Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom
Part 12: Peshat and Penimiyus
The message of Chaim B’Emunasom is that every Jew is obligated to accept that every single word of Chumash, Gemara and Midrash as true. But not only does R. Schmeltzer insist that every word is true; he also repeatedly insists that every word is literally true (כפי פשוטו). Now, even R. Schmeltzer has to admit that this certainly does not appear to be the case. After all, we can see that the sun goes on the other side of the planet at night, not behind the sky. And he is probably not willing to accept the physical factual reality of the astounding creatures described by Rabbah bar bar Chanah, such as a baby goat forty miles in length, or a frog the size of a village that was eaten by a snake which was eaten by a bird, and so on. But R. Schmeltzer gets around this problem by defining literally true to mean “literally true in a metaphysical sense,” i.e. referring to the factual reality of the spiritual roots to our universe that we cannot see with our eyes. (See chapters 62, 72 and 73.)
This was indeed the approach of Maharal and some others who followed in his footsteps. But R. Schmeltzer claims that it is the only authentic approach! This not only means ignoring, dismissing or distorting all the Geonim and Rishonim and Acharonim who stated that certain statements of Chazal are not true at all. It also means distorting the words of those Rishonim and Acharonim who held that all the words of the Torah are true in the literal physical, not metaphysical, sense. It means fundamentally ignoring and/or distorting all the debates that raged in the medieval period between various Rishonim concerning the literalness of various statements in the Aggadah. The ferocious quarrel between Rabbi Shlomo ben Avraham of Montpellier and Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam concerning whether the Leviathan is an actual giant fish or an allegory for spiritual concepts, the sharp words of Rabbi Moshe Abulafiah for Rashi’s literal interpretation of certain Aggadatas, the enormous controversy over Rambam’s allegorization of several parts of Scripture – according to R. Schmeltzer, there were no such debates; every legitimate Torah scholar always held that everything in Torah is literally true but in a metaphysical sense!
Astonishingly, R. Schmeltzer even cites Rambam in these chapters. On p. 340, R. Schmeltzer cites Rambam’s instructions on how one should attribute any difficulties in Aggados to one’s own intellectual shortcomings. However, it is abundantly clear from the sources cited earlier that Rambam did not consider this to apply to Chazal’s statements concerning science, which he freely rejected. On p. 362, R. Schmeltzer quotes Rambam about how he is interpreting the Torah’s description of creation ex nihilo literally. But Rambam certainly interpreted many other parts of the Torah non-literally, which is exactly why he was sharply criticized by Ramban, Abarbanel and many others!