Problems with Biblical Literalism

[this piece was rejected by a Jewish-related blog I have posted on in the past for being too critical] I love Judaism, being a Jew, and specifically I’ve loved many orthodox Jews and orthodox Jewish thinking. It fills a deep emotional need to be part of a traditional Shabbos table, to dance at a synagogue, to study the ancient teachings of my people. Specifically I love the teachings of the Ari and kabbala and I studied them with teachers from Israel. I had weekly skype calls with my teacher in Safed going over the Ramchal’s commentary on the Etz Chaim, with my teacher in Jerusalem going over the teachings of Rebbe Nachman, with a Chabad rabbi in Glendale, and with an orthodox rabbi at Bircas HaTorah Yeshiva in Jerusalem studying the Talmud. With some of these orthodox teachers (not all) I differed on an issue I’ll called Torah and Mishnah literalism. Torah and Mishnah literalism holds that the texts of Torah and Mishnah are literally true. They come from God in a way that the Upanishads or the U.S. Constitution or the novels of Jane Austen do not. You don’t study them by looking at how they were written over time, and how different communities have interpreted them in different ways to suit different purposes. You study them to learn God’s commands in order to live a righteous life. If you maintain Torah literalism you must maintain that whatever other mystical meaning the Torah contains it is an accurate account of historical events. If you maintain Mishnah literalism it follows as a consequence that gay sex is immoral. It may be that fewer orthodox Jews embrace Torah and Mishnah literalism than you might think to read their theology on sites like aish.com and chabad.org. Nevertheless many do and that’s why I think it’s important to oppose it. Let’s focus on belief in Noah’s flood as a clear example of Torah literalism. The Torah contains the story that all human beings on Earth save a single family in the Middle East were killed by a flood and that all human beings alive today are descendants of that family. It’s a profound story that dramatizes the fragility of life on Earth and the relatedness of all human beings. The Torah literalist believes in addition to being profound it is literally true. If it’s a profound story what is the danger of believing it’s literally true? Why not have fun? Why not be deep? Why not feel in touch with what our people have believed for thousands of years? What’s the harm? Why are modern Jews being such spoilsports and party-poppers? These are fair questions. Here are eight answers:

1)You make yourself unequipped to deal with the world

The Native Americans did not descend from a family in the Middle East but have been in North America much longer than the time since Noah. You can’t treat them justly if you deny that.

2)You leave your children unprepared to deal with the world

Your children have to make decisions about human caused climate change. They won’t be able to make these decisions correctly if they embrace a fantasy about human pre-history.

3)You denigrate good people and that’s wrong

Scientists studying why we have diseases like sickle cell anemia explain it by referring to human evolution which has gone on for millions of years, and originates in Africa not the Middle East. If you deny this fact based upon a literal reading of the Torah you denigrate their work.

4)You denigrate good people and that’s a bad idea

If you look out at the world and notice that the overwhelming majority of responsible scientists don’t believe in the flood story, you have to ask yourself why that is. If it’s correct and it’s the word of God there must be something wicked or foolish about all these people who deny it. If you believe they’re wicked and foolish and you (or your leaders) are smart and holy, you make yourself prey to spiritual arrogance.

5)You become prey to religious con-men

If you take the view that you and your fellow Torah literalists are smart and holy and everyone who denies that view is wicked and foolish, you have declared your gullibility and your refusal on principle to check things out with people outside the community of your fellow faithful. That leaves you open to abuse at the hands of those who pose as religious and pursue their evil ends by manipulating the gullible.

6)You run the risk of offending God

God (who else?) is the one who provided the evidence that the flood of Noah isn’t literally true. He made the ice sheets in Antarctica that show no evidence of a world flood, he made the ecosystem of Australia, from koalas to kangaroos, which did not hop over from the Middle East since Noah’s day. If he put all that evidence on Earth and gave us brains capable of reasoning from it, you risk offending Him by sticking to Torah literalism.

7)You make God into a small thing

I’ve asked Biblical literalists why they came to the conclusion that the Torah was literally true and the answers come down to two things: tradition and a profound personal experience. But, obviously, there are many traditions on Earth and as many profound personal experiences as there are profound human beings. Let’s say one percent of human beings are capable of a profound experience. That means on Earth today there are around seventy million people who have had them. If you maintain that the Torah is literally true based on tradition and personal experience, you shrink God down to the size of your personal experiences and traditions. You make what our tradition sometimes calls an idol and worship it instead of the Living God.

8)Nobody will believe you about Israel

It might be important to convince the world community of the justice of supporting Israel. If the people you talk to know you believe things based on emotion and tradition rather than evidence and reason they have less reason to believe you about Israel.


6 thoughts on “Problems with Biblical Literalism

  1. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Aish or Chabad that refused to publish this blog post but I agree with you Eric, especially on point 6 and 7. We shouldn’t feel threatened by non-literal approaches. The Torah isn’t a history book any more than it is a medical book!

    I think the problem arises from the fact that the Torah, specifically the Five Books of Moses, contains more than a few historical kernels of truth which makes it tempting to read everything literally. I respect the literal approach because its foundation is in faith in HaShem. Also, the ethical teachings of Torah certainly should be taken literally i.e. לֹא תִּרְצָח (lo tirṣaḥ) You shall not murder (had the King James Bible been more literal in its translation it would not have rendered it “Thou shalt not kill”).

    But along came the Book of Zohar, and the Guide of the Perplexed, which has taught me not to be a fundamentalist:

    “Come and see: For a king of flesh and blood, it is undignified to engage in common talk, much less to write it down. Now, would you ever imagine that the supernal King, the blessed Holy One, had no holy words to write, with which to compose the Torah, so that he had to collect all of these words about commoners—such as words about Esau, about Hagar, about Laban with Jacob, about the donkey, Balaam, and Balak, about Zimri, and all the other stories that are written—and make a Torah out of them? If so, why is it called a Torah of truth [Malachi 2:6]—Torah of YHWH is perfect; the decree of YHWH is trustworthy; The precepts of YHWH are just; the command of YHWH is lucid; the awe of YHWH is pure? And it is written: more desirable than gold… [Psalms 19:8-11]. These are words of Torah!…

    Happy are the righteous who look at Torah properly! As wine must sit in a jar, so Torah must sit in this garment. So look only at what is under the garment. All those words and all those stories are garments” (Zohar 3:152a).

  2. Also, have you read Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s book which provides a non-literal approach to Torah called, The Challenge of Creation: Judaism’s Encounter with Science, Cosmology and Evolution?

  3. Mikey says:

    When talking about literalism, it might be helpful to think of truth and facts. Facts don’t matter that much but truth does, and people often get confused about that. Like if you ask people if they believe in God, they assume you mean to ask them if they believe the fact of God’s existence. But a much more interesting and important question is whether you believe in the truth of God. The facts don’t make much difference to anything really. This is particularly obvious with stories like the one about Noah. So what if it happened or didn’t? If we all stopped thinking about it, nothing would happen. However, it’s an important story because of the truth it has in it. Or the lies.

    Are we fragile and tiny?
    Are we at the mercy of whimsical and jealous forces?
    Can you fight evil by obliterating it?
    Can we make peace with our maker?
    Is the rainbow a sign of permanence and stability?
    Are we all part of the same family?

    When I meet someone who believes the story as literal fact, I try to find common ground in those questions.

  4. Heidegger sometimes calls the two things you are discussing “Truth” and “Accuracy”. So it is not accurate to say “all men are created equal” but it is true.
    The Truth of the Noah story is a good thing to worry about. But it’s also worth noting that it’s not accurate, because it’s accuracy or not has prosaic consequences (how do you deal with global warming if you think it’s an accurate statement that the world is 6000 years old) but also because there are philosophical consequences to the fact that each individual culture’s myths are not accurate. You could say that the fact “the Noah story is not accurate” is itself not just accurate. It is True.

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