Philosophy of the Bible? Maybe Not Quite Yet

By Yoram Hazony, November 22, 2010 | 17 responses

In a previous letter, I described some of the efforts I’ve been involved with over the last ten years to establish the academic legitimacy of the idea that the Hebrew Bible and classical rabbinic sources actually had an influence on the history of Western political thought. (“The Biblical Century,” May 10, 2010). Most people, I suspect, will find the proposition that the Bible had an influence on Western thought pretty uncontroversial. Most academics would probably agree as well. But this isn’t reflected in either the research that universities conduct or in the courses that are taught to students: The fact is that in most universities in America, Europe and Israel, the norm is still to conduct research and teach disciplines such as philosophy, political theory, and intellectual history as though the Hebrew Bible did not make a significant contribution to the ideas of the Western tradition.

There are a number of contributing factors here. But a central one is the fact that the Hebrew Bible is usually not studied for its ideas in the academic setting. If the Hebrew Scriptures have anything to say about metaphysics or theory of knowledge, ethics or political philosophy—until recently at least, the Bible programs didn’t really see it as their job to investigate these questions. Neither did the philosophy programs, since the Bible isn’t supposed to be philosophy. (According to the old categories, the Bible isn’t reason, it’srevelation.) So in the end, it turned out that no one in the universities thought that their discipline was responsible for researching and teaching the Bible’s ideas.

So I was very pleased a couple of weeks ago when the John Templeton Foundation announced a $1.1 million grant to the Shalem Center to conduct a three-year international research program investigating the philosophical content of the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, and Midrash. As far as I know, this grant, which will support a series of annual conferences, workshops for students, and research fellowships, constitutes the first time a major foundation has sought to support research into the philosophical content of the classical Jewish sources. The grant to Shalem is also part of a larger project in “philosophical theology” in which two Christian institutions—the University of Notre Dame and the University of Innsbruck, Austria—will be conducting parallel investigations into the foundations of Christian philosophy. (I’ve attached the Jerusalem Post’s coverage of the story here.)

For those of us involved with this project, it’s really pretty exciting. Don’t laugh (well, okay, go ahead), but it feels a little bit like trying to land a man on the moon. Of course the project could just fail, or end up being an embarrassment. There’s always that risk. But there’s also this sense that it could be the beginning of something spectacular.

Well, so here’s the first bit of embarrassment. I received word yesterday that one of the principal mailing lists announcing conferences and fellowship opportunities to philosophy professors around the world has declined to post the announcement for the first conference, entitled “Philosophical Investigation of the Hebrew Bible, Talmud and Midrash”.

The manager of the list wrote that “We have a list policy against theological/scriptural postings.”

The explanation? “They’re just broader than the list supports.”

It’s actually pretty funny that studying the philosophy of the Hebrew Bible is a project too broad for this particular listserv, considering that in recent months they’ve sent out calls for papers trying to enlist philosophy professors to write on topics such as “Philosophy and Baseball” and “Philosophy and Spiderman”. Here’s an announcement that I received from this same listserv just three days ago:

Topic: Book: Porn: Philosophy for Everyone–How to Think With Kink

Davil324 <> Nov 19 06:59AM -0800 ^

Porn – Philosophy for Everyone:
How to Think With Kink

Dave Monroe, Editor & Fritz Allhoff, Series Editor

From Wiley-Blackwell

Love it or loathe it, pornography is as old as human more…

I don’t want to be interpreted as objecting to this kind of thing. Different universities will support different kinds of research. That’s just part of the open marketplace of ideas, right?

But on the other hand, it’s striking that for certain segments of academia, the philosophy of pornography isn’t too “broad” to be supported. Whereas the philosophy of the Bible—well now that’s risqué!

So if you know any philosophers (or philosophically inclined scholars in other disciplines) who might be interested in participating in a slightly risqué conference on the philosophy of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud, please forward them this link to our Philosophy of the Hebrew Bible Conference Announcement.

Given the prudishness currently prevailing in some parts of the philosophical community, maybe not everyone has had a chance to have a peek at it just yet.

17 Responses to "Philosophy of the Bible? Maybe Not Quite Yet"
Kalman Kaplan
February 9, 2011
Department of Psychiatry, University of Illinois in Chicato Colleger o Medicin
Dear Dr, Hazony,

I have read your works with great interest and am delighted to see that Shalem has receuived an award from the John Templeton Foundation to pursue your work on Philosophical Investigation of the Hebrew Bible, Talmud and Midrash”.
Evan Zuesse
December 7, 2010
I want to congratulate you on the outstanding initiatives you are pursuing in rehabilitating recognition of the centrality of Jewish sources in Western civilization. It is centuries overdue, and especially crucial now as the West seems to have lost
Mordecai Roshwald
December 6, 2010
I personally welcome this much neglected field—especially in the case of the Bible.

While some biblical narratives have no roots in philosophical reflection, others are founded on philosophical ideas and ideals. Job and Ecclesiastes immediately come to mind. Much of
Dalit Rom-Shiloni
November 27, 2010
Tel Aviv University
Congratulations on this great achievement in getting this huge grant, and more so in succeeding to raise interest in your vision!

I would find this venue to be fascinating and challenging, but being a Hebrew Bible scholar who focuses attention on
Karen K. Petersen
November 24, 2010
Middle Tennessee State University
As a scholar of International Relations, specifically interstate war, I am aware of the irrational disregard for the role of scripture in understanding my discipline. In fact, I made it through my undergraduate and graduate programs without ever being exposed
Patricia Jean Blosser-Lotfinia
November 23, 2010
How with today’s understanding of the Hebrew Bible; the Talmud, and other Classical Jewish writings, can Jewish and Roman Catholic centers of higher education hope to bring realism to the study. These are works long abused by Western scholars
Dallas Bell
November 23, 2010
Emerson observed in his essay on self-reliance "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness." It does
Paul Saphir
November 23, 2010
I can only regret that we no longer have with us the esteemed scholar Richard H. Popkin who would have made, and has already made, a significant contribution to your project. Never the less I am following your ideas with
Saul Fisher
November 23, 2010
Mercy College
I just read your complaint about the mailing list which declined to post the announcement for your conference on “Philosophical Investigation of the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, and Midrash”.

I sympathize with your annoyance about being declined; I have a
Moshe Polon
November 22, 2010
Kollel Yechiel Yehuda
Perhaps God is sending you a message: The Torah is not philosophy, it is life. All the same, success in your endeavors. You don't need the "philosophy list" to be successful.
Tzippy Siegel
November 22, 2010
retired adjunct
the Hebrew Bible is the Source that almost everyone wants to kill.
the Chistians wanted to kill us but they got over it(now some of them get back into that again)
the Muslims extracted and twisted our Ideas, the Source, which
Daniel Barenholtz
November 22, 2010
Congratulations on the grant. I have no meaningful philosophical training, and have never played a philosopher on TV, but it has long been my impression that much of midrash was a response to questions raised by classical philosophy.
Roberta Goodman
November 22, 2010
Wonder if they've accepted for distribution anything about Islam or buddhism or for that matter secular humanism?
Stanley Cohen
November 22, 2010
This is very exciting. I have often wondered why there was been so little written about this subject.

One need only think of some random examples such as Samuels plea against appointing a King, or the interpretation that the Talmud puts
Michael Makovi
November 22, 2010
Bar-Ilan University
> According to the old categories, the Bible isn’t reason, it’s revelation.

I have to laugh. If the Bible really WAS revealed, then who cares what category it falls under, whether reason or revelation? Learn the damn thing, because whatever it
Malcolm F. Lowe
November 22, 2010
Ecumenical Research Fraternity
I wonder if the manager of that list would exclude a conference on Philo of Alexandria or on Spinoza? Which leads to another question. The study of the philosophy of the Bible is as old as Philo of Alexandria and
Alan Ashkenazie
November 17, 2010
I read every article- book you have written and receive all publications and articles, from the shalem center.
I just want to tell you
Hazak ubaruch- keep up the wonderful work.
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