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Judaism’s Central Sacrifice

Yoram Hazony’s new book bases Judaism on a naturalistic reading of the Bible, but it’s a stretch

David P. Goldman
August 29, 2012
Shepherd, Palestine, c. 1937.(Library of Congress)
Shepherd, Palestine, c. 1937.(Library of Congress)

As co-founder and now a senior fellow of the Shalem Center, a leading Zionist think tank in Jerusalem, Yoram Hazony has sought a bridge between secular nationalism and Jewish religion. His latest book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, claims to find it, in a naturalistic reading of the Hebrew Scriptures that allows the sacred texts of the Jewish people to do double duty: They can be read as revelation by the religious, Hazony argues, or by the secular as a guide to personal virtue and national prowess. The question is whether this shidduch between God’s word and natural law is a union of two besherts or a shotgun wedding that leaves both parties miserable.

Hazony seems to think of Mosaic law as an afterthought to natural law—the former “is indeed held to be the key to a just and prosperous life” in the biblical narrative, but that is only because “it is so much in conformity with the natural law that even from the perspective of the shepherd, who examines its strictures from the outside, it can be accepted and obeyed.” Like the late political philosopher Leo Strauss, Hazony draws a bright line between faith and reason. But Hazony abhors Strauss because he is competing for the same side of the street. Faith, he argues, is for the Christians. His book, on the other hand, “is the first direct and sustained argument in favor of approaching the Hebrew Scriptures as works of reason.”

Hazony contends that an ethical philosophy founded in natural law is embedded in the Tanakh’s historical narrative, requiring no recourse to supernatural revelation. This stems from what he calls “shepherd’s ethics”—that is, “the vantage point of an outsider” who “owes nothing and has committed to nothing that cannot be reconsidered in light of one’s own independent judgment as to what is really right.” Inherent in the life the shepherd, he avers, is a virtue that distinguishes nomads from farmers and city-dwellers: Abel from Cain, the Abram of Ur from the nomad Abraham of Canaan, Joseph the shepherd from Joseph the minister of Pharaoh, and so on.

But it seems a stretch to hang the whole of Judaism on shepherd’s ethics. The people of Israel, to be sure, were shepherds before they took possession of the Promised Land, but they were farmers afterward, with three pilgrimage festivals associated with harvests and detailed laws for the use and ownership of land. One could as easily argue that the ascent to the land and the transition from herding to farming elevated the people of Israel. I Kings 4:25, after all, praises Solomon’s reign as a time when each man sat in peace under his own vine and fig tree, not among his own sheep and goats. The circumstances of shepherd life, moreover, do not always elicit good behavior, or we would not need the prohibition of Leviticus 18:23.


In April 2012, Hazony dumbfounded the observant Jewish world with an item in Commentary magazine portraying the late Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik as a naturalist who eschewed such basic tenets of Judaism as personal immortality, a claim that drew swift and sharp rejoinders from Orthodox writers. Rabbi Gil Student argued in the popular Hirhurim blog that Hazony “simply misreads” R. Soloveitchik, which is right: Soloveitchik argued that miracles could be understood within the framework of the “natural” world, but it is a natural world permeated with the divine.

In fact, this misreading of the Rav puts in context the monothematic insistence on naturalism in Hazony’s new volume. In contrast to Soloveitchik, Hazony starts with a long-superseded, deterministic vision of nature and then imposes a reductive, naturalistic reading on the Hebrew Scriptures. His case for pastoral ethics reflects extensive thought and research, to be sure. But his reading will surprise observant Jews, who read daily one segment part of the biblical narrative, the Binding of Isaac, or Akedah, which is often cited as the ultimate reproach to natural law. Kierkegaard observed that no philosophical system of ethics could explain Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son: “The fact is,” he wrote in Fear and Trembling, “the ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he wanted to murder Isaac. … If you simply remove faith as a nix and nought there remains only the raw fact that Abraham was willing to murder Isaac.”

Instead of the Akedah, Hazony’s understanding of Genesis centers on the story of Cain and Abel, which he believes fixes the archetype of farmer and herder. That is not a new idea. Leon Kass, the University of Chicago bioethicist and Pentateuch commentator, argued in 1996 that “Cain’s way of life, like the man himself, is more complex: possessive, artful, potentially harmful, and dangerous, but with the prospect of the higher achievements (and risks) of civilization. Abel’s way, like the man, is simple: open and permissive, harmless, and certainly vulnerable (especially before craft, cunning, and technique) and, besides, incapable of accomplishing much of anything.”

As Hazony sees it:

Cain embodies the virtues associated with the agrarian societies of the ancient Near East; Cain obeys God’s instructions; he perpetuates the order inherited from his father; and he exhibits piety to the Gods who have created this order. His brother Abel, however, resists the fate that God has decreed for him. He ignores God’s decree and becomes a shepherd—a man whose station is elevated in that he lives a life of relative ease, leaving the job of extracting nourishment from the ground to his sheep and goats.

Why, then, is Cain’s sacrifice rejected? Because “God accepts the offering of a man who seeks to improve things, to make them good of himself and his own initiative. That is what God finds in Abel, and the reason he accepts his sacrifice.” There is a difficulty in this reading, though, pointed up in the commentary of Naftali Yehuda Berlin (known by the acronym Netziv), the head of the famed yeshiva at Volozhin during the late 19th century. Sheep and goats could not extract nourishment from the ground for human beings in the context of the Cain and Abel story, because, as the Netziv observed, human beings were still vegetarians at this point in the narrative: Not until Noah did humans consume meat. Farming therefore was the more important occupation. It sustained life, while herding contributed luxury goods. Cain’s work was in fact more important, so he held himself superior to his younger brother (whose Hebrew name “Hevel” literally means “fleeting”).

Cain’s contempt for Abel, not his role as a farmer, displeased God, the Netziv explained. Rabbi Shalom Carmy comments, “The first murderer, as the Netziv resurrects him from the text, is not a one-dimensional figure, wicked from the womb. He is a human being very much like us, possessed of a keen sense of what is fair and what is not, and quick to feel hurt and humiliation when his vision of himself and his position in relation to others is confounded.” Cain’s subsequent city-building, the Netziv adds, fulfills the opportunity that God has given him for redemption. Instead of a formulaic allegory of natural law, the Netziv reconstructs a human tragedy of pride and envy whose protagonist is noble but flawed.

All of which is why Hazony’s identification of Abel with Middle Eastern nomads in general is problematic, and his natural-law allegory seems impoverished next to the traditional commentator’s more nuanced human tragedy. Instead, Hazony is most convincing in his critique of the classical Greek state, the exemplar of the classical political rationalism he proposes to replace. He quotes Socrates’ reproach to Crito, who has arranged his escape from prison, that the individual is only the “offspring and servant” of the state, “both you and your forefathers.”

That the pagan state is incompatible with individuality is not a new thought. Franz Rosenzweig wrote, “The individual of antiquity does not lose himself in society in order to find himself, but rather in order to construct it; he himself disappears.” But what establishes individuality against the state? Hazony attributes this to “a completely different point of vantage than that of Greek ethics—a point of vantage associated with the life of a nomad.” That seems a strange assertion, given that individuality is rarely a feature of nomadic societies. Indeed, the tribal life of herders typically is more repressive than the worst tyranny of antiquity.

Hebrew Scripture, in Hazony’s view, makes no claim that divine guidance is needed for good behavior. “The different roads that are open to us are there to be compared. If we can look at them and discern ‘which is the good way’ almost empirically (sic), without need for God’s instructions, it is because the evidence is there to be discovered by those who look.” We know that worshipping idols is wrong because they are just blocks of wood, that we should not commit adultery “because we know from experience that a man will have his vengeance,” and so forth.

Nothing in the “almost empirical” observation of the ancient Near East dissuaded men from sacrificing their children to the gods, among other revolting practices. Before Israel, infanticide was universal in the ancient world—which brings us back to the Akedah, the event that demarcates the bloodthirsty barbarism of the ancient world from the Jewish (and later Christian) concept of sanctity of life. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote of the Akedah: God “wanted Abraham to abandon all pretense of possessiveness, all claims of unity and identity, all hopes of self-perpetuation and immortalization through Isaac and return him to Whom he belongs.”

But Hazony is convinced that Abraham ascended Mount Moriah so secure in his knowledge of natural law that God had no such thing in mind. He writes: “Abraham at every point keeps firmly in view what is to him a fact—that whatever God may have said to him, he will not require him to murder his son. God himself will provide a ram for the sacrifice … at no point does Abraham intend to murder his son.” That is the least convincing assertion in a book full of challenges to the plain sense of the text. If Abraham knew God would provide a ram, and God knew that Abraham knew all along, moreover, why stage the whole grisly pantomime in the first place?

One answer is given by the private scholar Lipmann Bodoff, who contended in a 2005 book that Abraham was testing God. But Bodoff, unlike Hazony, is attentive to the difficulties that attend his interpretation. For example, an angel calls out to Abraham as he stretches his arm over Isaac, knife in hand. If God knew that Abraham would not strike, why did the angel bother? Bodoff explains although God is omniscient, angels “are not competent to know the intentions of human beings.” To affirm this view without inflicting violence on the text requires among other things attention to subtle distinctions among supernatural beings that have little to do with Hazony’s idea of natural law.

In the traditional view, God’s inexplicable love for Abraham, and Abraham’s nearly inexplicable faithfulness with God, establishes a covenant between the human and the divine. From this covenant we derive, directly or indirectly, the foundational concepts of Western civilization: the sanctity of human life, the dignity of the human person, the inviolability of individual rights. Of all the tribes driving ruminants across the Near East, ancient Israel was radically unique, not through “almost empirical” evaluation of its material circumstances, but because its sense of the divine elevated its view above that of any society that hitherto existed. If we accept the traditional view of the Akedah rather than Hazony’s novel but in my view unconvincing gloss, then the whole notion of natural law in the Bible crashes and burns, just as Kierkegaard insisted.


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David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Studies, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too).

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Studies, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.