The God of Independent Minds

By Yoram Hazony, August 26, 2012

Is religion the enemy of reason? A look at the questioning, disobedient heroes of the Old Testament

This is a version of an essay that has just appeared in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal.
To read the original article, click here.

Today’s debates over the place of religion in modern life often showcase the claim that belief in God stifles reason and science. As Richard Dawkins writes in his best-seller The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) religious belief “discourages questioning by its very nature.” In The End of Faith (Norton, 2004), his own New Atheist manifesto, Sam Harris writes that religion represents “a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.”

The argument that religion suppresses rational inquiry is often based on the idea that “reason” and “revelation” are opposites. On this view, shared by atheist crusaders and some believers as well, the whole point of the Bible is to provide divine knowledge for guiding our lives, so that we don’t need questioning and independence of mind.

This dichotomy between reason and revelation has a great deal of history behind it, but I have never accepted it. In fact, as an Orthodox Jew, I often find the whole discussion quite frustrating. I will let Christians speak for their own sacred texts, but in the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”) and the classical rabbinical sources that are the basis for my religion, one of the abiding themes is precisely the ever-urgent need for human beings, if they are to find what is true and just, to maintain their capacity for independent thought and action.

Almost every major hero and heroine of the Hebrew Bible is depicted as independent-minded, disobedient, even contentious. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Joseph’s brothers, Moses and Aaron, Gideon and Samuel, prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, and exilic biblical figures such as Daniel, Mordechai and Esther—all are portrayed as confronting authority and breaking the laws and commands of kings. And for this they are praised.

But aren’t these biblical figures just disobeying human institutions in response to commands from on high? Not at all. Very often the disobedience we see in Hebrew Scripture is initiated by human beings with no word from God at all. Thus the midwives Shifra and Pua resist Pharaoh’s decree to murder the Israelite children in the Exodus narrative. And Moses’ mother and sister hide the infant boy, although it is against the law. And Moses grows up and slays an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave.

None of these deeds is initiated or guided by divine command. Like many other stories in the Bible, they tell us about human beings who make their stand entirely on their own authority.

Some will want to object that the biblical heroes exhibit such independence of mind only with respect to other human beings, and that they become pushovers when God enters the picture. But that isn’t right either. Many biblical figures dare to extend their arguments and criticism to God himself. Abraham is famous for challenging God over the fate of Sodom: “Will not the judge of all the earth do justice?” Moses repeatedly argues against God’s intention to destroy Israel. David is outraged over what he sees as God’s unjust killing of one of his men. And similar arguments with God appear in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Havakuk, Jonah and Job.

Nor do these biblical figures stop at just arguing with God. They also disobey God. Abel disregards God’s instructions to go work the soil, while his brother Cain obeys—yet it is Abel whom God loves, not Cain. Moses, too, directly disobeys God’s command to lead the people up to Canaan after the sin of the golden calf. Aaron refuses to conduct the sacrificial service as commanded after God kills his two sons. The daughters of Tzelofhad even demand that Moses alter God’s law because they deem it unjust. And in all these cases, the biblical narrative endorses such resistance.

The Bible acknowledges this pattern explicitly when God gives the name “Israel” to Jacob and his descendants, saying: “Your name will no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have contended with God and with men and have prevailed.”

Reread that last sentence. It says that the God of Israel so cherishes independent-minded men and women that he himself names them Israel, meaning “will contend with God,” as a sign of his love and esteem.

The claim that the Hebrew Bible seeks to suppress inquiry and argument can be maintained only by way of colossal ignorance or willful distortion. In fact, no literary tradition of the pre-modern world—including Greek philosophy—was so effortlessly radical in its endorsement of human questioning, seeking and argument. And few have rivaled it in modernity either.

Perhaps it is time for the participants in the great “religion wars” of our day to give the Hebrew Bible another read.

For more information about The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge University Press, August 28, 2012) go here.To pre-order the book, click here.To subscribe to follow the book by email, click here.

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