Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Gan Eden as Allegory

An old posting on a recurring topic:

I certainly do not claim to have done exhaustive research, but I would
like to present what I have found concerning Gan Eden account as

In the first place, there is no source that I could find that holds that
the whole of the Gan Eden account is allegory. Such as opinions
concerning an allegorical interpretation exist, they pertain only to the
nature of the "Nachash", the serpent in the story. The opinion that the
serpent was not a real live creature, while distinctly a minority view,
is the view of the Sfornu on the episode (Bereishis 3:1) with the
serpent and the "Efodi" Commentary on the Moreh Nevuchim (Ibn Tibbon
edition, II:30, pp. 51-52).

In my opinion, this is clearly not the Rambam himself's position, and I
invite readers to peruse the Moreh themselves (p. 356 in the Pines
English translation).

I note that the Abarbanel mentions that the Rambam himself holds the
episode allegorical, but he clearly was influenced by the Rambam's
commentators, whom he calls the Rambam's "friends."

The Abarbanel himself, however, is critical of the Rambam (according to
his understanding of him). The Abarbanel, in fact, uses reasoning that I
used in my previous postings: It is incorrect to take texts that the
Torah conveys as actual factual description and interpret them
allegorically! He does give some novel interpretations of the events in
Gan Eden, but all true to a factual perspective.

The Sfornu's view does have legitimacy, however, because it has a source
in Chazal:

"And the serpent: Rabbi Yitzchak said, this is the yetzer hara [evil
inclination]. R. Yehuda said, the serpent was an actual serpent. They
came befor Rabbi Shimon [b. Yochai]. He told them, certainly both
opinions are one. The serpent was Samael and he appeared on [in?] the
serpent, and the visage of the serpent is that of the Satan and all is

(Zohar Chadash 35b; Torah Sheleima vol. 2 p. 252) (readers not familiar
with that work should understand that it is an exhaustive, comprehensive
and encyclopediac compilation of all Chazals and most Rishonim and many
Acharonim on Torah she'bi'ktav)

(We see, BTW, from the Zohar Chadash that those that equate the serpent
with the evil inclination thus need not dismiss its actual existence,
but rather see it as "evil incarnate" (see the Nefesh HaChaim 1:6 in the
note there).

Now, to me it seems quite clear that R. Shimon b. Yochai rejected R.
Yitzchak premise that it was only the yetzer hara and R. Yehuda's
premise that it was only an actual serpent, but rather explained to them
that it was both. Nevetheless, the Sfornu is perhaps entitled to adopt
the opinion of R. Yitzchak.

I could not find any Chazal or Rishon that takes the rest of the account
of Gan Eden as allegorical. Indeed, the Ramban in his commentary 3:22
and in the "Toras HaAdam" (Kisvei Ramban vol. 2 p. 295 in the Mossad
HaRav Kook edition) takes great pains to stress that Gan Eden and all
the events that occured therein actually existed in this world, and that
references to a spiritual Gan Eden in Chazal, refer to a parallel
spiritual realm that also really exists, and that the events that
transpired in Gan Eden below also transpired in that Gan Eden on high.

Again, I only checked Rishonim at my ready disposal, but these seem
pretty clear. Rabbinu Bechayei takes the view of the Ramban, of
course.The Ibn Ezra as well is adamantly opposed to allegorical
interpretation (See Nechama Leibowitz's "Iyunim" p. 14 as well). So is
R. Sa'adia Gaon.

So far the Sfornu is all I found. Bear in mind: a) that he too takes
the rest of the Gan Eden account as literal; b) that he was not adverse
to the surreal (see his link of "Tumah" and demons in his "Kavanos
HaTorah"; c) the Sfornu himself weaves in and out of the allegory in
3:14. The last point causes me to wonder if the Sfornu is actually
engaging here in exegesis - perhaps this is actually homiletics?

Yet, be that as it may, the Sfornu only makes this jump here where he
can cite verses from Nach (and where we find basis in Chazal) in which
the tern "Nachash" is used as an express allegory for the Evil
Inclination and the Power of Fantasy. The Sfornu certainly did not take
the Flood as allegorical - there is no basis for that, even according to
the Sfornu's non-mainstream approach here. Thus, although according to
Tradition, as previously mentioned by other MJ posters, there is
precedent - albeit slim - for an "allegorical" interpretation of a
highly specific aspect of the Gan Eden account, there is no such
tradition in the case of the Flood.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. how can it be allegorical wouldn't that make the story have some sheker in it because the literal never happened? Isnn't it misleading

  3. If Chazal tell us something is allegorical it is not sheker. They did so with Iyov as well, saying that it is a grand mashal.

  4. And yet despite this, Rav Kook was willing to consider the possibility as a hypothetical, if the it were to be proven somehow that the Gan Eden story did not happen. Though that has not really happened, it is pretty clear that we can't beleive a worldwide flood; if we are to take it literally, we will have to limit the flood to the "cradle of civilization," and if we take it non-literally we can look at it as a parallel and renewed creation of the world, perhaps...

  5. I do not recall if Rav Kook said that, but if he did, he was out of line.

    I am not sure why it is "pretty clear" that we cannot believe a world-wide flood took place. But, in any event, it is a great jump from a flood that was "not world-wide" to a flood that was "non-literal."

  6. I did not mean R. Kook said anything about the flood, by the way. That was my own question. In terms of where he talks about taking gan eden literally, I will try to find it. I beleive it is somewhere in iggerot. His specific language is very hypothetical: if it were to be the case that it was proven that adam/chava/gan eden did not happen, that would not be a problem for us, because the lesson it teaches about the potential spiritual heights that man can reach, and how easily he can fall from those heights, ruining it for himself and his progeny, is the focus of the torah, and the important thing that we come away from the torah with. His point, I think, is to redefine the argument. At the end of the day, it is not the torah's "job" to tell us exactly how the world was created, but to tell us how to act. Why is it out of line for a Gadol Hador to say such a thing?

  7. But don't trust my rendition of it; I will try to find it, bli neder. R. Kook's writing in particular lends itself often to misinterperetation.

  8. OK, found it. It is in Iggerot Hare'iya Aleph, page 163. The focus here is not that he actually thinks gan eden is allegorical, nor is he necessarily ready to advance that as pshat. His focus if different, and his comment regarding gan eden is in the following context: "..with regards to the knowledge that comes from new research, which mostly contradict the simple meaning of the words of torah. My opinion is that anyone who "deyotav yesharot" should know that even though there is not necessarily truth to all of these new findings, nevertheless we are not at all obligated to contradict them totally and stand against them, because the "ikkar" of the torah is not at all to tell us simple facts or stories. The "ikkar" is the inside, the inner explanation of the things, and this will become loftier specifically in the places where there is an opposing force that we are struggling against...." He then gives as an example the story of Adam. Essentially, he seems to be trying to shift the debate. It seems like a waste of time to debate with the scientific community; on the other hand, if we accept the truth and divinity of the torah, we can move on to finding what these stories teach us, and what they tell us about G-d's desires for mankind.

  9. I think R. Kook's world are a very important lesson for us today. If we show the beauty of the torah, how the story of adam and chava fits beautifully into the rest of the chumash, what lessons we can draw from it, and likewise with creation, it will not matter to people if they then learn that the world might be older than 5756. They will intuitively have known all along that that is not why the torah told these stories, and it will not shake their faith.

    On the specific example of gan eden, I was a little confused as to why R. Kook chose it. There seems little compelling reason to say it did not happen, and it also seems as if no scientific discovery could really disprove it. I think he might have meant it very hypothetically. I was just pointing it out, as it seemed relevant to your post. Good Shabbos, and may you continue in your important work.

  10. Thank you for clarifying Rav Kook's position, and also for your contextualization of it. Davar dabbur al ofanov!