Yoram Hazony-The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture part I- review of Stephen Frug

Yoram Hazony has a new book out called The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture and it is an interesting mixture of things. (1) An argument to include the Bible in the Political Philosophy canon (2) Readings of Biblical stories as political wisdom focusing on action centered pragmatic thinking (3) A vision of Judaism focusing on the Biblical text and his reading of it. I will review his book in future weeks, I am still working out my personal thoughts. I also have in the pipeline thoughts on Arthur Green’s new book and Peter Schafer’s book.) In addition, Hazony recently spoke for three lectures at Davar in Teaneck, so I heard how these ideas sound in person. My review will come later, in the meantime Stephen Saperstein Frug, Visiting Assistant Professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges published a 10k review on his blog- feel free to read the other 8.5k on his blog. Frug, a self-professed atheist and non-reader of Hebrew lets us start the discussion and deal with some of the philosophic issues before we get to the specifically Jewish ones.

Frug notes that Hazony (1) equates reason and philosophy (2) He approaches philosophy partly as a national endeavor, almost 19th century volkgeist, and not an academic or individual one; there is a Jewish national project at stake.
For Frug, Hazony offers rich new readings of the Bible but is it a neglected work in the history of philosophy? (4) if it was neglected then it is not part of the history of philosophy. (5) The Bible is not philosophy in that it is not part of the philosophic conversation and does not offer philosophic arguments. It is more literary than philosophic. (6) Hazony showed that the Bible has philosophic ideas but he did not prove that we should take them seriously; he just assumes it. (7) Hazony does not show awareness of the nuances of contemporary philosophic debates. (8) Since the Bible is chosen as an important text not because it can offer better answers than Wittenstein or Habermas, then the choice is national -religious, bringing religion back through the rear-door.(9)All philosophy is always recast and molded by the later conversation. No one takes the writings of Plato or Hobbs in their entirely. People say this line we take but reject another, this line is outdated, this line is just wrong. Does he really want the Bible subject to such secular reason?

Frug on Hazony (excerpts)

Hazony writes in chapter two:

In this book, I propose that if we want to understand the ideas the Hebrew Scriptures were written to advance, we should read these texts much as we read the writings of Plato or Hobbes — as works of reason or philosophy, composed to assist individuals and nations looking to discover the true and the good in accordance with man’s natural abilities. I don’t mean that this is the only way to read these texts. Nor do I believe that the understanding that emerges from such readings has to give us the final picture of the biblical authors’ worldview. But… I believe that in reading the Hebrew Scriptures as works of reason or philosophy, we come much closer to the teachings of the biblical authors meant to place before us than we do if we assume these works were composed as reports of “revelation” — of knowledge obtained by means of a series of miracles.

Hazony’s text divides into two major parts, the first outlining how one would read the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Tanakh as I will call it here,* — what it means, for example, to read as philosophy a book that is composed primarily of narratives, prophetical orations and legal codes. The second part then offers readings of the philosophical stance of the Tanakh in five areas: ethics, political philosophy, epistemology (focusing entirely on the book of Jeremiah), the nature of truth, and the nature of reason and revelation.

First, note that Hazony’s paradigms –in the root sense of archetypal cases which are the purest and best examples of a phenomenon — for philosophy are Plato and Hobbes. And much of the surrounding vocabulary reflects this emphasis — in particular his repeated pairing of reason and philosophy as if they were all but synonymous, and his thumbnailing of the purpose of philosophy as works “composed to assist individuals and nations looking to discover the true and the good in accordance with man’s natural abilities”. This is a decidedly old-fashioned sense of what philosophy is and what it does. (Replace “Plato and Hobbes” with “Wittgenstein and Heidegger”, or “Kripke and Derrida”, and you get a very different sense of what to expect from philosophy). In a work that sets out to say what the Tanakh’s philosophy is, the fact that Hazony has a very particular, and in many ways a very dated, idea of what this thing called “philosophy” is is of some import.

A second feature to note about Hazony’s statement of purpose is one that is slipped in in a single word. Read again Hazony’s statement summing up “works of reason or philosophy” as ones which are “composed to assist individuals and nations looking to discover the true and the good in accordance with man’s natural abilities”.For him, Zionism is not merely about a simple desire to provide a refuge for Jews threatened with antisemitism, nor the creation of a place where Jewish culture (religious or secular or both) can flourish, let alone the ethnic colonialism that Zionism’s opponents see it as. Rather, he sees nations as concrete entities, much in the way that (say) Marx saw classes. They are unified; they have agency; they do things. As with Hazony’s view of philosophy, this too strikes me as a very old-fashioned view (albeit one that is still prominent in some circles), in this case a sort of Nineteenth-Century (ethnic) nationalism. Unlike Hazony’s view of philosophy, I find this particular idea far less defensible (which is not to say, of course, that defenses might not be interesting or illuminating). Hazony is a Jewish patriot (not quite the same thing as being an Israeli patriot), and I think one of his purposes in this book is to forward that cause.

Does Hazony succeed in his purposes? Are his arguments successful?

Hazony’s readings of the bible are, I think, quite convincing. His readings are very careful not to reduce figures to a clunky allegory, but to understand them as symbols while retaining their narrative and individual complexity. He is particularly good at drawing together separate strands of biblical narrative, showing how later ones complicate, shade and revise earlier ones — and vice-versa. As I will get into later, I would call these readings “literary” rather than “philosophical”, but whatever they are, they’re good. He makes the text richer, makes one wish to return to it while at the same time shaping one’s view of it. To the extent that Hazony is indeed trying to write a “How to read the Bible” book, he has succeeded magnificently.

First, does Hazony make his case that the Tanakh is a neglected work in the history of philosophy? Second, is in fact accurate to say that the method of reading that Hazony proposes (and demonstrates) amounts to reading the Tanakh as philosophy? And third, does Hazony make the case that the Tanakh is philosophically relevant for us, now — that it has valuable contributions to make to contemporary philosophy?

Hazony seems to be claiming both that the philosophical tradition has been unjustly ignoring the bible’s intellectual contributions, and that the bible’s intellectual contributions have been omitted from the standard histories of philosophy. But of course if the bible’s views have indeed been overlooked — then they haven’t made contributions to the history of philosophy as it actually happened.Here is where Hazony’s conflation of a work’s importance in the history of philosophy with a work’s current (or abstract) philosophical value tells. It’s quite possible to say that an important work was ignored — so that, while it had (and has) current (and abstract) value, that value wasn’t actually incorporated into the philosophical conversation.

And part of that is that he succeeds in demonstrating that the Tanakh has substantive philosophical positions on issues such as the role of the state, ethics, epistemology and the nature of truth. I am less sure, however, that that is adequate to qualify the work as philosophy. This is a tricky issue — as Stanley Cavell has noted, the question of what counts as philosophy is itself a philosophical question — but I think that the Tanakh, even granting Hazony’s readings of it, does not qualify as philosophy on at least two counts (or perhaps I should say in two senses), one minor, and one more central.

The minor one is simply that one might argue that an essential aspect for a work’s being philosophy is that it is engaged in the ongoing conversation that has made up philosophy since Plato, if not before. There are various versions of this idea — that philosophy is best understood as a conversation, or a series of texts, rather than actual issues –
Which leads me to my major concern, which is that while I think Hazony quite clearly shows that the Tanakh takes philosophical stances, I don’t think that Hazony succeeds in showing that the Tankah makes arguments. And insofar as the reasoned argument is central to what philosophy is, this is a disqualifying problem.

Now, it’s not the case that reasoned argument is all that philosophy is. Philosophers have always relied upon stories and fables to make points — Plato’s cave, Descartes’s demon, Nietzsche’s madman and Wittgenstein’s society of builders all come to mind. Most if not all of the fables cited above, for instance, are made in order to explain or advance arguments in which they appear. Whether a work that is, overwhelmingly, non-argumentative can be philosophy strikes me as questionable.

Related to this point, I’m somewhat unsure about Hazony’s own familiarity with contemporary philosophy. It’s far from nonexistent — he cites a bunch of contemporary philosophy, and seems fluent with it. Certainly he seems to know as much about it as, say, I do. For example, Hazony contrasts the biblical view of truth with the correspondence theory of truth, and with the coherence view of truth — two standards, two be sure. But there’s been a lot of recent work in this area, and how Hazony’s arguments would stand up for someone familiar with it I simply don’t know. I myself kept thinking of pragmatist views of truth, as I noted above; and an expert might contrast the (rather varying!) views of Peirce, James and Dewey with those of modern pragmatists such as Putnam and Haack. (And that’s just the neighborhood I live in; there are lots of others that I don’t know, and it seems Hazony doesn’t know either.)

But this, of course, raises the question: why should we take these views seriously?

This is an issue that Hazony does not actually address. He seems to take it for granted that the views ought to be taken seriously.. he doesn’t really try to argue that it’s a powerful and important voice in contemporary philosophy. He just assumes it.

There is a subtle sort of circular reasoning at work here. Remember that what Hazony is trying to do is establish the Tanakh as a worthy and interesting work of reason, apart from its role as a religious text (that is, apart from the question of its revelatory status if any, apart from its historical role in the development of Judaism and subsequent religions, etc.) But his ultimate argument for taking it seriously depends on the esteem in which we hold the Bible, which is entirely dependent upon those factors which Hazony is trying to sidestep. We are back, in other words, on the grounds of revelation — not reason.
I suspect — that Hazony seeks to argue for the importance of the Tanakh as philosophy not simply for its own sake… but also for reasons connected to his Jewish nationalism:

Which leads us to the final issue, namely, to the reason why Hazony himself — might themselves not even want the Bible taken seriously in the realm of contemporary philosophy: that if it were to be so taken, it would not be taken whole.
ut nobody these days is simply a platonist or a hobesian, full stop. Philosophers take parts of any given view with only minor revisions, take others with substantial ones, and fully dismiss yet other parts. Of course, what people accept differs from case to case (on both ends).
Are people who take the bible seriously as a religious text — really willing to see the philosophy of the Bible chopped up, accepted in part, discarded in part, updated, and generally disassembled in this way? To have it be routine that thinkers say such things as “the Bible has views on epistemology but they have been updated and improved,” or “the major work in the Tanakh stakes out a particular political philosophy which is now commonly accepted as untennable”. But are religious people really willing to go there? Because even if Hazony, personally, is (and from what I know of him I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he was), I doubt that most are.

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