An interview with Professor Samuel Fleischacker

Samuel Fleischacker, Professor at University of Illinois at Chicago. Fleischacker recived his Ph.D. Yale 1989 and works in moral and political philosophy, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of religion. His publications include the award winning On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion (Princeton, 2003), credited as a major work showing that the Adam Smith of the 20th century economists is not that of Adam Smith himself (1st chapter as pdf) and A Short History of Distributive Justice (Harvard, 2004). Recently, he published Divine Teaching and the Way of the World (Oxford, 2011) on revelation in general, but from a Jewish perspective. (For those who want to start with the interesting interview-scroll down.)

In his new book, Samuel Fleischacker defends what the Enlightenment called ‘revealed religion’: religions that regard a certain text or oral teaching as sacred, as wholly authoritative over one’s life. At the same time, he maintains that revealed religions stand in danger of corruption or fanaticism unless they are combined with secular scientific practices and a secular morality.

Divine Teaching and the Way of the World argue that the cognitive and moral practices of a society, meaning ethics and science, serve as “way of the world” (his translation of the Hebrew “derech eretz,”) and his motto for the book is “Beautiful is the study of Torah with derech eretz. The ways of the world (derech eretz) allow human beings to work together regardless of their religious differences.

But according to Fleischacker secular ethics and science breaks down when it comes to the question of what we live for, and it is this that revealed religions can illumine. Fleischacker suggests that secular conceptions of why life is worth living are often poorly grounded.

According to an in depth review at NDPR by Yeudah Gellman:

One of Fleischacker’s main theses is that these [morals and science] must be in place before a commitment to a text as revelatory. They must, that is, come to religion already equipped with entrenched secular morality and science. Religion cannot make claims against either.

Next, Fleischacker argues that religion provides something that secularism fails to offer successfully — a telos for the moral life, that which makes living the moral life and life itself meaningful and worthwhile. He rejects as an adequate telos for life knowledge, pleasure, self-flourishing, projectivism (that we ourselves bestow value on our life), and Kantian accounts of worth.

A revelatory text will emphasize moral values beyond what standard morality does, for example, increased concern for widows and orphans. A revelatory text provides telic direction with the category of the “holy,” demanding personal transformation and not only prescribed actions. To say a revelation is “true” for Fleischacker, therefore, is not to refer to its historical reliability or its sound moral teachings. (p. 67) Rather, it is to express trust in one’s telic expectations of it. The text satisfies one’s “telic yearnings.” (p. 308) When a text strikes a person as revelatory, he then has reason to believe in God, for belief in God as the source of the revelation can give the best metaphysical account of the telic truth existing in the text.

Why does he believe the Torah is the word of God? Because it satisfies his “telic yearnings,” the story “rings true” to him ethically.
Since the morality of a text must precede judging it a revelation, Fleischacker knows he must contend with what he calls the Torah’s moral “pockmarks,” Torah passages he deems morally reprehensible. He notes such passages as the Temple ritual of the accused wife, the command to destroy the people of Amalek, and the command to kill a rebellious son, what he calls a “notorious text.”
Here, Fleischacker provides the most intriguing argument in the book. (pp. 327ff.) The moral pockmarks, he says, are an advantage to a revealed text. The moral pockmarks in the Torah protect a Jew from the haughtiness of believing that with the Torah he possesses absolute, perfect truth. Instead, the Jew learns religious humility and tolerance of others. Indeed, the presence of pockmarks calls the Jew to moral and religious responsibility in the task of reinterpretation and furthering progress in the religious life…
Fleischacker focuses especially on systematic problems in Torah legislation, and most especially on what he judges to be sexist, xenophobic, or vengeful passages. His solution is to undertake a reinterpretation of all such passages to bring them into line with secular morality: “If Maimonides can find a non-anthropomorphic God in the Torah, we should have no trouble finding a non-sexist God there as well.” (p. 385) Here Fleischacker refers to Maimonides’ extended argument against an anthropomorphic God in The Guide for the Perplexed. Fleischacker believes that Maimonides’ cleansing of anthropomorphism from the Torah was far more difficult than would be cleansing the Torah from what he takes to be sexist, as well as xenophobic and vengeful passages.

The extensive reinterpretations Fleischacker envisions would cause massive changes in Jewish Law (for example, the nature of Jewish marriage) and thus in the “path” that Fleischacker is supposed to have identified at the start as worthy of his telic expectations.
Fleischacker calls it a “child’s view” to accept a text as revelation on the grounds that it could not have been authored by a human being. (p. 302) He goes on to reason as follows: “If a text or speech really was such that no human being could possibly have composed it, no human being would be able to understand it either (or, therefore, recognize its truth).”

Fleischacker altogether makes too much of an empirical claim that religious believers perceive morality as preceding revelation. Believers will give many reasons for why they take a text as a revelation, including that they sense God or the Holy Spirit speaking to them through this text, that this truth has been handed down through tradition, or that the person who wrote it was not intellectually capable of creating it on his own.

Fleischacker tells the reader that the Orthodox Jewish community has worked quite hard to minimize sexist aspects of the Torah. This is grossly overstated. Only a small segment of that community has attempted to ameliorate the problems for women in Jewish law, and that within a narrow scope of application. Much of Orthodox Judaism has resisted changes or has been indifferent to the possibility of changes in their religious practice

The central idea of the book… deserves to be seriously reckoned as a warranted way of coming to believe in revelation and in God…. Fleischacker’s book should become an object of careful discussion serving for progress in philosophy of religion.

1. Why did you write the book?
I’ve long felt I needed to explain to myself why I continue to be committed to observant Judaism (in my teens and early twenties, I gave myself reasons for this but have rarely since checked to see whether I still find them cogent). I figured that the answers I came up with might be of use to other similarly-situated religious believers. As the Orthodox Jewish world has become more and more conservative, moreover, aligning itself increasingly with the Christian right and its rejection of secular science and morality, I’ve also felt more alienated from it, and worried that an atavistic, thoughtless, and dangerous form of our religion may soon take it over utterly, if liberal voices don’t speak up.

2. What do you think of all the recent “new atheist” books?
I confess I’ve only glanced at them, not read them through. Most seem quite silly to me – with the same sort of shallow understanding of religion that they (rightly) accuse fundamentalists of having of science. Dennett is something of an exception: he’s an antagonist who needs to be reckoned with seriously. The whole debate over theism vs. atheism seems to me not a central Jewish concern: our issues have more to do with the status of sacred texts (my main concern in the book).

3. What is the role of philosophy in your Orthodoxy?
I think philosophy can be helpful to clarifying what we believe – and in particular to making sure that we bear always in mind that God must be a *moral* God, and that that rules out understanding Him as commanding blatantly immoral actions. (That philosophy clarifies the nature of God seems to me also clearly Maimonides’ main concern.) I don’t think philosophy can *ground* our fundamental beliefs.
I should add, though, that I’m not sure I really am an “Orthodox” Jew – I prefer saying “halachic Jew” or just that I am shomer shabbat.

4. What if an Orthodox skeptic objected to your work and say that the position that you label as childish belief is what orthodoxy is about and your philosophic belief is not Orthodox?
I would urge such a skeptic to read the Rambam (and all his followers, and Hirsch and Soloveitchik; and the Ramban and Sfas Emes, for that matter) – what I criticize as “childish” religion is very much what they too all avoid and try to wean us from. But what I call “the child’s view of revelation” is also something that I think has a legitimate place in any religious person’s life. One simply needs to balance it against the understanding that there is no revelation without interpretation: that the process of interpretation is something that God Himself must want us to engage in. This is actually a very Jewish view, and the chapter of my book that elaborates it (“Receiving Revelation,” in Part IV) is not coincidentally the chapter that uses the most Jewish sources.

5.How can you bracket out history and theology from a defense of revelation and Torah at Sinai? Don’t you need to show why it is reasonable to believe in God, and the historicity of the events at Sinai?” By definition does it not need a historic truth claim?

No, I think historic claims can be entirely bracketed from our understanding of Torah as divine – even from what we mean by “Torah from Sinai.” The main point is that the Torah is *authoritative* and that doesn’t need a historic warrant (once again, I’d pull in the Rambam in support of this claim).
Unlike Gelman, I have doubts about whether we have, independently of revelation, a clear, coherent conception of God. My reasons for this are roughly Wittgensteinian: I don’t think the ordinary use of words like “powerful” and “good” allow readily for formations like “all-powerful” and “all-good.” As regards goodness, I’m not even sure our ordinary uses of the term are coherent — a central line of argument in the book raises questions about whether we have a firm grip on what “goodness” means, independently of revelation. If revelation teaches us what makes our lives worth living, as I claim it does, then it teaches us what we mean by “the good” as well, or how we are most likely to find out. But if that is right, then we presumably learn what “God” properly means — if we are theists — from revelation.

6. “How can you bracket out the non-moral “historical pockmarks” of the Torah? How do you respond to Gellman’s suggestion that we read them as tacked on to God’s true words by flawed human authors?”
I don’t bracket out historic pockmarks: I think God wants us to retain our history as we move into the future, and the pockmarks are a way of ensuring that we always do that. We just need to interpret them carefully.
Gellman’s insistence that the revelation is immoral as it stands seems to want to take us back on the well-worn path trodden by liberal Protestants and Reform Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to which real revelation comes to us though autonomous reason or personal experience, and our supposedly sacred texts are inadequate attempts by our ancestors to express that revelation. This path leads one quickly to abandon the notion of a revealed text. If we are going to see our texts as the paths to the highest good, it is essential that we submit in humility to them, and seek a way out of the moral difficulties they pose from within them, rather than writing out bits as “tacked on.”
I argue that while believers tend to point first to the moral content of their revelations, what in fact is most important about those revelations is not something moral: it is a vision of the highest good that complements morality. But visions of this sort pervade a sacred text, rather than being located in particular verses, and are clarified and extended over time by a communal tradition of interpretation. So they can be used to downplay or revise verses that conflict with our way-of-the-world morality — and are so used, in every religious tradition with which I am acquainted.

7. What is your understanding of truth?
I don’t *define* truth, strictly speaking, but stress its use, ordinarily, in contexts in which we urge others to put trust in a statement or speaker. The Torah then is “true” in the sense that it is trustworthy (a trustworthy guide to life).

8. If, according to your book, we need to start with an ethical approach before approaching Torah, then what use is Torah in fighting the immoral world we live in?
What leads people to immorality is not *ignorance* of what is right but selfishness, self-deception, arrogance, and ideologies that feed these evil human drives. The Torah can very much help us struggle against these tendencies in its fierce opposition to idolatry – ultimately, self-worship (projecting your own drives and desires as absolute goods – gods – in place of the one true God) – and many ways of urging us instead to cultivate benevolence and humility (anavah: the great trait of Moshe; we should also remember that the rabbis compare anger to idolatry). The huge mistake we often make, the great yetzer hara that tempts religious people as much as anything, is projecting the evils of our world only outward, on non-Jews or insufficiently religious or loyal Jews, instead of seeing them in everyone, including Orthodox Jews, and working above all on restraining them in ourselves.

9. How would you respond to a frum skeptic that repeats the arguments of Hume, Hobbes and the new atheists, without having any knowledge of philosophy.
Our tradition values knowledge extremely highly: being an am ha-aretz is famously worse than being an epikoros. To anyone who prides himself on his skepticism without having bothered to get to know the religions he’s dismissing, the only answer can be: go and learn.
Far and away the single best recent book on theism and revelation, in my opinion, is Robert Adams’ FINITE AND INFINITE GOODS; I used it a lot. Adams is a Christian philosopher, however (albeit very knowledgeable about Judaism).

10. Can we use Maimonides today?
I think Maimonides *is* dated – his argument for God especially so – and in crucial ways my book opposes his views rather than supporting them (above all, I think the central mental faculty for religious commitment is the imagination, not the understanding: which has a host of consequences that make for a much less austere, more humanistic conception of religion, and a more important role for ritual than he has). But he sets a wonderful model of how one can work to re-interpret basic Jewish texts and ideas in the light of the best philosophy and science of one’s day. Philosophy and science have however changed radically since the 12th century, so a true Maimonidean today should be interpreting our texts and ideas in a very different light. In particular, it’s a mistake – I think – to use any arguments for God other than Kant’s moral one.

11. Do you see the Orthodox community as ethical? If not, does this impact your philosophy?
I see *parts* of the Orthodox community as ethical: certain Orthodox people – rabbis as well as laypeople – have indeed been important moral role models for me. But we have a great and growing problem with deeply immoral attitudes toward non-Jews, which shows up sometimes in contemptuous and inhumane treatment of non-Jewish workers at Orthodox establishments in the US, and – more dramatically and pervasively – in an the unbelievably brutal and unjust treatment that large parts of the Orthodox community in Israel have been inflicting on Palestinians: the greatest crime, I think, that Jews have committed as a community in the past two millennia of our history. As I watch this get worse and worse, with few leading figures speaking out even tepidly against it, I feel my ability to maintain a commitment to halacha becoming extremely strained.

12. What do you think of the relationship of Judaism or Torah to distributive justice? What seems mandated? What is a new idea that can or cannot be applied to Talmudic law? There is a full summary of Fleischacker’s work on distributive justice in this review.

I think that, like members of all other religious traditions, we Jews have learned have from the secular world on this. What I tried to show in my book on distributive justice is that it took people who were moving away from all religious traditions to make clear to all of us that we have a duty to get rid of poverty altogether, if possible, not just to give charity and certainly not to give charity just to members of our own communities. But the Jewish tradition – by giving poor people an enforceable right to certain kinds of tzedakah – came closer to anticipating modern notions of distributive justice than pre-modern Christianity did.
I also think the very powerful idea, which we are about to celebrate, that we need to treat the oppressed and miserable with decency and justice because we were once oppressed ourselves provides a great basis for imagining ourselves into the shoes of the poor rather than dismissing them with the complacent platitudes that come readily to the lips of people who are themselves comfortable (“they drink”; “they don’t take care of their children”; “they have low IQs”).

Fleischacker will be responding to Gellman this Wed at the Pacific APA. Here on the East coast, I would like a 50 page article summarizing for classroom use the almost 600 pages of the book.

3 responses to “An interview with Professor Samuel Fleischacker

  1. Great stuff. Thanks for the interview.

  2. In your interview you attribute to me the view that passages were tacked on to the Torah. I wish to correct that attribution. In my review I suggested that the author might have done better, given his position, to take instead any of three positions or combinations of them. I did not state my own view on the matter, and tacking-on was only one of the three. In fact I am not a tacker-on-er myself. My own view tends toward reinterpretation and especially invoking divine concession. Thank you, Yehuda Gellman

  3. Great and informative. Thank you!

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