October 17, 2012
A map of the Bible
Yoram Hazony opens his new book, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” (Cambridge University Press: $24.99), with a challenging question: “Is there something crucial missing in our understanding of what the Hebrew Bible is all about?” His answers are both surprising and illuminating, but they are also audacious because they propose a wholly new way of understanding what the Bible says and means.
Hazony, a fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and president of its Institute for Advanced Studies, brings to his book a background in politics and philosophy rather than Bible study; significantly, he completed a degree in Asian studies at Princeton and earned his doctorate in political theory at Rutgers, and he is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, the New Republic, Commentary and Ha’aretz.
His argument begins with an observation about the Western habit of mind that distinguishes between reason and revelation. “[R]ead into the Hebrew Scriptures, the reason-revelation dichotomy becomes a kind of distorting lens — greatly exaggerating aspects of the old Hebrew texts that their authors would never have chosen to emphasize, even as it renders much that was of significance to them all but invisible,” he writes. “This means that in reading the Hebrew Scriptures as works of ‘revelation’ (as opposed to ‘reason’), we come pretty close to destroying them.”
Hazony is an Orthodox Jew, but he is fully aware that we live in an age in which the Bible is no longer highly regarded (or, for that matter, much consulted) by worldly people, Jews and Christians alike. “Outside of religious circles, the Bible is often seen as bearing a taint of irrationality, folly, and irrelevance, the direct result of its reputation as a consummate work of unreason,” he concedes. “This taint ensures that for most educated people, the Bible remains pretty much a closed book, the views of its authors on most subjects unaccessed and inaccessible.”
Indeed, his self-appointed mission is to call attention to the place that the Tanakh deserves to hold in Western civilization, a place that has been mostly denied over the last millennium or so in Christian and secular scholarship. “What was once an unashamedly anti-Semitic revisionism aimed at showing that the Greeks were ‘almost divine,’ and that the West — and Germany in particular — was descended from these demi-gods alone, has long since crystalized into an orthodoxy,” writes Hazony, who insists that the lingering effect of this mind-set “affects numerous other academic disciplines, including the history and archaeology of the Near East, the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the history and philosophy of law, the history and philosophy of science, the history of Western languages and writing, and more.”
Hazony proceeds to unpack his own considerable toolbox and explain how he applies it to the biblical text. Thus, for example, he divides the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible into three categories: “The History of Israel” (a term and concept of his own coinage, and one that is not equivalent to the customary usage of “Torah”), “The Orations of the Prophets” and “The Writings.” He proposes that the driving force of the narrative is how and why God challenges the Jewish people to “resist the decree of history,” that is, “the threat that the Jewish exiles in Babylonia and Egypt will simply disappear as a people.” Yet he also reads the Bible to suggest “that the Israelite cause is worthy because it is, in fact, the cause of all mankind.”
Hazony looks beyond the miracle stories of the Bible and focuses on the unique relationship between God and humankind. Even at moments of apparent revelation, he sees the human mind at work. God, for example, is shown to ask Jeremiah what he sees, and when the prophet answers by describing his visions, God says: “You have excelled in seeing.” For Hazony, the “give-and-take between God and man” carries an important theological message: “[W]hile this prophecy does begin with an approach from God, this approach is not in the form of God holding forth on a subject of concern to him,” Hazony explains. “Rather, it is in the form of a question,” and “the emphasis is unambiguously on Jeremiah’s own capacity for vision, for seeing the truth when he looks upon the city.”
Similarly, the author is less interested in when or by whom the biblical books were written or edited, and much more interested in how to read them in a manner that penetrates to the core of meaning that he discerns in them. “To understand the Hebrew Bible, then, is first to recognize it as an artful compendium, whose purpose is not — and never was — to present a single viewpoint,” he explains. “I do not mean by this that there is no center or heart to the tradition of thought encompassed by the Hebrew Scriptures. There is indeed such a center, such a heart. But this center of the biblical teaching is not something handed to us. It must be sought. ...”
Here, in fact, is the heart and center of Hazony’s important book. As a scholar who finds time to blog about philosophy (jerusalemletters.com), Hazony always seeks to make even the most subtle, technical or difficult material fully accessible to his readers, and he succeeds brilliantly in doing so in “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.” He challenges us to read the Bible as thoughtful seekers, and he provides a map of the territory to guide us along the way.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org