a1 Wellesley College
Paul Veyne wrote a book entitled, Did the Greeks Believe their Myths? Regarding rabbinic Judaism, one might similarly ask: Did the rabbis believe their imagery? Rabbinic literature is so replete with fanciful images of God and humans and anecdotes of epiphanies involving both, that one naturally wonders whether the midrashic authors believed that their imagery reflected some actual moment in the world's history. Some scholars have chosen to view the literature as containing parables and images that were composed as mere metaphors, sometimes used for political purposes, and other times to spawn further associations and religious teachings. The question is, can one differentiate true statements about happenings in the material world from symbolic statements whose relationship to that material world is more vague? The tension is especially acute when one considers cosmogony, the story of human origins, and other moments in primoridal history. Yet it is no less present in those simple midrashic “biblical scenes” that are not actually part of the Tanakh, but which the sages readily ascribe to the text. Does a given rabbinic image convey literal beliefs about material happenings or metaphorical metaphysics?