The Bible and the Good Life

By Aryeh Tepper
Thursday, July 14, 2011

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."

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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