The Difference between a Biblical Scholar and a Philosopher

The former seeks answers; the latter seeks the questions that can help situate human beings existentially and rationally within the universe.

From a sculpture of Maimonides in the U.S. Capitol by Brenda Putnam. Wikipedia.

From a sculpture of Maimonides in the U.S. Capitol by Brenda Putnam. Wikipedia.

Jan. 23 2017
About the author

James A. Diamond is a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Waterloo. His books include Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon (2014) and, most recently, Jewish Theology Unbound (2018).

Jon Levenson’s thoughtful critique of Kenneth Seeskin’s Thinking about the Torah is commendable both for taking a serious contemporary Jewish philosopher seriously and for taking the text at issue equally seriously. Many other biblical scholars spend their lives studying and teaching texts that they themselves do not take seriously, devoting themselves instead to the interminable exercise of determining the precise historical development of the Bible while rigorously avoiding questions of the text’s substantive value or meaning.

But if an exclusively critical-historical approach to the Bible runs the risk of reductionism, Levenson’s essay warns of an opposite danger: “substituting a foreign discourse”—that is, the discourse of philosophy—“for that of the Bible itself.” It is this “temptation” to which, Levenson argues, Seeskin falls prey, a claim he substantiates by targeting three of Seeskin’s thematic discussions for analysis and critique. On this point, I should say at the outset, I disagree with Levenson; in what follows, I mean to counter his critique both in general and with regard to Seeskin in particular.

Following both Seeskin and Levenson, let’s start with the Bible’s treatment of creation. The Bible begins where no lesser a figure than Aristotle, a founding father of philosophy, considered all thought to begin: in the questioning of beginnings, in this case the beginnings of the universe. The assumption that informs Seeskin’s reflections here is that “according to the Torah, the world and everything in it owes its existence to God.” Levenson, for his part, faults Seeskin for focusing narrowly on the creation narrative in Genesis and ignoring other models of creation promoted elsewhere in the Bible—as Levenson has shown in his Creation and the Persistence of Evil (1988)and involving malevolent forces threatening the world’s stability and existence. These are competing powers over which God does not have complete control, and which He constantly needs to keep in check.

With this alternative model in mind, Levenson writes that creation in the Bible “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,” he continues, “is to rob creation theology of its dynamism and also, I believe, its realism about the human condition”—two qualities that “philosophy of the sort invoked by Seeskin,” which tends to deny any idea of God’s ongoing freedom of creative action, cannot account for. 

This, however, is less an argument against Seeskin’s principal enterprise of reading the Bible philosophically than a criticism of Seeskin for failing to be more comprehensive in his choice of biblical examples. As it happens, Seeskin himself admits the existence of a range of countervailing positions on creation, from Plato to Aristotle to Maimonides to Spinoza to Einstein. Nothing prevents Levenson’s alternative model, which challenges both the idea of an omnipotent God in total control of His creation and the idea of a permanent natural order, from being added to the list.

And this propels us immediately into the heart of Levenson’s critique: namely, that “philosophical presuppositions,” in this case about freedom and necessity, can block “a productive interaction of the interpreter with the biblical text on its own terms.” Yet the phrase “on its own terms” is itself based on philosophical presuppositions about the nature of a text, the process of reading, and whether there is an inherently “objective” meaning within a text, especially an ancient text like the Bible, that is accessible to us as readers. What precisely are those “terms” that are the Bible’s “own,” and why can’t one of them be philosophical? By what criteria can we say that any given text should be taken literally or, conversely, metaphorically, with the latter then opening the door to philosophical speculation?

For example, scholars of kabbalah standardly read its foundational work, the Zohar, as a coded composition that alludes at every turn to the various dimensions of God known as sfirot. But the Zohar itself does not explicitly speak in terms of sfirot, instead speaking of lights, garments, crowns, and the like. In treating such words as metaphors for something the text avoids, is the universally accepted scholarly understanding of this large corpus of material failing to read it “on its own terms”? Levenson’s own formulation, which endorses reading the Bible in terms of “productive” “interaction” and “interpretation,” already suggests a reader who relates subjectively to, and produces meaning out of, the text rather than discovering its original intent.

The biblical verse that launches Seeskin’s chapter on creation is a prime illustration of the issue I’ve just posed. It is Genesis 1:3, recounting God’s first creative pronouncement: “let there be light.”

Here’s the puzzle. Surely the ancient eye could observe as well as the modern eye that the sun is the source of natural light, and yet God doesn’t create the sun until the fourth day. On the assumption that biblical authors were not suffering mental imbalance or visual impairment, might one suggest a philosophical reading that rationalizes this pre-sun light? Could such a reading point to some sense of a biblical hierarchy of being, or even some kind of metaphysics, that prioritizes light in terms of what it represents? And what, for the Bible, does it represent?

Beginning most prominently with Plato’s allegory of the cave, light is the most dominant metaphor in the history of philosophy for signifying a form of knowledge. For the Greeks, what can be seen is the vehicle of true knowledge. In the Bible, however, what precedes and sets into motion the acts of creation is God’s word. So perhaps, in the biblical understanding, sound and hearing trump sight in the quest for knowledge and truth.

That idea is already captured in the midrash, cited by Rashi, that responds to the dilemma of this primeval light by proposing that God set it aside to be disclosed in a utopian future for the eyes of the righteous. Only those who have dedicated their lives to pursuing truth that is not the exclusive preserve of the visual, but originates in hearing, might ultimately be privy to it.

Still building on Seeskin’s philosophical approach, we might also consider the scene that prefaces the bringing of early light into being. The preceding two verses of Genesis evoke a portrait of God Himself as a philosopher. At this point the universe offers nothing, we read, but a scattering of stray ingredients lacking cohesion or order: darkness, water, a “deep,” a divine “wind.” The phrase that characterizes this primordial reality is tohu vavohu, whose enigmatic essence has been translated variously as that which is “unformed and void,” “waste and void,” “formless void,” “formless and empty,” “formless and desolate,” and the like.

All of these renderings accentuate the operating principle that underlies the ensuing account of creation: namely, in the words of Leo Strauss, “separation and distinction.” (In the 12th century, Abraham ibn Ezra anticipated Strauss by construing the word bara’ in Genesis 1:1 not as “create,” as it is traditionally translated, but rather as “set clearly defined borders.”) Thus, as I read it, the tohu vavohu of formlessness provokes God to lend the world shape and definition.

Most likely, the first biblical verses do not imply creation ex nihilo. Rather, God is confronted by some kind of primordial morass that is untranslatable precisely because it is closed to human experience and cognition, its contours lying beyond the grasp of human inquiry. Levenson himself, in the book I cited earlier, describes this primordial mass as a “dark inert chaos upon which form and order are about to be imposed.”

But there may also be another sense in which to understand the tohu vavohu that originally confronts God. The one other place in the Bible where the two words appear together is Jeremiah 4:23, where they connote a form of extreme human disorder. (They also appear, but separately, in Isaiah 34:11.) That disorder is particularly informed by intellectual impoverishment, attested to in the previous verse’s repeatedly emphasized lament of wisdom’s absence. There, tohu vavohu is associated with the inhabitants of a vacuous society: they don’t know Me; they are foolish children; they are not intelligent; they are wise at wickedness; they don’t know the good.

This sensitizes us to what, philosophically speaking, originally provokes the divine creative impulse. The universe in its pristine chaotic state betrays a disorganization and utter lack of system and order, which God, later exalted in the book of Psalms (104:24) for having “made everything with wisdom,” finds intolerable. The divine mind is thus prompted to shape creation into something orderly, defined, planned, and imbued with a wisdom that will qualify the created world itself as an object worthy of scientific and philosophical reflection. That is, God’s need for order in the face of primeval chaos sets the agenda for future human encounters with the world. There must be some irritant or perplexity that prods the need to make sense of anything. Thought begins in agitation.

If, moreover, God’s “philosophical” discomfort in Genesis prompts divine speech and a day-by-day divine evaluation and classification of what that speech produces, we can add serious questioning and reflection by humans, as an act of imitatio dei, to the standard rabbinic list of our ethical obligations. So reasons Moses Maimonides, the greatest of all Jewish philosopher-theologians, for whom the exercise of intellect is the only activity human beings share with God. This activity constitutes the measure of one’s humanity, of the image (tselem) in which the human species was created.


Though the Bible certainly can, and should, be approached historically in search of clues to its meaning, it is clear to me that the Bible itself is not interested in history per se. As Yosef Haim Yerushalmi puts it:

The biblical appeal to remember . . . has little to do with curiosity about the past. Israel is told that it must be a kingdom of priests and a holy people; nowhere is it suggested that it become a nation of historians.

So the Bible, and here I take my cue from Seeskin, is interested in what the study of past events can contribute to philosophical, theological, and ethical understandings of the present.

Moses’ pioneering encounter with God at the burning bush, where he stands on “holy ground” (Exodus 3:5), suggests the kind of holiness the Bible wishes us to strive for. His first reaction to the mysterious phenomenon is to ask “Why?” His second is to hide his face for fear of looking directly at the Lord. For Maimonides, this signifies a gesture of supreme intellectual humility: Moses restrains himself from the temptation of rushing toward truths beyond his ken.

Kenneth Seeskin follows this model in his encounters with biblical texts: asking the questions they evoke, considering credible alternative answers, and avoiding definitive answers when none presents itself. It’s therefore no coincidence that his exploration of biblical passages is bracketed by questions. The first chapter, on creation, ends by reflecting on the way we should formulate the questions evoked by the mysteries and infinite vastness of the universe. The final sentence of his book promotes philosophical questioning, inspired by the Bible, as the way “to realize that spiritual life is the greatest blessing God can bestow.”

And here, perhaps, lies the essential difference between the biblical scholar and the philosopher: the former seeks answers; the latter seeks the questions that can help situate the human being existentially and rationally within the universe. As Maimonides formulates it in his halakhic code, the Mishneh Torah, the cardinal commandment to love God consists of philosophical and scientific investigation of creation in order to comprehend the creator’s work. But the immediate impulse behind such inquiry is an overwhelming fear of God: not fright, but the awareness of human limitations and inferiority in the presence of an infinitely expansive universe and the One who is infinitely “perfect in knowledge.”

That chastening fear is accomplished only by way of the love of wisdom, as the Greek etymology of the term philosophy indicates. Ultimately, the Bible guides us not to the comfortable life of pat answers but to one of supremely informed and perpetual wonder.

More about: Aristotle, Hebrew Bible, Maimonides, Philosophy, Religion & Holidays