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  • Hermeneutics and Human Values:Themes in the Thought of Moshe Halbertal1
  • George Barnard (bio)

For many Jews today, and, I would venture to say, for most of the readers of this journal, a major ongoing religious task is the effort to be at the same time both loyal to Jewish religious tradition and also participants in the modern intellectual, cultural, and social world. There are many writers and thinkers who can help us with that task, and one of them is Moshe Halbertal, Professor of Jewish Thought and Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and Professor at New York University Law School. Despite his being the author or editor of eight books and many articles, and despite his participation in various public symposia and other bodies in Israel and the United States, Professor Halbertal's thought is, I have found, little known outside of certain academic and organizational circles, and the aim of this essay is to bring his important work to the attention of a wider public.

Moshe Halbertal's books are:

  • Idolatry 2 (written together with Hebrew University philosopher Avishai Margalit). Halbertal and Margalit consider idolatry through several different lenses: idolatry as betrayal, idolatry as rebellion, idolatry as improper representation of God, idolatry as intellectual error, and idolatry as improper worship of God.

  • People of the Book.3 This book focuses on the way in which the formation of a literary canon and controversies over the canon have [End Page 67] affected Judaism. In particular, Halbertal writes here of the rise, persistence in the face of controversy, and decline of the classical rabbinic-Jewish canon centered on rabbinic literature, on the Bible as interpreted by the Rabbis, and on the ethos of talmud torah.

  • Mahapeikhot Parshaniyot B'hit-havutan: Arakhim K'shikulim Parshaniyim B'midr'shei Halakhah.4 In this work, a further development of his 1989 doctoral dissertation Arakhim B'farshanut, Halbertal advances the thesis that the tannaim, in the halakhic midrash, carried out a conscious interpretive revolution, changing the meaning of various laws of the Torah, and systematically increasing the respect in halakhah for individual rights and human dignity.

  • Bein Torah l'Ḥokhmah: Rabi Menaḥem HaMe'iri Uva'alei Hahalakhah Ha-maimuniyim B'provens.5 Here, Halbertal analyzes and discusses the contribution of the Provençal philosophical and halakhic circle around the Meiri, with particular reference to their philosophical interpretation of the tradition and their attitudes toward non-Jews.

  • Al Ha-emunah: 'Iyunim B'musag Ha-emunah V'tol'dotav B'm'soret Ha-yahadut (edited together with David Kurzweil and Avi Sagi).6 This book includes Halbertal's essay Al Ma'aminim Ve'emunah, a philosophical analysis of the concept of religious faith.

  • Al Derekh Ha-emet: Ha-rambam Viy'tziratah Shel Masoret.7 In this book, Halbertal analyzes Naḥmanides' "constitutive model"8 of the formation of tradition and also his esoteric mystical interpretations of the Torah. The work thus overlaps with People of the Book and Concealment and Revelation.

  • Concealment and Revelation: Esotericism in Jewish Thought and Its Philosophical Implications.9 Here, Halbertal describes the history of Jewish esotericism from rabbinic times through the Middle Ages, with special reference to the flourishing of philosophical and kabbalistic esotericism in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He points to several different types (internal, instrumental, and essential) of esotericism and discusses the intellectual and social significance of each type.

  • Judaism and the Challenges of Modern Life 10 (edited together with Donniel Hartman). This book includes Halbertal's articles "Monotheism and Violence" and "Human Rights and Membership Rights in the Jewish Tradition."

One pervasive characteristic of Halbertal's Jewish thought is his intensive use of philosophical concepts and methods. The thorough philosophical character of Halbertal's work may make it difficult reading for some, but it [End Page 68] also gives it depth and sophistication. Halbertal refers to a wide range of philosophers, but I would identify as especially important philosophical influences Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002),11 perhaps the pre-eminent representative of philosophical hermeneutics, and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951).12 Both of these philosophical influences move the center of interpretive authority to the interpretive community...


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