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AGAINST JEWISH LITERALISM

10 May 2017 No Comment

AGAINST JEWISH LITERALISM

Rabbi Michael Whitman

John raises an issue that is crucial for all three of us to confront. Not only does Judaism have an approach that is distinct from Christianity and Islam, but among different groups of Jews, this is one of the fundamental questions that define the difference between Jewish denominations. I will try to present my approach as a modern orthodox rabbi.

While Judaism has its share (unfortunately) of extremists and fundamentalists, we do not have a tradition of literalists – those who read and attempt to live the literal, simple meaning of the Bible.

There was an ancient sect that attempted to do this – the Karaites – but they were rejected by normative Judaism and, practically speaking, they ceased to function centuries ago. Such an approach is simply untenable.

It is a basic Jewish belief that when God gave the Torah to Moses and the Jewish People at Mount Sinai about 3500 years ago, it was given in two parts: in written form (the Bible’s Five Books of Moses), along with an oral explanation.

Many verses whose meaning is unclear (e.g. on the Holy Day of Sukkot we are to take the fruit of a beautiful tree – which fruit of which tree?) are clarified by the oral explanation God gave Moses (in this case, an Etrog fruit, used by all Jews for all times for this ritual).

Similarly, the general Biblical statement to desist from work on the Sabbath was explained by God to Moses to prohibit 39 specific categories of creative activity (so turning on an electric switch is prohibited while carrying a sofa up the stairs is permitted).

Additionally, there are verses whose simple meaning seems clear but whose oral explanation contradicts that simple meaning. The verse, “An eye for an eye,” was never understood – or practiced – at face value since God orally explained to Moses that the meaning is to require financial payment of damages for causing injury, not the taking of a limb in revenge.

Or, the Biblical verse indicating capital punishment for various crimes is complemented by God’s oral description of the extremely high standards of testimony and evidence that make it virtually impossible to impose execution.

In these two examples, God is telling us in written form what theoretically should be the consequence of our misdeeds, while orally telling us how humans should actually judge each other.

Because of this, when written law and oral law (later written in the Talmud) are fully understood, we still maintain there can be no Divine law that falls short of God’s perfect morality and righteousness.

When new situations arise not explicitly addressed in the Bible, it is up to authorized rabbis in each generation to channel God’s morality and ask ourselves, “What does the Boss want us to do in this situation.”

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