Tanakh & Its Readers: Between “The Philosophy Of Hebrew Scripture” & “The Guide For The Perplexed”

As Yoram Hazony’s “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” (PHS) was published in 2012, I am a little late to the party in reviewing it. However, I think there is still what to say that has not been said, and I hope to present some of that here.

That there is still more to be said is a testament to the depth and sophistication of the work itself, as it was thoroughly and unflinchingly reviewed in, among other publications, a symposium in the Journal of Analytical Theology (vol. 2, 2014), to which Hazony responded in the next volume. These reviews focus primarily on the content of Hazony’s arguments, both the specific philosophical arguments he reads out of Tanakh, and the larger interpretive approach he is proposing. By contrast, I would like to assume that Hazony’s arguments and approach are entirely true (and this can be debated), and ask what this would mean for our understanding of the nature of Tanakh and that of its ideal reader, which I will draw out by way of comparison with Maimonides’ masterwork of medieval Jewish Biblical interpretation, “The Guide for the Perplexed” (GP).

This description of GP as a work on Biblical interpretation may sound strange to some who are more used to thinking of it as a work of philosophy. However, while that is certainly the popular conception of GP, it is not borne out by the work itself (for one thing, the first section of the book is basically a philosophical dictionary for Tanakh). Maimonides lays out his explicit purpose in his introduction as creating a guide for reading the Biblical text:

My primary object in this work is to explain certain words occurring in the prophetic books. […] The object of this treatise is to enlighten a religious man who has been trained to believe in the truth of our holy Law, who conscientiously fulfils his moral and religious duties, and at the same time has been successful in his philosophical studies. Human reason has attracted him to abide within its sphere; and he finds it difficult to accept as correct the teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Law, and especially that which he himself or others derived from those homonymous, metaphorical, or hybrid expressions. Hence he is lost in perplexity and anxiety. If he be guided solely by reason, and renounce his previous views which are based on those expressions, he would consider that he had rejected the fundamental principles of the Law; and even if he retains the opinions which were derived from those expressions, and if, instead of following his reason, he abandon its guidance altogether, it would still appear that his religious convictions had suffered loss and injury. For he would then be left with those errors which give rise to fear and anxiety, constant grief and great perplexity. This work has also a second object in view. It seeks to explain certain obscure figures which occur in the Prophets… (Prefatory Remarks)1

Maimonides wrote his work to explain various facets of the Biblical text that contradicted the basic philosophical consensus of his day, such that any reasonably educated person would have trouble maintaining belief in both philosophy and the plain sense of the Biblical text. Maimonides resolves this problem by going through a variety of Biblical words, stories, and topics (like Prophecy and Suffering) and showing how they do not contradict what philosophy had determined to be true. GP is therefore very similar to PHS, not just in being a book on how to read Tanakh, but also in starting with a basic dichotomy between the Biblical text and Reason, from which they proceed to argue that that the Biblical text should be read as a work of Reason. The ways in which the two books go about their projects, however, are entirely different.

Rambam lays out his basic rule for resolving contradictions between the Biblical text and philosophy in the second volume of GP:

We do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the Incorporeality of God. We should perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the Scriptural passages referred to are in harmony with the theory of the Eternity of the Universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Bible when we rejected the idea that God is corporeal. For two reasons, however, we have not done so, and have not accepted the Eternity of the Universe. First, the Incorporeality of God has been demonstrated by proof: those passages in the Bible, which in their literal sense contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise. But the Eternity of the Universe has not been proved; a mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument. Secondly, our belief in the Incorporeality of God is not contrary to any of the fundamental principles of our religion: it is not contrary to the words of any prophet. Only ignorant people believe that it is contrary to the teaching of Scripture: but we have shown that this is not the case: on the contrary, Scripture teaches the Incorporeality of God. If we were to accept the Eternity of the Universe as taught by Aristotle, that everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, we should necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion, we should disbelieve all miracles and signs, and certainly reject all hopes and fears derived from Scripture, unless the miracles are also explained figuratively. (II:25)

The primary purpose of this passage is to lay down conditions for when Rambam would or would not reinterpret a Biblical passage in order to fit with philosophy. These rules, however, are just delineating the incredibly bold statement that Rambam could, and if the proper conditions were met, would, reinterpret texts to say the opposite of their apparent meaning.

The significance of this approach to the Biblical text was described by Benedict Spinoza in the seventh chapter of his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP):

The opinion of Maimonides was widely different. He asserted that each passage in Scripture admits of various, nay, contrary, meanings; but that we could never be certain of any particular one till we knew that the passage, as we interpreted it, contained nothing contrary or repugnant to reason. If the literal meaning clashes with reason, though the passage seems in itself perfectly clear, it must be interpreted in some metaphorical sense. […] however clear the meaning of Scripture may be, he would not feel certain of having grasped it, so long as he remained doubtful of the truth of what was written. For we are in doubt whether a thing is in conformity with reason, or contrary thereto, so long as we are uncertain of its truth, and, consequently, we cannot be sure whether the literal meaning of a passage be true or false2.

Rambam’s basic assumption is that the Biblical text’s true meaning could never contradict philosophy. What that means for the reader is that the true meaning of a Biblical text must remain unknown until it has been fitted to philosophy. Tanakh’s messages are those which fit with philosophy or, more minimally, do not contradict it. Tanakh, in this understanding, has little to no independent voice of its own; it is entirely secondary to philosophy. The cost of Tanakh’s philosophical integrity is interpreting away anything it might have had to say that could challenge the philosophical consensus.

That Tanakh lacks a strong, independent voice for Rambam is clear from a peculiar comment in the first section of GP. Rambam spends much of this section lavishing praise on the Aramaic translation of the Torah known as Onkelos and making use of its translations to explain philosophically problematic terms in more acceptable ways. In discussing the meaning of the word “עבר,” Rambam actually even brings Onkelos as an acceptable alternative to his own opinion, concluding that “Either explanation may be adopted” (GP I:21). This makes it as clear as possible that Rambam is not particularly concerned with what Tanakh has to say; he just wants to make sure that it is read in a philosophically acceptable manner. Any message that meets philosophy’s standards is fine3.

PHS takes an approach that is almost entirely opposite to that of Rambam. While there is a clear interest throughout in reading Tanakh in a philosophically acceptable light, the emphasis is on looking for Tanakh’s unique messages. The book is much more a work of biblical interpretation than it is an argument for the Bible’s philosophical value, though it is that too. But even that argument is intended not to show a philosophical voice behind Tanakh’s language, but to translate Tanakh’s voice into philosophical language.

Given these two different understandings of Tanakh’s voice and messages, what would each approach say about Tanakh’s ideal reader? What kind of person is meant to be interpreting Tanakh? For Rambam’s understanding, we can turn once again to the words of Spinoza:

Further, the truth of this theory would involve that the masses, having generally no comprehension of, nor leisure for, detailed proofs, would be reduced to receiving all their knowledge of Scripture on the authority and testimony of philosophers, and, consequently, would be compelled to suppose that the interpretations given by philosophers were infallible. Truly this would be a new form of ecclesiastical authority…(TTP Ch.7)

If interpreting Tanakh correctly is a process of fitting its words into the philosophical consensus of the day, then the only people qualified to interpret Tanakh are philosophers. GP is aimed at a student of philosophy not only because it is a response to the student’s questions, but because only such a person is capable of interpreting Tanakh in the manner that GP lays out.

Hazony’s understanding is, once again, entirely different. For Hazony, the ideal reader of Tanakh is someone who has read Tanakh. Hazony’s interpretive approach demands a very thorough knowledge of Tanakh, or at least part of it, and the ability to look for patterns across large expanses of text. This is by no means an easy task to accomplish, but it is a task for which the Tanakh itself is sufficient. The reader doesn’t need to be up-to-date on the whole Western philosophical tradition in order to assume they’ve understood a passage correctly.

That being said, it is worth noting the part of PHS’s project that really does require that degree of philosophical background. Much of Hazony’s goal with the book is to try and undo the damage wrought by the historical sealing-off of Tanakh behind a fence marked “Revelation.” This division, Hazony argues, has kept Tanakh from being considered part of the philosophical canon, and has thus cost the philosophical discourse the valuable ideas Tanakh has to contribute. The Biblical interpretations in PHS are therefore essentially two-step processes; The Biblical text is interpreted and then those interpretations are put into the language of the Western philosophical tradition.

A case in point is Hazony’s chapter on “Truth and Being in the Hebrew Bible.” In this essay, Hazony argues that Tanakh sees “truth” as being about a thing living up to its ideal or purpose over the course of time, rather than about words matching reality. One of the consequences of this, he says, is that Tanakh does not have a strict dualistic approach to existence such as that found in Plato or Descartes. Now, the meaning of the word אמת in Tanakh is something that is available to anyone who is willing to read the Biblical text thoroughly; the ontological debate about dualism vs. monism is not. The average reader of Tanakh can gain all of the universal concepts about the good life that Hazony argues are the primary messages of Tanakh, but only the philosophical reader will be able to put that in dialogue with the rest of the world’s philosophical traditions.

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture thus provides us with a complex contrast to the Guide for the Perplexed. Where GP takes away Tanakh’s independent voice, PHS actively seeks it out. Where GP reduces Tanakh’s qualified readership to the philosophically inclined, PHS argues that reading Tanakh grants universal, philosophical, knowledge to any lay reader willing to put in the effort. But PHS also turns to the philosophers, specifically, for its final goal, the introduction of Tanakh into the philosophical canon. While laypeople are qualified to be readers of Tanakh, they should not be its only readers. Philosophy as a whole, Hazony argues, would be greatly enriched if more philosophers read Tanakh.

1. Quotations from GP are taken from http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/.

2. Quotations of Spinoza from The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, translated from the Latin, with an Introduction by R.H.M. Elwes, vol. 1 Introduction, Tractatus-Theologico-Politicus, Tractatus Politicus. Revised edition (London: George Bell and Sons, 1891), downloaded from The Online Library of Liberty.

3. This is without factoring in the conditions from GP II:25 that we breezed past, an unfortunate necessity of space.

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