Six Criteria that Inform a True Torah
The Torah is true, i.e. a divinely inspired document. Since God is true, God’s message to us via the Torah is a reflection of divine truth. In what sense/s, though, are we to understand “truth?” The following six criteria’s shape our understanding of Torah as Truth:
1. Truth does not mean literal understanding of the Torah text.
Rabbinic tradition rejected literalism in its presentation of halachot, Jewish law. Instead, the Oral Torah provides interpretations and hermeneutical rules that produce interpretations that frequently defy literal understanding of the text, but form the basis of rabbinic halacha.We don’t necessarily read all the narrative material literally either.
At least since the days of Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204), most commentators do not interpret the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic texts in a literal way; indeed, in Rambam’s view, it is heretical to read these passages as being literally true.
2. Truth does not mean one and only one valid answer/interpretation.
Chazal, the classical rabbis, understood that Torah interpretation provides a range of “correct” answers. There is not one, and only one, correct answer/interpretation to every verse/question. Shiv’im panim laTorah— literally means the Torah has seventy faces, but the point is that there are multiple legitimate “true” interpretations.
But, as Nechama Leibowitz wisely reminded us in many of her lectures: there are 70 faces to Torah—not 71! There is a wide range of interpretation, but not an unlimited range. Even in halakhic matters, Chazal recognized that there are 49 ways of permitting and 49 ways of forbidding i.e., truth is not limited to one and only one answer; there is a legitimate range of “true” answers (j. San. 4:2, Lev. Rab. “Emor” 26:2).
3. Truth may be derived from a literary/aesthetic approach to the text.
Rabbi Yishmael taught that the Torah speaks in the language of humans, (Sifrei Bemidbar, “Shelach” 112) i.e., its words often need to be understood in a literary fashion. While this statement generally restricts interpretations based on “extra” words or letters in the text, it more broadly provides a way of reading Torah in a literary/aesthetic framework.
We need to read the Torah’s narratives with the literary sensitivity to detect when the text is using dramatic language or when it provides seemingly trivial details. While this does not open the gates to any and all interpretations of the text, it provides a wider range of understanding the truth of Torah.
4. Truth of Torah must work with scientific/rational/philosophical accuracy.
Rambam made clear throughout his Guide of the Perplexed that the Torah and science/reason/philosophy cannot be in conflict with Torah. Since God is the Author of both science and Torah, there must be one truth that underlies both. If philosophy and reason conclude that God has no physical or emotional attributes, then the Torah must be interpreted based on this knowledge. If science has proven something to be true, the Torah cannot be interpreted in a way that violates that truth.
For example, if science has demonstrated that the universe is billions of years old, then passages in the Torah that seem to conflict with this truth need to be reinterpreted. Thus, the six “days” of creation are more properly understood to be six “phases” of creation, with each “phase” being of extensive duration. If evolution is proven to be true, then God’s creation of Adam from the dust of the earth can be understood as the beginning of an evolutionary process that took place over vast amounts of time. It is foolish and wrong to interpret the Torah in a way that makes Torah conflict with the unequivocal truths of science and reason.
5. Truth = Divine guidance in the moral realm.
The Torah provides Divine wisdom that explains how we are to conduct our lives morally. Yet, Chazal (the Sages) have already pointed out that the Torah’s moral lessons are not always valid and applicable for all times. Rambam indicated that certain laws, such as those relating to animal sacrifices, were given in the context of what the Israelites of those times could best understand (Guide of the Perplexed III:32) . Chazal formulated rules that negated or mitigated literal application of texts dealing with capital punishment and slavery.
In select cases, Chazal even interpreted laws out of existence, such as they did with the wayward son, בן סורר ומורה, of Deut 21:18-21 who is supposed to be executed, and the idolatrous city (עיר הנדחת) of Deut 13:13-19, which must be destroyed—declaring that they never occurred, and could never occur (see b. San. 71a).
6. Truth = Our best effort to apply the Divine guidance of Torah to our own lives.
God gave us the Torah, and also gave us the human capacity to apply divine wisdom to actual life. The Torah is “true” in the sense that it contains divine wisdom and instruction; but its “truth” is subject to human understanding and interpretation.
This is not to grant free reign to human reason to make Torah fit into our personal intellectual and moral predilections; but such an understanding should also not categorically limit the possibility of reasonable human interpretation and application.
Truth needs to be extracted from the rich mine of Torah. It requires human wisdom to properly interface with the divine wisdom of Torah. It requires a deep analysis of text, a knowledge of the teachings and approaches of the Oral Torah, a sophisticated literary tact, a commitment to the truths of science and reason, and a highly developed moral sense.
Above all, it requires an abiding faith in the ultimate Wisdom and Goodness of the Almighty God, Giver of the Torah.
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September 6, 2015
November 23, 2022
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Dr. Rabbi Marc D. Angel is Founder and Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (jewishideas.org), and Editor of its journal, Conversations. He is Rabbi Emeritus of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City. He received his B.A., M.S., Ph.D and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, and an M.A. in English Literature from the City University of New York. Among his many books are The Wisdom of Solomon and Us, Maimonides, Spinoza and Us, and a commentary on Pirkei Avot. Angel is a past president of the RCA, and co-founder (with Avi Weiss) as well as founding president of the IRF.
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