Opinion: Shepherding the Bible

It’s common knowledge that the Bible is the “greatest book ever written.” No other book can match its power or wide appeal; no other book has been as studied, analyzed or debated. It’s the literary gift that keeps on giving, the book of books, the book for all eternity.

And yet, despite this extraordinary pedigree, in much of academia — particularly in the “non-biblical” fields of rational philosophy and political theory — the Bible is the Rodney Dangerfield of books: It gets little respect.

In part, this attitude can be traced to the influential German philosophers of the early 19th century, who generally dismissed the Bible as “superstition” and “revelation” in favor of the rigorous and classical Greek school of thought, which worships “reason” above all. While other philosophers, such as the English, did pay homage to the Bible in their philosophical works, the German school focused on rational thought and, to this day, this approach has dominated the halls of academia.

This is a missed opportunity that needs to be corrected, says Yoram Hazony, a scholar from Jerusalem who spoke recently at a Jewish Journal salon about his upcoming book, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” (Cambridge University Press).

Hazony, the founder of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, believes the Bible has earned its rightful place at what he calls “the table of big ideas.” If you dig deep enough, he says, you’ll see that the Bible is more than a book of revelation or even a book of ethics — it is, in fact, a brilliant book of reason.

He gave an example of how the Bible can enhance classical Greek philosophy. One of the big ideas of the Greek school, from the likes of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, is that man is nothing without the “state.” In this view, the state is the rational instrument that defined human identity and dignity — the instrument that spelled out the rules of civilized life. Socrates himself once said that he “would rather be dead” than find himself outside this cocoon of structure and reason.

But Hazony showed us that if you delve into biblical stories, like that of Cain and Abel, you find a more nuanced and independent view of civilized man and human identity. When God banishes the sinful Adam — the symbol of humanity — to toil in the fields, it is a curse for all future generations. Adam’s first son, Cain, accepts this banishment without question and follows in his father’s footsteps, doing the hard work of the land.

But the second son, Abel, decides he won’t accept God’s curse and chooses the much more idyllic life of the shepherd. That doesn’t stop him from showing his gratitude to God by bringing a sacrifice, just as his brother Cain does.

Now, you would think God would be more pleased by the sacrifice of Cain, as he is the one who respected God’s banishment.

But God is more pleased by Abel’s sacrifice. How could that be?

Hazony’s insight is that Abel is humanity’s “first dissident,” the precursor to epic moments in Jewish history in which other shepherds will challenge authority — most notably Moses, who takes on not only Pharaoh but even, at Sinai, God himself. There is something about this “Abel model,” Hazony suggested, something about this idea of man taking a risk, of embracing personal responsibility, of going his own way — and yet, still finding time to thank his Creator — that must have pleased God.

Indeed, in the Jewish tradition, this is the model that ended up defining the essential relationship between man and God: the model of partnership.

In this partnership, man certainly honors God’s authority but also reserves the right to challenge and wrestle with God, which deepens the relationship and makes it dynamic, even unpredictable. God accepts the notion of being challenged, and we, in turn, accept the consequences of this challenge.

And, just as in real life, we’re never sure how things will turn out.

Clearly, this is a more compelling view of civilized man than the Greek view of man beholden to an all-encompassing state. The God of the Bible, in all His glory and complications and mystery and wrath and loving-kindness and legalisms and threatening exhortations, is still a God that gives man a little space. Space to dissent, to try to repair, to mess up, and, yes, even to show God a thing or two.

While the authority in Greek philosophy is a state, the authority in Hebrew scripture is a state of being.

Thus, from the biblical story of Cain and Abel, we can draw a more complex and refined view of man’s relationship to authority. Hazony says the Bible is full of such “big ideas,” ideas that can enrich not just the world of philosophy, but other academic areas, among them political theory, sociology and psychology.

In essence, Hazony is on a mission to put the greatest book on earth at the heart of academic study. He knows the obstacles — the Bible has suffered from the stigma associated with religion in general: blind faith, supernatural stories, strict obedience, fanaticism and the absence of intellectual rigor.

But he’s undaunted. You might say Hazony is a modern-day Jerusalem shepherd who is challenging authority — and has no idea how things will turn out.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.