Review of Yoram Hazony „The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture“, Cambridge University Press, NY: 2012
Well, not everyone is cherishes book review, so if you fancy a video instead, here is the talk between the author and the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, the flamboyant Sir Jonathan Sacks, chaired by STANDPOINT editor Daniel Johnson. But it doesn’t hurt to read this review afterwards. For Yoram Hazony is one of the founders of the Shalem Centre in Jerusalem, an academic research institute dedicated to the sustenance of the Jewish People and Israel. The book does not assume belief in God and also no previous background in the Bible and uses language accessible to everyone. This scholarly book is about the extended narrative of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. It covers not only the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, but all the additional biblical texts that make up the comprehensive History of Israel. The author is attempting to convince his readers that by looking at the context which the Mosaic Law is embedded into, we get a better understanding of the philosophy behind it. But above all it allows us to read the Hebrew Bible as a work of reason just like the great Greek philosophers.
Hazony sets off with the genuinely Christian and therefore post-biblical dichotomy of reason and revelation. Politically speaking this split comes at the price of creating a dualism that separates a spiritual from the physical realm, a dualism probably first conceptualized by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. It was again taken up during the crisis of monotheism in the 12th century by Moses Maimonides who like Philo attempted to synthesize Greek Philosophy and Judaism supplying a template that stimulated Aquinas. Surely Christianity can be depicted as yet another successful attempt to accomplish this, resulting in a hugely influential Hellenization of monotheism that eclipsed even ancient Judaism. The original motive of the Christian church fathers was to fend off all sorts of gnostic rivals. It is against this historical background that Hazony’s book can be best understood and he makes very clear, the Hebrew Bible, written five hundred years before the dualism appeared, did not really need it. Major Christian tenets that flow from the reason-revelation split, such as the healing power of faith, miracles and afterlife were conspicuously absent from the core tenets of Judaism, so much so, that Kant did not even acknowledge ancient Judaism as a religion. It was during the 18th century that the Enlightenment philosophers used the reason-revelation dichotomy to specifically attack the philosophical underpinnings of the Christian doctrine rendering it as superstitious. “Fideists and heretics alike“, Hazony tells us, “have thus had ample reason to insist on this distinction, and many continue to do so even today.
However the Hebrew Bible was ill served historically by being interpreted through the Christian framework of revelation versus reason, in fact being completely distorted and its message destroyed, its general standing diminished. Hazony therefore aims for the first time to read the original narrative entirely as a work of reason and as a philosophical source for answering questions about the nature of the universe and the right or just life of men. For this purpose he has to dismantle lots of Christian prejudices and obstacles of methodology. Therefore he is prudent enough to proceed in two major steps. The First, undertaken in the book under review, is about harvesting the riches that the texts offer. The second step aiming at getting rid of the reason-revelation dichotomy for good is left to another volume.
Maintaining an emphasis on the philosophical argument, he furnishes examples of the pre-Socratic Philosophers such as Parmenides, Empedocles and Heraclitus who, following not long after the prophet Jeremiah (647-572), all framed their ideas as being revealed, among others by a goddess -lifted into the night sky by a horse-drawn chariot. However, surprisingly they interpreted what they retrieved not as revelation but as reason. Even Socrates, as revealed by his disciple Plato, had prophetic power and heard voices delivering divine commands that prevented him from doing certain untoward things. What rightly puzzles Hazony is that these founders of the Western philosophic tradition notwithstanding their dependence on divine assistance where read by modern historians of ideas such as Bertrand Russell without any qualms as the unambiguous works of reason. For during the Enlightenment this same dichotomy was upheld by the modern research university. Originally developed in Germany by Wilhelm von Humboldt it was adopted and implemented in the United States in the last third of the 19th Century. From there originates the exclusion of the Hebrew Bible from the works of reason. Thus the history of Western thought was rewritten with Kant and Hegel gazing though a Greek lens and the rich Jewish tradition was marginalized as superstitious and rendered as utterly worthless. This prejudice prevailed pretty much from the 19th century into our times. It was only the last generation, Hazony observes, that brought a new openness with biblical scholars at universities resulting in a new discipline of “canonical criticism” that aims at a fair revalidation of Hebrew scripture.
Now the “Philosophy of the Hebrew Scripture” has two parts and a conclusion. The first part offers a framework for a Jewish reading of the Holy Scripture. The three chapters therein are dealing basically with the nine texts from Genesis to Kings making up half of the Scriptures that provide the History of Israel. In the second part the author is applying the framework just outlined to certain biblical authors. When examining the ethics elaborated in Genesis Hazony rejects the notion of Judaism being a religion based on obedience by exposing the dissenting opinions of the principal characters. Finally the chapter on Genesis-Kings draws on a political philosophy that pleads for a rejection of imperial rule favoring, probably for the first in human history, limited government built on a covenantal basis. The following Chapter on Jeremiah is engaging with the necessity to escape the fallacies of human reasoning and attempts to tell right from wrong and truth from falsity. This amounts to nothing less than Jeremiahs envisioning a theory of knowledge. Importantly in the analysis of the Hebrew used in the biblical narrative there seems to be no metaphysical realm and therefore words and things are not separated or for that matter the mind of the observer is not independent of the world his gaze is directed to. Thus this concept of non-ambiguity offers guidance in the real world, giving it the imprimatur of the word of God or true speech: it can be relied upon “in the face of hardship and changing circumstances”.
The following two parts are aggregated commentaries on the history of Israel, The Orations of the Prophets, and The Writings, both of which consist of three principal works with additional brief works addressed by Hazony as “retainers for the larger works”. The role of the latter is to support or criticize the principal biblical narrative and at times to challenge it with controversial views. For instance the oration of Isaiah is seen as an attempt to absorb the shock of the outright disappearance of the northern Kingdom of Israel that was swallowed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Making up the last quarter of the Hebrew Bible are three books comprising of the Writings, the Psalms (a compilation of 150 poems) and Proverbs which are concerned with moral philosophy; finally Job is a about theological inquiry. This is followed by some minor works including the famous Song of Songs, Ezra and Nehemiah telling the story of the return from Babylonian exile and the reconstruction of Jerusalem.
Hazony is quick to assert that the political character of the Scripture rests on the fact that it does not offer one single point of view but multitude of perspectives, given that dozens of authors have contributed their at times contradictory accounts. It is for this reason that the “heart” of the Bible is not easily accessible, but has to be sought. Hazony goes even farther: the ambiguity and uncertainty of the biblical narrative is reflecting the limits of human intelligence or, as the author puts it, “that ultimate knowledge of God’s thoughts is beyond the powers of man, which are by nature weak and fallible”. Now for this reason in order to get the full picture it is necessary to extend the reading of the Hebrew Scripture beyond the five books of Moses, the traditional halachic core depicting Jewish Law. For only the complete narrative all the way to the end of the book of Kings gives us the unified agadic reading and seems what would have been intended by the authors of the Scripture. The complete narrative of the History of Israel altogether about 150000 words, consists of nine works: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. The second half of the history is then included in the anthology of the Prophets. Hazony also notes that many editions of the Bible divide Samuel and Kings into smaller works, but this is certainly a post-Talmudic innovation.
Hazony makes the further point that the Pentateuch can only be fully understood within the complete narrative in which it is embedded. For instance only with view of the complete History of Israel we recognize that the exile of Adam and Eve from paradise is matched at its end by the people of Israel being exiled to Babylonia; or the destruction of the Tower of Babylon in the beginning is mirrored by that of the Temple of Jerusalem at the end. Similarly the slaughter of Abel by his brother Cain reflects the conflict between shepherd and farmer that keeps flaring up in the narrative, i.e. with Abraham, and then again in the story of Moses, and yet again with David.
So why has this not been acknowledged long before? Hazony is convinced that this is due to the preeminence of Jesus and the Christian gospel. It was for this reason that the default reading of the Hebrew Scripture has been with the eye of the apostles and the New Testament. Getting the true intention of the Hebrew Scripture back, there is no way around the careful disentangling of this apostolic bias interwoven with the Scripture. The new apostolic purpose was for the Scripture to serve as witness for the many miracles around the new son of God which in Jewish terms amounts to blasphemy. Thus the Christian authors and the Enlightenment philosophers that followed them put the Hebrew Scripture in an entirely different context. Every Christian will be aware of the crucial notion of testimony, as for instance in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, for the concept of salvation. Hazony concludes: “In the New Testament, revelation is unapproachable to reason because that which is revealed appears in the world in the form of bare contingent facts—facts that stand alone, without relation to anything that has come before in human experience. Such a revelation is, by definition, opposed to human reason, and can be accepted only as a secret and a mystery.”
The purpose of the Hebrew Bible couldn’t be more different. For its authors are anonymous – precisely the opposite of bearing witness. It also does not deal with secrets or predominantly with miracles. For the History of Israel in all its embarrassment if you will, lies open before our eyes. The destruction of the Jewish Kingdom, of the Temple etc., those are horrible facts, not doubted by anyone. The History of the Jews provided a broken people with a lasting self-understanding intended to facilitating its survival. For it did not dispute the mere facts of what had happened, rather at issue was how to understand what had happened, and how to live in light of what had happened. Hazony here refers to the example of the northern kingdom that became the “lost tribe” never to be heard of again. In the Hebrew Scripture this fear is palpable.
But the Hebrew Scripture is more than that because, unlike Christian and Muslim doctrines, its philosophy is not exclusive to Jews. Its philosophy addresses, such as later expressed in the Noah Code, all nations by providing insights in the moral and political order in general.
The only genre that comes close to the speculative realm is the business of prophecy. But here again, note the subtle difference between reasonable warnings and impossible predictions regarding the future. In addition the diversity of the warnings and their contradictions, all subject to exhausting Talmudic scrutinizing, present the future of the Jewish people as anything but straightforward. This complexity tempted Paul to famously charge God had spoken to the prophets of Israel only “in fragmentary and varied fashion,” whereas in the New Testament he has finally spoken clearly and unequivocally.
There is much more to learn from biblical philosophy as explained by Hazony in the way of creating typologies or chatacters such as shephard versus farmer that pops up now and again in the historical narrative. For Hazony the contrast between God’s rejection of the pious and obedient sacrifice by Cain toiling the cursed ground, versus the acceptance of Abels rebellious and easy going sacrifice of a lamb, shows that against all expectation God favors the unsolicited, innovative over the submissive approach. So much on the Enlightenment prejudice regarding authoritarian religion.
We will later learn the story of Abraham who fled the depravations of city life at Babylon and turned to the life of a sheperd in rural Canaan. Abraham busied himself with founding the Jewish religion by sacrificing a ram instead of his only child Isaac by that taking a stand against the local custom of child sacrifice among the Canaanites. Here again one has to fight back Christian bias corrupting the ethics of the Hebrew Scripture with the reading of Isaac’s sacrifice as a precurser of Jesus and God’s test of Abraham’s absolute obedience on mount Moriah.
Importantly even after Adam making the evil choice in Eden human freedom is not abandoned. The complementary notion is that God is not all-powerful and needs us humans, those “whom God loves best—Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses—being those who presume to challenge God, to wrestle with him and even to defeat him for the sake of what is good. No, there is no hint that the biblical authors would have found virtue in a man denuded of his freedom, an automaton.” Thus Hazony assures us that Judaism cannot be reduced to adherence of laws.
The attraction of Hazony’s framework for reading the Hebrew Bible is foremost to realize the tension between natural law and Mosaic Law both coexisting in the narrative of the History of Israel. He lines up the figures of Abel, Abraham, Jacob and Moses following the former epitomized in the ethics of the shepherd favoring independence over respect regarding the state. By contrast the other group of Cain, Noah, Isaac and Joseph following Mosaic Law or the ethics of the farmer, are more inclined to lasting human institutions including the state. While the first are prone to disobedience against their God, in fact at times struggling with him, the second group is more obliging and obedient or if you wish dependent on their Lord. This strikes a sound balance between stability and innovation and has served Israel well. And after the conquest of Canaan by the tribes of Israel there erupts an ongoing controversy as to whether to establish a new kingdom or maintain the liberty of an anarchic organization. This occupies much space in the book of Judges and Samuel. And it becomes painfully clear how difficult it turns out to be to transfer the wisdom of the Jewish people safely to the next generation. Time and again the lessons of the History of Israel are forgotten and it was the cardinal purpose of the authors of the Hebrew Scripture to prevent this from happening again in the future.
Another important point raised by Hazony is that the Greek and the Jewish terms for truth differ greatly. From the still valid Aristotelian tradition of truth understood as a quality of thought or speech, Hazony distinguishes the Biblical concept of truth as a quality of objects such as road, tree, man but also action and circumstances which in the last analysis turns out to determine or to be identical with the quality of speech. In the biblical sense an object, person or action is true if it turns out over time and changing circumstances to be what it ought to be. But true speech is a different matter. For words are transient by their very nature. Therefore it is the reliability of a biblical word that counts and it follows or depends most of the time on the real facts.
In other words: the biblical authors did not feel any need to distinguish between signifier and signified or shall we say between being and ought. So the ambiguity of biblical terms such as davar avoids any spurious anticipatory dichotomy and embraces being and ought. Thus the realm of the possible is expanded by that allowing for time and circumstances to perform the veracity test. The dichotomy then becomes practical in the knowing of true and false. This is not like an inquiring mind per se would perform but a mind that walks before God or in other words that follows the commandments. This is surely not dualistic metaphysics that tears apart the world of words and the realm of things. It is a holistic and practical metaphysics with the aim of producing reliability with regard to the understanding of words. This is accomplished by not forcing apart the thought and the expression of things, which tends to produce the illusion of object and word as two different things. It is for that reason that in the Bible the thought, the word and the thing share in one consistent move the quality of being true or false.
Finally Hazony makes it utterly clear that the Hebrew Bible and Christianity have next to nothing in common for the Bible lacks anything comparable to the Catholic catechism or a firmly established orthodoxy of doctrine. The Hebrew Scripture by contrast is a jungle of texts that require lifelong study in search of the truth, which is conceptualized not as unequivocal doctrine but rather as a reliable source of orientation through the vicissitudes of practical life. This means human wisdom based on experience and divine revelation is not mutually exclusive, as with philosophy and Catholic doctrine, but complementary or corresponding. The only ambiguity provided here is hidden in the lack of a commandment demanding faith in God.
After finishing this book I was reminded to the late Leo Strauss, who early on observed that the thinkers of the Enlightenment never did their homework, i.e. a thorough critique of the Holy Scripture, and just resorted to mockery about religion. Hazon’s book will give them pause by demonstrating that the Bible can be read as a work of reason. For Hazony there is no such thing as obscurity in the Scripture. Thus the atheist scaffold of mockery has finally been wrecked and the intellectual heirs of the enlightenment, atheist scoffers like Richard Dawkins, should take notice. The intellectual stakes have been raised considerably and there is no escape anymore through cheap polemics. What puzzles me though is the question what the prominent critic of religion, Baruch Spinoza, would have had to say about Hazony’s book. It seems well worth to explore this issue. For only time will show whether the Western concept of civilization, presently based on overstretched human rights without duties can maintain its edge over the biblical concept of Hebrew civilization which has been implemented since times immemorial.