Interpreting Torah

Rabbi Mark Golub recently interviewed the writer Yossi Klein Halevi. In their discussion the subject came up of Abraham’s argument with God (Genesis 18) over whether to destroy the city of Sodom. R. Golub noted that this story is a metaphor, but Halevi interrupted with an objection. R. Golub looked surprised, commenting that all the bible stories are metaphorical. Halevi explained that he took it literally and believed that it was a factual description of an interaction between Abraham and God.

While some, like Halevi, believe in the literal truth of Torah, many see metaphor and allegory as the key to a meaningful understanding. Still other approaches involve mystical interpretation and understanding while some hold the view that what is written hides deep and perhaps impenetrable secrets. Literal truth, metaphor and allegory, mystical interpretation, and secret meanings are four ways to interpret Torah that have been known for over five hundred years. The twentieth century Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem points out that these four interpretation approaches were first described in the Kabbalistic writings of Rabbi Moses de Leon in the thirteenth century. Scholem also notes that a similar four-fold method of bible interpretation originated in early Christian writings of the third century. The Quran, too, has four levels of interpretation according to the eighth century Imam as-Sadiq: literal expression, for the common people, allusion for the elite, subtleties for the “friends of God”, and deepest realities for the prophets.

A story in the Talmud (Chagigah 14b) uses a parable to describe the four methods of interpretation. The story tells what happens to four famous rabbis who enter paradise. Following is one version:

The first to enter, Rabbi Shimon Ben Azai, looks about and dies, overwhelmed with joy and wishing to remain forever. The second to enter, Rabbi Shimon Ben Zoma, looks around and goes mad. Ben Zoma’s mind was overloaded and broken by the brilliant light of God. The third, Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuya (often referred to as “Aher” or “the other” because he embraced heresy) became an apostate. He decided that having reached such a high level (paradise) he no longer needed to observe the commandments and determined to spread this heresy. Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef was the fourth to enter. He smiled and walked on through paradise and back home. He was not harmed because he was able to navigate his path through his deep understanding that cannot be expressed.

In Judaism the four interpretation approaches are described by the summary term “PaRDeS” (literally, “the orchard” and metaphorically “paradise”), made up of the initial letters of the Hebrew words that represent the four approaches. There is no explicit or generally accepted definition for the four approaches. They overlap to some extent and some writers define one or another in rather different ways. Peshat, the first and simplest approach, is generally accepted as referring to the literal (“direct”) meaning of what is written. Remez, the second approach, looks for a hint of a deeper meaning, or a hidden message. Derash, the third approach, involves a search, seeking the sense concealed between the lines and behind the words. Some say that derash refers to allegorical interpretation, while others place allegory within remez and change “derash” to “din” (law), which refers to interpretation in terms of Jewish law. Sod, the fourth approach, refers to secret, esoteric meaning.

Peshat: The first level of interpretation and understanding. This is the literal understanding of Torah, intended perhaps for those too simple to understand the complexities of God’s word. They are told to believe what is written, to do as told and not ask questions or look for explanations. This gives guidance to individuals’ actions, while avoiding possible confusion in trying to figure out why God requires of us actions that may appear odd. The example of R. Ben Azai implies to some that one can die joyfully by accepting and following the literal words of Torah. Of course this apparently simple level of interpretation may not be as simple as it seems at first glance. Different readers — and different rabbis — may ascribe different meanings to the same words. Even this first level of understanding may result in surprising differences among various individuals. The literal meaning of words is not just in those words but may well be in the reader of those words.

Remez: The second level. This is the allegoric or metaphoric level of understanding. A metaphor uses a figure of speech, a word or a few words, to make a comparison that is not meant to be literal but to describe something in a way intended to be meaningful. An allegory usually tells a more complete story, and these “parables” are used to convey important principles. This may even call for interpretation so complex that it may be enough to drive one crazy, as happened to R. Ben Zoma. R. Ben Zoma may have gone mad from being directly exposed to the brilliance of God, or he may have lost his mind in the effort to understand complexities he tried to but could not comprehend. A basic belief of those in the Reform-Reconstructionist branch of Judaism is that everything in the Torah is metaphor or allegory and that, while some of the writings may refer to actual historical events, the intent of these stories is to teach important principles of good behavior, that is, behavior consistent with God’s commandments. Metaphor and allegory are especially useful and important because they provide clear concepts of things that are difficult or impossible to perceive directly, such as the nature of kindness. Metaphor is important to science as well as religion. The great physicist Niels Bohr (whose father was Jewish) developed a model of the atom that is basic in the teaching (and understanding) of atomic (and sub-atomic, or quantum) theory. However, Bohr is said to have responded to praise for his insight in providing this model by pointing out that his model was not intended to be thought of as a true picture of what an atom really looks like. Rather, he said, it is a metaphor, not a true description of reality, going on to state that we can never know the “true” nature of reality, but can only develop better metaphors.

Derash: The third level. Some interpretations consider this to be the level of “legal” (halachic) religious meaning. Others see this level as metaphorical, with remez representing only metaphorical or allegorical meaning. I suggest, however, that this level actually represents the mystical interpretation of Torah, so fraught with hidden concerns that without a “guru” — for example, a Kabbalah master who can guide one’s understanding of the ten sefirot (primal emanations of God) and how they interact and relate to the individual — one might well abandon one’s faith and become an apostate. It is, moreover, a basic premise of Kabbalah that magic is real. In Kabbalah this is called “practical magic” and while an understanding of practical magic seems to be part of Kabbalah study the actual use of practical magic is forbidden. The Kabbalist may respect the literal, first level, interpretation and carry out the Torah’s 613 mitzvahs (commandments of behavior) and do so without distress about engaging in what may seem to outsiders to be odd behaviors. Such a Kabbalist would also understands the metaphors and allegories that show one how to behave. R. Ben Abuya may have been overwhelmed by trying to link the detail of the Torah commandments with the mystical nature of God, choosing to deny both. Those who would explore Kabbalistic mysticism are advised to first complete a thorough traditional study of Torah and to attain maturity (be at least forty years old) before exposing themselves to potentially dangerous ideas and practices.

Sod: The fourth level. This is the least clear of the four levels of interpretation. In the view of some this is the mystical level. Certainly it is the secret level. In Guide for the Perplexed Maimonides, considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of Judaism, writes that he intends to conceal the meaning of Sod from readers. How is it that Rabbi Akiva is able to perceive paradise without distress and return to the natural world? Kabbalists might say that one is not supposed to know this or, at least, is not supposed to write or speak of it. A common saying among Kabbalists is, “Those who speak don’t know; those who know don’t speak.” But part of the common interpretations of the four levels is that there are “hints.” One hint is that at this level God is referred to as “Ein Sof,” which means unknown and unknowable. Thus, like the simpleton, a person at this level just carries out God’s commandments without question. But like an intelligent and capable scholar at the second level, one interprets and uses metaphors and allegories to guide behavior. And, consistent with the approach of the physicist Niels Bohr, this may be as close as one can come to an understanding of God. In her classic text Purity and Danger British social anthropologist Mary Douglas observes that the sacred can be dangerous. Knowing about the sacred without proper training is like the sorcerer’s apprentice in a poem by Goethe. Without full understanding and skill, the apprentice loses control over a spell initiated when his master is gone. The result is disaster. Similarly, knowing about the sacred without proper training might wreak havoc on oneself, others, and the universe. A person who like Rabbi Akiva functions at the fourth level may be a Kabbalist who recognizes that mystical elements may operate but rejects the use of practical magic (the attraction to which may have been part of the downfall of R. Ben Abuya) and who, perhaps above all, understands that the true nature of God is unknown and, ultimately, unknowable.


In terms of the first level of interpretation, despite clear contradictions between factual evidence and elements written in the Torah, some continue to focus only on the literal words. At the fourth level one is left to one’s imagination; the unknowable unknown is going to remain that. The third level, the mystical, while perhaps the most fascinating approach, is challenging in practice. Indeed, some potential practice is explicitly advised against. Perhaps the most productive of the four approaches is the metaphorical and allegorical level. That interpretive approach seems aimed not at blind belief, at obtaining mystical knowledge, or at constructing untestable ideas. The aim, instead, is to understand how Torah applies to the practice of one’s own life, that is, how to become, be, and act as a good person. That, of course, is a question with no simple answer.


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Marshall Sashkin

I taught organizational psychology at a number of universities across the US and was active in research and publishing, with a focus on leadership and change.