Does The Torah Incorporate Superstition?

Dr. Marc B. Shapiro blogs:

I must now deal with R. Joseph Ibn Caspi, who is often described as holding a view similar to what we have seen already, but more radical in that he saw it as a general principle of interpretation. I refer to the notion that the Torah incorporates all sorts of untruths because these were what people believed at the time. It is said that this is how Ibn Caspi understands the rabbinic phrase “The Torah speaks in the language of men.” Here is a lengthy quotation from the late Isadore Twersky taken from his classic article on Ibn Caspi.[1]

Kaspi frequently operates with the following exegetical premise: not every Scriptural statement is true in the absolute sense. A statement may be purposely erroneous, reflecting an erroneous view of the masses. We are not dealing merely with an unsophisticated or unrationalized view, but an intentionally, patently false view espoused by the masses and enshrined in Scripture. The view or statement need not be allegorized, merely recognized from what it is. . . . Many scriptural statements, covered by this plastic rubric, are seen as errors, superstitions, popular conceptions, local mores, folk beliefs, and customs (minhag bene adam), statements which reflect the assumptions or projections or behavioral patterns of the people involved rather than an abstract truth. In its Kaspian adaptation, the rabbinic dictum may then be paraphrased as follows: “The Torah expressed things as they were believed or perceived or practiced by the multitude and not as they were in actuality.” Leshon bene adam is not just a carefully calculated concession to certain shortcomings of the masses, that is, their inability to think abstractly, but a wholesale adoption of mass views and local customs. . . . The Torah did not endorse or validate these views; it merely recorded them and a proper philosophic sensibility will recognize them.

…The notion that the Torah records things that are incorrect actually goes back to Maimonides. In Limits of Orthodox Theology, pp. 68-69, I noted how according to Maimonides the corporeal descriptions of God were intended to be taken literally by the masses. This was the way to educate then about God’s existence. Only after His existence was certain in their minds were they able to move beyond the corporeal conception of the Deity.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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