Philosophy of the Bible? Maybe Not Quite Yet

By Yoram Hazony, November 22, 2010

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 <davil324@gmail.com> 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.