Tuesday, August 29, 2006

On The Allogorization of Scripture

I was at R. Natan Slifkin's lecture by YU last night. Overall, he gave a very good presentation on Intelligent Design and why he feels it is counter to traditional Jewish teachings.

One of the things that was presented is a subject that has been brought up in the past in his lectures, and indeed, must be brought up when having discussions concerning the origin of the world as it relates to the Torah. That subject is the allegorization of certain episodes in the Torah - in this case, specifically, the first few chapters of B'raishis (Genesis). For those of us who accept the validity of scientific study, then the account of Creation in B'raishis cannot be read 100% literally and must have been, at least to some degree allogorized.

However, I wonder how far we can carry this ability to allogorize Scripture. For example, there is evidence to suggest that a global flood, as described in Parshas Noach did not occur. So, one could also allogorize the story of Noach.

But at what point to do we stop allogorizing Scripture? Or, to put it another way, whether the unvierse was created in seven days or billions of years has no appreciable effect on the way I live my life. I still keep the same mitzvos and traditions regardless of how long it took to create the universe. Likewise, whether or not the story of Noach is literally true might make a small difference on whether or not I would say a Bracha on a rainbow. Beyond that, there is little in Noach that relates to my everyday life. So, I don't have a great difficulty in allogirzing Noach either.

But what happpens when we progress beyond that? If we were to uncover evidence that the Avos did not exist (and yes, I appreciate the fact that lack of evidence is not evidence of lack) then can we "toss them away" as well? It's one thing to say that the people who were the primary audience for the Torah, the people at Sinai, did not have an adequate background in cosmology and physics to understand a 100% literal account of creation (I'm not certain that we do today), but can we say the same thing about the lives of the Avos?

Furthermore, what about the Exodus itself? It's one thing to say that the people who left Egypt couldn't understand a modern cosmological account of Creation, but can you say that they wouldn't understand the concept of the Exodus? Of course not, because they lived through it. But yet, there may be evidence that the Exodus could not have happened literally as described. So what do we do? Allogorize the Exodus? But for what purpose would you allogorize the Exodus to the people who went through it? And, of course, if you come to the conclusion that the Exodus didn't happen and that the whole thing is allogorical, why celebrate Pesach? Why go through the whole ritual (not to mention the trouble of destroying all of one's chometz) if the Exodus didn't happen? Without the symbolism of the events behind them, the matzah, marror and korban pesach lose all meaning.

The question that I suppose I am asking is, what is the limit to which we will allogorize Tanach? Do we stop at Creation? Noah? The Tower of Babel? At what point can we point to a Chumash and say "from here on in, it's pretty much factual?" Or can we allogorize the whole thing away?
Now, before anyone starts thinking that I've gone completely off the derech, let me state that I'm not stating that we should just chalk the Chumash up as a myth (or even as a myth with valid lessons). I do beleive that the Exodus occured and I do believe that the Avos existed and lived their lives more or less as told (although I'm not so certain about the Go-Go dancers in Joseph's prison scene :) ). But nonetheless, the question does need to be asked. From which point onward (if there is such a thing) can we say "before was prehistory and myth and from here onward is history?"

The Wolf

22 comments:

Some Guy said...

And, of course, if you come to the conclusion that the Exodus didn't happen and that the whole thing is allegorical, why celebrate Pesach?

Whether or not the account of Exodus is accurate, we can nevertheless wholeheartedly celebrate our current freedoms. And we can look back to many desperate points in our history (recent or not-so-recent) as illustrations of servitude and degradation, from which we have emerged as an intact people. Most of the symbolism of the Seder still stands, I think.

People's relationship to religion changes over time. I don't think the practices and beliefs of the Jews in ancient Israel were all that similar to the practices and beliefs of say, Rambam. And I think a lot of Modern Orthodox people probably view Exodus (and other Biblical episodes) in something of a literary or allegorical framework. Such a concession is much better, I think, than trying to cling to simple faith while constantly swatting away the buzzing doubts.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

According to a rosh yeshiva at YU who i heard speak, it seems that it'd be possible to allegorize every narrative in the Torah up through the Exodus and Sinai, as long those events happened in some form as an anchor for the halakhic system.

The Hedyot said...

> ...if the whole thing is allegorical, why celebrate Pesach?

For the same reason you observe any other mitzvah that may not make sense: because God says so. Isn't that really anyway the ultimate basis for a committed Jew's lifestyle? Not because it makes sense, or because it seems nice, or because it fits in with your lifestyle, but because HE says to do it. If God tells you to jump up and down for no other reason then because he likes to laugh at you, then you do it. You may not like it, but if you believe he's the boss, then he must be obeyed.

No?

It's too bad we didn't get to meet each other last night.

cipher said...

Do you know whether he'll be speaking anywhere else?

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

There's a long history behind the idea of allegorizing the Avot. Short view: it was being done by philosophically minded Jews in medieval Spain and it appalled the figures which posterity bestowed authority on.

As for the practical question, where does one stop once one begins--you could say "I allegorize what I have to, not what I don't." That's what the Rambam did. He had a philosophical problem with a talking snake, a tree of knowledge etc, so he took it as an allegory, I mean vision.

Is there anything impossible about a nomadic chief migrating from Mesopatamia into Canaan, eg, Avraham? No. So why would I allegorize him?

On the other hand, at a certain point people who say "The Torah is not a history book" have to either put up or shut up.

BrooklynWolf said...

On the other hand, at a certain point people who say "The Torah is not a history book" have to either put up or shut up.

Why? I would think that it is those who *do* say that the Torah is a history book who have to "put up or shut up."

Or am I misunderstanding what you are saying?

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

Do you know whether he'll be speaking anywhere else?

I personally don't know. Your best bet are to check out http://www.zootorah.com or http://hirhurim.blogspot.com.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

For the same reason you observe any other mitzvah that may not make sense: because God says so. Isn't that really anyway the ultimate basis for a committed Jew's lifestyle? Not because it makes sense, or because it seems nice, or because it fits in with your lifestyle, but because HE says to do it.

What you say is true... we keep the mitzvos because He told us to. However, in some cases, it is stated that we keep the mitzvos for specific reasons. For example, the Torah explicitly states why we sit in Succos... "l'ma'an yeid'oo dorosaichem ki basukkos hoshavti es b'nei yisrael b'hotizi'i osum me-eretz mitzrayim" -- so that the Children of Israel will know that I placed them in Succos when I took them out of Egypt. If no Exodus, then what's the point?

The Wolf

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>Or am I misunderstanding what you are saying?

I think so.

The line "The Torah is not a history book" has a gray beard by now. Although I would be very hesitant to cite Artscroll as representative of "the" normative Orthodox belief, I've had enough experience with enough different kinds of Orthodox Jews to know that "The Torah isn't a history book" is a very, very prevalent (and IMO accurate) belief about the Torah.

Examples often cited is how we are introduced to Avraham in his old age. The end of his life, decades long, is ignored. There are numerous examples where the Torah is brief in the extreme and others were it is detailed in the extreme. The conclusion then is that the Torah is not a history book it is a book of horaah. Rashi even has to explain why there *is* narrative in the Torah, for that reason!

Therefore, I say, if you hold this view then at a certain point you'll have to acknowledge that--the Torah isn't a history book. That doesn't mean that the presumption should be that it doesn't contain historical material in the sense that we moderns perceive history (ie, "what happened"). But you can't simultaneously insist that it all must have happened and happened as written AND deny that the Torah is an early history of the nation of Israel.

Avi said...

> If no Exodus, then what's the point?

This is a different question then you original one, which was: "...why celebrate Pesach?"

I'd agree, there wouldn't seem to be much point, but if these are the rules, then we have to follow them regardless of if they make sense or have any rational point to them.

Alan said...

The answer to your question is it depends on what the mesorah tells us. This is the whole idea of torah shebaal peh. The only reason that an "eye for an eye" is not literal is that the mesorah tells us so. Maaseh Bereshis is not literal because the gemara in chagiga says it is a subject involving many secrets so obviously the account is not literal. Also the 1st Ramban clearly says it is not literal.

I am not saying I am not bothered by some of the points you have raised. But to just answer that an account in chumash is an allegory without basis from our mesorah is like answering "nishtana hateva" to every question on chazal from science. It is not intellectually honest.

To Hedyot: Your argument does not hold water. How do you know Hashem told us to mitzvot? The Torah emphasizes that we believe because we (our forefathers) witnessed the events surrounding yetzias mitzraim and later at Har Sinai. If those events did not occur, then my conclusion would be that Hashem never told us any of this. The first of the Ten commandments implies that the basis of doing mitzvot is yetzias mitzraim. Also are you calling Hashem a liar "I...who took you out of Mitzraim"?

BrooklynWolf said...

Alan,

Thank you for your reply. Of course, your reply depends on the TSBP and our mesorah being completely reliable as a God-given vehicle. I addressed some problems I may have with that approach in my previous post.

I'm not advocating a willy-nilly approach of dumping a story overboard at the first question - but there may come a point where a story is proven to be counter-factual and there may be no mesorah to view it as allegorical. What then?

The Wolf

Alan said...

I agreed 100% with your previous post, but clearly there is no dispute in the mesorah whether the avos existed or whether there was yeyzias mitzraim or about the mabul for that matter. To be honest with you if there was 100% proof that these events did not occur, I would have a crisis of faith.

Kyaroko said...

I think that, even if presented with hardcore evidence that left you convinced that the exodus never happened, you would continue to celebrate Pesach and to find meaning in it. It's like the song says: Tradition!

DYM said...

Say you have a passage that presents a historical or philosophical problem to which you know of no other resolution than to reinterpret the text as non-literal.

Ask yourself, "Will a metaphorical explanation help resolve the problem, without creating new ones?"

If the answer is "Yes", then I don't see a problem with it. If the answer is "No", then you cannot use it.

You cannot necessarily rely on the mesorah here. Rishonim had no reason to doubt the mabul, for example. There was no problem for them. It is something intelligent people have to consider for themselves.

Ben Avuyah said...

>>>Ask yourself, "Will a metaphorical explanation help resolve the problem, without creating new ones?"

>>>If the answer is "Yes", then I don't see a problem with it. If the answer is "No", then you cannot use it.

You know, Alan, above raised the issue of intellectual honesty, but no one really picked it up and ran with it. I think he is the most honest person here when he admits he will have a crisis of faith if the torahs stories are shown to likely false.

To the some of you it seems to be a matter of "how many problems will my apologetics create for me."

Does it occur to anyone, that this is a dishonest method of seeking any level of truth ?

Does it occur to anyone that there exsists no series of facts that have a problem resisting falsification with the above methodolgy?

dym said...

It is not a problem for me, because I don't think

(a) historical truth matters (unless in cases where it has practical implications as I said above) -- I think this is a post-XX-century bias;

and
(b) I don't think historical truth of these events can be ascertained.

The approach of going with the explanation that explains the most and creates the least problems is not something that is limited to re-interpreting Torah. Think of how you go about trying to re-construct a crime scene, for example, in the absense of full-proof evidence. There is no hypocrisy involved. You are simply doing the best you can to use your mind to understand the evidence before you.

I'd like to also say that the demand that books must be historically true is reflective of our post-XX-century rationalist bias. There is a WORLD of difference between "MYTHS" and "LIES".


The bottom line to me is we have absolutely no way of knowing definitively whether Avraam has ever lived, or if he was ever visited by two people around Pesach time. Or if there was in fact a man named Noah who built an ark that fit every animal, and whose family was the sole survivors of a global flood. There is no way to know for sure either way [insert your favorite "G-d could've falsified geological record" line here], nor is there any reason to care either way!

(IMO. I'd love to hear if you disagree).

Some Guy said...

Or if there was in fact a man named Noah who built an ark that fit every animal,

...or if there is a man named Jesus who is the son of God, or a man named Muhammed who spoke to the prophet Gabriel, or...

I think the idea of a "rationalist bias" is kind of funny. What kind of bias do you recommend?

DYM said...

some guy-

how do the examples of jesus and mohammed contradict or weaken anything i wrote? not to mention that you are confusing historical and theological claims by bringing in a claim of who spoke to what angels and who was the son of G-d.

By rationalist bias I mean that it is a recent ~XX century phenomenon to demand objective historical accuracy (as if that is even an attainable goal) of texts.

Does the story of the founding of Rome, of Romulus and Remus (The Wolf should like it ;) lose any value it's fictitious? No. It's a myth. A legend. Do you think the Greeks believed that every myth about their gods was historically 100% true? Come on. Every culture has myths, incuding the Jews. When did "myth" become a dirty word?

happy said...

bw
if we were taken out of egypt but not on the scale of the torah, would it satsify your desire for a basis to do sukkos?

happy said...

just realized my comment was a play on dayenu!

DYM said...

Dayenu indeed, you answered your own question there :)