Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Torah is not a science book!

Last week, on parshas Bereishis, we addressed the question of just how the snake and Chava could have communicated with one another. And various "famous" people thought that it was a good question -- Saadia Gaon, Shmuel ben Chofni Gaon, Ibn Ezra, Rambam, Abarbanel, and Shadal. And they may have given different answers, but regardless they treated the question as a serious question. Some say that it was via a nes; some say that it was via an angel speaking in its mouth, some say that it did not speak but she argued within herself as a result of seeing the actions of the snake, and some say that it was entirely allegorical.

But when arguing this out with one another, they do not seem to assume that such a question -- we don't see snakes speak -- is by its very nature heretical. Rather, such questions, and grappling with various features of the text, is talmud torah, and is what they are obligated to engage in.

A more "modern" approach is presented by Rav Aharon Schachter in his speech about Rabbi Slifkin and his books, in which he argues that regardless of the truth of creation, and regardless of empirical evidence, the plain understanding of the pesukim as put forth by Chazal is what the Torah, and thus Hashem, wants us to believe. And so it is quite improper to reread the pesukim nowadays to make them accord with what we know to be true about the universe.

I agree more with the meforshim cited above, who argued about ideas and pesukim in order to discover the pasuk's meaning, and who were willing to present their own novel interpretations of peshat, even if at odds with the traditional explanation and the explanation of Chazal. And nowadays we should not be overly pious in order to draw a distinction between ourselves and medieval commentators. We have an obligation to eat from that Etz HaDaas, and not simply act naive, unaware that we are naked.

On the other hand, if the true intent of the pesukim is something outside the bounds of our ken, then such interpretations may take us farther from the truth. For example, if a certain narrative is allegory, or else polemic commentary on competing stories in the ancient world, then perhaps the simple peshat in the mashal that we have is appropriate, and we should then take that and find the allegorical interpretation. But if instead we reread details of a creation story to match our knowledge of the universe, then forget the nimshal -- even the mashal is being misinterpreted!

Shadal makes an interesting point in the opening to his commentary on Chumash. Namely, that the Torah is not a science book. And therefore, in his view, one should not reinterpret certain pesukim to accord with physical reality; and one should not reject Torah for failing to accord with physical reality. And I think he makes a good point:

א] יבינו המשכילים כי המכוון בתורה אינו הודעת החכמות הטבעיות, ולא ניתנה התורה אלא להיישיר בני אדם בדרך צדקה ומשפט, ולקיים בלבם אמונת היחוד וההשגחה, כי לא לחכמים לבדם ניתנה תורה, אלא לכל העם; וכמו שענין ההשגחה והגמול לא נתבאר (ולא היה ראוי שיתבאר) בתורה בדרך פילוסופי, אבל דיברה תורה עליו כלשון בני אדם (וחרה אף ה' בכם, דברים ז' ד'; ויתעצב אל לבו, בראשית ו' ו' ורבות כאלה), כן עניין הבריאה איננו מסופר (ולא היה ראוי שיסופר) בתורה בדרך פילוסופי, וכמו שאמרו חז"ל (מדרש הגדול לבראשית א' א') להגיד כח מעשה בראשית לבשר ודם אי אפשר. לפיכך אין ראוי לתורני להוציא הכתובים ממשמעותם כדי להסכימם עם החכמות הטבעיות, גם אין ראוי לחוקר שיכחיש בתורה מן השמים, אם ימצא בסיפוריה דברים בלתי מסכימים עם המחקר הטבעי; אבל זה וזה ראוי להם, שיתבוננו בפנימיות לבב בני אדם, ובדרכי החכמה שהטבע נוהג בהם בדברו בלבו של כל אחד ואחד, לנער על פי דרכו, ולבחור בדרך אחר, ולזקן בדרך אחר, ולחזק בדרך מיוחד, ולחלש בדרך מיוחד, ולעשיר בדרך אחד, ולעני בדרך אחר, וכן לכל כיתות בני אדם הטבע מדבר בלבם בדרך פרטי הראוי לאנשי הכת ההיא, ולא יגלה הטבע לשום אחת מהכיתות האמת ערומה בלא מסוה ובלא לבוש; כן נותן התורה ית ' (כי האל אשר ברא את הטבע והאל אשר נתן לנו את התורה, אל אחד הוא) בדברו עם בני אדם הוצרך לדבר כפי מדרגתם ולא כפי מדרגתו ית '. והנה רצה ה' להודיע לבני אדם אחדות העולם ואחדות המין האנושי; כי הטעות בשני הענינים האלה גרמה בימי קדם רעות גדולות, כי מהעדר ידיעת אחדות העולם נמשך, שהיו בני אדם מאמינים מציאות אלהים פרטיים בעלי חסרון ומידות גרועות, והיו עושים מעשים רעים כדי להיות לרצון לפניהם (עיין מה שכתבתי בפרשת יתרו (שמות כ"ג) בפסוק לא יהיה לך), ומהעדר ידיעת אחדות המין האנושי נמשך, שהיו בני אומה אחת שונאים ומואסים בני אומה אחרת, והיו נוהגים עמהם בכח הזרוע, ולא במשפט ובצדקה; ושני העיקרים האלה (אחדות העולם ואחדות המין האנושי) הם המכוון הכללי בסיפור מעשה בראשית, ופרטי הספר כוללים עוד כוונות אחרות כאשר יתבאר.
The discerning should realize that the intent of the Torah is not to inform about the natural sciences, and that the Torah was not given except to keep people straight on the path of righteousness and justice, and to establish in their hearts the faith in the Oneness {?} and Providence. For the Torah was not only given to Sages, but to the entire nation. And just as the matter of Providence and Reward {and Punishment} is not explained (and is not fitting to be explained) in the Torah in a philosophical manner, but rather the Torah speaks about it in the language of people (such as "the anger of the Lord shall be kindled against you" {Devarim 7:4}; "and it grieved Him at His heart" {Bereishit 6:6} and many like these), so too the matter of Creation is not told over (and is not fitting to be told over) in the Torah in a philosophical manner. And this is as Chazal said (Midrash Hagadol to Bereishit 1:1): "To relate the power of the act of Creation to flesh and blood is not possible."

Therefore, it is not fitting for a religious person to take the verses out of their simple meaning in order to harmonize them with the natural sciences; it is also not fitting for a researcher to deny Torah from heaven if he finds in its account things which do not agree with scientific research.

Rather, this and this is fitting to them, that they contemplate the internals of the hearts of people, and in the ways of wisdom that nature works in them, when it speaks in the heart of each and every one of them -- to the child according to his way, and to the lad in another way, and to the elderly in another way; and to the strong in a unique way, and to the weak in a unique way, and to the wealthy in one way, and to the pauper in another way; and so too to every group of people, nature speaks in their hearts in a particular way which is fitting for members of that group; and does not reveal the nature to any one of the groups as the naked truth without veil and without clothing. So too, the Giver of the Torah, Yisbarach (for the God who created nature and the God who gave us the Torah is one God) when he spoke to people, he needed to speak in accordance with their level, and not in accordance with His level, Yisbarach.

And behold, Hashem wanted to inform people of the unity of the world and the unity of the human species. For the error in these two matters caused in days of old great evils. For from lack of knowledge of the unity of the world, it was caused that people believed in particular gods who had lacks and inferior traits, and therefore they {=the people} performed evil acts in order to find favor before them. (See what I {=Shadal} wrote in parashat Yitro (Shemot 23) on the pasuk lo yihyeh lecha.) And from lack of knowledge of the unity of the human race, it came about that people of one nation hated and despised the people of another nation, and conducted themselves against them with force, rather than with justice and righteousness. And these two principles (the unity of the world and the unity of the human race) compose the general intent of the narrative of the act of Creation, and the details of sefer (narrative?) encompass other intents, as will be explained.

1 comment:

Joshua Cohe said...

I know this is an old post but... if the rule is אין המקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו how do we make the narrative with the snake a metaphor? I have no problem with Midrashim or narrative that can be described as a prophecy (like the 3 מלאכים visiting אברהם and לוט’s experience in סדום all being part of one prophetic dream that אברהם had according to רמב''ם in מורה נבוחים- though it’s a stretch.) Where in that narrative is there something that indicates a departure from them being real people in the actual world?


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