- Revelation and the God of Israel
As one might expect when reading the title of this book, it is about revelation, the sort of revelation that emerges, and can be made intellectually respectable according to Samuelson, in the Hebrew Bible. The first part of the book looks at some of the major Jewish commentators on this issue, ranging from Halevi and Maimonides to Buber and Rosenzweig, and establishes a notion of revelation that can stand up to the assaults of modern philosophers of religion, on the one hand, and scientists, on the other. In the second half he looks at some of the claims by modern philosophers of religion on revelation, and argues plausibly that there is no reason why traditional Jewish understandings of revelation should feel threatened by those claims.
Samuelson has a brisk and attractive style, moving from topic to topic rapidly and dealing with issues that arise in a clear and confident manner. There are problems with this methodology, however. For one thing Samuelson tends to posit throughout the book a clash between liberalism and orthodoxy with respect to interpretation, and he clearly sees himself as allied with the former. Unfortunately, this leads the arguments of those with whom he disapproves to be presented in a rather crude way, while those whom he supports are allowed to present a nuanced view. Another disturbing feature is that Samuelson thinks that the views of earlier thinkers like Maimonides are irretrievably linked with their views on science. We are told that the views of Buber and Rosenzweig have the advantage over Maimonides’ views because their claims do not rest on obsolete science (p. 94), and clearly Samuelson thinks that science has a key role to play in whatever notion of revelation emerges as plausible. He is certainly correct in thinking that Maimonides was very influenced by Aristotelian science in his theology, but it does not follow that the basis of the theology lies in the science. On the contrary, many contemporary commentators are highly impressed with the theology and philosophy, and yet reject the science (indeed, Samuelson seems to be in their company!). It used to be argued that Kant was not really worth bothering with since he was so enamored of Newtonian physics, but we now tend to argue that the interest and validity of what Kant had to argue is independent of any particular scientific views that he may have had. Surely this is the correct attitude; while science may be important for a philosopher, only a poor philosopher would allow his understanding of science to determine his philosophy tout court. The scientific ideas of some of the world’s greatest thinkers do not bear examination, but their philosophical ideas do, and that is why we still pay attention to them.
Samuelson claims intriguingly that orthodox Jews do not accept all rabbinically accepted interpretations of the meaning of the Torah (p. 98). This is because some of those interpretations are morally wrong. Yet his arguments for this position are insubstantial. He points out that the rules of the Sabbatical year and and the Jubilee are often legally circumvented in order to make ordinary life possible, and that the restrictions on [End Page 153] capital punishment actually being applied mean in effect that its objectionable nature was recognized by the rabbis, even though it is divinely sanctioned. Yet it is surely not true that the rabbis thought that God had told us to act immorally, and so they had to moderate the effect of this command. There are of course many and varied arguments about how to apply the law in particular cases, and there may be good reasons to employ a strategy of leniency in such cases, but it is not because there is anything wrong with what God has told us to do. It is presumably because the determination of the law is not in heaven, and so it is up to us to decide how to interpret what we are told to do. The examination of Jewish law will reveal that the answer to...