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The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Ora Harmony
Ora Harmony is one of the founders of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, an academic research institute dedicated to the sustenance of the Jewish People and Israel. 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 readers that by including the context of the Mosaic Law, the biblical covenant between God and the Children of Israel and their proselytes, we can get an understanding of the philosophy behind the Hebrew Bible. But

above all this book 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 – reason being the product of man exercising intellectual capabilities in order to grasp the good, the beautiful and the true. In contrast, God’s revelation aims at accomplishing the same by giving us a somewhat common sense or narrative version, ie the literal stories of the Hebrew Scripture.

In the history of ideas, namely through the German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss, this dichotomy has been addressed as esoteric or elitist versus esoteric or everyman’s knowledge. Politically speaking, this split comes at the price of creating a dualism that separates a spiritual from the physical realm.

Just as Philo of Alexandria in the first-century CE attempted to synthesize Greek Philosophy and Judaism, so Christianity can be depicted as quite a different attempt to accomplish this, resulting in a consequential Hellenization.

The original motive of the Christian fathers might have been to fend off all sorts of Gnostic rivals. By contrast, as Hazony makes clear, the Hebrew Bible, written 500 years before the dualism appeared, did not really need to. Judaism always lacked any missionary drive and was firmly moored at the harbor of Jewish particularism or even naturalism with an additional universalist touch to it. It is against this historical background that Hazony’s book can be best understood.

Other Christian tenets that flow from the reason-revelation split, such as the healing power of faith and the concept of eternal life, were also conspicuously absent from the core tenets of Judaism. So much so that the philosopher Immanuel Kant did not even acknowledge ancient Judaism as a religion. This backfired during the 18th century, when the philosophers of the Enlightenment 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 within the Christian framework of revelation versus reason. Read as revelation, the Hebrew Scripture is being completely distorted and its message destroyed. In addition, this forceful misreading had huge consequences, diminishing the scripture’s general standing and ultimately leading to it being banned from universities and public education.

Hazony therefore wishes the original Hebrew narrative to be read entirely as a work of reason. His book aims at persuading readers of the usefulness of the Hebrew Bible as a philosophical source for answering questions about the nature of the universe and the right or just life of man. To do this, he needs to dismantle prejudices and obstacles of methodology.

Maintaining an emphasis on philosophical argument, he furnishes examples of the pre-Socratic philosophers such as Parmenides, Empedocles and Heraclitus, who, in the fifth century not long before the prophet Jeremiah (647-572), all framed their ideas as being revealed.

Even Socrates, as related 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 modern historians such as Bertrand Russell unambiguously read these works by founders of the Western philosophic tradition as words of reason.

Hazony blames the different reading of Jeremiah and the pre-Socratic philosophers on simple prejudice rooted in the Christian dichotomy. Since the Enlightenment, this same dichotomy has also been upheld by the modern research of universities. Originally developed in Germany by Wilhelm von Humboldt, the interpretation 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 works of reason.

Not for nothing was Greek philosophy the main currency in continental post-Enlightenment France and Germany. Thus, the history of Western thought was rewritten with Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel gazing though a Greek lens, with a rich Jewish tradition marginalized as superstitious and rendered as utterly worthless.

Hazony is quick to assert that the Hebrew Bible does not offer one single point of view, given that dozens of authors have contributed at times contradictory accounts to it. It is for this reason, he writes, that the “heart” of the Bible is not easily accessible, but has to be sought.

“Having been assembled to embrace and heal a broken people after the loss of its land and freedom, the Hebrew Bible could not afford the parochialism of a narrow religious sect, because it was consciously assembled to serve as the basis for the thought of an entire nation.” Hazony goes even further, saying the ambiguity and uncertainty of the biblical narrative reflects the limits of human intelligence or, as the author puts it, “ultimate knowledge of God’s thoughts is beyond the powers of man, which are by nature weak and fallible”.

For this reason, 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 sensu stricto. Only the complete narrative all the way to the end of the Book of Kings gives us the reading intended by the authors of the scripture.

The complete narrative of the History of Israel is altogether about 150,000 words and 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 Hebrew Bible divide Samuel and Kings into smaller works, but this is certainly a post-Talmudic (ancient Rabbinic) innovation.
This brings us back to the starting point: the reason-revelation dichotomy which is the book’s central argument.

The author 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. 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 for instance, those are horrible facts, not doubted by anyone.

The importance of the Hebrew Scripture lies in it framing for the first time of the History of the Jews. This provided a broken people with a lasting self-understanding intended to facilitate their survival.

Hazony explains in accessible language how the seemingly contingent and particular narrative of the Hebrew Bible works as an outlet of universal reason. After finishing this book I was reminded of the late Leo Strauss, who early on observed that the thinkers of the Enlightenment never did their homework, such as a thorough critique of the Holy Scripture, and simply resorted to mockery about religion. Hazon’s book will give them pause by demonstrating that the Hebrew Bible can be read as a work of reason.

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony, Cambridge University Press 2012 (July 30, 2012). ISBN-10: 0521176670. US$24.99. Paperback: 286 pages.

Dr Friedrich Hansen is a physician and writer. He has researched Islamic enlightenment in Jerusalem and has networked on behalf of the Maimonides Prize.

(Copyright 2013 Friedrich Hansen.)

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