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The Bible and the Good Life

Yoram Hazony.

What manner of work is the Hebrew Bible? The 17th-century freethinker Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza had an answer. As part of his war to emancipate philosophy—the quest for the truth about existence and the meaning of the good life—from the influence of religion, he reduced the biblical message to, in effect, one word:  obedience. "Scripture," wrote Spinoza, "does not teach philosophical matters, but piety alone."

Relevant Links
The Biblical Century  Yoram Hazony, Jerusalem Letters. In the universities, the door is open for a real change in the standing of the Hebrew Bible, and of Judaism more generally.

According to Yoram Hazony, Spinoza's claim is nonsense.

Hazony recently made his case for the Bible as a text that "does" philosophy at a conference sponsored by Jerusalem's Shalem Center, of which he is the provost. There he boldly, even radically, took on the entire tradition of biblical interpretation, beginning with the New Testament.  That tradition, positing a strict dichotomy between reason and revelation, categorizes the Hebrew Bible as a work of revelation—thus preparing the ground for Spinoza's claim that the biblical message is reducible to obedience to the Law.

So far from being about obedience, Hazony claims, the Bible is about disobedience. Again and again, God looks with favor upon those who know how to rebel against His authority. The pages of the Bible are filled with heroes, including Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, and Jonah, who aren't afraid of arguing with the Supreme Judge. Even the name Israel was given to Jacob out of recognition that the founding father of the Jewish people knew how to "wrestle with God."

Why does God favor rebellious types? Because, Hazony claims, even though the Law paves the way to true human flourishing, it isn't sufficient.  Swimming against the stream of traditional Jewish thought, and especially the monumental influence of Maimonides, Hazony points to the conspicuous fact that the God of the Bible isn't perfect, isn't omniscient (He's constantly being surprised), and definitely isn't omnipotent. Although He is stronger than human beings, He requires their assistance, and strikes covenants with them because He needs (junior) partners.

But arguing with God is one thing. Where is the evidence that the Bible actually includes philosophy?

In order to recognize this dimension of the Bible, according to Hazony, we must first understand its intention as a book.  The Law that is transmitted in the Bible is a Law embedded in history: the history of Israel. That history, which includes not only the actions of some unruly and heroic leaders but also memories of previous exiles and returns to the land, was woven together from various national traditions after the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th century B.C.E. The aim of its editors and redactors, as the scholar Jacob Wright has argued, was to give a national identity to a recently defeated and exiled people.

But, and here's the crucial part of Hazony's argument, the God of Israel is also the God of the world, and His Law, the Law embedded in the history of Israel, is not just a set of ethical and political statutes for an ancient confederation of nomadic tribes. Instead, it includes reflections upon what is good for human beings in general. Meditating upon that Law, upon the will of the God who gave it, and upon the narrative in which it is embedded, thus becomes an inquiry into the moral and political questions that animate philosophical debate. In this way, the Bible is a philosophical document.

Hazony's vision of the Bible's philosophical character will be more fully explicated in his forthcoming book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. That vision, he acknowledges, builds upon the work of literary scholars like Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg who have pioneered the modern reading of the Bible as a unified literary work. It also draws on prominent political scientists, including Daniel Elazar, Aaron Wildavsky, and Michael Walzer, who have written about the Bible's political dimension, and on the Shalem Center's ongoing interest in the Hebraic influence on Western political theory.  

As for Hazony's arguments, one can predict that they will appeal to those who accept the modern critical method of reading the biblical text but at the same time wish to remain loyal to its law and spirit, as well to Jews seeking a connection with this foundational work outside of Orthodox religious structures. But his interpretation of the Bible's underlying intentions is also certain to draw fire. 

If, for instance, the Bible wants us to "philosophize," why did God forbid Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge?  If the Bible advocates disobedience, why didn't Abraham rebel against the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice?  What exactly does Hazony mean by "philosophy," and how does his usage depart from conventional understandings of that activity?

And how can one brush off the dichotomy between reason and revelation when the Bible itself seems to distinguish between divine and merely human wisdom? After all, even if we grant that the biblical life leaves room for "philosophizing," the Bible emphatically does not consider that knowing for the sake of knowing—the purpose of the Socratic way—constitutes the sum and substance of the good life. In stipulating as much, Hazony himself must admit that the fundamental dichotomy between the philosophical way of life and the biblical way of life remains in place.

Such, at any rate, are a few reactions to some of Hazony's complex and highly stimulating arguments and to what promises to be a much discussed and fiercely debated book.

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D. Bell on July 14, 2011 at 9:39 am (Reply)
Aryeh Tepper writes:
"Hazony points to the conspicuous fact that the God of the Bible isn't perfect, isn't omniscient (He's constantly being surprised), and definitely isn't omnipotent. Although He is stronger than human beings, He requires their assistance, and strikes covenants with them because He needs (junior) partners."
--That observation indicates that he would not be the first cause of all effects and thusly not the infinite creator God with perfect divine wisdom, love, justice, etc. unworthy of obedience and worship. This raises several questions. Who then is the infinite creator God worthy of obedience and worship who must have created this lesser being (god)? And what explains scholarly observations of the same text that interprets biblical text as descriptions of the infinite creator God worthy of obedience and worship?
Michael Tupek on July 14, 2011 at 10:12 am (Reply)
Mr. Hazony is living proof that having intellect does not produce love for God, or moral goodness.

Here is some more philosophy: behind every human being's philosophizing is the inescapable fact of basic likes and dislikes regarding anything found in existence. Therefore, if a man is unredeemed and does not love God (according to Bible terms), he will philosophize-away the supernatural character of the Bible, which includes recognizing his moral responsibility to the creator. Then the Bible becomes a safe, fearless plaything for his entertainment alone.

Now, he can boldly spread his perverse message: that God is not as he is plainly described. He is not omnipotent, or that he "favors" and encourages the disobedient!

Let us recall the Bible again. God determines to show unmerited grace to whom he wills to (Exod 33: 19), despite their offensive diobediences. But he demands their repentance and renewed obedience in initiating this gracious relationship (Is 55: 6, 7). Others, he punishes and destroys (Exod 34: 7). God will not be mocked.

But it is more wonderful than Mr. Hazony can currently realize. God circumcises the heart of those whom he wills to be gracious to (Deut 30: 6), so that that person loves God with all of his heart, he wants to obey, and having God's personal friendship and presence in his life is his greatest possession (Ps 73: 23 - 28).

I write as an evangelical Christian.
Kalman J. Kaplan on July 14, 2011 at 11:55 am (Reply)
It seems to me that the Jewish interpretation of the Garden of Eden narrative places Jews in opposition to both the Greeks and the Christians interpreation of obedience, who themselves are flip sides of the same coin. For Greeks after (but seemingly not before) Aeschylus, Prometheus represents the paradigm of heroism, rescuing man from the capricious and enslaving Zeus. After all, by withholding fire from man, Zeus is keeping man subservient to nature. So disobedience is the key to autonomy and freedom. And look at the punishment, Pandora, so woman is seen in Greek thinking as the punishment for disobedience. The Christian world takes the exactly opposite tack. Here Adam's act of rebellion is seen as inherited original sin, bringing death into this world. The only antidote is the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. It seems to me that Judaism is different than both. On the one hand Adam's act is disobedience and sin. In a sense the snake is offering the allures of Greek philosophy. What is wrong with Greek philosophy? It does not emerge out of relationship with the Biblical God who creates heaven and earth. However, this does not mean that there is no Biblical philsosophy. Just that the starting point has to be relationship with God. It must be a relational attached and contextual psychological philsophy rather than an abstract detached geometric philosophy. And look how this story proceeds. The Biblical God is in a relationship with Adam and Eve, and rather than kill them, he clothes them in their exile, and indeed allows woman to become mother (Chava) after their expulsion from Eden. Thus, personal immortality is replaced by inter-generational continuity, (mi dor le dor). And rather than keep man subservient, midrash teaches us that God willingly gives Adam the tools to make fire after his expulsion from Eden.
Madel on July 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm (Reply)
When Hazony points to the "conspicuous fact" that the God of the Bible is not perfect, omnicient, and definitely not omnipotent, he shows his naive understanding of the Pentateuch, and what a boring read his book might be. How ludicrous for any human idea of perfection to be overlaid on the actions of God to state that God isn't perfect. And how absurd is it to state that God is NOT omnicient when the "surprises" God experiences in the Torah are merely humanity's often foolish exercise of free will -- God's gift to humanity. As to omnipotence, there are a number of CLEAR expressions in the Torah which state that divine attribute, as, for example, (1) when Avram (not yet Avraham) questions God's ability to omniciently predict and omnipotently deliver Sara's (not yet Sarah) birthing of Isaac, and (2) when Moses doubts in a conversation with God that He can produce enough MEAT to feed almost 2 million desert wanderers.
HOWARD DAVID STERLING on July 14, 2011 at 5:46 pm (Reply)
As usual Yoram Hazony as adumbrated by Aryeh Tepper, proves very provocative. So I must also be provocative to meet their high bar.

My proposal is that both Spinoza and Hazony are correct, the Bible requires above all else obedience and the Bible requires philosophizing, the pursuit and love of wisdom.

The Bible requires, as it should, obedience from the light or every-day reader. There could be no Jewish civil society, or better, no cohesive or stable civil and religious society without the Bible's rigid norms.

For the more informed or "perplexed" reader, the Bible requires deep thinking and philosophical wisdom due to the bible's inherent contradictions, yeah verily, oxymorons. For example, the title of the Parashah, Chayei Sarah, is an oxymoron--the Parasha is all about the death of Sarah-- to stimulate wisdom, careful cogitation.

In this case, huge and important classical philosophical questions are stimulated, the meaning of life, the meaning of death, the meaning of her life after she dies, whether or not a life may be "realized" or "potentiated" or "actualized" after death. A careful reading of the majority of the titles of most of the Parashas stimulate similar philosophical questions. And this is just in the titles, the beginnings.

So as the notorious Rabbi said (or a Zen master would say), they are both right.
cdk on July 15, 2011 at 8:15 am (Reply)
It fascinates me that folks need to posit G-d as "perfect" in the Tanakh (even in the early chapters), when the text clearly relates G-d regretting some things He did. Regret indicates mistakes made. G-d is "big enough" (kiv'yakhol)to admit His mistakes and act to improve things. At the same time, as G-d moves us to "get with the program", He moves into the background--by the end of the Tanakh, He's not "center stage" anymore...
King on July 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm (Reply)
Hazony makes his case for scripture as philosophy against Spinoza's claim that "the biblical message is reducible to obedience to the Law." Tepper characterizes Hazony as "boldly, even radically, [taking] on the entire tradition of biblical interpretation, beginning with the New Testament. That tradition, positing a strict dichotomy between reason and revelation categorizes the Hebrew Bible as a work of revelation...."

Has not New Testament scripture itself already "boldly, even radically" taken on this interpretive project twenty centuries before Hazony? It seems apparent that Hazony is attempting to play St. Paul for the Jews. What am I missing? How can Hazony's attempt to meld Jerusalem with Athens still be strictly speaking Jewish? It has already been accomplished through the workings of Jesus and his apostles, whether one accepts him as the Christ or not.

"For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:17)

"For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace." (Romans 6:14)

This amateur theologian and philosopher would appreciate clarification. A philosophical inquiry into scripture is already biblical if one regards the Lord as the God of Wisdom. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who practice it." Psalm 111:10
Ken Besig, Israel on July 16, 2011 at 5:04 pm (Reply)
Part of the confusion over the meaning of the Torah is the fact that most of those who interpret the Book do so from a translation, and no matter how accurate the translation, there will be errors of understanding and errors of substance.
There is also the historical background of the entire Torah, Neviim, and Ketubim, as they are known in English. Many of the references to places, people, and even certain phrases are frankly unknown to us in this year 2011, and this has also twisted the meaning of what was written and how it is understood. Just try to read and really understand Melachim I and II, and do it from the original text and the explanations. You will be very surprised to find that at least some of it is almost incomprehensible.
And just to go a little further, there are far too many Rabbis, rabbis, and lay people who have taken the Torah and found what they consider to be the "true" meaning of the Book and used it to justify or explain everyday events. It was not long ago that a prominent Israeli Rabbi explained the death of a couple of dozen Jewish school girls in a bus accident on their failure to dress modestly. This was a perversion of the Torah of the worst kind and yet this Rabbi is still making often silly and destructive comparisons like this.
The Torah has many levels as we all know, but all of them have one goal in common, the moral improvement and the spiritual integrity of the Jewish People.
Reading and understanding the Torah, as well as the Neviim and Ktubim without the Talmud and the other sources will lead to confusion, misunderstanding, and false interpretations.
fred gill on July 16, 2011 at 7:37 pm (Reply)
Spinosa had his agenda but Hazony has his own as well. Disobedience is a very fashionable contemporary value in the West so it isn't surprising that Harzony focuses on it. Certainly, major figures of the Old Testament did rebel against or question God but it is a stretch to say that, ergo, God "favored" them. Rebellion against God is after all an innate human quality. How could God favor anyone who was not to some degree rebellious, especially when he has singled them out for some dangerous and difficult work? Nor am I convinced of God's "revealed fallibility". I suspect the recorded instances of God's inconsistencies, regrets, credulity, etc. are more a reflection of our own tendency to anthropomorphize than a glimpse into the mind of God. Is Harzony trying to psychoanalyze his maker?

Certainly, God gave us minds to use. Used exuberantly, but humbly, they will lead us to many tests of our faith - tests which should strengthen and mature our faith. The ongoing crisis of the West - whose outcome we cannot know yet - is that philosophy is thought to have decisively defeated faith and must soon strangle it out of existence. Hopefully, God has other plans.
Aryeh Tepper on July 17, 2011 at 1:05 am (Reply)

Hazony makes the case that God loves those who know how, in order to advance God's cause in the world, disobey Him. Contra Spinoza, the Bible cannot be reduced to obedience.

The move to philosophy comes later. In order to see the philosophical dimension of the Bible, accoding to Hazony, the reader must first be emancipated from the reason/revelation dichotomy when reading the text. I wonder: to what degree can a believing Christian move beyond this distinction? If one refuses to reinterpret the resurrection but accepts it as fundamental, the event upon which all else in the Christian faith stands, then must not the reason/revelation distinction stand, as well?
Michael Tupek on July 18, 2011 at 9:28 pm (Reply)

Reason (=honest consideration) is the hand-maiden to divine revelation; but the order is always: revelation, and then reason. Man's reason alone cannot ever discover the program of redemption from sin. It is one thing to see the evidence of the creator in nature; it is another thing to learn of a way of reconciliation with God and forgiveness of guilt. Grace cannot be detected by the rational consideration of the natural world.

If one thinks that Christianity has melded Athens with Jerusalem, that is a mistake. Some have attempted to, such as Aquinas. But Paul has not, and explicitly denies any reliance on secular (=uninformed by revelation) philosophy, as can be seen if one will read carefully the passage addressing this matter (1 Corinth 1: 18 thru 2: 16).

Appropriate usage of reason (=honest reflection on revelation) can be seen in scriptural encouragements (Is 1: 18; Ps 107: 43). But, as I said in my earlier post, reason itself is not really the critical issue but one's moral taste. If one does not love God, then he will never rationally appreciate the grace of God offered to him through revelation. This is exactly the indictment of Moses concerning the unbelieving Israelites, that God has not changed them so as to have "eyes, ears, and a heart to know" all the grace offered to them shown in various ways that he cared for them (Deut 29: 2- 7).

But to "move away from the reason/revelation dichotomy" is to disappoint God in this same way of not spirtually appreciating the grace God has offered through revelation. Revelation is of the character of divine help. It humbles the arrogant pride of man, so that man cannot claim that he detected God's offer of grace by his own philosophical wisdom, as Isaiah states (Is 48: 1 - 8).

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