The Bible. Literally.

Promoting episode 17, Unintelligent Design, I joined a Facebook group for Young Earth Creationists.

As you might have guessed, it ended badly.

When I joined the group devoted to YEC (Young Earth Creationism or Young Earth Creationists or Yokohama Rubber Company), I was straight with them: “Shalom! I’m an Orthodox Jew, and I’m trying to understand how Christians see creation. I understand that there are different versions of ‘creationism,’ so perhaps I can’t speak to all of them” – and in fact Young Earth Creationism is only one kind of argument for Intelligent Design – “but it seems to me that the common theme is that the *start* of *life* was a *supernatural* event that did not rely on natural random processes. (Perhaps some believe that there are no random processes, or maybe even no natural processes?) What’s perplexing for me is that this story seems to *diminish* God’s glory and the freedom with which He invests His creation. It also seems to block the awe and love that come from careful scientific study of the world. I talk about this, in connection with Divine Providence, here on my podcast. I would love to hear your thoughts.”

I received many well-meaning responses. I was amazed by the members’ general kindness, good faith, and patience. I was also stunned by how badly they’re misled about science (a topic for another time).

Several YECs told me that a literal reading of the Bible necessitates YEC. If you’re an Orthodox Jew, how can you reject YEC? Don’t you accept the Bible as literally true?

Short answer: no.

But, asked one member of the group, don’t you accept peshat as binding? His knowledge of Hebraic hermeneutics impressed me.

Peshat (pronounced: peh-SHAHT) is a “simple” level of meaning in Torah. And it has sometimes been called the “literal meaning.” So his question was on point, and it challenged me to make a distinction I’d long felt but never articulated.

Peshat is not “the literal meaning.” It is different from literal meaning not because it is some exotic literary conspiracy perpetrated upon us by ancient postmodernist pharisees performing mental gymnastics in smokey yeshivas, but rather because what people call a “literal meaning,” in Torah is no meaning at all.

To be clear, when I say, what people call a “literal meaning”, I mean what, based on my limited data, it seems to me, many American Protestants call a “literal meaning.” In that sense, the “literal meaning” of a phrase seems to be the meaning you get straight away when you hear the phrase.

This, however,  is never sufficient for peshat. One would be an idiot to claim that his initial impression of a verse is a “decent peshat” because peshat requires consistency across usages. Before I can claim that thus-and-such is peshat, I have to look across the whole field of Torah to see if my interpretation checks out.

For example, it is not peshat to say that the first word of the Torah, בראשית (bereishit) means “In the beginning.” First, there’s no definite article. So better than “In the beginning” is “‘In a beginning” or just “In beginning.” Second, the word ראשית (reishit) which is taken to mean “beginning,” isn’t used that way elsewhere. Elsewhere it is used to pick out from a larger set some subset which is primary. And very importantly, it seems to be a form used specifically for the first word in a compound noun, i.e., it sounds like we’re talking about a beginning or a primary aspect of something, which leads to an obvious question: in beginning what?

You might suppose I’m inventing problems or forcing fringe readings center-stage, but I’m not saying anything untraditional, or even controversial. On the contrary, I’m paraphrasing the most quoted Torah commentator, the very master of peshat, Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, who’s called upon so often by so many Jews, he’s usually called by his two-syllable acronym: Rashi.

So what is the literal meaning of the first words of Genesis? An educated Jew might best answer with a question: what do you mean when you say “literal”?

Perhaps more important than any single reading of a phrase in the Torah are the conundrums which Gd sets before us with those words. As Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message,” or better, as Rashi says about the Torah’s opening words, אֵין הַמִּקְרָא הַזֶּה אוֹמֵר אֶלָּא דָּרְשֵׁנִי – “these words say nothing but ‘Interpret me!’” When you pursue PeShaT (פשט), you must be mitPaSheT (מתפשט) – you must strip yourself – of assumptions.

And by the way there is no such thing as “the peshat.” Many peshatim (plural of peshat) are possible, and if we know only one, it’s only because we haven’t searched hard enough for other possibilities. Would we say that of “the literal meaning”?

A second requirement of peshat, almost contradictory to the first, is sensitivity to context. Even if a word means X almost everywhere, here it might mean something else. How would we know? The context might make it difficult or impossible for the word to mean X. So, while a literalist reading might lead you to conclude that, despite whatever contextual difficulties, we must understand the word to mean X, a peshat reading cannot make such an assumption.

Consider Genesis 24:64: וַתִּפֹּל מֵעַל הַגָּמָל which, literally, seems to mean, “She [Rebecca] fell off her camel.” The commentators, however, don’t wonder why no one helped her up. They conclude, in various ways, that the word which I rendered “fell,” as it is correctly rendered elsewhere, is, roughly speaking, an idiom meaning that she dismounted. While defenders of literal reading claim that only the literal reading takes Gd’s word seriously, here if we refuse to read in a manner sensitive to context, we change Rebecca into a clumsy bumbler – at the very moment she meets her husband! Who thinks it’s a good idea to turn the Bible into a romantic comedy?

A third aspect of peshat is also contextual, not however in the fabric of the document, but rather in the weave of the language. The meaning of a word is shaped by how it contrasts with related words. Some commentators make this a requirement of peshat, whereas other commentators do not treat the meanings of alternative related words as strong constraints, but everyone must sometimes consider alternative word choices and what the selection of one word over another implies. In its extreme form – to which I incline strongly – there are no true synonyms: every difference makes a difference.

Perhaps this is hyperliteral. Consider the beautiful words of Malbim in the introduction to his commentary on Isaiah: “in the poetry of the prophets, there is no husk devoid of interior, body without soul, clothing without a wearer, language devoid of a lofty idea, saying within which wisdom does not dwell, for the spirit of the living God is in all the words of the living God.” If the precise meaning of each word were obvious, there would be no need for Malbim to assert omni-significance. So if the literal meaning is the meaning you hear reading the Bible straight through with the simplicity of a child, then it is not this. To search out the full force of each distinction requires we read non-linearly, that we hear everything in light of, and in connection with, everything else. That richness and depth is impossible when one is content with the merely literal. And the work of this reading is literally endless. For each new existential insight in our the course of our lives and every new advance in understanding this crazy world plucks the strings of the network, sets the whole vibrating in song, reveals new harmonies and harmonics.

That might mark the most fundamental difference between peshat and literal meaning. Whereas “the literal meaning” is apprehended immediately and automatically, peshat comes from rigorous study. Whereas peshat gets you beyond yourself, like science, “literal meanings” can hardly be anything but what you expect to hear.

When I have asked American Protestants how they achieve rigor in their interpretation of the Bible, they have frequently told me that they rely on the “Holy Spirit.” This response acknowledges the problem of projection, but if it is the way to solve the problem, it seems to reduce humanity to insignificance.

In other words, if every idiot who, say, has had a conversion experience, or been baptized, or whatever other thing that has nothing to do with actually working to understand the verse,  can rely on the Holy Spirit to speak through him, the Holy Spirit is just a theological cheat sheet. That kind of correct answer has nothing precious in it – it’s either merely personal or coldly impersonal; that kind of correct answer is antithetical to love – which, you know, requires work – between human and Gd.

So you can wave that off and say, But this correct answer gets you into heaven!

That’s so impersonal, it’s nothing other than mental whoredom. And anyway, if Gd liked shortcuts, He could skip this world and plop us all in heaven straightaway.

That shows how the hermeneutic differences between me and the YECs (and perhaps advocates of “intelligent design” more broadly) run parallel to our differences on creation. As one YEC explained to me, for them the glory of Gd is maximized by creation happening quickly. What kind of nutty argument is that? We’re talking about Gd, not Usain Bolt. We’re talking about the difference between being and non-being, between inanimate matter and complex life that can gaze backward and praise the source of existence. Multiply the speed by any number you like – how does that change the reality to which we respond? Timescale is irrelevant. But this YEC effectively says, be damned becoming of the world from the utterance that launched existence to the big bang to the formation of galaxies, stars, and planets, to the emergence of geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, atmosphere, and noösphere, up to the moment just days shy of the formation of Adam, less than a rounding error in the mass of the universe but one whose mind stretches across the breadth of creation. The way our world has struggled into being and how the consciousness of man has emerged as the embodiment of our whole universe means less to him than his feeling that he can use the end result as a platform for his salvation or whatever. Yes, of course, he’s extremely grateful – after all, he has Heaven to gain from it – and surely that’s what Gd wants for him – and surely that’s the end for which Gd created everything. But – aaaargh! – how can you be so damn self-obsessed?! What do you think a self is anyway?

The notion of “Holy Spirit” didn’t arise in a vacuum. Ruach ha-qodesh, a phrase that appears in Torah, is often translated as “the holy spirit,” but more precisely it is “the spirit of the dedicated.” What dedication is there in a “literal meaning” which is obvious only because you didn’t put in any work? Accept Gd in your heart till the cows come home, but your ears will still be clogged with mud if you don’t clean your house from the infestations of your presumptions and assumptions. Till then the Bible cannot sound any different from what your mind was already telling itself. Inspiration is no pass to deceive ourselves into believing what we wish. Inspiration is possible only within a space of dedication.

Everything about the facts of life tells us that, the quest of and for consciousness matters. Torah sanctifies and mandates that quest: לך לך. That quest is what studying the Bible is about, and peshat is an integral part of it.

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