How much does the Bible really care about this red cow?
How much does the Bible really care about this red cow?

Does the Torah mean what it says literally?


Numbers 19:1–22:1

Judges 11:1-33

Everyone knows that artists, politicians, spouses and siblings sometimes say things they don’t really mean. When a young child having a tantrum declares to his mother, “I’m not your friend anymore,” we know not to take this literally.

But when it comes to the Torah, how do we know what is to be understood in its plain, literal meaning, and what is symbolic, allegorical or hides some deeper truth?

This question stands at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, which opens with a classical example of a hok, or a directive from God that has no obvious logical basis or symbolic significance. The parah adumah, or red cow, is an animal that is slaughtered and then burned to ash. The ashes of the parah adumah have a special power to purify individuals, enabling them to participate in the worship of God. However, there is no specific reason given for this practice. There is no symbolic meaning or allegorical understanding. It’s simply the way the world works for Jewish people.

This case brings up the larger topic of Jewish hermeneutics, or interpretive traditions. The classical interpretive approach to Torah has four levels: peshat (simple meaning), remez (allegorical meaning), drash (homiletic meaning) and sod (hidden meaning). These four approaches are referred to by the acronym PaRDeS, which means orchard in Hebrew.

All of these interpretive approaches can be applied to parts of the Torah, but it’s not always apparent from the text which approach is appropriate.

One of the most celebrated medieval practitioners of the peshat interpretation of the Torah is Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra. was born in northern Spain in 1089 C.E. and wrote commentaries on nearly the entire Hebrew Bible. He is famous, or notorious, for rejecting symbolic or homiletic interpretations of the Torah and presenting what he sees as the plain sense. In particular, he often disagrees with Rashi (Rabbi Yitzchak ben Shlomo) whose commentary on the Torah regularly cites midrashic (homiletic) sources. Despite his commitment to Jewish law and tradition, Ibn Ezra has been claimed as an inspiration for modern academic Biblical criticism.

There is an episode in this week’s portion that even Ibn Ezra has trouble explaining via literal meaning. The Israelites once more complain about the harsh conditions of their journey. They blame Moshe and God for bringing them out of Egypt to die a terrible death in the wilderness.

In response, God sends a plague of snakes who start to bite the people. Moshe asks God what to do and God instructs him to make a copper snake and place it on a pole. Anyone who has been bitten by a snake can look at the snake and be healed. Rashi quotes the Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 29a) that this is all allegorical, that the people are actually looking up (metaphorically) to God for help and they are healed. By contrast, Ibn Ezra says that the text means just what it says, and we should accept that God chose this somewhat strange way of dealing with an attack of serpents. Just like the red cow, this copper snake is a hok, to be taken literally, and has no deeper explanation.

This same tension between literal and allegorical has played out in debates over stories in the Talmud. One famous example concerns the mode of death of Titus, the Roman general who destroyed the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The Babylonian Talmud states that Titus died when an insect burrowed into his brain, perhaps as divine punishment. Rabbi Azariah de Rossi, writing in Italy five centuries ago, claimed that this story is at best allegorical, and at worst a display of scientific and medical ignorance.

He was subsequently attacked by his contemporary, Rabbi Judah Loew (the Maharal of Prague), for questioning the accuracy and even the veracity of the Talmudic sages. The Maharal argues that those of later generations have to maintain respect for those scholars of earlier generations, whose great knowledge and proximity in time to the giving of the Torah lends their interpretations greater validity.

But back to the main issue: How can we know what interpretive approach is most valid for a specific Torah passage? Although many interpretations are possible, even for simple verses, some interpretations are more persuasive than others. So before you make up your own and declare it’s the best, check out what has already been said.

The Torah is an evolving project and its best interpreters are masters of the entire corpus of Jewish texts. Rashi’s and Ibn Ezra’s commentaries are a good place to start, but even they do not always get to have the last word.

Rabbi Joel Landau
Rabbi Joel Landau

Rabbi Joel Landau is the spiritual leader of Adath Israel in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].