The “Literal Truth” – Berakhot 15
The larger question here is how precise one must be with performance, and how flexible evaluations of that performance should be. Of course, everyone should do everything correctly every time, but reasonable people know what when dealing with human beings, behavior will be varied and imperfect. Here we see an acknowledgement of that reality, which does not demand absolutely perfect behavior and condemn any mistakes, but rather forgives within very narrow boundaries.
The other side of this debate, however, is how literally to take commandments – when the Shema begins “Hear, O Israel,” the Rabbis assume ideally one should literally hear it in one’s ear. When Deuteronomy 6, speaking about the words of the Shema and immediately following, says, “write these words on the doorposts of your home and on your gates,” is this speaking metaphorically? When it says to speak of them “when you lie down, and when you get up,” is that rhetoric for “all the time,” or is it to be taken literally? For all the creativity of rabbinic interpretation, here finding affinities between the underworld and the womb to argue for the truth of the resurrection of the Dead being a Scriptural doctrine, the Rabbis also believed that “ayn mikra’ yotze mi’peshuto – Scripture never leaves its plain meaning.” If Deuteronomy says, “write these words,” then you don’t only write the words of the Shema on your doorposts (mezuzot) - you also write “write these words,” for all is included in a literal reading of the command.
The modern temperament among liberal Jews is much more suited to metaphor than to literal command. We are much more comfortable being told to think a lot about an important idea than being told to literally write words on the doorposts of our homes and bind them on our foreheads – the spirit of the law is assumed to be more important than, and even independent of, the letter of the law. If we live lives of ethical action and mutual consideration, does it really matter if we slur specific words, say them under our breath, say them in our own way, or even choose not to say them at all?
Rabbi Adam Chalom