The politics of biblical interpretation

Aaron W. Hughes writes in 2018:

* The Biblical narrative has long been used to articulate political positions about Jewish life. The history of Jewish philosophy, for example, is essentially the history of reading the Bible through a set of lenses supplied by the non-Jewish world, showing how the latter’s ideas and interests lay dormant in the biblical narrative. Platonism, Aristotelianism, Renaissance Humanism, and Kantianism, to name but a few, have all been located therein. Jewish philosophy, past and present, is about looking to the Bible in order, simultaneously, to uncover and prove a series of connections, believed to be indelible and eternal, between Judaism and European rationalism.

Following their Jewish philosophical predecessors, the authors under discussion here—Michael Walzer, Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Berman, and Yoram Hazony—make big promises. Their goal is nothing short of offering us the secret and hidden life of the Bible by providing the key that promises to unlock what they variously perceive to be its true or originary intent. Like Philo, like Maimonides, like Mendelssohn, to name but a few of their predecessors, they all read contemporaneous ideas gleaned from various non-Jewish contexts into the biblical narrative and in such a way that these ideas are now transformed and imagined to be quintessentially Jewish. While this essentialism may strike many readers as problematic, it is something that is of very little concern to the authors in question. Much like their premodern predecessors, Berman and Hazony (but not necessarily Walzer or Miller) claim to have uncovered veritable or authentic Judaism, an originary tradition that has the potential to address and solve modern shortcomings. However, that the right of center Tikvah Fund and Shalem Center, which I shall discuss shortly, are behind virtually all of these works is surely worthy of notice. Both of these organizations are interested in discovering and investing in what they not unproblematically call ‘‘great Jewish ideas.’’ What better way to reveal that Jews and Judaism are intimately connected to the fate of the West than to show (1) that the ‘‘great’’ ideas of the latter preexist, even if inchoately, in the Bible, and (2) that the Bible has nothing to do with its immediate Ancient Near Eastern (or, using modern parlance, Middle Eastern) context. Such claims, however, are as politically motivated as they are ultimately impossible to verify.

* There cannot be, the claims of many religious to the contrary, a correct reading of a religious text. There can be better readings and there can be worse readings, but no correct reading. Modern historiography and contemporary understandings of literary theory belie the notion of disinterested interpretation. However, this carries with it the obligation of self-reflexivity on the part of the interpreter and, when this is not done with sufficient clarity and transparency, it is the task of the critic to shed light on latent information, showing if possible its investment in ideological concerns that remain hidden from the reader.

It is worth noting that the books examined here are but a spate of recent publications that seek to argue that patterns of nation formation visible in modern Europe were preexistent in ancient Israel. Such books often argue that the latter possessed a centralized monarchy that was able to exploit a concept of ethnicity to create a national identity using concepts such as monumental architecture, uniform codes of law, and the standardization of worship.

* My interest here is less in establishing whether or not this was the case, but in why now. Why, in other words, is there a need to remove ancient Israel from its Ancient Near Eastern setting and transform it into an ancient democracy?

* Zalman Bernstein, a venture capitalist and ardent Zionist, founded the Tikvah Fund with the ‘‘hope that by investing in great Jewish ideas and great Jewish leaders, the heritage he cherished and the people he loved would be a light unto all nations.’’1 The Tikvah fund—with its tens of millions of dollars that helped to establish academic centers at NYU and Princeton (both now defunct), an academic book series (at Princeton University Press), quasi-academic journals (e.g. Azure), popular Jewish journals (e.g. The Jewish Review of Books), and academic conferences and workshops for students, faculty, and lay audiences throughout the North East—is in the business of manufacturing ‘‘Jewish ideas.’’ Recent seminars include ‘‘Is Israel Alone?’’ taught by Elliot Abrams and Charles Krauthammer, and ‘‘What is Jewish Conservativism’’ taught by, among others, William Kristol.

Many of these ideas that the Tikvah Fund seeks to articulate, not surprisingly, are ones Israel shares with America. Democracy, freedom, equality are so-called virtues common to both of these countries and would seem to be predicated on their common myth of origins as found in the Bible. The Tikvah fund also gave the money to help establish the Shalem Center in Israel, with its first president being one of the authors discussed below, Yoram Hazony, a friend and confidant of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Hazony, among other things, appointed former hawkish politician Natan Sharansky, to be the director of what is now known as the (Sheldon) Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at Shalem (see Hughes, 2013: 109).2 Virtually all of the authors discussed here and in the previous paragraph have had fellowships and have received subvention grants from either Tikvah or Shalem.

* The goal is nothing short of creating the intellectual justification of a Jewish state that is committed to the ideal of Jewish strength in the service of Jewish interests and aspirations. Recent years have seen the political fallout of this in the rise of nation-state bills in Israel that seek to emphasize the Jewish ethnic character of the state by, among other things, making Hebrew the only official language, ensuring a Jewish majority, and establishing Jewish law as legitimate. Influenced by neo-conservative trends, a new group of Zionists, among whom Hazony is a major player, seek to establish Israel’s standing as the nation state of the Jewish people based on modern political theory that recognizes the principle of the self-determination of peoples as the most appropriate organizing principle.

* Since neither ancient Israel nor its neighbors had the term or the category ‘‘political,’’ taxonomic and ontological uniqueness is extremely problematic to determine if it is to be based on a set of terms that lie outside the scope of ancient Near Eastern political thought. How, framed somewhat differently, can the religious traditions of ancient Israel break with that of its neighbors over anachronistic terms and categories?

The result is that, despite claims to the contrary, all four thinkers ultimately read their own concerns—political and other—into the biblical narrative. In so doing, they use categories with a distinctly modern provenance and make them exist, both tenuously and artificially, in select passages from the Bible. Terms such as ‘‘religious,’’ ‘‘secular,’’ ‘‘governmental,’’ ‘‘economic,’’ and ‘‘egalitarian,’’ however, are not autochthonous to either the Bible or the Ancient Near East. They are decidedly our terms. The concerns of biblical authors/redactors, it is worth repeating, are not our concerns…

* Perhaps there is good reason why universities in general and programs in Bible Studies more generally do not engage in the sort of activity that Berman and Hazony do: ideology. These individuals, supported as they are by neo-conservative private foundations, are not engaged in innocent or value-neutral scholarship. They have ideological claims to stake out and they do so using heavy-handed hermeneutical strategies that ultimately prove tone deaf to the beauty, creativity, and multivocality of the biblical narrative.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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