James Diamond

James A. Diamond holds the Joseph & Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo. He earned  an LLB from Osgoode Hall Law School; an LLM in International Legal Studies at New York University School of Law and, while practicing civil litigation,  an MA and PhD in Medieval Jewish Thought  from University of Toronto.  He was the international director of the Friedberg Genizah Project. His books, Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment, and Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider, garnered Canadian Jewish book awards; the latter  a Jordan Schnitzer Notable Selection.  He has published widely  on Jewish thought from the Bible to Maimonides to R. Kook. He has been appointed as a Fellow of the Tikvah Center for jewish Law and Civilization at NYU School of Law for the academic year 2012/2013.

Biblical Knowing Toward Death: The Silent Sound of Dying for Others

How is the biblical view of the prophetic acquisition of knowledge informed by the prospect of death or impending death? For Socrates of the Phaedo, the philosophical endeavour itself is melete thanatou, or a rehearsal for death, and the authentic philosopher is continuously engaged in the pursuit of death and dying. Socrates embraced death when it was imminent, as the culmination of his philosophical life, or what he considered, a ceaseless occupation with the “practice of dying”. While a rare biblical occurrence, a number of central characters such as Jonah, Elijah, Samson, and Saul desired death, with the latter two actually consummating that desire. Is their yearning for death devoid of philosophical meaning, simply attributable to distress, revenge, or emotional frustration, as the case may be, or, as with Socrates, does it relate to some attainment of wisdom or self-realization? Is Moses' death at the conclusion of Deuteronomy simply accountable as punishment? Or is there something more philosophically sublime conveyed by a death at divine command or by “the kiss of God”, which is depicted as an unnatural intrusion into an otherwise physically robust life whose “eyes were undimmed and vigour unabated” (Deut. 34:7)?

Moses’ final departure narratively points in the direction of an inextricable link between knowledge and death both by its strategic location as the denouement of the Pentateuch and its being embedded in a literary enclosure of some kind of enlightenment on one side and wisdom on the other. Prior to the report of his death Moses views all of Israel from a summit, but it is a vision which God shows him (34:1)ויראהו and allows him to see (34:3) הראיתיך- implying less a spatial/geographical and more of an ideational “seeing”- one enabled by the very source of all being. Immediately after his recorded death, Moses’ legacy of a “spirit of wisdom (חכמה רוח)" is carried on by his disciple and successor, Joshua (34:8). On a macro-biblical level the entire Pentateuch can be thought of as bracketed by some integral link between knowledge and death. Human history at the beginning of Genesis commences with the acquisition of some forbidden form of knowledge whose immediate sanction, ejection from the utopian garden, is motivated by the fear of man's ability to conquer death (Gen. 3:22). On the other end Deuteronomy climaxes with the very apex of human knowledge associated with that achieved at Moses' death of the “face to face” (פנים אל פנים). Clues to its content are provided by the analogy of the “face to face” elsewhere to “one human being speaking to his friend” (Exod. 33:1) and the (פה אל פה) “mouth to mouth” dialogical clarity distinguishing Mosaic prophecy from all others (Num. 12:8). What they indicate is a knowledge imbued by the ethics of friendship, and the I-Thou dialogue of immediacy, unobstructed by the inauthenticity that so often riddles encounters and creates relational imbalance. Miriam who fails to appreciate the uniqueness of the face to face is herself afflicted by a form of death (Num. 12:12), an experience that might impress on her that ethical noesis. Moses’ knowledge of God then is an ethical archetype rather than a supreme model of metaphysical knowledge. The implication of the literary interplay between death and knowledge then is not to value death as an epistemologically accomplished life where the soul or intellect reaches its ideal disembodied state, but rather that knowledge as ethics is a process of being toward death- toward that which all of humanity faces in common and which equalizes rather than empowers. This paper will argue that all those characters mentioned who desire death intersect along this epistemic thread. The suicides of Samson and Saul, respectively destroy or pre-empt a philosophical/political system that promotes dehumanization of others; Jonah’s opting for death teaches compassion for the other; Elijah’s preference for death inspires a new philosophical theology that is driven, not by the assertion of power as signified by the brute force of various destructive natural phenomena. His previous spectacular demonstration at Mt. Carmel failed to convince others as to the truth of his belief. Epistemological clarity emanates only from the still small voice , (דקה דממה קול) or “sound of silence” that I will argue is the basis of a moral epistemology.

Moses’ own epistemological journey toward death is marked by noetic peaks and valleys, the latter which, in their distinct contrasts to the “face to face” summit described, sharpen our appreciation for what I argue is its content. As such, the second half of my paper will present a close reading of Moses’ responses to the deaths of Aaron’s sons in chapter 10 of Leviticus, an exquisite weave of narrative and law focusing on death which, I will demonstrate, probes both the limits of human knowledge and what it means to speak “in the name of God” that legitimates prophetic declarations. Rabbinic astonishment at Moses’ initial response to the unfathomable deaths of his nephews, and attempts to locate the source of his “prophetic” pronouncement, and Aaron’s “silent” reaction, which I will show, is anything but the acquiescence traditionally ascribed to it, piques suspicion about the truth claims Moses has made and their prophetic rootedness. That confrontation then evolves into a “halakhic” dispute between Moses and Aaron regarding the correct normative responses to death in mourning. The normative debate stimulates Moses to acknowledge a betrayal of his prophetic calling, ultimately leading to a role reversal where Moses himself is silenced into a philosophical reassessment of his original truth claim profoundly lacking in its moral dimension. As Rashi astutely comments on the passage’s ultimate resolution, Moses’ submission to Aaron’s normative stance amounts to a candid admission of ignorance on the issue at hand. Death stimulates a prophetic transition from an arrogantly professed conviction to an ethically charged humility that places Moses back on track to the “face to face” and echoes Elijah’s philosophical sounds of silence.