“At the age of sixty-nine, when most people adopt an easygoing way of life, I have a chip on my shoulder.”
Thus declares Kenneth Seeskin, a distinguished historian of Jewish philosophy at Northwestern University, at the start of his lucid and instructive new book, Thinking about the Torah. The “chip” derives from Seeskin’s realization that the religion he has practiced all his life turns out to have been misunderstood, not least by his fellow Jews. Contrary to a familiar notion, it is not the case that Judaism is a religion more of deed than of creed, or, in his words, “more concerned with what a person does . . . than with what she thinks.” That being so, Seeskin wants to refocus attention on the “reflective component” in Judaism—more specifically, on the knotty philosophical issues that the Torah, in his view, inevitably raises. The purpose is “to show that Judaism and its Torah are concerned with how we think.”
In choosing philosophy as the lens through which to view the Torah, Seeskin stands in a venerable tradition, one that has generated notable figures throughout the history of philosophy itself. The earliest of note was Philo of Alexandria, who, about 2,000 years ago, applied his formidable education in the Hellenistic philosophy of the times to the interpretation of the Torah, showing—or attempting to show—how the holiest book of the Jews had already testified to the truths associated with Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics and how philosophy, in turn, could help his readers plumb the spiritual depths of the Book of Books. A millennium later, working in the heyday of the intellectually fertile Islamic-Jewish symbiosis of the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonides did something similar, arguing vigorously that the Torah must be interpreted in light of the physics and metaphysics of his time and not according to the primitive anthropomorphism and mythological conceits of the age in which it was written. In the early modern period, Baruch Spinoza, breaking with the Jewish religious tradition and anticipating the historical-critical study of the Bible, focused on its human authors and insisted that tradition—Jewish or Christian—had no jurisdiction over the meaning of the text. “The rule for [biblical] interpretation,” he announced, “should be nothing but the natural light of reason which is common to all—not any supernatural light nor any external authority.”
For these and other philosophical interpreters—in more recent times, their ranks include such impressive minds as Naḥman Krochmal in the 18th century and Joseph B. Soloveichik in the 20th, as well as other exemplars down to our own day—the task has not been an easy one. For, although the Torah has stimulated many important philosophical discussions (as Seeskin expertly shows), it is not in the first instance a work of philosophy. It is, rather, a work of narrative and law. The Jews, in turn, are not in the first instance an association formed on the basis of a shared set of ideas. They are a natural family whose identity has historically come from the foundational story in the Torah and been reaffirmed by obedience to the commandments that the Torah enjoins on them. Indeed, given the centrality of the Torah—and also, for the religious believer, its authority—the “reflective component” of Judaism has predominantly taken the form of commentary in its various and diverse modes. Philosophical inquiry has, of course, influenced commentary at times; but it is always in palpable tension with the more fundamental discourse established in the Bible itself.
A philosophical investigation of the Bible thus offers a prospect of great rewards but also of grave dangers. The rewards flow from engaging in disciplined, systematic thought—intellectually honest, devoid of parochialism and special pleading, and open to challenges from outside the tradition. The dangers derive from the temptation to substitute a foreign discourse for that of the Bible itself, or to interpret the Bible as a set of pre-philosophical (and thus primitive) stand-ins for the ideas and putative realities with which the Western philosophical tradition deals.
Kenneth Seeskin’s new book amply exhibits both the rewards and the dangers.
I. No Ordinary Book
At the very outset, Seeskin makes a statement that he does not regard as controversial: “the Torah is no ordinary book.” Rather, he continues, “it starts with creation and goes on to claim that it is a divinely revealed guide to human behavior valid for all time.” As he sees it, this requires a mode of interpretation that avoids the twin pitfalls of anachronism and historicism. By the former term, he means “the tendency to find [in the Torah] whatever you are looking for”; by the latter, he refers to the different idea that the Torah is only “the product of the culture that produced it” and thus nothing more than “an ancient relic gathering dust in the corner of a museum.”
That the Torah claims to be the result of divine revelation (itself a misleadingly simple term) may indeed not be controversial. But ought we therefore to grant the claim? To the religiously committed interpreter, the answer may well be obvious. But those who subscribe to what Seeskin terms “historicism,” for example, necessarily defer neither to the authority of the ongoing religious tradition nor to the interpreter’s own convictions but rather to the understanding of the text held by the original (and altogether human) author and his audience, as best this can be reconstructed.
Seeskin demurs from these historicist scholars: “there is no reason to think [the ancients’] understanding is necessarily better than ours.” But how, then, does one take seriously the origins of the Torah in an ancient and very different culture from ours, on the one hand, and find contemporary meaning in it, on the other—and do so without falling into the trap of “anachronism” by projecting into the text “whatever you are looking for”? This, of course, is the challenge of the interpreter of any scripture who seeks to be intellectually honest and historically informed but also religiously committed, and Seeskin is to be commended for laying out the challenge so clearly and for his determination to avoid the two pitfalls he describes.
His own answer turns on a distinction between what the biblical authors said and what they meant. They wrote, he admits, within the limitations of their culture, as any human author must, but in the process they generated meanings that transcended those limitations and that can be appropriated today. “The authority of a text depends on the wisdom it has to impart,” he writes, and a significant part of the meaning of the text “is contained in the direction to which it points.” In other words, to determine the current meaning of the Torah requires us to outline a trajectory beyond the text itself and to do so in dialogue with traditional and modern interpreters alike and with the whole history of philosophy as well. With his characteristic honesty, Seeskin readily acknowledges that this demanding hermeneutic “runs the risk of becoming projection” (and thus falling into anachronism). But, he maintains, “it is a risk that anyone writing on the Torah must be prepared to take.”
Following these reflections, the body of Thinking about the Torah consists of nine concise, engaging, and elegantly composed studies of particular themes, ranging from “God and Creation” in Genesis to “Love of God” in Deuteronomy, each epitomized in a passage of only a verse or two. Seeskin’s distinctive contribution lies in his exceptionally clear exposition of enduring philosophical issues raised by these passages. The range of philosophers he brings to bear is extraordinary, including both Jewish and non-Jewish figures. (Among the former are Maimonides, Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Levinas; among the latter are Aristotle, Augustine, René Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, and Søren Kierkegaard.) The interactions among these thinkers that he develops are creative and always advance the reader’s understanding; especially helpful is Seeskin’s gift for deploying the various positions against one another in order to show the strengths and weaknesses of each.
An examination of three of his case studies will give a sense of the strengths of the method, and also its limitations.
II. The Philosophy of God and Creation
Seeskin’s discussion of “God and Creation” begins with the observation that “it is undeniable that according to the Torah, the world and everything in it owes its existence to God.” From this, Seeskin infers that “the Torah begins by asking us to take a cosmic perspective on the world.” But that immediately raises a problem for the philosopher: “Should we understand these actions as things God chose to do and could have chosen not to do, or should we understand them as things God had to do?” And here is the dilemma: if, on the one hand, God lacks “freedom of choice, it would be futile to praise or express gratitude to God,” but if, on the other hand, He has selected “anything less than the best possible alternative, He would cease to be a perfect being.” The question thus relates not only to the nature of God but also to the nature of the world itself: “What will we find,” Seeskin asks: “an eternal world governed by necessity or a created world whose features testify to the glory of the creator?”
Premodern philosophers committed to a doctrine of creation thought they could vindicate their position by recourse to the “argument from particularity,” according to which the contingency of certain aspects of the physical world (such as planetary motion) indicates divine causation: things could have been different, but are not different, only because of God’s creative action. With the Scientific Revolution, however, came a framework of natural necessity that dispensed with all such notions of contingency—and thus also with the free, intervening creator-God of classical Jewish and Christian belief. In the new view, to quote Seeskin on Spinoza, “the universe is one infinitely large, causally determined system.” What is more, “God is nature, nothing more and nothing less.”
As for Leibniz’s subsequent attempt to reassert divine freedom—by claiming that God chose to create the best of all possible worlds—it has not fared well over the centuries. More recently, however, some scientists have sought to reintroduce divine action by noting that the world could not exist were certain physical forces greater or smaller by even a minute amount. So, they ask, what are the odds that the world as we know it would exist at all without some intelligence and purpose behind its design? “Pretty high,” the astrophysicist (and atheist) Stephen Hawking might answer—since, as he sees it, there are numberless universes, of which ours, with its ability to support life, is but one. Against this notion of alternate universes, though, Seeskin quotes the telling riposte of the Christian theologian Richard Swinburne: “To postulate a trillion trillion other universes, rather than one God, in order to explain the orderliness of our universe seems the height of irrationality.”
So, where, according to Seeskin, does this leave us? It leaves us with no certainty but, if we are open-minded, with an awareness of a range of competing possibilities. And it also leaves us with an appreciation of how Genesis “set in motion a debate that is still being waged” and, more practically, with guidance as to “how we should deal with the vastness of the universe and the mysteries it contains.” We should do so, he concludes, “with expressions of praise and feelings of gratitude, knowing that if things had taken a slightly different turn, we might not be here to do either one.”
III. The Philosophy of the Akeidah
Another of Seeskin’s nine case studies, “The Ultimate Sacrifice,” deals with the binding of Isaac (or Akeidah) in Genesis 22. Here again we are presented with a philosophical dilemma. The problem can be seen in what Seeskin characterizes as “an ambiguity in God’s command” to Abraham. Does ha‘alehu sham le‘olah in verse 2, customarily translated as “offer him there as a burnt offering,” mean that Abraham was to kill Isaac, as (according to Seeskin) is traditionally understood to be the case, or does it rather command him “merely to bring him up to the mountain” as one ancient midrash purports (Genesis Rabbah 56:8)?
Here a philosophical dispute between Kierkegaard and Kant is critical to Seeskin’s thinking. If, as Kierkegaard argued, “faith requires not just belief in an infinite God but an infinite or absolute relation to that God,” then the ostensibly senseless command to kill Isaac has “a higher purpose: [namely, to] show the world that obedience to God is absolute” and, in this very special instance, overrides moral law. But if, as Kant had previously argued, the moral law is absolute and no authentic command from God could ever violate it, then the voice that Abraham heard cannot possibly have been God’s and Abraham failed the test in proving willing to murder his innocent son. Or, as the midrash would have it, the voice really was God’s but Abraham drastically misinterpreted it.
As Seeskin’s exploration of the Akeidah proceeds, it becomes clear that his own sympathies lie more with Kant, but he tries valiantly to lay out the thinking that underlies Kierkegaard’s position. In essence, “for Kierkegaard, the only way for God to play a role in our lives is if there is more to religion than moral behavior alone.” For the authentically religious person, therefore, generalizable ethical norms can never suffice. “If you love God,” Seeskin writes in his exposition of this view, “then you have to say that you are willing to obey God no matter what the consequences are.”
And in the case of the Akeidah, in Seeskin’s telling, those consequences are grim indeed. It turns out that Abraham’s obedience to the putative command to “kill Isaac” results in his estrangement from his son and his God alike—and destroys his marriage to boot. “Abraham and Isaac never speak after this incident,” he writes, and there is no indication that the boy even accompanies his father back down the mountain. Nor is there a word of praise for Isaac’s having “allowed his father to bind him like a sacrificial animal”—which to Seeskin, though he acknowledges the ambiguity and elusiveness of the text, would seem to suggest that Isaac was not a willing participant. As for God, Seeskin asks, “Why does Abraham, who has many prophetic experiences prior to Genesis 22, not enjoy a single one after?” The implication is that God, too, has turned His back on the patriarch because of his evident willingness to kill Isaac.
And what about the marriage? Here he cites a midrash (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 32) that sees Sarah’s death in Genesis 23 as caused by the Akeidah narrated in the previous chapter, and he notes that, according to the biblical text itself, “Abraham does not return to Sarah after the event.” Seeskin’s conclusion from all this is that “while [Abraham] was able to show that he feared God, he was utterly unable to hold his family together.”
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Seeskin acknowledges that in the two angelic speeches toward the end of the Akeidah, Abraham is “blessed for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac,” a fact that powerfully supports the traditional reading. Seeskin wishes the matter were otherwise, he tells us, but, given his intellectual honesty and tolerance for complexity, he denies neither the traditional reading nor the fact that the view he so regrets “finds its way into the prayer book and much of traditional Judaism.”
Still, in a section entitled “Maimonides to the Rescue?” he argues, however tentatively, for his own rejection of this dominant interpretation. Maimonides held that in a prophet, both imagination and reason have reached their highest level, so that when a prophet “grasps an abstract truth, it is as if he can hear an external voice speaking to him.” When, at the climax of the Akeidah episode, the angel calls off the great test, what is really happening is that Abraham has come to a deeper rational insight. Whereas he had “thought fear of God had no limits, he now comes to see that it does have limits. Fear of God has to do with awe and humility before God, not with the shedding of innocent human blood.” Combining this with the midrash that understands ha‘alehu sham le‘olah in verse 2 as “bring him up,” Seeskin finds a Jewish warrant for affirming what is more or less Kant’s view, a view at odds with how most traditional Jewish sources in every generation have read this disquieting story.
IV. Physical Worship and/or Spiritual Principle
Our third and final example is Seeskin’s chapter on “The Need for Community,” for which the epigraph is Exodus 25:8, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
In this case, the central problem turns on the biblical depiction of God as made present in a specific structure and in or through the appurtenances, personnel, and rites associated with it—in particular, with the Tabernacle mandated and constructed in Exodus and, by implication, with the Temple in Jerusalem that it foreshadows. How should a philosopher understand a (mostly) invisible God who can nonetheless be perceptible and who becomes present through precisely defined, physical acts of worship? Further complicating the issue is the word kavod, often translated as “glory,” which characterizes the divine presence in some mode or other. “It is unclear,” Seeskin writes,
whether it refers to God Himself, an earthly manifestation of God, or the honor and respect that we owe to God. Even if Moses cannot enter the Tabernacle when it is filled with God’s glory, we still have to ask whether the reason is physical (there is no room for him) or spiritual (he is overwhelmed).
In a later chapter, Seeskin, following rabbinic precedent, finds that kavod can sometimes be identified with the “qualities that trail God,” such as “mercy, graciousness, slowness to anger, steadfast love, and forgiveness of sin.”
As for the emphasis on the physical aspects of worship in the Torah, Seeskin mostly relegates this to a more primitive stage in cultural evolution. “The tendency to concretize God, to think that God is there right before us, runs deep in the human psyche,” he observes. “It would be unrealistic to think any culture could rid itself of this tendency all at once.” But fortunately, as he sees it, the advance of progress would eventually eliminate the problem:
In time, the [talmudic] rabbis came to see that God does not need gold, silver, or priestly vestments to dwell somewhere: His presence can be felt whenever two people sit together to discuss words of Torah.
In fact, as Seeskin sees the matter, the Torah itself had already taught “that in principle (emphasis necessary) it is possible to serve God in a spontaneous fashion without the trappings that come with an organized religious tradition.” His proof is the figure of Abraham, who practiced the “universal principles without which civilization could not survive.” In the talmudic tradition, these are codified as the seven Noahide commandments, identified by Seeskin as “one of the first expressions of what came to be known as natural law.” An awareness of the dangers of a detailed code of behavior and institutional religion similarly informs biblical prophets (like Isaiah), who recognized “that people will become so focused on details that they will forget the ideals for which the community stands.” And, taking off his philosopher’s cap and replacing it with that of a historian, Seeskin adds that “one interpretation of the cause for Jesus’s break with the Judaism of his time is that [the latter] put too much emphasis on the statutory aspect of religion and did not heed Isaiah’s message.” The Jewish-Christian apostle Paul then “took [the example of Abraham] to mean that the practices that define Judaism as a religion are not necessary: all that is necessary is faith in God.”
Should, then, the religion of the Torah, which was expanded into even more detail and institutionalization in the Talmud, be superseded by a religion of spontaneity, general moral principles, and faith like the one that, in Seeskin’s mind, Abraham and Jesus practiced and Paul advocated? Relying again on Maimonides, he answers no, it shouldn’t: “these practices are intended for our sake, not God’s. In political terms, they provide the social glue that brings people together” and enables them “to survive as a people [his emphasis].” On this point, he draws a suggestive contrast between Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher who codified and practiced religious law, and the free-thinking Enlightenment philosopher Kant: “while Maimonides thought religious rituals would always be necessary to hold people together, Kant looked forward to the time when they would wither away and be replaced by moral principles alone.”
Still, Seeskin insists that the significance of formal worship exceeds its social function. “In theological terms,” he tells us in a lovely passage, “these things are all ways of bringing God into our lives; as [Abraham Joshua] Heschel put it, of sensing in small things the beginning of infinite significance; or as I put it, of achieving vertical reach.” In the Torah itself, if individuals were to “undergo a change of heart” and “treat people in a merciful or humane manner,” they “needed to feel that God was among them.” In sum, “the Tabernacle was intended to serve as a symbol that God had not forsaken them and would dwell among them as they reached their final destination.” Although, as Judaism ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE has amply proven, “a people does not need a centralized place of worship to survive,” the traditions of Tabernacle and Temple offer us wisdom that endures even after humanity has outgrown the primitive notions of divine presence manifested by some biblical texts.
V. What Philosophy Obscures
Seeskin’s three case studies all raise, each in its own way, a question that deserves greater treatment. How good is the fit between the biblical text explored and the philosophical categories with which he probes it? Or, to put the matter differently: granted that philosophy can illuminate issues the text has historically suggested and continues to suggest, are there also aspects of the Bible that the recourse to philosophy obscures? I think there are, and if we return to the same three studies, we might get a sense of how this happens.
First, creation. If we rely only on the Torah in the strict sense, Seeskin’s opening observation—“it is undeniable that according to the Torah, the world and everything in it owes its existence to God”—is arguably correct. If, however, we extend our scope beyond Genesis 1 (the chapter on which he focuses here), we find other models of creation. Some of these feature a divine victory over a primordial opponent conceived as the sea or as a sea-monster. Importantly, sometimes (for example in Isaiah 27:1) that victory is extended into the future, when God will, it is affirmed, destroy the monster who somehow is still around and causing havoc. Even if everything in the world owes its existence to God, there are still some things in the world to which He is, or ought to be, in stark opposition and whose existence He will, in fact, bring to an end—or so the speakers in these texts hope and trust. This explains why creation stories of this sort are invoked in situations of defeat and misery, when the primordial opponent is winning and God’s authorship of everything in the world seems false or irrelevant.
In the Bible, in other words, creation often functions in tandem with the painfully urgent need for a reversal of the current order of things, and hence with redemption. To disjoin the two is to rob creation theology of its dynamism and also, I believe, its realism about the human condition. The Bible not only celebrates God’s primordial acts of creation (diversely conceived in diverse texts); it also looks forward to His creation of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17), one that vastly surpasses the present cosmic order.
Can philosophy of the sort invoked by Seeskin deal with this sort of change and the God who brings it about, a God who changes the nature of reality itself? Or must philosophy content itself with treating reality as invariable, established at creation (if it speaks of creation at all) and immune to change (apart, of course, from the more limited change that human beings can bring about)? If the latter is the case, then a very large part of biblical and rabbinic thought will have to be ignored or interpreted only very allegorically, with, for example, divine action understood as only a primitive way of describing human action. The philosophical presupposition would block a productive interaction of the interpreter with the biblical text on its own terms.
Similarly with Seeskin’s conclusion of this same chapter on “God and Creation,” where, to repeat, he writes:
[W]e should deal with the vastness of the universe and the mysteries it contains . . . with expressions of praise and feelings of gratitude, knowing that if things had taken a slightly different turn, we might not be here to do either one.
The reader may recall that Seeskin’s philosophical exploration in this chapter does not in the end resolve the key question of whether we live in “an eternal world governed by necessity or a created world whose features testify to the glory of the creator.” If the latter is the case, then one can readily understand the praise and the gratitude—praise of, and gratitude to, God for His creation. But if the former is the case, if, with Spinoza, we believe “the universe is one infinitely large, causally determined system” and “God is nature, nothing more and nothing less,” what (since “Whom” is obviously out of the question) are we praising? Nature for being itself? The world that could not be different for, well, not being different? And for what are we grateful? For a favor no one intended to give and no one, in fact, gave? Why, then, regard it as a favor?
As Seeskin puts it earlier in the same chapter, if God lacks “freedom of choice, it would be futile to praise or express gratitude to God.” But would the Bible be happy with the idea that we are praising, or expressing gratitude to, something other than God for the cosmic order? For that is one of the reasonable options with which the reciprocally canceling arguments of Seeskin’s philosophers leave us. Praise and gratitude are indeed central aspects of biblical and rabbinic religion, but efforts to retain them when the universe is understood as a causally determined and closed system and God is nothing but nature changes their meaning at the very least and, arguably, renders them pointless.
Jewish and Christian philosophers who defer to the authority of religious tradition will necessarily reject such an understanding of the universe and seek to provide a sophisticated intellectual grounding for their traditional practice. Where that act of deference is missing—as it is for the vast majority of philosophers today—the result must be different. One cannot substitute blind, impersonal necessity for the personal, providential God of the Torah and expect terms like “praise” and “gratitude” to retain the same meaning and same importance.
VI. Biblical Narrative and Philosophical Discussion
In the case of “The Ultimate Sacrifice,” Seeskin’s chapter on the Akeidah, the focus lies on a question at the interface of theology and ethics: can God command an unethical deed? The question is a good one, and Seeskin is correct that the Binding of Isaac provoked an important dispute between Kant and Kierkegaard. But here again we must ask about the fit between the biblical narrative and the philosophical discussions that make use of it.
The ethical misdeed in which Seeskin thinks Abraham acquiesced is nicely indicated by his expression “kill Isaac.” Sometimes, though, as in the title of this case study, Seeskin uses another term: “sacrifice.” Throughout, he gives the sense that, at least in this context, the two words are interchangeable.
An ancient Israelite would have thought differently. Of the half-dozen verbs that the Hebrew Bible commonly employs to mean “kill,” with their various nuances, not one appears in this chapter, or in descriptions of sacrificial practice generally. (The term that does appear here [shaḥaṭ, Genesis 22:10], is the one most used in sacrificial contexts). The key element in biblical sacrifice, in turn, is not the death but the presentation of the offering to God. Thus, one can read the procedure for the burnt offering (‘olah) in Leviticus 1 and almost miss the point at which the animal dies.
Of course, a coroner would have found Isaac no less dead as a result of a sacrifice than he would be as a result of a killing, which is to say that the ethical question of whether Abraham should have been willing to obey the divine command stands. My point is simply that this is not at all the question at issue in Genesis 22 itself, nor was it a question for the vast majority of ancient and medieval Jewish authorities.
What, then, is the biblical Akeidah about? Here, attending to the texture of the narrative in its verbal particularity, we see that its operative dichotomy is actually between giving (sacrificially) and withholding. That is why the angel twice praises Abraham for not withholding his son (Genesis 22:12, 16), rather than for either his willingness to kill him and thus violate natural law or his willingness to override his conscience in the face of a divine command. Seeskin has substituted a point of contention among philosophers, a point that the Akeidah has historically raised, for the issue at hand in the biblical narrative itself.
As a result, although he acknowledges the elusiveness of the story, Seeskin still tries to make the Torah text endorse his own dissent from the praise and blessing that the angel offers Abraham when he has passed his agonizing test. Thus, Seeskin points out that “Abraham and Isaac never speak after this incident,” and he disagrees explicitly with me for having pointed out (elsewhere) that they also never speak before this episode. “But surely the contexts are different,” Seeskin objects. “Before they go to the mountain, there is no reason to suspect that father and son are estranged.”
This, however, begs the question: the notion that they are estranged is precisely what has to be established. Since it is during the Akeidah episode that father and son have their sole direct exchange, one could just as easily argue that they were never more of one accord than on the way up that mountain. Similarly, Seeskin’s observation that the text offers no word of praise for Isaac misses the point that Genesis 22 is not about Isaac: it is about Abraham. The same may be said of Isaac’s absence from the story’s final verse (22: 19): in the biblical version, the Akeidah is a test of Abraham alone—which is why Isaac is also absent in the first verse, announcing the test. Finally, that Abraham has no “prophetic experiences” afterward is easily explained by the fact that the Akeidah is the high point of the Abraham narrative, thus bringing together with astonishing tightness a number of central themes in the preceding stories. Afterward, the narrative quickly wraps up: Abraham finds a gravesite for his wife in chapter 23, sees to it that his son is married off in chapter 24, and dies in chapter 25.
As for the contention that the Akeidah destroyed Abraham’s marriage to Sarah, this is an enormous claim built on next to nothing. It is far from clear that Abraham’s return to Beersheba indicates that he “did not return to Sarah after the event.” And even if we were to credit the midrash that attributes Sarah’s death to the shock delivered by the Akeidah (a notion missing in the biblical text), it would not follow that either the narrator or Sarah disapproved of Abraham’s obedience to God’s command or thought that the patriarch had transgressed some inviolable ethical norm. Seeskin’s discomfort with the Akeidah is understandable, but his effort to locate his discomfort in the Torah is far-fetched.
Finally, what about the phrase ha‘alehu sham le‘olah in Genesis 22:2? This clause cannot literally mean “bring him up to the mountain,” as the one ancient midrash interprets it, but must be rendered as “offer him there as a burnt offering” or the like. Yet even in that midrash, the issue is not the morality of Abraham’s near-sacrifice: it is the consistency and reliability of God’s promise. If Abraham’s prime lineage is to descend from Isaac, the commandment to sacrifice his childless son makes no sense. To defend God from the charge of fickleness, the midrash faults Abraham for misunderstanding—but not for acting unethically.
One can admire Seeskin’s willingness to take the risk of projection and anachronism. Regrettably, in the case of the Akeidah, he has fallen into the very traps he warns against.
VII. Not Philosophical Enough
The same problem—namely, the appropriateness to the biblical text of the philosophical constructs he employs—arises once again in Seeskin’s chapter on the divine presence in the Tabernacle. Since he appears to subscribe to the notion of an unbridgeable gulf between the spiritual and the physical, it is little wonder that he finds the emphasis on the precise physical details of the system of worship to be objectionable, or that he resorts to social and psychological rationales to account for them. In moving so quickly to a functionalist understanding of such things, he stands in good philosophical company. Maimonides, whom he cites approvingly here and often in the book, would applaud.
But in my view, the problem isn’t that Seeskin is too philosophical; the problem is that he isn’t philosophical enough. To put it differently, he jumps much too hastily to sociology, psychology, anthropology, and a dubious theory of cultural evolution. Instead, his curiosity awakened by an encounter with biblical texts about holiness, he might have questioned the stark dichotomy of the spiritual and the physical and asked what it means to say that things that closely pertain to God can share the attribute of holiness with him.
Seeskin’s own take on this matter is that, when it comes to “special articles of clothing, hymns, prayers, or festival foods,” holiness “has to do not with a magical property they possess in their own right but with their ability to inspire appropriate behavior in us.” But this does not suffice as an account of what holiness—the holiness of God, the holiness of the people Israel, the holiness of the priests (kohanim), or the holiness of the Tabernacle/Temple—means in the Bible. What is more, the term “magical property” is a conversation-stopper; it shuts down what could have proved a worthwhile investigation of a key Torah concept baffling to most moderns.
In this case, philosophical reflection upon findings from the history of religion might have proven invaluable—and perhaps have led to a sophisticated reclamation of the biblical theology of divine presence. Fortunately, philosophical resources on this key aspect of the Torah already exist. A good contrast with Seeskin’s Maimonidean aversion to this theology can be found in, for example, Michael Wyschogrod’s profound volume, The Body of Faith: Judaism as Corporeal Election. Intent upon “speaking about God in the language of the Bible,” Wyschogrod (whose book is neither listed in Seeskin’s ample bibliography nor reckoned with in his discussion) reflects on what it means to say that God dwells in the people Israel:
Living in a city does not mean fusing with its walls but residing in it, now here and later there, but all the time being an inhabitant of the city, dwelling in it. There is no distinction between living in a people or among a people; it is linguistic usage that dictates the use of one rather than the other word. . . . Difficulty arises only when spatial in-being is considered paradigmatic and all other uses of in somehow metaphoric and ultimately reducible to spatial in-being.
Now, if we make an analogy between God’s mysterious presence in or among the Jewish people and His presence in the Tabernacle/Temple along with its appurtenances, personnel, and rites, we can see why it misses the point to refer to some sort of “magical property [such things or people] possess in their own right” and to substitute human ethical behavior for divine presence as the key point. There is nothing magical about God’s sovereign decision to make Himself present, and the vehicles of that presence do not possess it “in their own right” (another serious misunderstanding); they do not “possess” it at all. They manifest it in the world of flesh, blood, and matter.
Admittedly, to take Wyschogrod’s advice, we would have to be committed, in his words, to “listening to what Hashem [i.e., God in His biblical particularity] says about Himself in and through language.” Doing so does not exclude philosophical inquiry; it does, however, require philosophers to attend carefully to the specifics of the text and its language, and to develop both a respect for the modes of piety it manifests and a firm resistance to replacing them with their own philosophical preferences.
It is also unfortunate that Seeskin seems to give credence to notions about Christian origins that no longer have much credibility among New Testament scholars, like the idea that Jesus effected a “break with the Judaism of his time” or that Paul thought “that all that is necessary is faith in God.” Few scholars today would say that Jesus thought of himself as starting a new religion; nor is it at all clear that he thought Jewish law could be dispensed with. Seeskin is right that such a reading is “one interpretation” of Jesus, but it is not only an interpretation that has declined in recent generations but also one that has historically generated much disparagement of Judaism. As for Paul, his belief in the return of the Abrahamic possibility of righteousness through faith was based in the central affirmation of his own apocalyptic theology: the restorative death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s thinking is light-years away from the Romantic notion that “it is possible to serve God in a spontaneous fashion without the trappings that come with an organized religious tradition.”
Finally, though Seeskin is correct that the rabbis generally subscribed to a theology of divine presence no longer dependent on the existence of the Temple and its rites, this must not be taken to mean that they thought the Temple was no longer important or could be safely relegated to a superseded past. The truth is quite the opposite: the restoration of the Temple and all that went with it was a key element in rabbinic theology and liturgy.
VIII. Outside of Philosophy
In all three case studies that we have examined, we have found central aspects of the biblical text that Seeskin either does not take account of or that he downgrades from divine will (as described in the Torah) to human need. The reason for this, it would seem to me, has to do with his understanding of what it means to read the Bible philosophically.
Recall that, in his view “the authority of a text depends on the wisdom it has to impart,” and that part of the meaning of the text “is contained in the direction to which it points.” Each of these phrases, in turn, raises a central question. First, what is the standard against which we measure any given biblical text in deciding whether to classify it as wisdom or not? Second, given that biblical texts have historically pointed in many different and sometimes conflicting directions, how are we to determine which direction to prefer?
For Seeskin, the wisdom of the text seems to lie primarily in the philosophical discussions it has energized and in its capacity to inspire universally recognizable and available ethical behavior, “valid,” as he puts it, “for all time.” He has exemplified these preferences in his humane, learned, and elegant book.
The problem is that a very large part of the Bible does not deal with such things, at least in the first instance. It mostly deals, instead, with the relationship of the people Israel (less commonly, humankind in general) to God over time—with a God who acts in history, doing far more than revealing perennial, universal truths. The biblical focus, that is, lies on such matters as the reliability of God to fulfill His promises; on His responsiveness to cries of pain and to accusations of neglect in times of affliction; and on the people Israel’s willingness to carry out His commands wholeheartedly, to return to Him and His will when they have strayed, and to remain faithful even when He and His promises seem to have been discredited and provoke only contempt from outsiders and many insiders as well.
Now, these are not the sorts of issues on which secular philosophers tend to focus, and to the extent that secular philosophy—that is, philosophy practiced by those not committed, in one way or another, to the authority of a religious tradition—is taken as the norm, such concerns are not likely to pass the test of “wisdom.” This is not to deny that those practicing such a model of investigation may find in the Torah, as in nearly all literature, some nuggets that correspond to their image of wisdom, but they are unlikely to feel accountable to the totality of the text and to the arc of the history of revelation and redemption that the Bible as a whole claims to disclose. Nor are philosophers in that mold likely to commit themselves to wrestling with the foreign or unpalatable parts of the scriptures until they have wrung something of value from them.
And so, if Seeskin is right that “the authority of a text depends on the wisdom it has to impart,” it is also the case that the judgment of what constitutes wisdom depends in significant measure upon the community to which the interpreter belongs. There is no neutral community of interpretation, no community of interpretation that is without presuppositions about the truth to which its members are accountable and without a tradition of its own that it brings to bear, in one way or another, on the text it sets about to examine. As I remarked at the start, intellectual honesty requires openness to insights from outside the tradition. But it also requires a recognition that traditions are different and not interchangeable. An issue urgent in one interpretive framework may be off the subject altogether in another; the wisdom of one discourse may be less wise in another.
Kenneth Seeskin is right to call for a heightened degree of reflection about Judaism, and for more “thinking about the Torah,” and for doing so he deserves our gratitude. It is questionable whether Western philosophical discourse presents the best way of going about that important task.