאמר ותמונת ה’ יביט כלומר שאין שם משל אלא רואה הדבר על בוריו בלא חידה ובלא משל. הוא שהתורה מעידה עליו במראה ולא בחידות שאינו מתנבא בחידה אלא במראה שרואה הדבר על בוריו.4
The above discussion has been about prophetic verses, regarding future events. What about narrative passages, describing historical ones? We have previously discussed, at some length, the various positions of Rambam, his interpreters, and Ralbag as to whether Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel and Seth were actual people. It is also important to note that “the fourth and final climax” of the “Maimonidean controversy”, at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth centuries, was largely about alleged hyper-allegorization of Biblical characters and objects by Provencal Maimonidean rationalists. As Encyclopedia Judaica puts it:
When the controversy flared up again for the fourth and final time at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century, the immediate catalyst was the extreme allegorical exegesis of certain rationalists. In the century since Maimonides’ death, philosophy and science had become deeply entrenched in Jewish culture. Therefore, whereas in the 1230s the traditionalists sought a total ban on the study of philosophy, in the fourth and final climax of the controversy the traditionalists also accepted the validity of philosophy and science. They did not seek to ban totally the study of philosophy, but only to limit it, especially among the youth who lacked the intellectual and spiritual maturity to deal with its challenges to tradition. What they rejected was the philosopher’s extreme allegorization of Scripture and alleged denial of creation and miracles, which they saw as basic to the affirmation of the Torah. …
Abba Mari Astruc ha-Yarḥi of Lunel turned to Rashba (Rabbi Solomon b. Abraham *Adret ) in Barcelona for guidance on the rationalists’ allegorical interpretations, which he saw as heretical. … Astruc charged the philosophers with treating historical figures and events in the Bible purely symbolically, at the expense of their historicity; with regarding Plato and Aristotle, rather than the Torah, as the criteria of truth; with rejecting miracles and divine revelation; and with being personally lax in observance of Jewish law.
Although these charges, especially those of interpreting biblical figures purely symbolically and laxity in observance, were consistently denied by the rationalists, such as Menahem b. Solomon Meiri and Jedaiah b. Abraham Bedershi ha-Penini, they were on some level accurate. For example, Jacob b. Abba Mari Anatoli (1194–1296), the son-in-law of Samuel ibn Tibbon, in his book Malmad ha-Talmidim, had interpreted the patriarchs and matriarchs allegorically, rather than historically. Abraham and Sarah symbolized form and matter; Lot and his wife symbolized the intellect and the body; Isaac symbolized the active soul, and his wife Rebecca the intelligent soul; Leah symbolized the perceptive soul, and her sons the five senses; Leah’s daughter Dinah represented sensations induced by imagination; Joseph symbolized practical reason, while Benjamin symbolized theoretical reason. He also interpreted the seven-branched menorah (candelabrum) as representing the seven planets, the twelve tribes as symbolizing the constellations, and the Urim and Thummim of the high priest as representing the astrolabe.5
The traditionalists feared that such views could only lead to laxity in observance. If the Torah is true only on a symbolic level, the commandments might also be interpreted purely symbolically, at the expense of their actual observance, which is based on the literal text. Nevertheless, their attacks on individual rationalists like Levi b. Abraham b. Ḥayyim of Vilefranche (who seems to have been the immediate catalyst of the outburst), were unwarranted, since these rationalists, as they themselves insisted in their own defense, did not in fact go beyond Maimonides’ views or give up strict observance of the law, despite their radical allegorization. …
After much hesitation, and spurred on by the influence of Asher b. Jehiel, Rashba and the Barcelona community issued a ḥerem on July 26, 1305, against “any member of the community who, being under the age of 25 years, shall study the works of the Greeks on natural science or metaphysics, whether in the original language or in translation.” Works by Jewish philosophers were excepted, as was the study of medicine. … A ban was also pronounced against all who “say about Abraham and Sarah that in reality they symbolize matter and form; that the 12 tribes of Israel are [an allegory] for the 12 planets … [and] that the Urim and Thummim are to be understood as the astrolabe instrument.… Some of them say that everything in the Torah, from Bereshit to the giving of the law, is entirely allegorical”.
Crucially, no party to this controversy defended the hyper-allegorization in question. The Encyclopedia continues by noting that “The condemnation of extreme allegory did not arouse opposition”, but the truth goes far beyond that: in Rav Yedaiah Ha’Bedarsi’s brilliant, eloquent and classic “Letter of Apology” to Rashba, the response to the allegations of hyper allegorization is utter dismay and outrage at the accusations, imprecations against the calumniators, and even gentle and subtle but pointed criticism of Rashba himself for having rushed to judgment without having heard his faction’s version of events:
עוד נזכר בכתב אדוננו [הרשב”א] שלישית:
ולמרות עיני כבוד כל ישראל פורצים לעיני הכל כל גדרי התורה.
ואף באבותינו הקדושים שלחו לשונם מה שלא עשו עובדי עבודה זרה.
כי אמרו שאברהם ושרה חומר וצורה
ושני עשר שבטי ישראל הם שנים עשר מזלות
ויחזירו הכל לתהו ובהו.
אוי לאוזניים שכך שומעות, ואוי לנפש העלובים שכך יאמרו להם באוזניה. על בני שיכוליה שכולם מתאימים מסכימים לבלתי השאיר לתורת אלוהינו שרש וענף, ישורשו מארץ חיים. מי שזו אמונתם ובעד מגידי התלונות מהולכי אורח, ה’ הטוב יכפר, וכסא אדוננו ותורתו נקי עד עולם.
הנה אשר סופר לאדוננו, מעשות צורה והמשל באבות הטהורים, ואמרו באברהם ושרה שהם חומר וצורה. העבודה לא כך היה. והנני מעיד על אמיתת העניין אחר החקירה מפי האומר בעצמו, ומפי רבים מן השומעים שהיו במעמד. …
סוף דבר התקצף האלוקים על קולו והרצו קצת השומעים את הדברים מבלתי הבנת הכוונה ותצא הרעה הזאת על כל יושבי הארץ הנקיים. ולנו אפוא מה תעשה אבי השמיעוך הדברים ולא כהויתן. ואם תרבה להכלים ולהוכיח הדין עמך בזה בשלמות מעלתך שאין לו לדיין אלא מה שעיניו רואות. והאמנם כי צדיק הראשון בריבו ומחובת השופט שלא יקבל טענות בעל דין אחד עד שישמע טענות בעל דין חברו. וגם בהבלי עסקי בני אדם פן יוציא ממון מתחת ידם שלא כדין. ואם בדיני ממונות כך בדיני נפשות לא כל שכן.
אמנם מאמר היות שנים עשר בני יעקב אבינו ע”ה הם שנים עשר מזלות – זה לא שמענוהו מעולם ולא הוגד לנו בו דבר. אבל שמענו פעמים רבות מקצת הדרשנים ההפך …
חלילה חלילה שימצא אפילו בילידי ביתם של קדושי הארץ ומקנת כספם ושפחותיהם מי שפקפק על היות האבות יסוד התורה כולה. שהכל תלוי עליו, ובברית החזק שכרת להם השם נצלנו כמה פעמים, ונושענו מבלתי היותנו ראויים אליו מצד עצמנו בעת ההיא …
Today, on the left flank of Orthodoxy, we often find suggestions that even major narrative sections of the Torah may not be literally true. R. Herzl Hefter provocatively proposes this with regard to no less seminal an episode than the giving of the Torah:
The general tone of modern society is pluralistic. Truth (with an upper case T) has been replaced by subjective “narratives.” Consequently asserting allegiance to a particular tradition and maintaining a distinct identity is very difficult. In this challenging environment we naturally seek an anchor in certainty which can justify our commitment and construct our particular identity. For many years that anchor has been our belief that the Torah in its present form was communicated by God directly to Moshe. If that belief is undermined, how can we maintain our religious commitment to Torah and mitzvot and our particular identity as Jews?
Our religious beliefs, convictions, commitments and adherence to practice cannot be held hostage by rigid dogma which asserts historical truths yet demands immunity from inquiry. By accessing our own Kabbalistic and Hassidic traditions which are rooted in Chazal, we can free ourselves from the necessity of asserting historical truths while maintaining and actually fortifying our belief in God and the Torah. Our tradition affords us the instruments with which to encounter biblical criticism without bias and apologetics and come away more committed as Jews. The encounter with modern biblical scholarship actually affords us an opportunity to clarify and refine two crucial and inter-related faith issues: 1) The nature of the Torah and 2) the nature of Divine revelation.
The Nature of the Torah
It is safe to say that the basic assumption of “Torat HaSod” is that the Torah needs to be read symbolically. That means that the elements in the stories of the Torah and the stories themselves point to a Divine reality and that their value does not rest in their literal truth. Thus, for example the Zohar (Bereishit 7b) divides the word “Bereishit” to read “Bet” (=two) “Reishit,” namely two beginnings, one revealed and one hidden. On one level the biblical narrative in sefer Bereishit tells of the creation of the cosmos by God. Yet, according to the Zohar, this narrative is an outer manifestation of a deeper story, the story of how God is revealed to us. The “pshat” narrative is a garment (levush) which paradoxically both obscures and facilitates the revelation of this spiritual reality. The significance of the biblical narrative according to this tradition rests not in its historical accuracy but in the underlying spiritual content.
Rav Kook shared this assumption when, back in 1908, he responded to the “biblical criticism question” of his day, namely how to relate to the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. His response is so important and relevant that I wish to quote part of it here. (Igrot HaRaayah no. 134. The translation is my own).
Concerning opinions which are derived from recent scientific investigations which on the whole contradict the straight forward meaning (pshat) of the words of the Torah:
“In my opinion … even though these theories are not necessarily true, we are not at all obligated to deny them and stand against them. This is because it is not at all (stress mine-HH) the point of the Torah to inform us of simple facts and occurrences of the past. The main point (‘ikar) is the inner content (tokh). … For us it is of no consequence whether in fact there ever existed in this world a golden age (i.e. the Garden of Eden – HH) in which mankind lived in spiritual and physical bliss or [not]… and thus when we have no vested interest we can judge [these new theories ] fairly.”
The intellectual integrity displayed by Rav Kook in this last sentence should not be lost upon us and should serve as a model for emulation for those engaged in this discussion.
The purpose of the Torah, according to the “sod” tradition is not to convey historical truths but rather to gesture toward a deeper and more profound spiritual reality. It is possible, then, to accept that the Torah in its current form is the product of historical circumstance and a prolonged editorial process while simultaneously stubbornly asserting the religious belief that it none the less enshrouds Divine revelation.
This sort of approach ignores the major traditional literature directly on point as to the limits on allegorization, relying instead on vague allusions to “our own Kabbalistic and Hassidic traditions which are rooted in Chazal” and Torat HaSod”. Indeed, “e. pruzhaner” notes that Rav Kook himself utterly repudiated the notion that “the narrative portions of the Torah are just myths which never actually took place”:
“Rav Kook shared this assumption when, back in 1908, he responded to the “biblical criticism question” of his day, namely how to relate to the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin.”
Actually, the “biblical criticism question” of R. Kook’s day was biblical criticism. Ignoring R. Kook’s actual position while pretending to present his view is the opposite of intellectual integrity. On the issue of biblical criticism, R. Kook’s opposition is well known. See Iggerot ha-Ra’ayah, no. 44, http://vbm-torah.org/archive/igrot/12igrot.htm:
“For this reason, [some say that] perhaps the narrative portions of the Torah are just myths which never actually took place. But this very doubt can only have been borrowed from the gentiles, for one who feels himself growing and born in [a particular] house knows well the business of that house, and could not possibly think that the living and enduring history of his nation, which is so integrated, ordered, and distinguished, is a fabrication. But we shall walk also with these captives, who have distanced themselves from their father’s table, but without anger, and we shall say to them: Brothers, [even] if it is as you say – matters of legend which have such great capacity to bring about good and blessedness, everlasting hope, and morals, are so precious and noble, so much so that they are in effect words of the living God, and it befits them that anything fixed in their memory should be guarded with honor and great love. This is insufficient to fully revive them, but it will be enough to open a door, to remove the scorn and hate, the rejection and revulsion to anything pertaining to Judaism, even in the hearts of those children who are far away.
My weekly lectures for parashas Be’Haalosecha, on these themes, are available at the Internet Archive.
- מלכים יב:א-ב [↩]
- רדב”ז מלכים שם [↩]
- מרכבת המשנה מלכים שם [↩]
- יסודי התורה ז:ו [↩]
- I am not expert in the מלמד, but I suspect that the claim that it does not consider the patriarchs and matriarchs historic is a serious distortion. R. Yedaiah Ha’Bedarsi and his faction venerated the מלמד, and he could not possibly have repudiated the hyper-allegorization in question with the vehemence that he does, and even utterly denied its existence among his faction, if this was indeed the view of the מלמד. On the contrary, the מלמד does seem to accept that the patriarchs and matriarchs were actual historic figures, even if it interprets certain aspects of the relevant biblical narrative allegorically. This basic point is made by R. Yedaiah himself (in a portion of his discussion on hyper-allegorization not excerpted in the main text above), that the Prophets and Hazal sometimes utilized the male and female, and even the specific figures of Avraham and Sarah, as stand-ins for Matter and Form: “ואמנם היות דרך הנביאים לפעמים לתאר הצורה לזכר, והחומר לנקבה, ולכת החכמים ז”ל בזה בעקבותיהם, זה בארו לנו הרב הגדול ז”ל.” Further analysis of the view of the מלמד itself is called for, however. [↩]
2 thoughts on “Mareh, Metaphor and Meaning”
“The traditionalists feared that such views could only lead to laxity in observance. If the Torah is true only on a symbolic level, the commandments might also be interpreted purely symbolically, at the expense of their actual observance, which is based on the literal text. Nevertheless, their attacks on individual rationalists like Levi b. Abraham b. Ḥayyim of Vilefranche (who seems to have been the immediate catalyst of the outburst), were unwarranted, since these rationalists, as they themselves insisted in their own defense, did not in fact go beyond Maimonides’ views or give up strict observance of the law, despite their radical allegorization.”
The above paragraph is repeated in the text