Thursday, May 24, 2007

Fun with Bible, Part II

You had to know after reading Fun with Bible, Part I, that a Part II was inevitable. In honor of the second day of Shavuot and because I'm a bit of a sadist, here follows my extensive thoughts on biblical theology (or lack thereof) and its reflection in Maimonides's Thirteen Principles. Please try to contain your excitement.

A close examination of Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles reveals a tension in the text between the Bible and philosophy. Yet, this mental exercise fails to address two major issues affecting Maimonidean thought that create a gulf between the Bible and medieval Jewish philosophy. First, to label an influence “biblical” implies that the view derives from the text of the Bible, itself, and presumes an extant or coherent biblical theology upon which to draw. Ideas may be biblically influenced without implying that they represent the Bible in its entirety; but in that case, epistemological honesty entails more specificity. For example, both Philo and Hume may legitimately be labeled “biblically influenced,” a statement that says less about the nature of their works than it does about the breadth of biblical content.

Second, this exercise fails to address the chasm between theology and practice as expressed in the Bible and theology and practice as molded by rabbinic literature in the intervening millennium between biblical canonization and Maimonides’s writings. The Thirteen Principles reveal that Maimonides’s initial contact with the Bible is through a rabbinic lens, a fact which does not invalidate his conclusions (nor do I suggest that he never approaches the Bible without the rabbinic perspective), but which affects his focus and colors his perspective. Therefore, “Biblical” is a misleading label for strains of Maimonidean thought that reflect Jewish sources or privilege Jewish over philosophy. A close examination of his Thirteen Principles, as they are an apt summary of his belief system, highlights the tension within Jewish thought about certain “fundamental” beliefs.

Firmly fixed in Jewish philosophical tradition, Maimonides roots his arguments in the biblical text, but in doing so, glosses over its multiplicity of views and imposes a single biblical theology. By definition, theology is a systematic approach to the study and understanding of God, involving the intellect. Already, the word, “theology,” is paradoxical because if humans cannot fathom or understand God intellectually, then how are they able to approach God in a systematic way using their intellect? Aside from the logical difficulties with its mechanics, the concept of a biblical theology from a medieval standpoint assumes that rabbinic Judaism logically follows the religion of the Hebrew Bible. Thus, medieval philosophical reflection on biblical theology serves to authenticate rabbinic Judaism as the legitimate heir of the biblical religion.

ScarJo's thinking deeply about Maimonades
According to Stephen Geller, as the Bible has no identifiable theological center around which all biblical theology is organized, biblical theology is a phantom. He argues that the Hebrews had neither a clear theological perspective, nor any language for it; therefore, they expressed religious ideas through poetry and stories, not expositions and epistles detailing their theology explicitly. Any attempt to address biblical theology must wrangle with this barrier. Maimonides, in this vein, is guilty of imposing his framework on the biblical authors. Moreover, although he argues that his Thirteen Principles are fundamental to the religion, rabbinic literature does not promulgate a clear, dogmatic view of correct theology. (As Louis Finkelstein famously remarked, “Jewish theology is Jewish answers to non-Jewish questions.”) Traditionally, the central question that Jewish texts address is not why, but how. Rabbinic literature addresses the way in which Jews enact Judaism, with an emphasis on law, not on dogma. In this way, theology is impractical to rabbinic Judaism. This absence creates a vacuum into which Jewish philosophers flood.

Although the ideas elucidated in the Thirteen Principles are represented in the Bible, they are by no means all authoritative or central. Despite his declaration that they are fundamental, several of these principles are marginally represented. For example, he states that Jews believe that God is incorporeal and that God’s unity is physical neither potentially nor actually. To counteract the argument that the Bible often speaks of God in physical terms, Maimonides asserts that these verses should be understood metaphorically. Verses attesting to God’s incorporeality permeate the Bible, particularly in the later stratum of texts. As physical manifestations of God went out of vogue, the Hebrew God became less physical and more transcendent (as aptly expressed in I Kings 19:11-14). Yet, God’s physical manifestations abound, God is physically tangible. Beyond the fact that God was meant to physically reside both in the Ark of the Covenant and in the Temple, before I Kings 19, God was in the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. In the Bible, theophany represents God’s presence on earth: the fabric of reality rends when God enters the earth, create chaos and imagery of uncreation. Maimonides pre-emptively undermines the validity of this evidence by dismissing it as metaphorical; however, physical offerings, such as sacrifice, attest to a biblical religion that believed in a God that hungered, angered, and rested, particularly on the seventh day.

Maimonides’s definition of prophet and prophecy, illustrated in both the Thirteen Principles and the Guide, further demonstrate the gulf between Maimonides’s representation of the Bible in philosophy and its actual content. A myriad of biblical accounts concerning the prophets argue against Maimonides’s “gifted and perfected” prophet. Far from intellectual and physical perfection, biblical prophets (with the exception of court prophets and Isaiah) were politically and socially marginalized (and not known for their bathing, although that is unconfirmed defamation). The examples are endless, but Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel constitute an alliterative array of evidence against Maimonides’s perfect prophet. In I Kings 18, Elijah, known for his witty repartee, mocked the prophets of Baal, suggesting that their god was otherwise occupied: on the toilet. The prophets of Baal paid for their idolatry with their lives, but at least they were guilty adults. Elisha, Elijah’s disciple, caused two she-bears to maul 42 children because they called him “baldy.” (II Kings 12:23-25) Though not a murder, Ezekiel, at God’s behest, ate a barley cake cooked in human excrement. This act, completed for the purpose of prophecy, can hardly be considered an intellectual communion with God. Maimonides may enunciate an ideal of prophecy, but, at least according to the biblical sources, not a reality.

The tenth principle, which elucidates God’s vigilance to the cause of man, such that God never turns God’s eyes away, is directly contradicted by the biblical conceit known as Buber’s Eclipse. The best example of this phenomenon can be found in Isaiah 8:17: So I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding His face from the House of Jacob, and I will trust in Him. (Cf. Psalm 102:3) This idea is simultaneously theologically rich and religiously dangerous. The only reason for Maimonides to gloss over such an important, albeit difficult, theological concept is to promote a particular belief system. A God that does not watch every moment is not omniscient. Furthermore, a God who turns away from Israel cannot fulfill God’s promise, according to the eleventh principle, to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. The specious nature of this claim has an entire book devoted to it: Job. By attempting to make a comprehensive and monolithic list of the fundamental attributes of Jewish belief, Maimonides simplifies and ignores theological strains that contradict his medieval rabbinic perspective and, in doing so, deprives his audience of the pleasure of watching one of histories greatest minds grapple with the theological difficulties of the biblical text.

Although he traces their roots to the Bible, Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles reveal his rabbinic bias. His thirteenth principle, the fundamental truth of the resurrection of the dead, uncovers his promotion of rabbinic thought over biblical evidence. With the exception of Daniel, the latest text to be canonized (likely the 2nd Century, B.C.E), resurrection is explicitly absent from the Bible. This principle reflects the Mishnah on which it was based. The language in this tractate surrounding resurrection, furthermore, implies that the concept is largely absent from the Bible. Were it unquestionably a biblical concept, then strong language insisting that anyone who questions resurrection in the Torah is a heretic would be unnecessary. The Rabbis doth protest too much, methinks.

Given that rabbinic literature touches on theology and philosophy, albeit tangentially and obliquely, and affects medieval Jewish thinkers because of their intellectual and academic contexts, why is its content not considered in the realm of Jewish philosophical texts? In grappling with the difficulty of our Jewish philosophical heritage, particularly in the ambiguity of the Biblical place on the philosophical spectrum, rabbinic literature and its seeming ambivalence towards philosophy and theology (if that is true) should be addressed. We often focus on the biblical influences of philosophical texts, but the conclusions we draw about biblical influence are meaningless without the rabbinic context that mediated their interaction. Maimonides, more so than any other thinker, reveals in his Thirteen Principles the tensions between the different strata of Jewish thought and philosophy.


Zie said...

you owe me two cookies.. and you have successfully made me reconsider divinity school. haha just kidding. but now i know why i chose philosophy over bible... philosophy is supposed to be pointless. :) gotta love our extra useless but extremely interesting (dont deny) degree.

prof said...

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a bientot