Allegory and Literalism

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  1. micha says:

    Now I did. I was unimpressed.

    Two particular issues I disagree with strongly.

    The first is that Golding lumps together all forms of non-literalness. He therefore concludes that Rambam with lifting R’ Yishma’el’s “diberah Torah belashon benei adam” as a motto, and then using it to describe roughly the reverse of R’ Yishma’el. To Rabbi Yishma’el, it’s a rule that limits hermeneutics, to the Rambam, one that allows for non-literal interpretation.

    However, to both the meaning is the same — the Torah uses human idiom. A book isn’t being unnecessarily opaque who was “hands down” the winner of a competition. Nor is the Torah being allegorical or opaque when it uses the Hebrew idiom of “hand” for “control” or “power”, or the image of flaring nostrils to describe actions that appear to us to be in anger. It’s normal human idiom. The same idiom that R’ Yishmael says we can not use for derashah. He sees “aseir ta’aser” is idiom, not redudant words. R’ Aqiva’s school sees derashah as being about syntax, so that words like “es”, “akh”, “raq” are used for derashos. R’ Yishma’el bases derashos on the ideas conveyed, because he says the word choices are for transparency reasons, to speak in normal idiom.

    Second, he assumes that Orthodoxy means halachic continuity, and therefore limits allegorization to that which would undermine halakhah. Be it a verse that is the basis of halakhah — such as the difficulty of commemorating the Exodus if one believes it’s allegorical (possible but difficult), or be it the general tendency toward allegorization undermining faith in the text and mesorah altogether.

    What Golding does not address is the evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, nature of mesorah. We can’t make revolutions in aggadita because that’s not how mesorah works. I’m not saying that every textual interpretation must have grounding in the mesorah, or justification by answering an open mesoretic question (as opposed to scientific challenge). But it has to stay within the bound of evolution, of small incremental change. Mesorah is a dialog down the generations, there is a flow to it. We can’t just skip the river banks and flow down a new one, and believe we’re still walking alongside the same stream.


  1. October 26, 2009 – ח׳ במרחשוון תש״ע

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