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 Questioning: Philosophy Begins in Anguish

For me, the most important and provocative peg in Yoram Hazony’s argument about the Bible as philosophy in his The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture is that, rather than obedience and submission, the Hebrew Bible promotes independent inquiry and investigation in the search for meaning. The decisive way toward truth is through a quest and not by revelation. In Hazony’s version of the prophet Jeremiah’s popular remonstrations, “the difficulty lies not in the impossibility of the task, but in the resistance of the people to the very activity of independent inquiry, which alone can save them.” Certainly, a bold and somewhat counter-intuitive claim to make about the quintessential revelatory text imposing divinely sanctioned law on one particular people. However, in support of that contention I wish to focus on a number of biblical moments whose fulcrum is a question, the essential catalyst of any quest and of all philosophical discourse. These “philosophical” moments transpire from the very inception of human history, according to the Bible's own reconstructed version of it, and recur throughout various biblical narratives, disclosing the Bible's true philosophical character. As such they may indicate where the bible locates the beginning of thought and how one proceeds in the search for truth and the good life.

Though the first divine communication to human beings is a command, the second is the curious one word question in Hebrew Where are you, stimulating other questions and responses to and from both man and woman, seeking to situate the human in the world ethically, spiritually, and teleologically. In this case I will argue that the primal sin was not eating of the forbidden fruit, but rather avoiding engaging in the philosophical discourse necessary to address a lament about the human condition. Human history begins its decline, not with disobedience, but with the failure to pursue the question or, in other words, with the failure to philosophize-a retreat from an essential facet of what constitutes humanity. A subsequent divine human encounter, with the second generation of humankind, is also initiated by a question, Why are you distressed?, this time addressing the human condition in response to rejection and failure. Once again the question evokes the human situations of despair, frustration, and anger in response to rejection and failure. However, here there is no philosophical engagement whatsoever with the question except to respond with the brute violence of murder. In other words not only is there the avoidance of any reflective expression of the human as with Adam, but there is simply the instinctual aggression that has reduced man to the level of the animal. The next question, on the heels of the primal murder, which is also a fratricide, extends the query of the very first addressed to Adam from “where are you” to where is your brother. Having initially failed to elicit any substantive reflection concerning the self, the question now moves to the other essential component of human existence- the other. Again, God demands that man reflect on what it is to be human, only this time hinting at its philosophical articulation. Yet here, in the rhetorical rebuff pleading both a cognitive ignorance and an ethical solipsism of I do not know; Am I my brother’s keeper?(4:9), there is no evasion of the question, only a rejection of its premise.

In the prophetic narratives, such divine interrogatives as “Why are you here, Elijah,?” at Mt. Horeb, or the repetitive “call” to Samuel evoking a misdirected, reiterative “Here I am” can also be read as philosophically oriented exchanges bearing on questions of ontology. Other divine, philosophically nuanced, encounters are prompted by existential need, such as Rebekkah's quintessential philosophical query, “If so, why do I exist,?”, Moses' “Who am I?”, or the metaphysical inquiry that seeks God's “name”, “glory”, or “ways”. God's rhetorical admonishment of Job, asking “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” attenuates the philosophical resonance of the primordial “Where are you?” conditioning any response on the possession of “understanding”, or reason. Samson questions the meaning of death at one instant and desires it in another. Likewise, Jonah considers death and echoes the existential question of why not suicide in the face of what is experienced by him as absurd
Such biblical questions, dialogues, and challenges may constitute a kind of philosophical discourse akin to other ancient philosophical genres such as dialogues, letters, and meditations. Biblical narrative and language viewed this way constitute a “way of life” similar to the way Pierre Hadot conceived of ancient philosophy in radical opposition to the traditional notion of received ideas on virtue and the good life. If only fragmentary and not full blown discourse, at the very least there is connective thread of suffering throughout all this questioning. It thus presents the Hebraic challenge to commonly held notions of what stimulates philosophical investigation. Rather than “wonder”, biblical philosophy begins in pain, despair, anxiety, and frustration. The primal divine query was prompted by disappointment, fracture, disobedience, and alienation. The second was provoked by unrequited obedience, rejection, and failure, while the third addresses the total collapse of ethics. Subsequently, human questioning is conceived in agony and suffering so extreme as to bring into question the purpose of being altogether.