Monday, July 10, 2017

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture
Yoram Hazony
Cambridge University Press

I was inspired to read this work as I responded to an article by David Hazony, Yoram's brother, on how to keep young Westerners interested in Judaism. Rather than concentrate on importing Israeli values into the West, which I believe is only a stopgap, I felt that there was a lot of intellectual appeal to Judaism that is outside the traditional Orthodox/yeshiva framework that has not been exploited, and I used this book as an example of how Judaism can be made relevant to the next generation.

But of course I needed to read it myself to make sure that what I said was true. And I am very glad I did.

Yoram Hazony's work here is a challenge to many basic beliefs and ideas that are widely held..

First of all, it is a challenge to traditional philosophy. In Hazony's telling, there has been a huge divide in Western culture between Scripture and classical philosophy and , the first being identified with "revelation" and the latter with "reason." For the last several centuries, "reason" has been elevated and "revelation" denigrated in academia.

Hazony demolishes this idea from two directions. He shows how some influential Greek philosophers framed their own ideas in terms of "revelation." But more importantly, he shows how Western thought has mistakenly conflated Christian Scripture, which indeed is revelation, and Hebrew Scripture, which Hazony argues is far more inclined towards reason. He gives many examples of how God punishes people for doing things that they were never explicitly commanded against, and rewarded for things they were never commanded to do, in stories such as Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Sodom, Shifra and Pua and many others. In these cases it is expected by Hebrew Scripture that people would know what the right thing to do is by using only their own logic.

Hazony shows that Jeremiah holds his own against the Greek philosophers and indicates that the only reason he is not studied with the same attention as a philosopher is because of the idea that the entire Bible has nothing relevant to say about reason. He dedicates an entire chapter on Jeremiah's epistemology.

Hazony also writes a tour de force on the differences between how philosophers have understood truth up until recently and how the Biblical authors understood it, in a way that only now the Western world is catching up to. Very briefly, Hazony shows that from Aristotle onwards, "truth" has been defined as a quality of speech agrees with reality (correspondence theory.) But in Hebrew Scriptures "truth" is a radically different idea - "truth" applies not only to speech but to objects and ideas directly.

Hazony postulates that the Hebrew words normally translated as  "truth" and "belief" (emet and emunah) are cognates of each other - something I am not yet convinced of - but he does make a strong case that both words in Hebrew Scripture are different aspects of trustworthiness or reliability. He masterfully hinges his proof that the Hebrew Scripture does not distinguish between word and object with the word "davar" which means both. "Devarim" (plural) are what can be true or false (sheker) , and the only way that a "davar" can be considered true is if it is found to be what it is supposed to be after time and circumstances allow one to see the big picture.   (I hope this oversimplification is not inaccurate.)

Only in the last century has philosophy started ti question the idea of the independence of words and reality - yet Judaism always understood the two to be related if not identical.

Secondly, and in a related fashion, this book is a challenge to Christian thought. Hazony highlights the definition of "faith" created by early Church thinker Tertullian, who not only highlights the difference between faith and reason but exults in it, almost bragging that the basic ideas of Christianity are absurd to men of reason. "...You have discovered what they are will you find anything to be so foolish as believing in a God that has been born, and that of a virgin, and of a fleshly nature too, who wallowed in all the before-mentioned humiliations of nature? ... Other matters for shame find I none which can prove me to be shameless in a good sense, and foolish in a happy one, by my own contempt of shame. The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible."

Jewish Scripture does not think like Tertullian. There is no catechism in the Hebrew Scripture that describes everything that must be believed, as Christianity has. On the contrary, the characters in the Hebrew Scripture must work hard to understand the ways of God and even the best of them, Moses, could only glimpse a tiny aspect of them. God's wisdom described in the Hebrew Scripture, or at least a great part of it, is attainable by man through thinking.

Finally, this work is a challenge to traditional Orthodox yeshiva-type thinking. Hazony creates what can only be called a "hiddush" (novelty) in claiming that the Hebrew Scripture makes a distinction between shepherds, who symbolize creativity and even disobedience, with farmers/city builders who symbolize adherence and kingdoms, which the Torah is suspicious of. God instructed man to toil in the fields in his curse after the sin of Adam and Eve, but Abel chose to be a shepherd instead - and God preferred his offering over Cain's. The shepherds, from Abel through Abraham and Moses and David, are not shy about challenging God - and God likes them and rewards them for it. This is not a point that one will be taught in a yeshiva or seminary, but Hazony buttresses his argument well.

Altogether, this is a very important and challenging work. yet it is only meant as an introduction and framework for what hopefully will be a much larger field of philosophy (and, Hazony emphasizes, political theory) based on Hebrew sources.

My point that I made in my earlier article mentioning this book stands: Judaism can offer a great deal of knowledge and wisdom to non-religious Jews. This is, I believe, the key to making Judaism relevant again - the source material from thousands of years ago is relevant today and yet that aspect of it is ignored by most non-religious Jews (and plenty of religious Jews as well.)

For those who like to think, I highly recommend this book.

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