How Literally Do Jews Take the Hebrew Bible?

A major tenet of rabbinic Judaism is that the Bible is not to be taken literally. But of course that’s not the whole story.

Expulsion from Paradise by James Tissot, c. 1896–1902. Wikimedia.

Expulsion from Paradise by James Tissot, c. 1896–1902. Wikimedia.

Sept. 17 2022
About the author

Jeffrey Bloom is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the co-editor of Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith.

Taking the Bible literally is, as everyone knows, the hallmark of a religious fundamentalist. Of course, terms such as “literalism” and certainly “fundamentalism” have their origins in certain debates within American Protestantism, but that doesn’t stop people from applying them to Orthodox Judaism. Such usage has always bemused me, since a major tenet of rabbinic Judaism is that the Bible is not to be taken literally. Ancient and early medieval rabbis quite consciously saw this as what distinguished them from rival Jewish sects.

That might surprise some readers, but one need not know much about Judaism to know that it is true. Two examples will suffice: the Talmud and other contemporary works insist that the lex talionis—“an eye, for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, . . .”—refers to monetary compensation. Nobody’s eye should be gouged out; rather, like American courts today, rabbinic judges were supposed to assess the cost to the plaintiff of the injury through a set of formulas and compel the tortfeasor to pay accordingly.

A second example is the biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” Straightforward though it sounds, the rabbis take this to prohibit any consumption of meat and milk together (even if they come from different species, let alone unrelated animals), to mandate the use of separate dishes for meat and dairy, and so forth. This is hardly the sort of reading that liberal Protestant theologians who reject literalism would come up with, but it is by no means a literal interpretation. When it comes to more arcane cases of sacrificial ritual, the talmudic rabbis are quite explicit that their readings differ from the more literal interpretations of the Sadducees—and record intense strife over these issues.

Why this is so, and how the rabbis justified their sometimes radical readings of Scripture are worthy questions, but I’d like to focus on the questions that bothered me when I was a college student drawn to Orthodox Judaism, and have stuck with me since. What is an intellectually sophisticated believer supposed to think about the Bible’s depiction of the Garden of Eden? Could they be taken as allegory? Are they true in a more concrete sense? And, most importantly, were there answers to these questions that I found both satisfactory and intellectually honest? And could I really become committed to a religion if it did not have such answers?

I first started making some headway on these questions when my embrace of Orthodoxy led me to spend a year (the first of several) in yeshiva. We were studying the opening chapters of Genesis and someone asked the rabbi if the Garden of Eden was a real place. The rabbi didn’t say “Yes, of course,” but instead answered the question by showing us a passage from the writings of Rabbi Moses Ḥayyim Luzzatto, known in rabbinic circles by the acronym Ramḥal.

Only much later would I learn that Luzzatto was one of the most interesting and controversial figures in 18th-century Jewish thought. He received a robust humanistic education in his native Padua, as well as a thorough rabbinic one, and authored plays and poetry in Hebrew along with extensive writings on kabbalah. In the wake of the disastrous career of Shabbetai Tsvi, the failed messiah whose antinomian mysticism and eventual conversion to Islam shook the foundations of 17th-century Jewry, Luzzatto’s kabbalistic speculation fueled suspicion that he was a heretic as well. The Italian Jewish community eventually forced him out of the country, and he ultimately settled in the Land of Israel, where he died in 1746 or 47.

Since then, the controversies concerning Luzzatto faded, and his work became part of the canon of thinkers venerated and studied in the world of the yeshiva. At the time, I was simply aware of him as the author of The Path of the Just, a guide to personal spiritual development today known to every yeshiva student, and often read in preparation for the High Holy Days.

The passage the rabbi showed us regarding the Garden, came from another book, Da’at T’vunot, a title usually translated as “The Knowing Heart.” Drawing more deeply on mystical influences, it is a dialogue between the soul and the intellect that covers a number of key issues in Jewish thought, such as the problem of evil. Here is my translation:

This is the general idea of the two trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Certainly, Scripture does not depart from its plain meaning: the trees were trees, the fruits were fruits, and the eating was eating. But the fruits were ethereal [dakim, literally “thin”] and the eating was ethereal [dak], in a way that our thoughts cannot conceive because they can only conceive of corporeal things.

For Luzzatto, the trees in the Garden of Eden were real, but they were not physical. What’s most surprising about this very non-literal reading is that he justifies it with the rabbinic principle “Scripture does not depart from its plain meaning.” To make sense of Luzzatto’s invocation of this principle, we must unpack the operative term, namely p’shat or “plain meaning,” and try to understand its history. Deriving from the word meaning “simple” or “laid bare,” it is traditionally contrasted with d’rash (from the word meaning “to seek”) or exegetical reading—the sort of interpretation that gives us separate pots for meat and dairy and the vast corpus of narrative elaborations on the scriptural text known as midrash.

The golden age of d’rash was the talmudic and post-talmudic era, from about 100 to 600 CE, during which rabbis used the text as a springboard for their daring interpretations. What is curious is that serious interest in p’shat came later. Between about 900 and 1300 CE, rabbis began focusing on basic questions about the meaning of words, the parsing of unclear sentences, and so forth, developing more literal alternatives to what they found in Talmud and midrash. The greatest exemplar of this period was Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac or Rashi (France, 1040-1105), who drew heavily on the traditions of d’rash, but made a point of presenting the p’shat alongside it when he saw the two as deviating. His successors, the Spanish exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra and his own grandson, Shmuel ben Meir, assailed him for straying too far from the p’shat, to which they sought to adhere carefully even when it led them to readings that ran counter to standard rabbinic interpretations. And then there was Moses Maimonides, writing in 12th-century Egypt, who was deeply troubled by those scriptural passages that, when read literally, depicted God in anthropomorphic terms—which to him was philosophically unacceptable. He thus devoted many chapters of his Guide of the Perplexed to explaining why such phrases as “the hand of God” must be read as metaphors.

But before this p’shat revolution, during rabbinic Judaism’s formative centuries, Jewish exegetes did not focus on finding Scripture’s literal meaning. Mordechai Cohen, a professor of Bible at Yeshiva University argues in his recent book The Rule of Peshat that this new approach to reading sacred texts was a response to specific intellectual challenges to Judaism:

Although the notion of p’shat solidified late in the Middle Ages, acquiring connotations that it would retain well into the modern era, the formative period from the 10th to the 13th centuries produced a number of p’shat models that responded in varied ways to Muslim and Christian interpretation of Scripture. The medieval quest to define the “p’shat of Scripture” was not simply about what the sacred text “really says”; it was, rather, a medium through which readers in diverse cultural contexts encountered and made sense of Scripture intellectually and religiously.

Against this backdrop, Luzzatto seems to pull the text in two contradictory directions. He embraces the supremacy of p’shat and writes that Scripture does not depart from its plain meaning. The trees were trees and the fruit was fruit. But then he pivots and says they were not physical trees. In what way is this not a departure from the plain sense?

Let me answer this question with a story. There were once two rabbis debating who was the greatest scholar in their generation. A simple man overheard the conversation and chimed in with a way to resolve the debate: weigh them both on a scale, and whoever weighs more is bigger.

In other words, a description like “this rabbi is big” could be talking about physical size or intellectual achievement. In Hebrew, then as now, the same word means both “great” and “big,” so that a rabbi of outstanding erudition would be described as a ḥakham gadol, a big sage. In using the word “big” to describe something like character or intelligence, we are borrowing the physical concept of “bigness” to communicate an abstract quality. The same word can be used in very different contexts because we sense, at some intuitive level, a connection between the physical and nonphysical uses of the word.

Luzzatto is saying that the same is true for a word like “tree.” It can refer to a physical tree and a nonphysical tree. Our only way of understanding the nature of a nonphysical tree is to look closely at a physical one and try to understand its essential qualities. Armed with some understanding of what the essence of a tree is and what the essence of eating is, we can use those reflections to make sense of what the Torah is trying to tell us.

But why is Luzzatto, who seems to be pushing for an allegorical interpretation, using the talmudic phrase that became the slogan of the medieval partisans of p’shat? It would be one thing if Luzzatto were saying that in addition to real physical trees, the Torah is also talking about spiritual trees. Then we could say the plain meaning of the text refers to physical trees and, on another level of interpretation, the text is also referring to spiritual trees. But he seems to be saying the Torah is only talking about spiritual trees and that he’s adhering to the p’shat.

Luzzatto is in fact telling us something not just about the Garden of Eden, but also about the parameters of the “plain meaning” of the text. Much as you could never hope to make sense of a newspaper article, or legal contract, or historical document by taking the words out of context, so too any word or phrase in Scripture must be read in its own context. Put differently, the plain meaning of Genesis 2 and 3, to Luzzatto refers not to literal trees, but incorporeal ones.

By insisting that his reading is p’shat, Luzzatto is trying to make clear that these trees may be metaphysical, but they are not allegorical. An allegorical reading of the Garden of Eden story would see the trees as a tool for communicating a set of ideas, and nothing more. Take for example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm: if someone reads it and then asks if he can visit the farm today, we would rightly say that he missed the point. The farm is simply the setting of an allegory meant to convey a set of ideas about politics. If the Garden of Eden were this kind of allegory, asking if it were a real place would make as much sense as asking to visit the farm where Animal Farm happened.

The difference is subtle but important. Luzzatto certainly believes that the story is communicating ideas—he goes on to say that ingesting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge caused man to internalize a new perspective on reality—but not as allegory. His radical and highly unintuitive reading depends on his peculiar metaphysics, which posit the existence of incorporeal trees and fruits that are every bit as real as the corporeal kind. They are not mere symbols, even if they are a kind of analogue for phenomena that don’t fit into our everyday experience. Another way to put this is with the talmudic dictum, “The Torah speaks in the language of man.” The text, according to Luzzatto, describes the experiences of Adam and Eve in everyday terms to make them understood.

Luzzatto is thus adhering to the general principles of the talmudic rabbis, who firmly rejected the allegorical approach to Scripture of Jews like the Hellenistic philosopher Philo of Alexandria and some early Christian thinkers—an approach that shares much with the allegorical readings of Plato and other ancient texts by pagan philosophers of the era. In all the rich expanse of its midrashic readings, the Talmud never tries to reduce the Tanakh to mere abstractions.


Where does this leave us 21st-century Jews trying to make sense of our sacred text? To borrow and slightly adjust Leon Kass’s elegant formulation from The Beginning of Wisdom, the first chapters of Genesis are not about what happened so much as they are about what is always happening in the metaphysical, spiritual, and moral dimensions of human life.

Addressing the problems of the relationship between Genesis and modern knowledge of science and history—as vexing to us now as whatever philosophical questions vexed Maimonides or Luzzatto—Kass, one of the most insightful Bible interpreters today, writes:

[I]f the major intention of the first chapter is not historical but ontological, ethical, and theological, Genesis is not the sort of book that can be refuted—or affirmed—on the basis of scientific or historical evidence. This is, I repeat, not because it is myth or poetry, but rather because its truths are metaphysical and ethical, not scientific or historical, because it teaches mainly about the status and human meaning of what is, rather than about the mechanism by which things work or came to be.

Kass favors a form of p’shat that is very different from strict literalism. The advantage of reading Scripture this way is that it makes it possible to approach the text with maximum seriousness—each word is true and real—but to avoid getting bogged down in the often futile attempts to read modern scientific knowledge back into the text. To me, especially in my youthful searching for my place in Judaism, it always seemed easier to unwind the Torah from science than to try to weave them together in the text itself.

Both Luzzatto and Kass, like their numerous predecessors, wish neither to reduce the Torah’s stories to fairy tales or myths, nor to read them as absurdities through obsessive literalism, like the village atheist who discovers that Jonah was swallowed by “a big fish” and is excited to point out that a whale is, in fact a mammal.

This brings us back to Mordechai Cohen’s observation that what he calls “the medieval quest” to find Scripture’s p’shat wasn’t about what the text “really” said, but about how readers “made sense of Scripture intellectually and religiously.” This is as true for us today as it was in the Middle Ages.

Yet this quest can only be fully understood in relation to its motivations, and here it’s worth citing Luzzatto’s much better-known work, The Path of the Just:

We notice at all periods and at all times, between all lovers and friends—between a man and his wife, between a father and his son, in fine, between all those who are bound with a love which is truly strong—that the lover will not say, “I have not been commanded further. What I have been told to do explicitly is enough for me.” He will rather attempt, by analyzing the commands, to arrive at the intention of the commander and to do what he judges will give him pleasure. The same holds true for one who strongly loves his Creator, for he, too, is one of the class of lovers.

Luzzatto’s uses of the word “commanded” in a comparison to a conversation between lovers may jar us. But like Isaiah and Hosea, he understands the relationship between God and His people as a romantic one, and his point is that lovers are never satisfied with a purely concrete understanding of each other’s words. They always seek the unspoken. Looking at the vast edifice of legal and ethical rabbinic commentary, stretching from the Talmud to our own day, it is easy to lose the forest for the trees (including the metaphysical ones). We are prone to forget that we are looking for God between the lines of all of our interpretive efforts. Luzzatto reminds us that the ongoing quest to analyze what the Torah says is our special Jewish love song to God.

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