A Jewish soul does not live on literalisms alone. All of us need a healthy serving of allusions, parables and mysteries in our lives. That pretty much sums up our first installment of this series—the value of a mixed diet.

To explain the value of allusions, parables and riddles, we told a parable of the Zohar, a story of a beautiful woman who peeks out to her beloved through a small window. Those who love her, find her. Those who don’t, remain clueless. They don’t even notice she was there. So, too, those who love Torah will find the meaning they are meant to find.

For those of us somewhere in between—those who have some of the love to seek, but lack much of the wisdom to decipher the code—the Torah still has patience. We can work our way up through midrash and aggadah to eventually fathom Torah’s most hidden treasures. And we also have guidance from the wisest teachers, those who have recorded for us at least a small part of the code.

Does the Biblical Text Mean What It Says?

Let’s start with laying down some boundaries. When are we to take something literally, and when is it open to interpretation?

Maybe pork is really okay, because that’s a metaphor too. Where do we stop?

Once you realize the depth of meaning that lies within each verse, you might begin to read the entire Hebrew Bible as a set of metaphors. Perhaps Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Mount Sinai and G‑d too are all just metaphor. Maybe pork is really okay, because that’s a metaphor too. Where do we stop?

Historically, we’ve been there. Before Maimonides’ time and after, preachers flourished who expounded the entire written Torah exclusively as metaphor. Cain and Abel were representative of the struggle between matter and form. Moses and Pharaoh were really the good inclination versus the evil inclination. All the mitzvahs were interpreted similarly. Tefillin became passé for many, because that too was a metaphor. Jewish men saw nothing wrong with taking a non-Jewish wife, because the prohibition against such was also a metaphor.1

That’s something like applying psychology to a problem in mathematics, or attempting a biopsy on quarks. You’re mixing up your departments.2

The Talmud provides us a simple principle: “A biblical text does not depart from its simple meaning.” The Talmud provides us a simple principle: “A biblical text does not depart from its simple meaning.”Learn your midrash; find the secret meaning—but leave the simple meaning intact. Adam, Eve, Abraham and Sarah are all real people; Moses really did split the Sea of Reeds; and we all heard the voice of G‑d at Mount Sinai. Pork is off limits. Because that’s what it says. The first department, with any text of the Hebrew Bible, is the simple meaning.

That the text literally means what it says should be eminently clear from both the context and content of the text. The context of most of the Hebrew Bible is unmistakable: Real-life narrative with a lesson.

© Leon Zernitzky
© Leon Zernitzky

That it’s about real life is blindingly apparent from its concern with questions that only a nudnik would ask about a parable or a legend: Just how many people were there? Exactly how many died in the plague, and how many were left after? What were their names and parents’ names? What was the name of the place where it happened? What were the sizes, shapes and weights of the things they made?

There are no anachronisms. As the granddaddy of Egyptian chronology, K. A. Kitchen, points out,3 Joseph is sold for 20 silver pieces. A review of ancient Near Eastern documents demonstrates that this was just the price for which slaves were sold in those days (see How Much Can I Get For My Brother?). By the times of Moses, slaves were already selling at an average of 30 silver pieces, and by the times of the kings of Israel the price had reached 50 silver pieces. The narrative here is clearly concerned with providing true-to-life details.

Moses’s mother was his father’s aunt—a marriage that became forbidden in his own time. Certainly, a legend-narrative would modify that information. But the Hebrew Bible is concerned with the details, however inconvenient they may be.

The Tabernacle is a structure that could have been built only in the particular era in which it was built. Every detail is provided and counted. It’s difficult to imagine why a myth-teller would iterate such detail. There’s nothing grandiose or particularly wondrous about the structure—far larger structures were built by the nations surrounding the Israelites. Again, the concern here is to tell the story right, as it happened.

And it’s a very linear story, which relies heavily on the sequence of events. The sale of Joseph, for example, can be understood only within the context of G‑d’s covenant to Abraham, in which he was foretold the descent of his children to a foreign land and their subsequent oppression there. The Exodus must be understood in the context of the stories of both Joseph and Abraham. And so it continues with every story until Ezra and Nehemiah, each building accumulatively upon the events that have unfolded thus far. It may not be a history as we understood such today—it is still principally concerned with the lessons and morals to be learned. But it certainly does not have the flavor of parable in any sense or form. It’s screaming loud and clear, “First get the story straight; then you can look deeper.”

In a much-acclaimed lecture and essay,4 Yosef Yerushalmi pointed out that the Hebrew Bible is the very first history of a people, as opposed to a collection of legends. It is the oldest story we have that was written in a linear, phonetic alphabet, as opposed to nonlinear, representational glyphs—and so, the first that represents a linear, sequence-oriented mind. It is literature in the truest sense of the word: concerned with everything that oratory and pictographs are permitted to ignore, sticking to details, and getting the facts straight.

For almost thirty years, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, performed frequent public surgery on Rashi’s commentary to the Five Books of Moses. He revealed a wealth of profound meaning, hidden secrets and practical lessons ripe for the picking if you would look between the lines. But all this only after first laying out as simply as possible what exactly Rashi meant to the five-year-old who just wants to know what the text is saying. And that usually took up most of the lecture—sometimes almost the whole thing.

Simple Rules for Simple Meaning

And yet, there’s a crucial caveat: Simple meaning is not synonymous with literal meaning.

If I tell you I’m going to take a bath, that doesn’t mean I’ll be ripping out the plumbing and carrying the tub somewhere.

This is true with all human language. If I tell you I’m going to take a bath, that doesn’t mean I’ll be ripping out the plumbing and carrying the tub somewhere. If I tell you, “We gave the other team a beating!” don’t expect to find them bruised and bloody in the emergency ward. A dictionary does not a language make. There are idioms of speech.

So too, “an eye for an eye” is not talking about eyeballs—that’s an idiom of speech that refers to equitable monetary compensation.5 G‑d is real, but His hand is not a hand like your hand.

How do we know? What are the factors that determine what is literal and what is figurative? The first, simplest and best answer to that question was provided by Rabbi Saadia Gaon of 10th-century Baghdad.

Rabbi Saadia was a great believer in the power of reason, but also a strong traditionalist. He wrote what is generally considered the first systematic guide to Jewish beliefs, The Book of Doctrines and Beliefs.

In his time there were those who disputed the traditional literal interpretation of Ezekiel 37:5, a passage that describes the resurrection of the dead souls of Israel in a time to come. When the Mishnah lists those who have forfeited their share in the world to come, it includes those who deny the literalness of this prophecy. But these people argued that a literal reading is irrational and unnecessary, and read it as a metaphor for the resurrection of the spirit of the nation.

R. Saadia first countered that once you’ve accepted that the Creator created everything to begin with, resurrection is a perfectly rational belief. Why can’t the Creator recreate that which He has already created? But then he also argues that in this case the literal interpretation of the text is the most elegant.

To make that last point, R. Saadia found it necessary to provide some ground rules for literal interpretation. When do we read a text literally, and when does it demand a figurative interpretation? After all, there are plenty of instances where the traditional interpretation veers from the literal meaning of the words.

Ingeniously, R. Saadia does this with only four simple principles. Here is a loose translation of that passage:

It is a well-known first principle that anything found in scripture is to be understood according to its simple meaning, with the exception of those cases where such is impossible, due to one of four possible causes:

  1. Our perceived reality dismisses it.

    An example would be the verse, “And Adam called his wife Chavah, because she was the mother of all life.”

    Now, we see that the ox and the lion are not born from a human woman. So we know that these words refer not to all living beings, but only to human life.

  2. Our sense of reason dismisses it.

    For example, the verse, “For G‑d, your G‑d, is a consuming fire, a G‑d of vengeance.”

    Now, fire is a creation, and it requires some sort of material to burn. At times it is extinguished. Our sense of reason cannot accept that G‑d could be such. So, we are forced to say that there is some idea hidden within the usage of fire to describe G‑d’s vengeance. Indeed, there is a verse, “For in the fire of My vengeance the entire earth will be consumed.”

  3. Another verse explicitly negates it. In such a case, we must provide a resolution that is not explicitly stated.

    For example, one verse says, “Do not test G‑d your G‑d, as you tested Him at Massah.” Yet another verse says, “Please test me in this, says G‑d, the G‑d of Hosts: If I will not open for you the portals of heaven . . .”

    The resolution that arises from between the two verses is that we should not test G‑d to determine whether He is capable or not, like those about whom it was said, “They tested G‑d in their hearts, asking food for themselves, and they spoke about G‑d, saying, ‘Is G‑d capable of setting a table in the desert?” It is in reference to those people that it is said, “as you tested Him at Massah.”

    But when a person tests his own worth to G‑d, to know whether he is fit for a wondrous sign or not, as Gideon asked, “I will test just this time with the fleece.” or as Hezekiah asked, or others like them—this is permissible.

  4. We have a tradition that compromises the text in some way. In this case, we must reinterpret the text to fit the authentic tradition.

    For example, we have been told that corporal punishment consists of no more than thirty-nine lashes. Yet the verse says, “You shall strike him forty lashes.”

    In this case, we understand that the verse really means thirty-nine, only that it has rounded off the number—just as it has done in another verse: “As the number of days that you toured the land, which were forty days, so you will wander one year for each day, forty years . . .”—even though there were only thirty-nine, since the first year was not included in that punishment.

Following this, R. Saadia goes on to demonstrate that none of these conditions apply to the verses describing the resurrection of the dead, which therefore must be taken literally.

The Book Maimonides Never Wrote

Midrash, in many ways, is the opposite of peshat. Midrash screams out, “I am not what I appear to be!” Midrash purposely sets the foreground fuzzy so that the wise person will focus on the background—where the secrets lie.

Midrash screams out, “I am not what I appear to be!”

Yet midrash, too, must have its boundaries. Yes, the sages speak in riddles. But they also often speak in normal, everyday language, telling you anecdotes that mean just what they mean. To complicate matters, sometimes they do both at once—telling you an anecdote through riddles. How are we supposed to know? And once we do know, how do we unlock the code?

When it comes to code, Maimonides was the great codifier. Not only did he codify Jewish law, he provided keys to decode midrash. But not before he first categorized three groups of those who read midrashic tales: Fools, bigger fools, and a handful of intelligent people.

As you might expect, the fools comprise the largest group. They are those who

accept the teachings of the sages in their simple literal sense, and do not think that these teachings contain any hidden meaning at all. They believe that all sorts of impossible things must be.

Maimonides characterizes the members of this group as people “poor in knowledge.” He doesn’t show much sympathy for this form of poverty:

In their very effort to honor and to exalt the sages, they sin in accordance with their own meager understanding, and actually humiliate themselves. G‑d says, “This nation is a wise and understanding people.” But this group expounds the teachings of the sages in a way that, when the other peoples hear them, they say that this little people is foolish and ignoble.

The second group is also quite large, and they also take these stories literally. But they earn yet greater disapproval from Maimonides, because

they believe that the sages intended nothing else than what may be learned from their literal interpretation. Inevitably, they ultimately declare the sages to be fools, hold them up to contempt, and slander what does not deserve to be slandered. They imagine that their own intelligence is of a higher order than that of the sages, and that the sages were simpletons who suffered from inferior intelligence.

Maimonides refers to this group as even more boorish and foolish than the first group. He goes so far as to call them accursed, since they attempt to “refute men of established wisdom and greatness.”

Then there’s the third group, which Maimonides says is small in number. It consists of people who ponder the words of the sages and detect that there is something deep going on here:

They realize that the sages did not speak nonsense, and it is clear to them that the words of the sages contain both an obvious and a hidden meaning. Thus, whenever the sages spoke of things that seem impossible, they were employing the style of riddle and parable, which is the method of truly great thinkers. Why do they do this? Because they are dealing with supernal matters which can be expressed only in riddles and analogies.

Maimonides obviously approves of this Some things become apparent only when hidden, because then the wise person must dig deeper, and the toil itself makes him fit to receive these truths.third group. The wisdom the sages are intending to transmit can be transmitted only through concealment. Some things become apparent only when hidden, because then the wise person must dig deeper, and the toil itself makes him fit to receive these truths.

Maimonides even embarked on an ambitious project to explain the allegorical meanings behind all these midrashic stories.6 Yet he had to abandon the project, as he found himself in an irresolvable bind.

The work, he later wrote, placed before him one of two choices: Reveal in simple language that which was never meant for the simple people, and which they will certainly misunderstand and abuse. Or, stick to the path of the sages and clothe the wisdom inherent in these stories in other clothing and parables—which would not solve anything, only “replacing one parable with another.”7

His son, Rabbi Avraham, himself began such a project, providing a framework for the study of aggadah within his father’s approach. But, as he admits, it was not commensurate to the breadth and depth his father had originally intended.

Nevertheless, Maimonides did provide many keys and clues for those bright enough to do their own decoding. In his Guide For the Perplexed he provided a kind of “manual for abstraction,” listing the broader import of many key words, and taking us on a tour of his incisive approach to abstract ideas from their concrete metaphor.

© Leon Zernitzky
© Leon Zernitzky

Many of the interpretations and much of the philosophy of the Guide met with fierce controversy and opposition, but the approach that Maimonides taught to us has proven invaluable—not only in the aggadah and philosophy departments, but in the legal department of Torah as well. Yet it would wait four hundred years for Rabbi Yehudah Loewe, “the Maharal of Prague,” to pick up the ball and run with it. And, when he did, he went much further than Maimonides may have imagined.

Which is what we will be dealing with in the next installment.