The Error of Literalism – Re’eh 5783

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

A. J. Jacobs followed up his 2004 best-seller The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World with his 2007 book A Year of Living Biblically which was – rightfully –  less well-received. Jacob’s first book chronicled his effort to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in the course of a year, including a stint as a Jeopardy! contestant. He described his second book as a quest to follow every single rule of the Bible as literally as possible. But this quest was faulty from its inception. Apparently what Jacobs did not learn fron the Encyclopedia Britannica is that the Bible was never intended to be read literally.


A good illustration is the law regarding eating meat. The Torah considers whether those who live far from Jerusalem and could not take advantage of eating some of the sacrificial animals would be able to eat meat at all. The ruling is that meat can be eaten anywhere Jews reside provided that the animal source of meat is killed in accordance with the laws of slaughter “as I have commanded” (Deuteronomy 12:21). However, even a careful search of the Torah will not discover any such laws of slaughter. The Torah, it seems, is referring to information that does not exist. Not so, say the Sages. The rules for kosher slaughter may not appear in the written Torah, but the included in the oral Torah that Moses also received at Sinai. The Torah itself refers to an external source of information that explains the Torah while not in the Torah; a source without which the Torah could not be implemented, The oral law supplements and complements the written Torah. 


It is not uncommon for non-Jews to imagine that Jews today live like the people decribed in what they call the “Old Testament.” They do not appreciate the fact that Judaism – in contrast to Israelite religion – has evolved. Some Jews, it seems, suffer from the same misimpression. But Judaism has flourished because it is dynamic; not limited to the Biblical text but still indebted to it.



Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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