Symposium on Ken Seeskin’s new book “Thinking about the Torah: A Philosopher Reads the Bible” (JPS, 2016)

Holy Land

The symposium centers on chapters 1 & 6 of Ken’s book:

Chapter 1

Footnotes to Chapter 1

Chapter 6

Footnotes to Chapter 6

(Permission kindly granted by JPS)

Commentators include:

Shira Weiss (Yeshiva University)

Michael Fagenblat (Open University of Israel)

James Diamond (Waterloo)

For comments by the above, please click here

For Ken’s replies, please click here

James Diamond
A full professor and the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo and former director of the university’s Friedberg Genizah Project.  His principle areas of study include biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, medieval Jewish thought and philosophy, Maimonides, and rabbinics. He has published widely on all areas of Jewish thought.  He is the author of Maimonides and the...
Michael Fagenblat
Continental philosophy, phenomenology, modern Jewish thought, philosophy of religion. Address: 1 University Road, P. O. Box 808, Raanana 43107
Shira Weiss
Shira Weiss teaches Jewish Philosophy, History and Bible at Stern College, Yeshiva University. She is the author of Joseph Albo on Free Choice: Exegetical Innovation in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Ethical Ambiguity in the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2018), as well as several articles. She is a Herzl/Templeton fellow and...

  1. What a rich and fascinating discussion. Thanks to all involved.
    I thought I’d get the comments section rolling with a few thoughts.
    I’m very sympathetic to Ken’s conception of a direction. The words of the Torah don’t just convey propositional content, they also set the reader’s thoughts off in a certain direction. I’m reminded of Donald Davidson’s comment about the meaning of a metaphor. He didn’t think it was right to ask what a metaphor meant, since there may be no finite and well delineated answer to that question. A better question would be, what was the speaker’s point in using a metaphor. Not known for his beautiful prose, Davidson excels himself when he says:

    “[T]here is no limit to what a metaphor calls to our attention, and much of what we are caused to notice is not propositional in character. When we try to say what a metaphor “means,” we soon realize there is no end to what we want to mention. If someone draws his finger along a coastline on a map, or mentions the beauty and deftness of a line in a Picasso etching, how many things are drawn to your attention? You might list a great many, but you could not finish since the idea of finishing would have no clear application. How many facts or propositions are conveyed by a photograph? None, an infinity, or one great unstatable fact? Bad question. A picture is not worth a thousand words, or any other number. Words are the wrong currency to exchange for a picture.”

    I once witnessed a playwright and performer perform a one-man play. He was asked straight afterwards, what he had been trying to say with the play. He responded: if I could simply say it, I wouldn’t have written the play.
    Literature is supposed to convey more than just propositional content. Part of how it does this, I think, is by suggesting open-ended journeys of interpretation and association. So I really like applying that thought to the Bible.
    This doesn’t dim the worry that has been raised about how we know if we’ve somehow taken a wrong turn in our journey and stretched our interpretation further than is, somehow, reasonable. If we’re not in the business of what Davidson called meaning, because we’re not dealing with clearly delineated content, but with patterns of association, and trajectories of thought, then what are the rules? When have we gone too far?
    I think that part of the answer, when thinking about the Bible, in a religious context, has to be the notion of an ongoing revelation. The Rabbis were eager to suggest that every question and answer given in the evolving Rabbinic tradition was actually uttered first at Sinai. I think that we’re being asked to have faith in the unfolding of the tradition; a faith underwritten by the belief/hope that God is somehow involved – even if we sometimes take wrong turns that get corrected over time.
    I find it very hard to make sense of any text-based religion that doesn’t believe in some Divine assistance to the ongoing process of interpretation.
    At times, I thought that Ken might be gesticulating in that direction. In the book he talks about how Jews have come to cherish the separation of church and state even if it wasn’t in the Bible to begin with. Has that now become part of the unfolding Torah?
    He also said, in his response to the comments, that certain Jewish thinkers had become, overtime, part of the body of the Torah.
    This requires an axiom of faith, I think. But I also think that it’s necessary to make sense of any religious tradition extended in time.
    Jim’s questions about what should be taken as literal and what metaphorical resonated with me. I agree with Ken that it isn’t easy to formulate a systematic answer to this question. But Jim is right – I think – to worry about the examples that Ken brings of clear metaphors. I’m reminded of something I heard in the name of Franz Rosensweig (not a thinker I’m often accustomed to quote). He said, why think that God’s hand is a metaphor? Perhaps he has something called a hand in real life, and the metaphor is that we call our physical hands, ‘hands’.
    I was satisfied with Ken’s response to Jim’s concern about Abraham’s biography. That is to say, even if Abraham wasn’t a philosopher, we do know that his religion had lots less ritual than ours, and it was good enough for him. ‘Why isn’t it good enough for us?,’ is the question Ken was really getting at.
    But I have some textual juice to throw in here. If you look closely, you’ll see that Abraham builds altars and invokes God’s name over them. Nowhere does it say that he actually sacrifices an animal until after the Akeida, in place of Isaac. This has lead me to wonder whether Abraham had been trying out a very austere religious ritual in order to demonstrate that God doesn’t need animal flesh – he built altars, but left them conspicuously empty; he prayed, simply by calling out the name of God. But over the course of his life, he comes to realise (through the trial of the akeida), that such an austere ritual life is not the way to inculcate, preserve and transmit religious devotion and passion.
    So perhaps there are some hints in the text, about the life of Abraham and evolution of Jewish ritual, that point in the direction that Ken was going.

    1. This is all terrific–Ken’s book is terrific, as are the comments and responses–these words and those are the words of the living God. Okay I say that somewhat glibly, but it is not perhaps too far from the truth, given points made by Ken and Sam. Those who endeavor to engage with, discover/extract meaning in the Torah, even when they are reaching apparently opposed conclusions in so doing, are doing the work the Torah project apparently wants us to do. (Especially we philosophical types; but of course we remember that the Torah is not all about us, is it?) This current format isn’t ideal for full engagement with the symposium–will you folks be scheduling some conference in the near future perhaps for face-to-face engagement?–but I’ll just toss in a few points that occurred to me while reading through Ken’s book and the subsequent discussion.

      If there’s any truth to the story at all — you know, God exists, and revelation occurred either literally as described or perhaps merely by means of divinely-inspired individuals who composed and delivered the Torah along with the accompanying texts and traditions — then the following seem to me to be nearly inescapably true:

      (1) The Torah meaningfully addresses (and applies to) people (Jews) at every era
      (2) Those it is addressing must interpret it through the means available to them in their era
      (3) There can be no genuine conflict between whatever the Torah conveys and the truth

      Each of these needs extensive unpacking and defense that I can’t offer here, so just some quick glosses.

      (1) Would be very odd if God exists and gave this text and it only applied to or addresses people in ancient times, while history then marched off for subsequent millennia. If the text is to be more than just of mere historical interest, then (1) must be true.

      (2) What alternative do we have, but to interpret the text through the means available to us? Those means include our basic cognitive and epistemic apparatus, as well as all the (other) knowledge generated by that apparatus — this would include what we know of history and what we know of science and what we know (or at least believe!) of philosophy and ethics etc. It would (or should) also include the history of commentary on the text and the whole oral tradition.

      (3) There’s lots of wiggle room here — whoever claimed that we can hope to have a full and correct account of the truth anyway? And more importantly, God (as Ken, and Descartes) point out, may well be beyond our ability to comprehend rationally, and perhaps we can only maintain the Law of Non-Contradiction with an asterisk. But even so that’s an important asterisk, because the LNC determines the limits of intelligibility at least. So to the degree to which God (or His actions or goals) are intelligible, and to the degree to which the universe as a whole is intelligible, (3) must be true.

      When you put all these together–esp after you unpack them more carefully and defend them more extensively than I have done!–certain things seem to follow.

      No surprise that Maimonides might see Aristotelianism in the Torah; what alternative does he have? No surprise that he also seems to hitch the Torah to a now-discredited medieval cosmology; what alternative did he have? Or perhaps I should not say “hitched it,” that makes the bond stronger than it is. Rather, given that the best available “science” at the time endorsed a certain cosmology, then barring distinct evidence to the contrary, he should expect the Torah to be consistent with that cosmology. When a better cosmology comes along, then the Torah better be consistent with that one. One should never absolutely “hitch” the Bible to any empirical theory–as Galileo, quoting Augustine and others warned–lest the eventual rejection of that theory lead to rejection of the Bible. Instead, contemporary science serves as one mechanism (among many) for understanding the Torah which–if God exists and revelation occurred plus some other premises–ought not contradict the truth.

      One of the major themes of this symposium has been dealing with the question of when we are discovering the meaning in the Torah v. when we are projecting something into it. But the latter has been phrased as if it is (only or purely) a bad thing. My point, given (1)-(3), is that it’s not such a bad thing but rather exactly what we should expect or demand from the text if we treat it as having any divine basis at all. Yes we should understand it on “its own terms” as much as possible; but the same minds that are interpreting the Torah are also exploring the world around them, and if the Torah is about that world at all, then all these resources must be brought to bear on the exegetical project.

      That doesn’t mean “anything goes” in interpreting the text. The normal “rules” (guidelines) of interpretation still apply, that you have to make sure the meaning you are defending reasonably fits the text, fits into the traditions, etc. If the stuff above is true (the Torah has a divine basis etc) then you cannot cherry-pick passages but must evaluate the text as a whole; and in a point Levinas makes somewhere in his Talmud readings, if we hope to avoid “merely” injecting into the text whatever is the popular belief du jour, we must also ground our interpretations in the history/tradition of interpretation (or at least take that history into account). Points like that help keep our interpretations anchored in the text. That said, there are no hard and fast exegetical “rules” (any more than there are with metaphor, as Sam pointed out I think), but again, that doesn’t mean anything goes. After all, you have to convince reasonable people — including yourself — OF your interpretation.

      I don’t have adequate expertise here (or any at all!), but I could imagine that the evolution of halacha over the centuries might provide a useful model here. There (I surmise) the goal is always to remain anchored in the text, which includes remaining anchored in the tradition leading up to the moment of exegesis, both as times change, the world changes, and as new data and new theories and new intuitions arise.

      Of particular interest (and difficulty) is the question how to connect the Torah (and halacha) to our contemporary moral intuitions. That is a very different question (I think) than how to connect it to our contemporary understanding of science, for several reasons, including (a) our standards or criteria for moral “knowledge” are far fuzzier or more controversial than our standards for scientific/empirical “knowledge”, and (b) deciding how to resolve this question depends in part on deciding what the point or purpose or goal of the Torah (and of being religious) is, an enormous question. It strikes me as initially plausible that the Torah, and Judaism, are not primarily (if at all) about science and cosmology or metaphysics; that not a lot rides on our finding in the Torah hints of the big bang or evolution or any other empirical theory, or of whatever the latest trends in metaphysics might be. It seems far more to be about spirituality, nationhood, ethics, salvation, etc.–all vexed and interconnected topics (obviously). This is where all the action is, where the controversy is, where the difficulties lie, obviously, as Judaism itself continues to evolve into the 21st century. (Ken has some good stuff to say on these matters particularly in ch 8 of his book.)

      The Orthodox Union just released a statement outlining its position on the permissible roles that women may play in the clergy, in teaching, in leadership, etc. Suffice to say that the statement appears driven by their perceived need for conservatism, to remain anchored in the text and the tradition, and not merely and instantly capitulating to the contemporary western view of full equality between the sexes. But assuming that the contemporary western view endures for another century or two–and given how rapidly our notions of gender and sexuality are evolving, who knows? Binary sexuality is SO 20th century–would it surprise any of us if the descendants of the OU in the 23rd or 24th century might conclude, halachically, that women may become rabbis (say)? Not because these interpreters simply “capitulated” to contemporary mores and twisted their interpretation to fit the new modern intuitions–but because the text and the tradition, as interpreted by them then, with all the cognitive means available to them, look reasonably to give that verdict–in the same way that the text that looked to Maimonides to express a certain cosmology might look to some other generation or mind to contain a different cosmology?

      I think what I’m pushing is that the extremes of historicism (limiting the text to some original meaning) and anachronism (unlimited projection of contemporary meaning into the text) really invite the middle ground, as partly expressed in (1)-(3) above: there will be plenty of room to find contemporary meaning in the text, and this will occur because those interpreting the text always must use the means available to them to do so. But as long as this occurs adequately anchored to the text and traditions, and further requires convincing reasonable interpreters by means of reasonable arguments, it will avoid the extreme of “anything goes.”

      I like Sam’s way of phrasing it — seeing the process of engaging with the text as part of an ongoing divine revelation. Except of course that, given our epistemic fallibility, we don’t know who is getting it right, who is making it up, etc., so we can’t quite know just who IS actually divinely inspired. Indeed those who might well be truly divinely inspired, for example by having a vision (or hearing) of God, we would tend to dismiss as mentally ill. So all we’ve got to work with is what we’ve got to work with: our reason, our senses, our intuitions–plus a text and a long tradition.

      Put that way, it all sounds so obvious. But the devil (equally obviously) is in the details, with which others in the discussion have already begun engaging.

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