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Do orthodox Jews interpret the Bible literally?

June 17th, 2016 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 1 comment


My pastor tells me that, “The most orthodox view historically seems to be not a literal interpretation,” with the creation story in Genesis 1-3.

Would you agree with this? Are there other passages in the Torah like this? Are their hints in the Hebrew that suggest something to be non-literal?  ∼ Jarred


Dear Jarred,

A few days ago, Jews celebrated the festival of Shavuot, known in English as Pentecost. Shavuot falls during the Hebrew month of Sivan, whose sign is twins. (General culture adapted this idea turning it into the zodiac sign of Gemini.)

The main connection of Shavuot with twins or twoness is that it celebrates the giving of the physical Torah on Mt. Sinai at the same time as it falls on the sixth of the month, a number that represents the Oral Torah. In other words, God transmitted the text of the Bible to Moses, and then spent forty days and nights teaching Moses an accompanying Torah that goes hand in hand with that text. We call this the Oral Torah or oral transmission and the Bible can best be understood through this lens.

As one of many examples, Jews reject the literalism of ‘an eye for an eye’ (Lev. 24:18). In contrast to Islam, under Jewish law from the time of Moses to the present, no one’s eye was ever removed as a punishment. The oral transmission, flowing out of the exact Hebrew language used, explains that the phrase means monetary compensation for the lost eye. Additionally, it refers to a general principle of financial compensation for almost all cases of civil damages. This was not a later addition to make the text more palatable as civilization ‘advanced’; it is the original and intended explanation that was first told by God to Moses.

Much of this oral transmission was known to the Christian founders of America and Christian scholars elsewhere. Small parts of the Jewish community have kept the oral transmission alive since the days of Sinai. The mission to which we devote ourselves in our ministry is to enable both Jews and Christians to recapture that part of their heritage that has been neglected or lost. We call this transmission ‘ancient Jewish wisdom.’

What we would say to your pastor is that, firstly, the English translation is quite distant from a literal understanding of the Hebrew and second, that the literal translation is part of, but far from all, of the intended meaning.

If you are specifically interested in the first three chapters of Genesis, we encourage you to listen to our audio CD set, Madam, I’m Adam. We think you will be amazed and awed at the Bible’s depth and at the same time the hidden treasures will provide practical guidance for navigating life.

Keep studying,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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One comment

James Major says:

I am intrigued with the sevens in Scripture. Seven is the complete number of the Creator. He made seven days including Shabat, dictated the feasts and festival to coincide with seven months, seven years including Shemita, then following seven Shemitas, ordained Jubilee. There are so many other sevens in Scripture and it’s fun to try to find them all. On top of the sevens there are the significant numbers like the 430 years we find connected to the Exodus as well as Ezekiel. I think God has a wonderful sense of humor letting us try to figure all this out.

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