In the post Adam and Eve – A Parable? I pointed out a troubling statement made by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a public, televised debate with Richard Dawkins. Lord Sacks stated that Adam and Eve were not real, flesh-and-blood people. Rather, according to Lord Sacks “… Adam and Eve is clearly a parable, because there was no first human… obviously, the Bible is telling us about the first dawn of civilisation.”
I believe that there is no way to justify this statement through appeal to classical sources. Not only do we find that all authorities considered Adam and Eve to be real people, we also find that Rambam/Maimonides maintained, in the third section of The Guide for the Perplexed, that such a belief is fundamental to Judaism:
It is a fundamental belief of Judaism that the world was created ex nihilo and that a specific human being, Adam, was initially created and that from his creation until the time of Moses approximately 2500 years elapsed.
At the end of the post, I pointed out that, when challenged by Richard Dawkins regarding how he (Sacks) distinguishes between literal and allegorical passages, Lord Sacks makes an intriguing statement. He responds by saying that the rabbis of the tenth century established a rule that if a Biblical narrative is incompatible with established scientific fact, it is not to be understood literally. I commented that the only tenth-century rabbi I could think of that Lord Sacks could have had in mind is Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, and to present his viewpoint the way Lord Sacks did is inaccurate and misleading.
A reader asked me to describe Rav Sa’adiah Gaon’s position regarding the allegorisation of verses. A second reader asked about verses that appear to sanction lex talionis – An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and similarly gory justice. In this post, I will address these points. [Disclosure: I was first acquainted with Rav Sa’adiah Gaon’s approach by reading a manuscript of a book by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, still not published as of this writing.]
Rav Sa’adiah Gaon (882–942) addressed allegorisation in his classic Emunos Ve’deos (אמונות ודעות). His discussion takes place in the context of the resurrection of the dead (תחיית המתים), which he understood to be a literal event which will take place when God so chooses.
Rav Sa’adiah Gaon’s point of departure is that every verse in the Bible must be understood literally, unless there is one of four reasons to interpret it in non-literal fashion.
The first reason is that a verse is contradicted by simple experience. Hence, the verse that Eve was the mother – the progenitor – of all life is contradicted by the fact that we see that women do not give birth to other forms of life. Hence, Rav Sa’adiah Gaon concludes that the phrase “all living things” is not to be taken literally, but must mean all human life.
The second reason to deviate from literalism, according to Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, is that a verse is contradicted by simple logic. Rav Sa’adiah Gaon is not referring to philosophical speculation, but rather to simple syllogistic logic. His example of contradiction by simple logic is the verse that says that God is a consuming fire. This is impossible not because God’s incorporeality has been established philosophically. Rather, it is impossible for simple syllogistic reasons. God created everything ex nihilo, including all physical phenomena. Hence God cannot be identified with a physical phenomenon. That which created the physical universe ex nihilo must be distinct from that created world. Hence, this verse must be interpreted metaphorically. Here comes a crucial point. Having rejected the most literal meaning of the verse, Rav Sa’adiah Gaon did not proceed to invent whatever struck his fancy as a nifty interpretation. He suggests that the verse is referring to God’s vengeance, which is like a consuming fire, because another verse (in Tzefaniah) states that “as fire shall my anger consume the entire earth.” His alternative interpretation to the literal one is not arbitrary. It is based on the Torah. There is no license to interpret the Torah in accordance with one’s whims or philosophical leanings, even when necessity dictates deviation from literalism. The metaphor itself must be rooted in the Torah.
The third case in which we do not interpret a verse literally is when the literal meaning of one verse contradicts the literal meaning of another verse. Rav Sa’adiah Gaon gives the following example. The Torah prohibits us from testing God. But a verse in Malachi says that one may test God. Therefore, we understand the verse in the Torah to be limited in accordance with the parameters imposed by the verse in Malachi. Here, the interpretation lies in the verses themselves and is corroborated by the Talmud – we may test God in matters relating to tithing (I shall not elaborate on the technicalities).
The fourth case of rejecting the literal meaning of verses is when the Oral Law explicitly instructs us to do so. Thus, even though the Torah speaks of forty lashes in the context of flagellation, Chazal tell us that it means thirty-nine.
We have explained, briefly, Rav Sa’adiah Gaon’s position. As far as lex talionis, it fits into the fourth category. Chazal tell us explicitly that the verses which speak of an eye for an eye refer to monetary compensation.
Where does all of this leave Lord Sacks? Rav Sa’adiah Gaon is the last person in the world who would have understood Adam and Eve as a parable for the emergence of culture. He – and all classical authorities before and after him – understood Adam and Eve to be real, flesh-and-blood people. There is no classical authority who advocated Lord Sacks’ approach – that whenever the scientific community reaches a consensus, the Torah must bow before that consensus and re-interpret verses. I surmise that Rav Sa’adiah Gaon would be appalled if he knew that his approach was associated in the slightest fashion with evolutionary biology.
But if not Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, who did Lord Sacks have in mind when he spoke of those tenth-century rabbis? We await a response from the Chief Rabbi.
 מורה נבוכים חלק שלישי פרק נ: כאשר היתה פנת התורה שהעולם מחודש ואשר נברא תחלה היה איש אחד ממין האדם והוא אדם הראשון, ולא היה באורך הזמן אשר מאדם עד משה רבינו רק אלפים וחמש מאות שנה בקרוב.
 ספר האמונות והדעות מאמר ז והוא שאנחנו כל בני ישראל מאמינים, כי כל אשר בספרי הנביאים, הוא כאשר נראה ממשמעו והידוע ממלותיו, אלא מה שהנראה והידוע ממנו, מביא אל אחד בארבעה דברים.
 שם: אם להכחיש מוחש כמו שנאמר על חוה, כי היא היתה אם כל חי.
 שם: או להשיב מה שיש בשכל, כמו שאמר כי ה’ אלקיך אש אוכלה.
 שם: או לסתור דבר אחר כתוב, כמו שנאמר ובחנוני נא, אחר שאמר לא תנסו את ה’ א’.
 שם: או להכחיש מה שקבלוהו קדמוננו, כמו שאמר ארבעים יכנו לא יוסיף, ואמרו רבותינו שהם שלשים ותשע מכה.