Kenneth Seeskin

Kenneth Seeskin is the Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization. After receiving his PhD from Yale in 1972, he joined the faculty of Northwestern and has remained here ever since. He served for nearly 20 years as Chair of the Philosophy Department and with the start of the 2010-11 academic year, will serve as Chair of Religious Studies. He has won several teaching awards since coming to Northwestern and served as the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence from 1995-1998.

Seeskin is best known for his interpretation and defense of the rationalist tradition in Jewish Philosophy, including such figures as Maimonides, Spinoza, and Cohen. His most recent books include the Cambridge Companion to Maimonides (CUP, 2005), Maimonides on the Origin of the World (CUP, 2005), Autonomy in Jewish Philosophy (CUP, 2001), and Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides (OUP, 2000). The latter was awarded the Koret Jewish Book Award in 2001. The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture, co-edited with Judith Baskin, is scheduled to appear in 2010.

His published articles dealing with religious themes are wide-ranging including studies on the Book of Job, the meaning of the Holocaust, negative theology, the concept of holiness, and recent studies on the role of reason in Jewish philosophy, the role of miracles in Jewish philosophy, and the Greek background to Jewish Philosophy. He is currently working on a book on messianism that will take up issues pertaining to evil, rationality, and the philosophy of history.

Genesis 2:18: “It is Not Good For Man To Be Alone”

This paper will be an extended comment on James A. Diamond’s article “Love’s Human Bondage: A Biblical Warning,” which appeared in the Spring, 5771/2011 issue of Azure. The thesis of the article is: “In matters of love . . . the biblical dramatis personae have a decidedly poor track record.” There is no question he is right. Open up to almost any page, and you will find discord, deceit, favoritism, uncontrolled lust, or simple neglect. As Diamond concludes: “For only by making God the ultimate object of our desire . . . can we ensure that love will serve as the positive, life-affirming force it was meant to be.”

Diamond’s conclusion finds support in the Guide of the Perplexed. According to 3.51, prophets are defined as people who turn wholly to God and reject everything other than God. Thus the patriarchs and Moses become so preoccupied with God that they begrudged the time they spent with other people or with the daily routine of eating, sleeping, washing, etc. In Maimonides’ view, they served other people in a perfunctory manner “with their limbs only” because inwardly, their heart was turned to God.

It also finds support in the Symposium, where eros is identified as the preeminent force motivating behavior. While it may begin with a powerful attraction to another person, Diotima is clear that even if one is united with that person, the gratification one gets will ultimately prove unsatisfying because eros seeks to possess the good itself not just an instance of it.

Despite this support, I want to call attention to a powerful thrust in the opposite direction, namely Genesis 2:18: “It is not good for man to be alone.” The importance of this claim can best be grasped from its context. At the beginning of the story, Adam is blessed with immortality and an unmediated relationship with God. According to Maimonides (Guide 1. 2), he was also blessed with perfect metaphysical knowledge.

On my reading, it is as if God is telling us that an unmediated relation with Godis not enough: Adam needs a partner. Although the fact that his partner is taken from one of his ribs is sometimes taken to imply subordination, I take it to imply affinity. Pace Levinas, the woman is not a mysterious “other” but in every sense an equal (“Bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh”), who will help Adam with his work. But their relationship is more than economic. The Bible goes on to say that Adam will cling to his wife and they will become one flesh. I take “one flesh” as a euphemism for sexual contact. Even in paradise, where metaphysical knowledge is available in abundance, there is a need to cling to someone else.

I take this to mean that the idea of loving God with such force that one serves other people with his limbs only is suspect. While it is true that love stories in the Bible rarely, if ever, have happy endings, the moral is not that there is something inherently wrong with the attachment of one human being to another but that the examples that the Bible offers of such attachment are flawed.