Shiur #13: Belief in the Creation and the Plain Meaning of the Torah

  • Rav Chaim Navon



A.        Is the Plain Meaning of the Text a Decisive Factor?


In last week's shiur, we reviewed the Rambam's discussion of the question as to whether the universe was created or had always existed. His conclusion was that there is no decisive intellectual proof one way or the other, and hence he maintains faith in creation, in keeping with the account in the Torah.


In chapter twenty-five of Book II of the Guide, the Rambam explains why, in this situation of uncertainty, he prefers the creationist view and rejects the eternal view. This chapter is one of the most important sources regarding the philosophy of Jewish textual exegesis. Let us take a look at what he says:


We do not reject the eternity of the universe just because certain passages in the Torah confirm the creation, for such passages are no more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being. Nor is it impossible or difficult to find a suitable interpretation for them. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the incorporeality of God. We would perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the textual passages referred to are in harmony with the theory of the eternity of the universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Torah when we rejected the idea that God is corporeal. For two reasons, however, we have not done so, and have not accepted the eternity of the Universe. Firstly, the incorporeality of God has been demonstrated by proof. Those passages in the Torah which in their literal sense contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise. But the eternity of the universe has not been proved; a mere argument in favor of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a biblical text and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument.


That is one reason. The second reason is that our belief in the incorporeality of God is not contrary to any of the fundamental principles of our religion, and does not contradict the words of any prophet. In contrast, belief in the eternity of the universe… stands in opposition to the foundation of our religion.


The Rambam explains here that he rejects the eternity of the universe not because of the literal meaning of the text – since it may be interpreted in a different manner (just as verses that seemingly describe God's "hand" or "eye" are interpreted metaphorically) – but rather because the eternity of the universe has not been logically proven. Additionally, it is a view that contradicts Jewish faith. We see here that, according to the Rambam, more than the text influences our beliefs, our fundamental beliefs influence the way in which we read the text. Notably, he is not talking here about homiletical interpretation; he is speaking of the "peshat" – the plain meaning of the text. When the Torah speaks of "God's hand,” the plain meaning is not an actual hand, but rather a metaphorical representation of some other idea.


In Sefer Ha-kuzari by Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi we find a similar attitude regarding the origin of the universe. The king of the Khazars asks the rabbi how it is that the Torah, which testifies to the creation of the world, can oppose the logical proof that the universe is eternal and was not created. Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi's answer – like that of the Rambam – is that the eternity of the universe has never been logically proven (Sefer Ha-kuzari, 1:67). However, unlike the Rambam, who devotes vast sections of his Guide to this question, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi suffices with a single sentence. In his opinion, the assumption of a logical proof for the eternity of the universe is a marginal problem, not a main subject of inquiry. However, he concludes his words with a surprising afterthought:


Nevertheless, if a person who believes in the Torah saw some logical necessity in the view of some eternal substance, while at the same time maintaining the view that the world as we know it was preceded by many other worlds, this would in no way affect his faith that this world of ours was created at a particular point in time, and that the first people in this world were Adam and Noach. (Sefer Ha-kuzari, 1:67)


Once again, this is remarkably similar to the Rambam's view. Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi argues that even if one were to reach the conclusion that the universe had always existed, we could still reconcile this view with the plain meaning of the biblical text. We would propose that God created the world from some primal substance which had always existed, and to this we would add the assumption that God had previously created many other worlds and later destroyed them. Thus, the narrative of creation would remain accurate, but it would describe the origin of our universe, rather than the origin of all existence.


Both the Rambam and Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi maintain that if logic compelled us to accept the eternity of the universe, this conclusion could be reconciled with the text. Nevertheless, there are some significant differences between the respective opinions of these two authorities. First, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi insists on maintaining the literal sense of the text; he can accept only an interpretation that preserves the faith that the first human being was Adam, etc. The Rambam, in contrast, was prepared (with some reluctance) to regard the account of creation as an allegory, had logic demanded this.


Second, somewhat paradoxically, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi appears more forgiving than the Rambam towards the eternity view. He is more concerned about the plain meaning of the text than he is about the substance of faith. The Rambam, as noted, regards some versions of the eternity approach as truly destructive for religious faith; Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi does not devote attention to these distinctions.[1] Perhaps this can be explained in terms of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi's general philosophy that action – the practical outcome - is more important than theory. From a practical point of view, of how much importance is it to us, really, whether the world is eternal or was created?


B.        The Plain Meaning of the Text


Let us now return to the Rambam. One of the issues arising from chapter twenty-five of Book II is the connection between perceptions and beliefs, on the one hand, and the plain meaning of the biblical text, on the other. Aside from the Rambam's explicit statement concerning the influence of philosophical views on the interpretation of the text, his writings are highly instructive in this regard. On the one hand, the Rambam is sometimes forced to offer an interpretation that deviates from what appears to be the plain meaning of the text. For instance, he interprets the verse "And beneath His feet there was a kind of paved work of sapphire stone" (Shemot 24:10) to mean, "And the result of His actions was the primal substance" (Guide, I:28). He is forced into this interpretation by his rejection of corporeality; God has no feet, and there is therefore no way of understanding the verse in any literal sense. Similarly, in addressing (at the beginning of Book III) the chapters in Yechezkel describing the divine chariot, the Rambam effectively turns Yechezkel into a book of Aristotelian philosophy (although even he acknowledges that it is difficult to regard his interpretation as the plain meaning of the text).


Rabbi Yehuda Al-Fakhar, one of the most prominent opponents of the Rambam in the great controversy over his writings, attacks him on this matter, too, in a letter addressed to the Radak:


Furthermore, it is written there [in the Guide of the Perplexed] concerning the eternity [of the universe] that if there were some clear proof of Aristotle's position, using logic, he could accept an allegorical interpretation of the biblical account of creation… as he does concerning the terms "image [of God]" and "appearance,” whose plain meaning suggests corporeality… But as we know, the matter of eternity of the universe is altogether unlike the matter of corporeality. For in the matter of corporeality there are sources that contradict one another. In one place we read, "They beheld the God of Israel" (Shemot 24:10), while elsewhere we read, "for no man can see Me" (Shemot 33:20). One verse says, "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell…" (Shemot 25:8), while another reads, "Behold, the heavens and the heavens' heavens cannot contain You…" (I Melakhim 8:27). Concerning such verses [the former of each pair], Chazal taught, “The Torah speaks in language that people can understand…” But concerning the creation, all sources testify uniformly, unanimously, and unequivocally, all declaring God's praise: Blessed is He Who spoke and the world came into being! And the proofs of Greek philosophy are not able to uproot all of this… Furthermore, even they themselves – by the word of scholars, and not in books[2] – acknowledge that each such proof requires extensive scrutiny, since sometimes it includes some misleading element that belongs to that false wisdom which the Greeks call 'sophistry'; this addition causes deceit, trapping wise men with cunning…


Our conclusion is that one who follows their view in his Torah understanding has not fulfilled his obligation. And this is certainly true concerning logical proof of the eternity of the universe, which by definition cancels Shabbat, by changing its reason… for every Jew knows that the reason for observing Shabbat follows literally from the act of creation, “for six days God made…” (Shemot 20:10; 31:17), and it is written, “Therefore God blessed the Shabbat day and sanctified it” (Shemot 20:10). If Shabbat existed in the world anyway, such that this reason did not apply – then its fragrance is indeed spoiled, and its adherents observe it falsely. And how could anyone suggest that it is on the basis of mere metaphor and allegory that the Torah states, concerning the man who gathered sticks on Shabbat, “Stone him with stones, the entire congregation” (Bemidbar 15:35)? (Iggrot Kana'ut, Jerusalem 5727, 1b-2a)


Rabbi Yehuda Al-Fakhar argues against the Rambam: one cannot rely on logical proofs as the basis for changing one's interpretation of the words of Torah. The human intellect can be misleading; it is easily led astray by rhetorical devices. With regard to expressions in the Torah that might be understood as indicating that God has some physical form, there is room to exercise logical thought – but only because the theme of the negation of corporeality already exists within the Torah itself. Al-Fakhar goes on to enlist further support for his argument by citing the prohibition of obeying a prophet's instruction to engage in idolatry, even if that prophet performs signs and wonders to prove his authenticity. Rabbi Yehuda Al-Fakhar appears to view this as a "kal va-chomer" – an a fortiori argument: if a wondrous miracle that occurs before our very eyes is not sufficient grounds to change our understanding of verses in the Torah (in this case, the prohibition of idolatry), then an abstract logical proof certainly cannot cause us to change our interpretation of verses in the Torah (the account of creation).


Rambam would easily dismiss this argument. According to him, there is no "kal va-chomer" involved; logical proof has much greater weight than any sensory impression. Moreover, according to the Rambam, the prohibition on idolatry is a demonstrably intellectual prohibition. Therefore, ignoring the wonders performed by the false prophet is in fact evidence of the superiority of the intellect. In his own words, "The testimony of the intellect, which disproves his [the false prophet's] claim, is stronger than the evidence of the eyes, which behold the wonder that he performs."[3] We ignore the claims and instructions of the false prophet not because they contradict the plain meaning of the text, but because they go against logic. Thus, the Rambam could reject Al-Fakhar's proof from the law of the false prophet. However, his argument as to the weakness of human intellect is not addressed, and indeed this represents a fundamental difference of opinion between him and the Rambam.


Rabbi Yehuda Al-Fakhar adds a further argument: if we understand the verses of the Torah that describe the creation in an allegorical sense, this has practical ramifications for halakhic observance. An allegorical interpretation of the creation means that Shabbat loses its significance as a reminder of God desisting from creating on the seventh day. If the world was never created, then what meaning is there to the observance of Shabbat?


To this argument we might respond with a clarification of the type of allegorical interpretation adopted by the Rambam (as well as many other commentators). Rav Kook addressed the question of how the biblical account of creation can be reconciled with the findings of modern science, which suggest that the world has existed for billions of years. He explains, "Even if we were to discover that the order of creation took place through evolution of the species – this would in no way entail any contradiction, for we go by the plain meaning of the verses of the Torah, which are far more meaningful to us than all the ancient sciences, to which we attach little value" (Iggerot RAY"H I, iggeret 91, p. 105). The Torah does not record scientific facts; it is the symbolic expression of a profound world-view. We count the years since creation in accordance with the very deep metaphor that introduces the Torah, and not in accordance with the relatively unimportant facts of science. It is even easier to conclude that Shabbat represents the conceptual depth of the chapters pertaining to creation, rather than a scientific chronology of the evolution of the world.


In any event, the disagreement between Rabbi Yehuda al-Fakhar and the Rambam raises a fundamental and profound question about our understanding of the Torah. It pertains to both our desire to protect halakha by nurturing wholehearted faith, and the question of the power and limits of the human intellect.


From the modern perspective we might introduce a further question into the discussion: is it possible to understand the plain meaning of the text without relying on logic? Al-Fakhar was actually trying to understand the meaning from within the text itself, without applying to it the insights of reason. From a modern perspective, this seems to be a very naןve endeavor.


In order to explain why it is impossible to explain the plain meaning of the text without recourse to logic – or even philosophy – let us consider some converse examples to those examined thus far. We have previously dwelled on some verses which the Rambam interprets in a non-literal way, in order to reconcile them with his philosophical insights. Although the following interpretations sometimes appear simpler to accept, in terms of their literal meaning, today we nevertheless prefer other interpretations, for our own philosophical reasons.


Let us consider two examples. The first is the Rambam's understanding of the verse, "On that day, God will be One and His Name – One" (Zekharia 14:9): on that day God will not be referred to by any other names or attributes; rather, He will be called only by the Tetragrammaton (Guide, I:61). From the literal point of view, this interpretation appears simpler than the conventional, allegorical explanation.


The second example is the Rambam's interpretation of the verse, "The heavens declare God's honor" (Tehillim 19:2). The Rambam explains that this verse indicates that the heavenly spheres praise and extol God in thought. On this basis the Rambam concludes that the heavenly spheres possess life; they are not inanimate objects (Guide, II: 5). Here again we have an explanation that conforms better with the literal meaning of the verse than the conventional explanation that God's honor is discerned and made known to us through contemplation of the heavens (see Ma'amarei RAY'H I, p. 110).


We learn from this that it is impossible to avoid involving philosophical considerations in our interpretation of Tanakh. We reject the Rambam's interpretation because we have some reservations with regard to his understanding of God's names, and all the more so his understanding of the heavenly spheres. His positions lead us to propose a different plain reading of the verse – one which deviates from the literal meaning. The literal meaning is only one out of many exegetical considerations that accompany us in our Torah study.


At this point it is important to express a reservation. We do not mean by the above that we can change the plain meaning of the Torah in any way that we wish to, in accordance with any and every transient intellectual trend. Indeed, we must take conceptual and philosophical considerations into account when establishing the meaning of a verse – but only in one of two situations. Firstly, even Rabbi Yehuda Al-Fakhar acknowledges that we must adopt a non-literal interpretation of verses that suggest some sort of divine corporeality, since there are other verses in Tanakh which teach that God has no physical existence. In this instance, a literal understanding of the verse would contradict a principle which the Torah itself propounds – the negation of God's corporeality. In other words, when there is an internal contradiction between different verses, greater weight is given to the position that accords with our rational understanding.


To this we must add a second situation: when the literal understanding of the text contradicts a view that we are completely, absolutely certain about – such as the idea that the heavens are not a living entity. The Rambam was not willing to bend the meaning of the text in order to adapt it to the view of the eternity of the universe, because this view had not been decisively proven. However, had it been proven by incontrovertible logical reasoning, the situation would be different. If we seek to interpret verses in a way that deviates from their plain meaning, we can rely only on that which is known to us with absolute certainty. If neither of these two conditions exists, then our understanding must be subservient to the plain meaning of the text.[4]


An example of this sort of discussion, centering on linguistic, literary, and rational considerations in understanding the text, is to be found in the writings of Rav Sa'adia Gaon:


It is a well-known truth that everything in the Torah is to be understood in accordance with its plain meaning, except where it cannot be understood thus, owing to one of four reasons:


1.           Our experience rejects it – such as the verse, "And Adam called his wife Chava, for she was the mother of all life" (Bereishit 3:20).

But we know that the ox and the lion are not born of woman. Therefore we conclude that the verse refers only to humans.[5]


2.           Our logic rejects it – such as the verse, "For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God" (Devarim 4:24). Fire is something that was created, and it requires substance to burn, and sometimes it is extinguished. Hence, our intellect cannot accept that this is how God is. We must therefore conclude that this is an abbreviated expression implying that God's revenge is like a consuming fire…


3.           There is an explicit source elsewhere that contradicts; then we must re-interpret that which is not explicit – such as the verse, "Do not test the Lord your God as you tested at Masa" (Devarim 6:16). However, elsewhere it is written, "Test Me now in this, says the Lord of Hosts – if I do not open for you the windows of heaven" (Malakhi 3:10). What arises from the two verses together is that we must not test God to see whether He can do such-and-such or not… but to test one's own worth before God, to see whether he is worthy of God performing some wondrous sign for him or not… this is permissible.


4.           Everything that is conditional in tradition, must be interpreted in a way that conforms with the true tradition – such as where we are told that the administration of lashes means only 39 lashes, whereas it is written, "Forty [lashes] shall he give him" (Devarim 25:3). Therefore we maintain that they are thirty-nine [in number], but the text rounds it off, as it does with “the number of days in which you scouted the land – forty days; a day for each year…" (Bemidbar 14:34). Actually, they were punished for only thirty-nine years [after that], since the first year [of wandering] was not included in the punishment.


And since the reasons leading to [allegorical] interpretation of verses are these four, and no more, and we find the matter of the resurrection of the dead, which is not rejected by our experience… nor by logic… nor is there any other verse that contradicts it… and there is no tradition requiring that we understand it in any way other than its plain meaning… therefore it is an obligation to leave it in accordance with the plain meaning of the text – that God will resurrect the dead of His people at the time of the deliverance; and it should not be explained in some other way. (Emunot Ve-dei'ot 7:1)


Attention should be paid to Rav Sa'adia Gaon's terminology: he speaks of the reasons justifying a metaphoric or allegorical interpretation of a verse. However, one might certainly explain that what he means is that the text must be understood in some way other than its literal meaning – and this itself becomes the plain meaning. For it is quite obvious that Chava was not the mother of the ox or the lion, and the expression "mother of all life" means, in the plainest sense, "mother of all human beings". (I hope that I have not misinterpreted the plain meaning of Rav Sa'adia Gaon's point here.) Logic, experience, etc. are not only considerations that prevent us from deviating from the plain meaning; they may also influence our understanding of the plain meaning itself.


Rav Sa'adia Gaon lists four considerations justifying an interpretation that does not follow the literal meaning of the text: an intra-textual contradiction, a contradiction of logic, a contradiction of experience (that which we have referred to as logic), and a contradiction of tradition. This latter factor is subject to great controversy, but that lies beyond the scope of the present shiur.[6]


In summary, we may say that the Rambam teaches us that the "plain meaning" is not always a simple matter.


Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1] Although, admittedly, his mention of an "eternal substance" hints at Plato's understanding of eternity, rather than Aristotle's view (see last week's shiur).

[2]This seems to indicate that this reservation, which is not stated explicitly in the books of Greek philosophy, was revealed to him orally by philosophers.

[3] Hakdamot Ha-Rambam, Rav Shilat edition, p. 30. In his “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah” (8:3) the Rambam gives a different explanation for the directive to ignore the wonders performed by the false prophet.

[4] See Shadal's introduction to his Commentary on the Torah, p. 21.

[5]In his translation of the Torah, Rav Sa'adia Gaon wrote that this verse should be understood as meaning, "the mother of all speaking life." See: M. Tzuker (ed.), Perushei Rav Sa'adia Gaon Le-Sefer Bereishit, New York 5744, Preface, p. 191.

[6]Compare the approach of Rashba in his Responsa (I:9).