"Is the Torah a Work of Philosophy?" An Exchange

Kenneth R. Seeskin and Jon D. Levenson debate the power and the limits of philosophical reflection on the Hebrew Bible.

Pages in a 14th-century Hebrew Bible from Catalonia, Spain. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Pages in a 14th-century Hebrew Bible from Catalonia, Spain. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Feb. 16 2017
About the authors

Kenneth Seeskin is Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University and the author, most recently, of Thinking about the Torah.

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the author of Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Library of Jewish Ideas; Princeton University Press).

Kenneth R. Seeskin:

I want to thank Jon Levenson for his recent review of my book Thinking about the Torah and Mosaic for inviting Joshua Berman, R. R. Reno, and James Diamond to enter the discussion. Levenson understands me well, and while there are issues that separate us, he has written a thoughtful and in many ways flattering assessment of my work.

The Torah is not a work of philosophy, and it is a good thing that it is not. Sacred literature is one thing, philosophical argument quite another. Much as I love Kant, I do not say a prayer before reading him. There is no denying, however, that the Torah has inspired philosophical reflection over the ages and has influenced thinkers from a variety of religious traditions. My central claim is that we do the Torah an injustice if we don’t ask why this is so and what it teaches us about the Torah itself.

It goes without saying that some philosophical alternatives are not compatible with the worldview of the Torah. Levenson and I are in agreement that a naturalistic universe governed by necessity, a position championed by Baruch Spinoza, contradicts the idea that the universe was created by a benevolent God worthy of praise and adoration. Still, while the philosophical tradition gave us Spinoza, let us not forget that it also gave us Maimonides, Moses Mendelssohn, Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Joseph Soloveitchik, and Emmanuel Levinas. Although these people were far removed in time from the original text, it is safe to say that without them, our understanding of the text would not be as rich as it is today.


Levenson organizes his disagreements with my approach in three sections, following themes discussed in my book: creation, the Akeidah or binding of Isaac, and the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. I will take them up in turn.

I have already remarked that we agree in rejecting naturalism. Levenson objects that because philosophy still regards naturalism as a serious alternative, philosophical methodology is ill suited to illuminating the biblical worldview. There is some truth to this. No biblical concept aligns with the Greek physis. But if you want to reject naturalism, you have to do more than point this out. In particular, you have to examine naturalism on its own terms and show what aspect of human experience it fails to capture.

Philosophers have been discussing a created universe versus a deterministic one for 3,000 years, and they still have not resolved the issue—a fact that Maimonides bemoaned as far back as the 12th century. He then went on to say that he, too, could not resolve it with certainty. Although many take this as a weakness, I prefer to take it as a strength. When we talk about God and the origin of the universe, we push human understanding beyond the limits of what can be known for certain. Result: whether we view ourselves as recipients of divine grace or as conglomerations of particles moving through space comes down to a choice on our part. It is the job of philosophy to clarify that choice, not to make it for us.

Levenson also takes issue with my failing to mention alternative accounts of creation such as those passages in the Bible where, unlike in Genesis, God does not create the word by issuing a simple decree but must contend with unruly forces. No one doubts these passages exist and that if one were to give an exhaustive account of the biblical view of creation, they would have to be mentioned. My only comeback is that unlike the Genesis account, these passages have done little to stimulate philosophical inquiry for the simple reason that it is hard to reconcile a God who struggles to overcome external forces with a God who is the source of all existence. How, in other words, could God struggle with a force He has created and could just as easily destroy?


Next is the Akeidah, a subject on which Levenson has written with admirable depth and clarity. A telling point he makes in response to me is that while the story talks about sacrifice, it never talks about killing. Have modern readers like Kierkegaard gone astray in saying that God asked Abraham to suspend morality, i.e. to kill, for the sake of something higher? If the command to sacrifice Isaac offends our moral conscience, can we conclude that it would have offended Abraham’s?

Although the question is valid, I’m not sure Levenson has made his case. It may be true that in normal instances of sacrifice, the emphasis is on the presentation of the animal, not the killing of it. But killing an animal does not raise a moral question. When Abraham offers the ram as a burnt offering at the end of the story, no details are given because none is needed. By contrast, the story builds to a dramatic climax as Abraham pulls out his knife and prepares to slit his son’s throat. Even if you have read the story a hundred times, it is hard to get to this point without feeling uneasy. Simply put: this is not a normal case of sacrifice.

I plead guilty to a misdemeanor in my use of Genesis Rabbah 56:8, according to which Abraham did not understand that all God wanted from him was to take Isaac up to the mountain. Levenson is right to point out that the text clearly asks for a sacrifice. The question is: why did the midrash seek to modify the text to make it look as if God never asked for a sacrifice? According to Levenson, it is not the morality of the act but the consistency and reliability of God’s promise to Abraham that he would be blessed through his posterity.

The consistency and reliability of God’s promise is, of course, a moral issue in itself. In other rabbinic readings of the text, Abraham starts to cry as he pulls out his knife, or exacts something in return for his loyalty to God (namely, forgiveness for the sins of his descendants). According to one line of thought, the whole episode was just a test, indicating that God never intended for Isaac to be harmed. According to another, the whole episode can be laid to Satan’s questioning of Abraham’s devotion. And then there is the tradition according to which Isaac was a willing participant.

As the rabbis see it, God is neither cruel nor arbitrary. Abraham is not a fanatic but a person with normal human emotions; none of this might have happened if Satan hadn’t doubted Abraham’s loyalty; more importantly, the end result is something from which we all benefit. If the rabbis are right, then Kierkegaard was wrong to think that Abraham embraced absurdity or acted as a lone knight of faith. By the same token, if they are right, then we need them to understand what the story is trying to teach us even though they lived in a different age and had their own set of presuppositions.

Another point of disagreement concerns the role of Isaac and Sarah. Is the idea that, soon after this episode, Sarah died out of grief over it far-fetched, as Levenson argues? Maybe—but given the brevity of the text in contrast to its monumental importance, the same could be said of most of the glosses mentioned above. Far-fetched yet insightful in the ambiguities and nuances they bring to light.

In Levenson’s opinion, Sarah and Isaac do not play major roles here; instead the story is about Abraham. This is a possible reading, especially if one sticks to the bare details of the narrative. But is it a compelling one? When a text is this abbreviated, what is not said can be just as important as what is. As in much literature, there are things left to the imagination. I submit that the text admits of a variety of interpretations none of which (including my own) can be known with certainty.


That brings us to the Tabernacle and the whole issue of the Torah’s commitment to monotheism.

It is here that the difference between Levenson’s approach and mine is most visible. I read the Torah, or the Bible more generally, as a people’s attempt to deal with the question of how finite creatures can relate to an infinite and incomparable God. Then as now, there are no easy answers. Do we emphasize God’s justice, power, mercy, or wisdom? How do we balance God’s distance with his nearness? What is it like to be in the presence of God?

Instead of a coherent philosophy, one will find a variety of alternatives—or tensions, as Reno puts it in his response in Mosaic. God is a warrior, a jilted lover, a guide, a friend, a merciful king who rescues people from disaster, or a stern judge who exacts punishment from them. In some passages, God has a body, takes up space, morphs into human-like creatures, or becomes visible to human beings. In others, God refuses to be represented by a plastic image, insists that no mortal can see his face, cannot be contained by the splendor of Solomon’s Temple or the high heavens above it, and has a prophet proclaim that not even the mightiest nations on earth can be compared to Him.

It will come as no surprise that the majority of the philosophical tradition has emphasized the latter group of passages. Maimonides spoke for much of that tradition in saying that God is neither a body nor a force in a body. The reason is that God is infinite and radically one while all bodies, or forces that reside within bodies, are finite and complex.

Granted, it took centuries for someone to reach this conclusion. Surely the difference in time does not disqualify Maimonides from giving voice to an insight articulated in a previous age—any more than it disqualifies the use of historical methods that are just as far removed from the biblical mindset. At bottom, my position comes to this: if part of the meaning of a text is contained in what it says, another part is contained in the direction to which it points. If a text continues to inspire thinkers centuries later, then we have to read those thinkers to appreciate the full significance of the text.

Levenson thinks that this commits me to a theory of cultural evolution, a view that has fallen into disfavor with modern scholars. If “evolution” means that there is a single line of development from ancient texts to medieval and from medieval texts to contemporary ones, then I am as opposed to the evolutionary view as he is. If, however, it means that some ways of conceiving of God have proved more fruitful than others, that they stimulated later thought and created valuable trajectories that still need to be explored, then my response is: so be it. I see nothing wrong in saying that while the Jewish conception of God has never been monolithic, it has changed over time.

While the philosophical tradition is not the only one that biblical literature spawned, it has survived centuries of criticism from opponents, numerous intellectual revolutions, and attempts to ban or burn its books. This tradition, with its commitment to clarity and consistency, does not have the last word on how to read the Torah. To my way of thinking, no single method of interpretation does. My only claim is that it has a word.

Let me end with a confession. I have always been a fan of Levenson’s work. As I wrote Thinking about the Torah, I asked myself at several places “What would Jon Levenson say about this?” Now I know, and I have no doubt that I am the wiser for it.



Jon D. Levenson:

I thank Kenneth Seeskin for his response to my review essay. Like his book, it is thoughtful, lucid, and refreshingly modest in its claims.

Seeskin and I are, in fact, in agreement on a number of points that have come up in my essay and the ensuing discussions. We agree, for example, that there is a rich philosophical tradition in Judaism, represented by the figures he mentions (among others), who are, I would add, nicely illuminated in his book. I also agree with his claim that any complete discussion of the meaning of a biblical text in the context of Judaism must ultimately reckon with how later texts and thinkers, certainly including Jewish philosophers, have understood the text in question. And, to give one last example, I have no quarrel with his observation that it does not suffice to point out that a full-fledged naturalism is in contradiction to biblical teaching; a philosophical case against the naturalistic perspective must also be mounted. Exegesis cannot substitute for a constructive argument.

Still on the general point about philosophy, however, I have trouble accepting his position that “whether we view ourselves as recipients of divine grace or as conglomerations of particles moving through space comes down to a choice on our part. It is the job of philosophy to clarify that choice, not to make it for us.” It seems to me that, historically, most philosophers have made substantive arguments on points like that; they have not rested content with an agnostic elucidation of the arguments for each side. I also fail to see how, if we really are nothing but “conglomerations of particles moving through space,” we have the freedom of choice to decide the issue for ourselves at all. I don’t even see what, in that thinking, a self could be. But I’ll leave those conundrums to the philosophers to debate.

Like Seeskin, I readily affirm that there is “nothing wrong in saying that while the Jewish conception of God has never been monolithic, it has changed over time.” But I would also note the wrinkle that comes when a tradition is founded upon a set of documents that it takes to be normative. When that is the case, conceptions of God and other religious matters from different periods and genres exist contemporaneously. So, although Seeskin is right that ancient authors like the rabbis “lived in a different age,” their work can still present us with ways of thinking and acting of which we would otherwise be unaware. Neither the Bible nor rabbinic literature, in other words, is simply a set of old books; rather, these works continually call our own thinking and acting into question in the present.

This does not mean we have to surrender mindlessly to one or another point of ancient thought. It does mean, though, that we must guard against the instinctive modern response to dismiss the challenge by saying, “That’s how people thought back then, but we think differently today.” What is required instead is a back-and-forth process of patient listening to these very foreign texts and of respectful interrogation of them in light of our own thinking. If we do not allow the discordant or supposedly superseded voices to be heard, we have failed in our study of Torah.


In the case of Seeskin’s chapter on creation, I think he has fallen into that very trap. Responding to my claim that he has ignored the continued threat posed by chaos in a number of biblical texts, he writes:

My only comeback is that unlike the Genesis account, these passages have done little to stimulate philosophical inquiry for the simple reason that it is hard to reconcile a God who struggles to overcome external forces with a God who is the source of all existence. How, in other words, could God struggle with a force He has created and could just as easily destroy?

The question is an excellent one, and in texts of the sort I have in mind it is precisely that tension between the omnipotence of the Creator-God of yore and the present triumph of unspeakable adversity that is at issue. The response of the biblical speaking voice in situations of that sort, however, is to challenge God to act in accordance with His power. “O Lord, where is Your steadfast love of old?” one psalmist taunts (Psalm 89:50). Another goes farther: “Rouse Yourself: why do You sleep, O Lord?” (Psalm 44:24).

The biblical response, in other words, is not to walk away from the existential issue because of the abstract logical contradiction that may underlie it. Instead, it is to engage personally with the living God in order to induce Him to close the gap between His reputation and the current reality. In the case of passages exemplifying what biblical scholars call “the combat myth” itself, part of the engagement between Israel and its God involves promises on His part finally to destroy the primordial enemy. (I leave aside the whole question of whether those particular texts think God created this enemy.)

But even in texts that don’t speak of primordial or eschatological combat, there are still promises of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17) in which current reality yields in various ways to something infinitely better. It is not necessarily false to say, as Seeskin does in his book, that “according to the Torah, the world and everything in it owes its existence to God”; but saying so misses a key element of biblical thought. It misses the dynamism of the interaction of the Creator with His creation. In the book, this then leads into a discussion of divine freedom that, while fascinating in its own right, is far from the conceptual universe of biblical Israel.

Seeskin implies that the particular creation text he treats, Genesis 1, does not subscribe to any such ideas but instead presupposes a static, perfect universe that is the Creator’s last word. That may be correct, but the point requires argumentation. In my view, it also requires some acknowledgment that in other biblical texts, creation or re-creation lies in the future as well.


In the case of the Akeidah (Genesis 22:1–19), I agree with Seeskin that killing an animal does not inherently raise a moral question (though there is no lack of people today who would vociferously disagree), and I have no quarrel that, especially in modern times, many have found Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac to be morally problematic. My point is simply that the ethics of his action are not in doubt in the biblical text or, for that matter, in the overwhelming portion of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim reflection on it. To me, this alone suggests that the modern tendency to view the text within the domain of ethics is misguided. Were that domain the right framework, reading the story might be a disgusting experience but hardly the wrenching one that Seeskin describes. The ethical lesson would be obvious, as it was to Kant: don’t murder your child even if you think the voice of God told you to.

In writing that the command that begins the Akeidah should be understood as ordering a sacrifice, I did not mean to imply that the text is about “a normal case of sacrifice.” In my discussion of it in Inheriting Abraham (2012), in fact, I caution against disengaging the episode from the particularities of the Abraham story. For one thing, doing so misses the specialness of Isaac. The person whom Abraham must give up to God is none less than the promised son miraculously born to the man with the infertile and long post-menopausal wife: the son, moreover, on whom the promises that have energized Abraham’s life now rest, who validates Abraham’s whole record of obedience and trust in God, and who embodies his hope for future life.

Interpreting the Akeidah within that framework is perfectly compatible with midrashim that show Abraham crying or exacting something from God in return, as well as with those that present the event as a response to an accusation against Abraham in the divine council, whether delivered by a diabolical figure or the ministering angels, to the effect that his service has been self-interested or otherwise deficient. And Seeskin is absolutely right that, in rabbinic thinking, “Abraham is not a fanatic but a person with normal human emotions.” That is why a midrash can tell us that “His eyes shed tears that fell into Isaac’s eyes because of his fatherly compassion; nonetheless, his heart rejoiced to do the will of his Creator” (Genesis Rabbah 56:8). The two-sidedness of Abraham’s situation is lost altogether if we replace the will of the personal God with anything more general, whether morality, or the human quest for meaning, or what have you. What normal person would ever think to murder his innocent son?


Finally, and more briefly, we come to the issue of the Tabernacle and its rites. Seeskin is again correct that in answer to the question, “What is it like to be in the presence of God?” the Bible offers, “instead of a coherent philosophy . . . a variety of alternatives.” But I would add that those various approaches can be found in close proximity. This suggests that, rather than electing one and banishing the others as primitive or driven only by psychological needs, we would do better to try to honor all of them, recognizing, as we then must, the limitedness of each. And so, when Seeskin rightly observes that “the majority of the philosophical tradition has emphasized” the texts that speak of the absolute transcendence of God at the expense of those that speak of his sensible presence, I must counter that from the standpoint of the Bible, something important is again lost when that emphasis goes unchallenged. The “tensions” of which R. R. Reno writes in his response to my essay have been flattened, and with them the creativity that comes from the friction among different perspectives that Reno finds in the history of biblical exegesis.

In my view, the “variety of alternatives” of which Seeskin speaks itself offers rich material for philosophical consideration. The apparent lack of “a coherent philosophy” reflects the tension between, on the one hand, God’s sovereign freedom and, on the other hand, His covenantal commitment to the people Israel. Rather than minimizing the latter idea by defining God in static and abstract terms of the sort Seeskin mentions (“infinite and radically one”), philosophers attuned to the particularity of the biblical texts would do better to probe the profound implications of the tension that most of their colleagues ignore or disparage. So doing, they could more easily avoid “the temptation to substitute a foreign discourse for that of the Bible itself,” of which I warned in my essay.

In sum, I heartily agree with Kenneth Seeskin’s wise observation that no single interpretation of the Torah has the last word but that the “philosophical tradition . . . has a word” in this process. In my essay and now here, I have tried to show how that word could more effectively probe a legacy that he and I both find endlessly fascinating.

More about: Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Philosophy, Religion & Holidays