Old Series: Volume 5, Number 4 (December 1996)

General Editors:
Aryeh Cohen (University of Judaism)
Jacob Meskin (Princeton University and Rutgers University)
Michael Zank (Boston University)
Student Editor: Rebecca Stern (American Pardes Foundation)
Founding Editor: Peter Ochs (Drew University)

Contributing Editors:
Roger Badham, Drew University: Postcritical Christian Philosophy and
S. Daniel Breslauer, U. of Kansas: Book Reviews
Aryeh Cohen: General Editor and Talmud
Philip Culbertson, St. Johns U., Auckland: Christian Thought and Judaism
Robert Gibbs, University of Toronto: Continental and Modern Jewish
Susan Handelman, University of Maryland: Pedagogy
Steven Kepnes, Colgate University: Biblical Hermeneutics
Shaul Magid, Jewish Theological Seminary: Kabbalah
Jacob Meskin: General Editor and Postmodern Jewish Thought and Philosophy
Vanessa Ochs, CLAL: Ritual, Ceremony and Material Culture
Ola Sigurdson, U. of Lund, Sweden: Postcritical Christian Philosophy and
Martin Srajek, Illinois Wesleyan University: Modern Continental and
Jewish Philosophy
Michael Zank: General Editor and Book Reviews

Copyright notice: Individual authors whose words appear in this Network
retain all rights for hard copy redistribution or electronic
re-transmission of their words outside the Network. For words not
authored by individual contributors, rights are retained by the editor of
this Network.

TEXTUAL REASONING is sent free of charge to electronic mail addresses.
Back issues are archived on worldwideweb: access URL
Hardcopies cost $6/issue; $15 per volume (3-4 issues).

Send requests and payment to
Michael Zank, Dept. of Religion, Boston University, 745 Commonwealth Ave,
Boston, MA. 02215, Tel: (617) 353-4434, Fax: (617) 353-5441

Electronic mail to: mzank@bu.edu or disks (preferrably Apple/Macintosh,
Word) to Michael Zank, (address as above).

* * * * * * * *

This is the final issue of Textual Reasoning for 1996. In it we introduce
you to a recent restatement of the central doctrine of the Jewish
rationalist tradition, the doctrine of ethical monotheism. Lenn Goodman’s
book GOD OF ABRAHAM, erudite and elegantly written, is a philosophical
book and a work whose philosophical statements are formulated out of an
engaged reading of the classical Jewish sources. In this sense it is an
instance of ‘textual reasoning.’ Furthermore, with its emphasis on the
ongoing project of a mutual interpretation of the God of the Hebrew
prophets and the Platonic idea of the Good, Goodman’s GOD OF ABRAHAM
speaks to the central demand to future Jewish philosophy, as formulated
by Robert Gibbs, namely that of radicalization of Jewish ethics. These
comments may suffice as a justification for dedicating a whole issue of a
journal associated with Jewish postmodernism to a philosophical essay
that is decidedly modern.

We solicited a number of responses to the work that would represent a
variety of perspectives. We are delighted that Allan Arkush, David
Burrell, Menahem Kellner, and David Weininger responded to our invitation
by contributing substantive statements to this discussion. Originally, we
intended for Lenn Goodman to respond to all of his critics in this issue
as well. This project was cut short by the passing away of Lenn’s wife,
Madeleine, who died only a few months after having been diagnosed with a
tumor in her brain. This volume is dedicated to her memory.

Goodman’s work has also been reviewed elsewhere. What distinguishes this
group of reviews is, as we hope, a difference in style and intensity
compared to the run of the mill academic review. Goodman’s book was
chosen for review because it is a highly engaged and engaging argument
for the ethical implications of the idea of monotheism in the Jewish
tradition. The reviews, in no less of an engaged and engaging manner,
point to both strengths and weaknesses in Goodman’s position. This
collection, then, may serve as a model for what we regard as an
intelligent way of reviewing of a contemporary book. But, if it is really
successful, it may also serve as a point of departure for a more
far-reaching discussion on the position of our members on the modernist
paradigm of Judaism in light of postmodern criticism. Does Jewish
postmodernism imply that we have relinquished monotheism as an ethical
idea and, if so, what should take its place? Does Jewish postmodernism
make an argument more convincing to the philosophical sceptic for both
Judaism and morality? A strong modernist and ethical monotheistic
position such as Goodman’s can reinvigorate and clarify the project of
Jewish postmodernity and serve as a touchstone for its claims to

— The Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Network continued its series of
study-meetings at the American Academy of Religion in November in New
Orleans. Jacob Meskin summarized his essay “Critique and the Search for
Connection: On Levinas’ Talmudic Readings” (see *TR* vol. 5 no. 2) and
led a lively discussion on what Elliot Wolfson identified as a “Litvak”
approach discernible in Levinas’s reading of BT Menachot, 99b-100a.
Problems highlighted were that of the rabbinic construction of the
concept of continuity, as well as the proper time of dedicating oneself
to the study of Greek wisdom.

— The Association for Jewish Studies meeting in Boston was an
occasion to see a number of our members in action. We may want to
consider having some kind of informal meeting on those occasions, too,
which could serve also as an introduction of TEXTUAL REASONING to those
members of the AJS who are not yet familiar with it or have formed
unfounded opinions about our discussions and approaches. If anyone has a
creative idea about how to go about presenting ourselves more plausibly
to the broader audiences at the AJS and at the meetings of other learned
(or not so learned) societies (e.g., the Eastern and Western Divisions of
the APA), let us know. Any initiative that can help us to broaden our
base and widen intellectual horizons is welcome.

— For the AAR conference in 1997, we plan to have a study session
on Jewish mysticism. Pinhas Giller has volunteered to lead this session.
Please check the upcoming issues of TR for more information.

— A reminder of the upcoming conference:

The conference has the following proposed schedule.

12-2pm Registration and Lunch

2:30 Opening Addresses: Textual Theme for the Conference: Talmud Torah

3-5:30 First Session: TALMUD
Torah as feminine: feminization of rabbinic study
First Presenter: Daniel Boyarin
Group Break-Out Sessions
First Respondent: Robert Gibbs
Session Chair and Second Respondent: Susan Handelman

6-8pm Dinner with music and midrash

8-9:30pm Beginnings: A Panel on Emergent Methods in Text Study
Chair: Shaul Magid
Presenters: Charlotte Fonrobert
Maeera Schreiber
Miriam Peskowitz

9-10:30 am Second Session: BIBLE
Torah Revealed (diber, amar…)
First Presenter: Tikvah Frymer-Kensky
First Respondent: Virginia Burrus (patristics scholar)
Session Chair and Second Respondent: Aryeh Cohen

11-1:30pm Third Session: MIDRASH
Talmud torah as prayer?
First Presenter: Michael Fishbane
Group Break-Out Sessions
First Respondent: Steven Fraade
Session Chair and Second Respondent: Steven Kepnes
Plenary Discussion

3:30-5pm Fourth Session: TALMUD
Re-membering Torah: Chat’u yisroel (they forgot and they remembered)–??
First Presenter: David Weiss Halivni
First Respondent: Menachem Loberbaum
Session Chair and Second Respondent: Peter Ochs

Panel of Christian Theologian-Respondents
George Lindbeck, David Ford, Daniel Hardy




Introduction: Michael Zank

1. Allan Arkush
2. Goodman’s Response to Arkush
3. David B. Burrell, C.S.C.
4. Menachem Kellner
5. David Weininger

The following is a collective review of Lenn Evan Goodman, *God of
Abraham*, (Oxford, New York, etc.: Oxford University Press, 1995). More
accurately, perhaps, it is the beginning of a conversation on what may
safely be deemed one of the most interesting recent Jewish philosophical
books. This essay is composed of several readers’ reactions and a few
words by the author in return. Some of the participants have written more
formal reviews elswhere which will not be duplicated here. When we asked
the authors to respond to *God of Abraham* we did not solicit the formal
and polite kind of academic chat that usually goes under the heading of
review but rather asked for strong statements on Goodman’s formidable
defense of ethical monotheism.Still, for those who have not yet read the
book, some introductory information may be useful.

Versed in a number of areas, ranging from anthropology to analytical
philosophy, from classical philology to medieval and contemporary Jewish
thought, Goodman argues for the relevance of a core concept of Judaism
for the contemporary discourse on morality and ethics. God of Abraham is
an argument for the perennial validity of ethical monotheism. Although
the author argues with and from within the Jewish sources, his work is
anything but sectarian or parochial. It can be read by anyone interested
in the philosophical underpinnings of the idea of monotheism.

The scholarship is impeccable. It contains the fruit of twenty years of
study and research which has long established Goodman at the core of such
learned societies as the American Philosopical Association and the
International Academy of Jewish Philosophy. Here, however, Goodman’s
scholarship coalesces with a passion for the kind of ethical thought
which many perceive as the quintessence of Judaism.

The work is densely, sometimes almost aphoristically, written without,
however, being obscure. It is tightly argued and packed with insights
worth meditating, and may serve as a sophisticated exposition of Jewish
thought from the Bible to the present.

The book is divided in eight chapters, dealing, respectively, with (1)
The Logic of Monotheism, (2) The Existence of God, (3) Monotheism and
Ethics, (4) The Doable Good: The Individual and the Community, (5)
Ethical Monism and Ethical Pluralism, (6) Monotheism and Ritual, (7) The
Biblical Laws of Diet and Sex, and (8) Time, Creation, and the Mirror of

The first chapter develops the characteristics of biblical monotheism on
the background of considerations on myth, natural religion, magic, and
the development of Greek philosophy. The biblical source at the center of
the argument is Genesis 22. Goodman’s explanation of the famous story of
the Sacrifice of Isaak — or, as it is called in the Jewish tradition,
the Akeda, or Binding, of Isaak — is ingenious and demonstrates why one
should not assume with Kierkegaard that Abraham should be considered the
father of a religious faith that begins where moral reasoning comes to an
end. Goodman’s “God of Abraham” is liberated from the Christian
juxtaposition of “Gesetz und Evangelium.” (But see Weininger, below!)

The question of biblical cosmogony and its relation to morality also
receives its first consideration here, a topic more prominently dealt
with at the end of the book. The first chapter culminates in passages on
the psychological and critical functions of ethical monotheism, in a
critique of Christianity, and in a characterization of monotheistic

Chapter 2 addresses the classic arguments against theistic faith and the
problem of proofs for the existence of God. Here Goodman deals with
authors such as Hick, Alston, Berkeley, Hume, Schlick and Carnap,
Descartes, Kant, Ayer, Russell, Quine, Findlay, and Leibniz.

Following this critique of arguments against the assertion of God’s
existence, Chapter 3 asks for answers which the monotheistic idea of God
provides to the following questions:

1. “Can any mere existence have practical, moral relevance?” I.e., is
there a connection between facts and values? And “Is the idea of God no
more than a projection of our moral demands and spiritual longings?”

2. How do you get from a universal imperative to specific and concrete
commandments? Furthermore, if specific and particular imperatives are
imbued with divine sanction, how do you avoid fanaticism?

3. What is the relation between divinely imposed obligation and “the
autonomy crucial to moral agency?”

In Goodman’s view, the specific modulation Jewish monotheism provides for
ethics concerns the correlation between individual dignity and
responsibility for others (“equity and equality”), concretization of
obligations, and a particular interest in the “integration” of interests
which are otherwise at variance. (cf. pp. 100ff)

If Chapter 3 operates on the basis of some general assumptions and
problems concerning ethics, Chapter 4 begins to explore the major bodies
of Jewish literature more inductively asking for their inner coherence or
their underlying contribution to the ethical implications of monotheism.

Here Goodman deals successively with what he calls “three basic idioms”,
namely the “Mosaic, Prophetic, and Rabbinic.” (p. 116) The theme guiding
this review of the classical sources is the relation between individual
and community.

Goodman focuses his account of the moral implications of the Mosaic
constitution on the institution of the Sabbath, here — not surprisingly
— understood as the quintessence of social morality. Reminiscences of
the liberation from slavery and the institution of norms of equity and
justice go hand in hand in the Mosaic law. Goodmann determines the
“fundamental social commandment of the Mosaic corpus” in the commandment
to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” (p.122) Similarly unsurprising in
content but no less elegantly and wittily presented — including some
more contemporary elements such as the focus on the sexual imagery used
by the prophets — are the chapter on prophetic social criticism and on
the work of the rabbis.

If the author fails to aspire to originality in any of these three parts
of his presentation of the sources, he nevertheless manages to give a
sharp profile of what has been the consensus among liberal Jewish
scholars for the past onehundred years, deviations and disagreements in
the detail notwithstanding. The summary of this review, however, reveals
that the political agenda has shifted. Goodman argues namely for a
combination of economic liberalism and mutual solidarity for the sake of
providing the condition for each individual to pursue human perfection.
In Goodman’s words: “If we draw together and sum up the values we
encounter in the Mosaic, Prophetic, and Rabbinic norms about the
individual and the community, we find economic autonomy as the root and
fruit of freedom. (…E)conomic autonomy underwrites spiritual dignity
and intellectual independence (…). And it is the perfection of the
human subject that the Law pursues.” (p. 139f.) Goodman’s argument,
therefore, does not simply walk on well-trodden ground but it ends in a
set of rather apt descriptions of the categories by which halakha
establishes human dignity. So, for example, “strict legalism and
proceduralism” are seen as serving “not just the social order but (…)
individual rights, conceived in terms of positive human deserts of
well-being and of privacy.” (p. 140) Goodman, thus, successfully
exemplifies how a scholar of religion may describe the phenomenological
structure of a particular community truthfully out of observations on the
construction of moral values within specific literary, ritual, and social

Chapter 5 continues the survey of Jewish sources by discussing two
medieval views on ethics, one monistic (Maimonides), the other
pluralistic (Saadia). Goodman, as can be expected, argues for a
compromise between the two extreme positions.

Chapter 6 raises the issue of the relation between ritual and moral
obligations. Here Goodman deals with Marvin Fox’s critique of Saadia’s
concept of rational commandments and, again, with Maimonides. More
centrally, however, Goodman presents his own tentative “Philosophy of
Ritual” (pp. 193ff), ritual defined here as “a symbolic action that has
values among the objects of its intension and that expresses attitudes
toward those values through the modalities of its performance.” (p. 211)
The argument for the rationality of rituals arrives at this general
conclusion by way of an extended and often personal meditation on prayer,
symbolism, law, and the way in which meaning is constructed within a
society. All this ends in a defense of the rationality of all
commandments against Fox’s restrictive concept of rationality (p. 212).

In Chapter 7, the author brings his anthropological interests to bear on
the discussion of the biblical laws concerning diet and sexuality. These
laws which seem to constitute the most archaic part of the Torah are
interpreted in light of their intention to “frame an ethos.” (p. 215) The
book would not have been complete without such an exploration of the very
concrete ways in which ethos is established in Judaism by imposing
bondaries and separations onto human conduct by virtue of the imposition
of the categories of *tum’ah* (impurity) and *tahara* (purity). Goodman
emphasizes the fact that the way in which the Pentateuch declares things
as pure or impure is characterized by an “overlap” in levels of meaning
associated with this pair of categories. Namely, purity/impurity concerns
a continuum of aspects ranging from “homogeneous/adulterated” to
“hygienically clean/unclean” to “suitable/unsuitable food” to
“suitable/unsuitable conjugally” to “suitable/unsuitable for sacrificial
use” to “morally acceptable/unacceptable” to “spiritually elevated
(kadosh)/spiritually impure.” (cf. p. 216, abbreviated) Further topics
explored here are “Incest, Violation, and Personhood” (pp. 219ff) and
“Blood and Symbolic Violence” (pp. 223ff), general remarks on how the
Torah constructs religion (pp. 226ff), prohibited species (pp. 230ff),
and circumcision (pp. 233ff).

The final chapter turns to the problem of metaphysics, dealing with
aspects of contingency, design, and newness as elements of the assumption
of the createdness of the world. The aim is here to argue for the
plausibility of creation. Modern cosmology is reviewed here, too, yet the
fact that the Big-Bang theory is cited in support of their position by
creationists plays only a minor role in this intricate discussion.
Hypotheses about the origin of the universe are but one among other
arguments which are reviewed in order to show how one can arrive at the
conclusion that it is most reasonable to assume that the world is

Goodman utilizes the concept of time developed by Henri Bergson in order
to argue for the openness of the future from its determination by the
past. The concept of time Goodman favors corresponds to our intuitive
experience of the thickness and asymmetry of time. The duration of the
present is relative, depending on whose presence it is. It comes to an
end with the conclusion of the event it measures, namely at the moment
that the event slips into a past which is fullly determined.

With creation is associated the notion of creativity which characterizes
human beings in particular. A variety of arguments from scientific,
philosophical, and literary sources converge to enhance this notion. The
creativity of God seems to function here again as a regulative idea,
preventing our taking ourselves as divine. (“The Mirror of Narcissus” pp.

So far the content of the book. The very scope of issues dealt with by
Goodman is daunting and commands our attention. It should be clear from
the outset that the responses given below are only first attempts to
address a few of the theses described above. We had hoped to publish
these responses together with contrasting statements by Lenn himself.
However, this project was halted, at least temporarily, by the death of
Madeleine Goodman. This issue of *Textual Reasoning* is dedicated to her

(Note: Michael Zank’s above survey of the contents of *God of Abraham*
is adapted from “The God of Sinai, the God of Creation, and the God
of Abraham: Three Recent Books in Jewish Philosophy” in *Modern Judaism*
vol. 16 (1996), pp. 291-316)

I find the picture Lenn Goodman paints in God of Abraham as well as in
his other works to be in many respects a very appealing one: An inspiring
but unobtrusive God, no divine “browbeating”, no trace of any apocalyptic
eschatology, the restoration of a non-elitist teleology, the repudiation
of moral relativism without the renunciation of pluralism, an approach to
Jewish law that is fully compatible with untrammeled human autonomy and,
indeed, with liberal democracy.

I like to hear Goodman’s voice. In complete correspondence to the
teaching it transmits, it is both serene and sober. Goodman is gentle
but firm in his (never pedantic) disputes with others. And while he may
sometimes overwrite, he more often speaks with astonishing and deeply
moving eloquence.

Goodman shows the way to be both free and Jewish — not residually
Jewish, not merely essentially Jewish, but thoroughly Jewish, a link in
the chain of tradition. He makes this an attractive choice — but still
only a choice, not an obligation. For the Torah, for Goodman, is not
God-given but God-inspired. It provides a way to know God and to live
with God, but by no means the only way or even the way in which an
individual Jew has a duty to live.

What if one of us were to come to Goodman and say the following: I find
your natural theology irresistible. I recognize that you stop short of
affirming the certainty of God’s existence, but the case you make for it
is powerful enough for me. I think you’re right about human perfection,
too. I’m happy now to view the universe as you have portrayed it and to
strive to attain perfection by pursuing the path you have outlined — but
I don’t see any reason why I should have to do so within the context of a
Jewish community living in accordance with Jewish law. I can grope my
way toward perfection by myself, or rather, as nothing other than an

If I understand him correctly, Goodman’s response to such a visitor would
be to say that there is indeed no reason why he should have to take his
place in the Jewish world. But he shouldn’t delude himself into thinking
that by disencumbering himself of his Jewishness he will obtain a better
shot at perfection. He will do so, on the contrary, if he stays within
his tradition. As Goodman puts it on page 93 of God of Abraham: “what
presents itself to us as the word of God, for moral purposes, is not the
sheer epiphany of the Absolute, but the mediated ideal of humanity, as
specified morally and prescribed culturally in laws and traditions,
literary models and systems of practice. True, we need not, indeed we
cannot, accept or reject all that we receive en bloc, but we do receive
and respond to integrated and concatenated systems of norms, not isolated
precepts, which would have little meaning on their own. Part of the
integration of such norms is their historical, ethnic, communal
embeddedness, and part of their concatenation is their linkage to
religious ideals and a heritage of shared experience, thought, and
values, including ideas about the divine.” Why should one abandon one’s
inherited place in such a system when it has so many benefits attached to it?

This is, in the abstract, a powerful argument. And it only gains in
strength through Goodman’s analysis of the specifics of Jewish law and
his elucidation of their utility. This is not to say that what Goodman
has to say would necessarily suffice to regain the Jewish loyalty of our
hypothetical visitor, but it could almost certainly neutralize any
objections he might have to the preservation of Jewish tradition, at
least by people other than himself.

What I find difficult to imagine, though, is a community of such people
upholding and developing Jewish tradition while understanding it more or
less as Goodman does — as divine in inspiration but altogether human in
origin, and malleable enough to be adjusted to fit all of our moral
requirements. In most people’s minds, a commandment interpreted as
Goodman understands it will not be a commandment at all but merely an
advisable policy. And it is hard to imagine advisable policies winning
out in the long run against the Evil Inclination.

(Allan Arkush is Associate Professor of Judaic Studies at SUNY Binghamton)

Naturally, I am flattered at the warm response that Allan offers to the
picture I have painted in God of Abraham, and I’m glad that he sees it as a
picture. A philosopher, in my view can do no more. My “but” comes where
his does. He wants to know what reason I can offer to one who finds my
natural theology not only serene and sober but also irresistible, yet still
finds in it no reason to remain (let alone become) a Jew, living in the
Jewish community, committed to its norms and values, etc. He finds me
stating such a reason when I urge (on p. 93) the powerful efficacy of
Judaism as an integrated system of values and ideas that is discarded or
neglected only at one’s cost. That might secure tolerance or even support
for the Jewish project as a focus for others, but it will not secure
commitment, Arkush argues; it will not sustain the communal life of a
people. The existential sense of Jewish identity and the categorical rather
than prudential force of the mitzvot are missing, and the absence of the
former, Arkush suggests, accounts for the absence of the latter.

I think that much of what Arkush says is right. Yet I differ with him in
the end. Let me start by saying what I think my job is as a practitioner of
Jewish philosophy. The analysis of existential commitments is not part of
that job, as I see it. I take such commitments to be primary and primitive.
There is nothing that I can reduce them to, and I do not think that even if
I could analyze such commitments that kind of talk would do anything to
enhance such commitments in my readers. There are plenty of writers who can
massage and appeal to, titillate or offend such commitments, but I don’t
think that amounts to philosophy. I can develop reasons that I think would
help people to make sense of the Jewish commitments that they find in
themselves or others (parents, friends, their own children), but I don’t
know how to do an a priori deduction of Yiddishkeit, and I have lots of
reasons to believe that such a project would fail if attempted.

I hold what I have not yet publicly called a vaginal theory of Jewish
identity, if the subject must be broached. That is, it is our mothers who
make us Jews and who make us willing or unwilling to confine our libidinous
and procreative attentions (one of the great discoveries of the 20th
century, besides that of atomic energy, was that these are not necessarily
the same) to others of our own nation. Mothers do not, I have noted,
generally elaborate arguments in behalf of either aspect of their role in
this regard. That is, they make us Jewish without telling us why we should
be so, except perhaps with circularity, urging that if we do not, the future
of the Jewish people is in jeopardy. Nor do they justify the more
restrictive aspect of their role. The grounds they give for discouraging,
say, intermarriage, or interfaith dating, are similarly suppositious.

I do not take these facts, if and when they are facts, as evidence of
irrationality or primitivism, chauvinism or the like on the part of mothers.
I take them as evidence that questions of identity are existential questions
and as a result, not very successfully reduced to terms other than their
own. This does not bother me, any more than any other affirmation of an
identity or project bothers me until I know what the identity or project is
about. It is at that point, in my view, that Jewish philosophy, at least as
I practice it, gets into the act.

I cannot tell someone why to be Jewish, and I’m very dubious that others
will have much success either in answering that question. Once the matter
has been problematized and the issue has been raised as a question something
precious has already been lost. What I can try to do, and what I have tried
to do in several places is to address the question that arises first in my
own case, “How can I be Jewish?” and to answer it in ways that might prove
satisfying intellectually, morally and aesthetically — and even serene and
sober — to others.

That is, I am Jewish. The question is, what can I make of that? The answer
that I find is in terms of the intellectual adequacy and moral strength of
the Jewish tradition, articulated as a living and integrated way of life for
individuals and for a community in interaction with other individuals and
other communities. A dialectice of selectivity will be necessary, from
which emerges what I have called critical appropriation of what is viable an
survivable in the tradition. Our reason and our moral sense are vital in
that dialectic, but they are not infallible and should be laid open to learn
from the tradition. Of course, we can learn from any tradition. And we
have done. But the practical and conceptual benefits of coherence should
not be ignored. Not everything that we can understand can be fitted into
our lives — or should be.

Part of my intention, when I do Jewish philosophy is to leave the tradition
richer than I find it. The tradition and its history have already proved
themselves worthy of the effort, on my behalf and that of others.

Rival traditions have their problems, and I am not so ecumenical as to avoid
pointing them out, when it is not out of place to do so. But I would be
very far from saying that a sincere adherent of another faith could not find
the good life (or, for that matter, that all sincere adherents of Judaism
have found it). That would be silly. Judaism is a way to the good life,
and in many ways for many people the most adequate there is. I don’t think
more needs to be said for it than that. If I find the value of Judaism
(along with its intellectual and moral affinities to other traditions), I’ve
given a name and a reason to what it is that Jewish mothers, with a powerful
life-preserving emotion, are trying to defend. I’ve said something about
why it’s worth defending, and about how we can differentiate what it is in
it that is indeed worth defending, and what ought rightfully to be uprooted.

As Arkush clearly sees, addressing questions of this kind, about pluralism
and Judaism requires one who has any sense and is not simply a bigot or an
ethnic mystic to steer a course between relativism (which in Judaism amounts
to a death wish) and atavism. That is something I have tried to do in
passages like the one that Arkush cites. I don’t find any value in anything
simply because its Jewish. But I do find lots of value in Judaism and in
Jewish commitment, communal and personal, because of what Judaism has to say
and do; because of the mission of the Jewish people, which has been well
articulated (far more articulately and concretely worked out than any other
ethnic mission), lived for and died for, and shown itself to be worthy of
the sacrifices made in its behalf, both as a way of thinking and as a way of

I’ll close with a piece of Euclidean and a piece of post-modern advice for
other philosophers. From Euclid we learn not to try to analyze the
elemental. From the post-moderns, that what is elemental is a matter of
perspective. To which I would add only that a good philosopher, like a
good painter, needs a good sense of perspective, that is, needs to know
what to take as a primitive and what to seek to derive.

I have reviewed the book for Modern Theology, setting forth there my
immense appreciation of this extended inquiry in philosophical theology.
Philosophically, LEG shows how reason must operate in a living context,
and illustrates how that can work when the context is a faith-tradition.
Religiously, he argues persuasively for the witness of the Torah as a
living context for God’s rational creatures, showing them how to respond
wholeheartedly in the midst of life for the gracious gift of that life.
His scholarly grounding in Islamic classics is evident throughout, as
well as their influence on his understanding of reason in context,
however critical he may be of certain Islamic intellectual syntheses.
With regard to the other Abrahamic faith, Christianity, he avoids having
to display its intellectual integration of cognate issues, allowing
himself to be guided by Moses Maimonides, and so dispensing himself from
having to trace the Rambam’s further reaches into Aquinas. As one
familiar with the territory, and especially of the use to which Aquinas
put his Jewish and Islamic predecessors, I can detect only two gaffs in
presenting the Christian tradition, and neither of these affects the
thesis of the book: an oblique reference to God’s having “three distinct
natures”(35)–a term assiduously avoided in trinitarian doctrine, and a
few allusions to “original sin” which overlook the spectrum of views
among Christians on that matter as well as the functional analogues in
both Judaism (yetzer ra’) and Islam (jhiliyya). What profoundly unites
the Abrahamic faiths, however, serves as the very leitmotif of his
study: the free creation of the universe by one God, highlighting the
freedom of rational creatures to respond to that original gracious

So what misgivings I have concern not the truth of LEG’s thesis so much
as its viability. But since the truth it intends is a practical one,
they may be telling. Allow me to clarify my own context before
beginning. I am writing these reflections in the Monastir Stavroulakis
in Hania (Crete) after a brief but intense visit with friends in
Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the wake of the recent Israeli elections,
composing them on the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi, one of the great
“fulfillment” feasts, whose readings from Deuteronomy and from John 6
emphasize God’s nourishing those whom God loves as his own. Allow me to
begin with the more theological perspective, for it may also shed light
on the socio-political reading.

In the course of John 6, Jesus makes explicit reference to Israel’s
journey of faith in the desert, with God sustaining them with manna
(“bread from heaven”), before asserting that he is “the living bread that
came down from heaven”(Jo 6:51). Furthermore, by contrast with the manna
in the desert, “whoever eats of this bread will live forever,” and “the
bread that [he] will give for the life of the world is [his very]
flesh.” If the contrast with Exodus is stark–“they died, but the one
who eats this bread will live forever”(6:59); manna is merely bread
while this bread is Jesus’ own flesh (i.e., a living symbol of his death
and resurrection); and the manna was sent to Israel while the bread that
is Jesus offers life to the entire world–nonetheless the comparison is
intended to be as compelling. For as manna was food for Israel in the
desert, so Jesus’ flesh (his death and resurrection rendered present) is
food for everyone who follows him; and as Israel’s journey was one of
faith in a promise to God’s own people consequent upon a divine act of
liberation, so anyone’s life can become a journey of faith in a promise
open to all, consequent upon the death and resurrection of Jesus which
opens a path for everyone to think effectively of their life as a “return
to the Father” from whom all gifts come, beginning with creation.

What spans the contrast is the invitation to see one’s life as a journey
with God in faith, yet a difference in scope and in modality dominates
John 6. A word on the gospel of John might be apropos, because of its
touted “anti-semitism.” The ubiquitous reference to “the Jews,” notably
in John’s passion narrative, has in fact triggered Good Friday pogroms
throughout history. Yet scripture scholars, beginning with Augustine,
took this expression–ambiguous in its reference as between the entire
people or “the Judeans,” the reigning aristocracy–to refer to the
“leaders of the people,” the phrase authorized by the bishops of Canada
for liturgical reading of the passion narrative. The phrase cited here,
however, “for the life of the world,” is a deliberate Johannine contrast
between the revelation of God on Sinai to Jews and God’s revelation in
the Jew Jesus to all human beings. In a similar vein, John 12 frames
Caiphas’ cynical response to the problem which Jesus created for “the
Judeans” ruling at Rome’s leave (“it is better that one man die for the
sake of the nation”), editorializing: “he said this not of himself but
as high priest, so that all God’s people might be gathered into one.” So
the John who clearly asserted that “salvation comes from the Jews” now
emphasizes how that salvation enjoys a vastly enhanced scope. And this
is what returns us to LEG’s thesis concerning the Torah as providing a
living context for rational creatures to return all to the One from who
we have received all: to ask whether that need be the only way? And
while the Torah is clearly paradigmatic for LEG and his tradition, and
instructively so for anyone who has come to appreciate the riches of that
tradition, nevertheless other paradigms do exist for guiding one’s
response to the gift of creation–specifically those within the Abrahamic
family of faiths: Christianity and Islam.

I shall deliberately avoid explicit comparison with Islam here, for the
sake of brevity, but I shall contend that the promise of Jesus, sealed by
his death and resurrection, immeasurably increased the scope of the
original promise to Abraham, and that so universal a scope portends a
different mode of patterning the response of faith to the promise so
renewed. Indeed, reference in Genesis to offspring abundant as the stars
in a desert sky offered one more impulse to early Christians to read
Abraham as their father as well. The sense that a promise universal in
scope calls for a different mode of patterning one’s response was
presaged by the existential judgment of Jewish believers in Jesus when
they had to ask themselves whether pagans who had adopted “the Way”
should be circumcised or not. With that single decision, Jesus’ followers
became a successor faith to Israel, interpreting their Abrahamic
parentage no longer literally in generational terms but
metaphorically–or as the early church writers tended to put it,
“spiritually.” Yet parentage they would claim (as would Qur’an believers
as well), assuming the title of “new Israel,” so provocative to Jews
(especially with the interpretation given it in the Letter to the
Hebrews) yet utterly essential to Christians’ sense of the continuity of
the divine promise.

Why dispense with circumcision? One could retrospectively generate a
plethora of reasons, but one complex consideration may suffice to guide
our reflections: the new promise is rooted not in a people, one by
physical generation, but in a faith open to all peoples, so it must be
open to diverse tangible signs of incorporation. Potentially open to all
human beings, and so to all peoples or nations, Christian faith could not
allow its rootedness in one culture to hinder its taking root in others.
Here we may find the rationale for two infelicitous contrasts: the early
church’s predilection for spiritual versus material, as well as the
Enlightenment’s recourse to universal versus particular. Yet pace Hegel,
any tradition will exhibit the need for particular patterns, which is at
the heart of LEG’s thesis, but a faith open to all cultures must allow
for differences in those patterns. I am particularly beholden here to
Karl Rahner’s prescient 1979 lecture, variously reprinted and dubbed his
“worldchurch” thesis, in which he offered a fresh periodization of
Christian history, fixing 70 and 1970 as symbolic dates bracketing
nineteen centuries of western European Christianity, noting how the
initial decisive point, turning on circumcision and marking the “parting
of the ways” of the new faith from its parent faith, has been matched by
a contemporary one, wherein Christianity is now facing other major world
religions as dialogue partners. While the missionary movement of modern
times had no explicit rationale for respecting cultural differences, and
much attendant political motivation for disdaining them, those who had
discovered ways in practice of enculturating Christian faith found
themselves finding Christ as much or more than bringing him to the rich
cultures which they encountered. In anticipation of “reader-response”
criticism, the response of their listeners gave them a fresh outlook on
Jesus and of the gospel teaching.

So while LEG’s thesis challenges the false polarities of patristic and
Enlightenment Christian apologetics, the paradigmatic character of that
thesis, linked as it is to the Torah and its history of commentary, is
challenged by Jews who harkened to the voice of Jesus as fulfilling what
they had long heard. What supplants the Torah for these peoples? What
could? Nothing, of course, except the Word of God, since only God’s word
can possible abrogate other words of God. So the gospel replaces the
scriptures? Hardly, yet Jesus can fulfill them in such a way that
portions of them cease to be paradigmatic for his followers throughout a
world redolent of many nations. New patterns will be taken from Jesus’
own life and practice. Again John can be our guide: after washing his
disciples’ feet on the eve of his own death by crucifixion, Jesus tells
them: “You call me Lord and master, as indeed I am. But as I have
washed your feet, so you are to wash one another’s feet”(Jo 13). He will
also commission them in a unique way, by reminding them that they should
no longer regard themselves as his servants but his friends, and on the
strength of that bond they must “go out and bear fruit, fruit that will
last” (Jo 15:15). Who would dare tell a group consisting largely of
sturdy males to go out–not to do great deeds, but–to “bear fruit,”
unless it be the very one who made himself bread for us, thereby calling
us as well to become bread for others?

A second take on LEG’s thesis is stimulated by my recent visit to
Bethlehem and Jerusalem, in the wake of the recent Israeli elections.
For not only does he present the Torah as the paradigmatic context for
returning all to the One who graciously bestows all, but what is
presented is one paradigm for that community. As my friend Stanley
Hauwerwas, whose ethics is staunchly ecclesiocentric, is constantly
challenged: where is this church of which you speak?, so we may press
our friend Lenn Goodman: which Torah-community? This can hardly be a
fatal question for a Jew, of course, who must be adept at responding to
the plurality endemic to Judaism. But his thesis deserves a fresh look
in the light of the state of Israel and the new Jewish identity forged
there in the past half-century. One cannot help but contrast the
community which LEG delineates with respect to the Torah’s concern for
“the stranger” with attitudes towards “the other” which predominate in
Israel. One could easily respond by appealing to the ideal versus real
canard, of course, but I shall contend that there is something more
specific at stake. It seems to be inherently tied to the dream of a
“Jewish state,” whose outworking accentuates all the ambiguities in that
phrase, replete with its potential for conflicting interpretations.
Using LEG’s own discussion of the corrosive influence of a contextless
form of reason on the Torah and its hold on the community, and especially
its efficacity in forging a community (184-85), it would seem that fears
attendant upon a rational presentation of the Torah, exhibited by
Yesheyahu Leibowitz and others, are minor in comparison with the parallel
promise of a modern (Jewish) state! (And those who know Leibowitz’
writings and attitudes toward the pretensions of the state should be
quick to note that just such a context may have motivated his thought
quite decisively.)

Faced with the lure of a Jewish state, why not transmute Torah observance
into efforts to make that dream a reality? As a young diaspora Jew
casually remarked, contrasting his observance in England with his own and
others’ in Israel, “why go to synagogue in Israel?” (American Catholics
can note a similar attitude in Italians towards their faith: if it’s in
the blood stream, why bother to participate in Sunday mass? And there is
the fact often observed about United States Jewry: that concern for the
state of Israel can all too easily assume the focus of their
observance.) But what is that dream? In what does the vision of a
Jewish state consist? That vexed question was underscored by the recent
election as its results displayed the variety of answers to it. One way
to present my analysis is to recall that the conventional polarities in
Israeli society–secular versus religious–are not on all fours with
those in the disapora: assimilated versus observant. For “assimilate”
can carry the connotation it does in the diaspora only when it envisages
a foreign, that is, a non-Jewish culture. But when the context is a
Jewish state, the dream or the promise requires a consensus, however
overlapping or pluralistic, and the elections told my “secular” friends
that their dream was emphatically not the consensus. So much so that
they feel disenfranchised, divorced from their state, that is, the state
of their dreams. (A friend reminded me how apt is the image of divorce
here, as his recent trauma had forced him above all to give up the dream
of what their marriage together could have been.)

In this case, of course, the “others” who won the right to set the
agenda and to define the terms of public debate (by a firm Knesset
majority) were not goyim but other Jews, notably “religious” Jews with a
set of priorities for a Jewish state quite different from theirs.
Furthermore, the difference turns decisively on convictions which my
friends have long associated with their Jewish heritage, and which figure
prominently in LEG’s depiction of the Torah as a context for human life
as well–especially regarding “others,” which translates into
“peace-making.” The elections do not determine who has the more accurate
reading and appraisal of that heritage, of course, but the differences
which the elections display may lead thoughtful people to ask what
criteria might decide such a question. Indeed, to wonder whether a
“Jewish state” can be a coherent notion, or whether the particularity
celebrated by LEG will not inevitably translate politically into we
versus them? And where “them” has long been “the Arabs,” now “them” must
forcibly include Jews with conflicting visions for the (Jewish) state of

One is reminded here of Ren Girard’s thesis regarding the origins of
violence in societies: it can be traced paradigmatically to
contradictions latent in their founding (or obvious, as in case of the
United States’ Declaration of Independence and Constitution on
recognizing slaves as human beings), as these work themselves out in
subsequent generations. Those latent in the notion of a “Jewish state”
can be variously identified, but two curiously cognate temptations
emerge: the obvious one of turning the state into the vehicle which LEG
has sketched out for normative Judaism, or alternatively, the parallel
temptation that having a Jewish state makes such a vehicle redundant, so
that what normative Judaism demanded and supplied can now be replaced by
devotion to the state. The first fairly characterizes the nationalistic
“religious right,” while the latter portends a “secular” vision for
Israel. The presence of both visions clearly portends unending conflict
with “others” within or without, unless or until economic and political
realities demand a series of rapprochements with others–within and
without–to the point where a Jewish state is forced to become something
more inclusive. Whether this be by way of a confederation or a Middle
East common market, “they” must be included in “our” self-conception in
such a way that the very notion of a “Jewish state” is relativized. By
economic and political forces, I have suggested, since ideologies on the
subject can only clash. (What turns out to be ironic in this formula,
especially for those who regard political Islam as a retrograde pariah
ideology, is that similar hopes have been entertained for its

How are these reflections germane to LEG’s thesis? In one sense, they
are quite independent of it, since the issue of political Zionism does
not emerge in his picture of normative Judaism. Yet it has come, of
course, to dominate the Jewish ethos, and an impartial reader can hardly
read his winning descriptions of the context which the Torah can supply
for a humane community without being confronted with conflicting visions
in Israel, the erstwhile Jewish state. It would hardly be strange had my
friends, however “secular” they may have had to style themselves in the
peculiar polarities generated by the “religious” [dati] sector of Israeli
society, not assimilated a similar picture of their society, projecting
it “religiously,” one might say, onto their state, only to find that the
majority did not see it their way–or his. So the project of a Jewish
state has taken the intramural debates regarding normative Judaism and
cast them onto a political stage where lives are at stake. How can Lenn
Goodman’s thesis address this current impasse?

(David B. Burrell, C.S.C., is Hesburgh Professor of Philosophy and
Theology, at the University of Notre Dame)

Lenn Goodman’s god of abraham is a remarkable work. To my mind it will be
read for generations and will more and more come to be seen as a
modern-day guide for the perplexed. The book presents a vision of Judaism
with such a richness of insight that Jews of all stripes (not to mention
non-Jews) will be enriched by reading it. By showing the rationality
inherent in Abrahamic monotheism, Goodman succeeds at the task which
Hermann Cohen failed at in his religion of reason out of the sources of

There are two small points and one larger point in the book with which I
find myself in considerable disagreement. They do not really affect the
wider thesis of the book at all but I present them here as a small
contribution to the ongoing discussion which this book is bound to
stimulate among monotheists, philosophers, and anthropologists.

The two small points relate to an interpretation of Maimonides and to
Goodman’s reading of the Akedah. Goodman interprets Maimonides as holding
that all believers have a share in the world to come (p. 161). It can
easily be shown (as I and others have done) that for Maimonides only the
philosophically sophisticated enjoy a share in the world to come. This
follows from Maimonides’ adoption of the Aristotelian defintion of human
beings a rational animals. Only those born to human parents who actualize
their intellectual potential are truly human and it is only humans who
enter the world to come.

According to Goodman’s very attractive reading of the Akedah story,
Abraham passed his test by refusing to sacrifice his son Isaac. He thus
proved that he had successfully internalized the logic of monotheism,
which abhors human sacrifice. I personally would be very happy were this
reading correct. Unfortunately, it does considerable violence to the
biblical text. After the angel tells Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac, and
after Abraham acquiesces (one need not be a parent to imagine with what
relief), the angel continues: “And he said, Lay not your hand upon the
lad, nor do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing
that you did not withhold your son, your only son from me.” The test
clearly was to see whether or not Abraham would indeed sacrifice Isaac.
This is brought out in the sequel, where the angel promises many rewards
to Abraham, “because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your
son, your only son…” Abraham is rewarded for trying to sacrifice Isaac,
not for refusing to sacrifice him.

I myself have often thought, but rarely said (after all, I do want my
kids to get married!) that Abraham failed the test of the akedah because
of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. This proved that he had not truly
understood the nature of the God of Abraham (in this I surely agree with
Goodman). God learned that even the choicest of humans (as Halevi
characterized Abraham) was not sufficiently sophisticated to realize that
the last thing in the world that God would want was human sacrifice. Thus
Abraham was not given the Torah and many generations had to pass before
his descendents were sufficiently purified to receive it.

This discussion of the akedah brings me to my major point of disagreement
with Goodman. He opens the book (p. vii) with the claim that, contra
Pascal (and Halevi), “in Jewish tradition, the God of Abraham is the God
of the philosophers and scholars, and Pascal’s dichotomy between simple
faith and reasoned inquiry is a false one.” This claim is important to
Goodman, since he wants to insist that Abraham (and all true monotheists
after him) understood the true nature of God, as opposed to experiencing
it, or taking it as an object of naive faith. I think that his book would
stand with a much weaker (and historically more accurate) claim, to wit
that the idea of monotheism fully “unpacked” contains all that Goodman
finds in it, but that the Patriarchs, Moses, the Prophets, and certainly
the Tannaim and Amoraim did not themselves understand all, or even much
of what is actually inherent in the notion of ethical monotheism.

Thus, Abraham did not know the God of Abraham as well as Maimonides did,
and both Abraham and Maimonides together did not know the God of Abraham
as well as Lenn Evan Goodman does.

The point to which I am objecting appears to be central to what Goodman
is about his book and he returns to it often. Thus: “The idea of God,
then, that emerges from moral experience and from contemplation of nature
is that of a being of absolute Perfection. Preservation of this idea is
the raison d’etre of Israel’s ethnic continiuity” (p. 31). The very
language used here, “a being of absolute Perfection” (Goodman capitalizes
the “p”) is clearly foreign to biblical and rabbinic modes of expression
and only makes sense in the context of Greek philosophy. So, too, his
similar claim that “the mitzvot intend the Absolute” (p. 60). And again,
“Monotheism is the belief, well grounded in our grasp of nature, that the
divine is absolute and so not finite, nor contingent, or conditioned” (p.
78). Goodman wants to attribute such sentiments to Abraham, to Isaiah, to
Rabbi Akiba. These are, for him, “the perennial norms that give unity to
the Jewish project of defining what the God of Abraham expects of us” (p.
116). To my mind, he is simply reading Maimonides (and others) back into
earlier strata of Judaism.

On the other hand, Goodman is right, I think, and this is the main
message of his book, in claiming that “monotheism goes hand in hand with
critical theology, a theology that examines the ideas it employs, and so
continuously refines its concept of God, as the dynamic of the idea
itself requires” (p. 33). But this very claim should allow him to agree
with what I wrote above, that Abraham’s conception of God was less
sophisticated than that of Maimonides, and Maimonides’ conception of God
was less sophisticated than that of Lenn Evan Goodman. I should like to
note, by the way, that Maimonides himself would have no problem with the
last part of this statement. He could easily admit that Goodman’s
metaphysics grows out of a more correct physics than his own and is thus

Why do I object to this thesis of Goodman’s? It is, I think, simply
false. This is hardly the place to go into a detailed account of how I
think the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud approached theological
issues (I take it up in detail in a forthcoming book, must a jew believe
anything?) but Goodman seems to be imputing to them (and to the
Patriarchs and the Prophets before them) a much more self-consciusly
theological stance than the texts support. His very use of the term
“monotheism” (from the Greek, monos, “single” and theos, “god”) connotes
certain philosophical and theological conceptions about God which were
never explicitly expressed in pre-medieval Judaism. Rabbenu Bahya ibn
Paquda, and following him the Rambam, for example, were sure that to be a
believer in one God a person had to understand certain ideas concerning
the nature of that one-ness, ideas which derive clearly and directly from
a philosophical universe of discourse. I simply do not understand why
Lenn Goodman feels compelled to impute these ideas to Abraham, the
Prophets, and and the Rabbis.

There is a further reason why I am not happy with Lenn Goodman’s way of
presenting this issue. By reading Rambam back into the Rabbis as I take
him to be doing, he gives support to a vision of Judaism (one to which he
himself certainly does not subscribe) which makes possible theological
definitions of Orthodoxy and consequent witch hunts. The view of Judaism
which, it appears to me, Goodman inadvertently accepts makes possible
statements like the following (by Rabbi Dr J David Bleich): “One
widespread misconception concerning Judaism is the notion that Judaism is
a religion which is not rooted in dogma.” Dogma, for Bleich, is a
“fulcrum of Judaism” and “does not stand apart from the normative demands
of Judaism but is the sine qua non without which other values and
practices are bereft of meaning.” (These statements are drawn from J.
David Bleich, *With Perfect Faith: The Foundations of Jewish Belief* [New
York: Ktav, 1983], pp. 1-2.) Bleich’s discussion rests upon the
unarticulated assumption that the medieval Jewish philosophers (whom he
cites) express views held by the Tannaim and Amoraim (whom he does not
cite). Other Jews (not David Bleich!) use this (incorrect) assessment of
the nature of rabbinic thought to justify the establishment of
theological criteria of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, something the Tannaim
and the Amoraim never did (but which Maimonides certainly did do).

The presentation of my discomfort here with Lenn Goodman’s
“theologification” of Patriarchal, Prophetic, and Rabbinic Judaism also
explains why I cannot accept his reading of the akedah or his claims
about Maimonides’ willingness to accept non-philosophers into heaven (as
if it were up to Maimonides!). Goodman’s reading of the akedah imputes to
Father Abraham a much more fully developed conception of ethical
monotheism than we have any reason to suspect he actually held (or was
held by the author of Genesis). His claims about Maimonides and places in
the world to come for non-philosophers seek to sand off the rougher edges
of Rambam’s radical aristotelian reading of Judaism and allow him back
into the mainstream of ethical monotheism that Lenn Goodman sees as the
leitmotif of Judaism from its very inception.

Goodman, as I understand him, wants to show the rationality inherent in
Abrahamic monotheism. I certainly agree with him about that (after all we
both agree that Judaism was revealed by God and we both worship a God who
does nothing arbitrarily, who is absolutely perfect and intends only good
for creation). Where we part company is his further claim that this
inherent rationality was explicitly understood by Abraham, Isaiah and
Akiba. I do not think that he has to make that claim, I do not think that
it is true, and I think that it lends itself to misuse.

The funny thing about all this is that by outward criteria I am probably
“frummer” than my cherished friend Lenn Goodman, while in this review I
have expressed opinions that would probably be found “less frum” than
those of Lenn Goodman’s by many Orthodox Jews today. (That they would be
wrong counts for very little, of course, in today’s Jewish world.)

(Menachem Kellner is Dean of Students and Wolfson Chair of Jewish Thought
at the University of Haifa, Israel)

Lenn Goodman’s project in *God of Abraham* is vast; to say that it seeks
to detail the theological foundations for a Jewish ethical monotheism
doesn’t really give one an idea of the richness and density of his book.
As is fitting to his topic, LEG finds himself in dialogue and in conflict
at every stage with the philosophical and religious tradition from which
his project originates. In fact, his disagreements with his predecessors
in philosophical theology are among the most illuminating points of his
work. Among these, one of the most revealing is his “debate” with S.
Kierkegaard over the reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22.

Since LEG’s reading is framed as a response, we should remind ourselves
of SK’s famous interpretation of the binding of Isaac. In *Fear and
Trembling* SK sees Abraham’s decision as nothing less than an affront to
the ethical mind. The patriarchal figure emerges as one who stands
outside of traditional–i.e. Kantian–morality, regarded as the element
of *universalization* inherent in moral law. The key to his act is that
Abraham asserts the *particularity* of his act over against the
generalization of ethical duty. This privileging of the individual SK
infamously names *faith*: “Faith is precisely this paradox that the
single individual is higher than the universal….” (55) Hence,
“[Abraham] acts by virtue of the absurd,” because his act seems to so
directly flout moral law. (56)

Thus, SK represents the whole story as a *temptation*, inasmuch as “the
temptation is the ethical itself, which would hold [Abraham] back from
doing God’s will.” (60) This is one of the clearest expressions of the
nexus formed by ethics/faith/God: Abraham serves God by asserting a faith
that *of necessity* carries an antinomial relationship to the ethical.
We should note that the similarities between the two interpreters are
conspicuous, given the disparity of their respective conclusions. Both
LEG and SK are monotheists, and both wish to preserve the absolute
character of divinity. And both see in Genesis 22 a potentially
tremendous propraedeutic value–that is, they see its educational (in the
sense of the German word *Bildung*) potential as overriding the question
of its status as historical event. Finally, both are concerned with the
implications of the story–and especially with the figure of Abraham–for
ethics and its relationship to religion.

However a close look at *God of Abraham* discloses the depth of the
divergence between the two. To start with, LEG sees the event as a
trial, but not a temptation to Abraham: “For some tests are
demonstrations: they discover not new knowledge for the deviser of the
trial but new understanding *to* observers and recipients of its report.”
(21) This trial is intended for Abraham to discover via his own
experience the limits of his devotion. This assumption is crucial for
LEG’s argument: only by supposing that it was *solely* as a demonstration
for humanity’s own benefit–through Abraham–that God knew its outcome
from the start can LEG hew to his conclusion that God who tolerates
neither violence nor evil of any form. Hence the propraedeutic: “The
reward of Abraham’s steadfastness and trust in God’s justice is the
public discovery of an Absolute that brooks no evil.” (22)

Secondly, the fact that God entreated Abraham to sacrifice Isaac while an
angel’s words sufficed to halt the act is a key hermeneutic element for
LEG. As he quotes Mendel of Kosov, “None but God can order us to take a
life, but an angel suffices to demand that we save one–even if it
contravenes divine command.” (22) The decision to bind Isaac was made
after careful, deliberate reflection, but the determination to spare his
life was made in the instant. God’s command defied conventional
reasoning, hence the edict must issue from the divine. Abraham’s
decision was made in the full knowledge of God’s overriding love and
goodness; hence it was *Abraham’s* decision. So *only* an angel’s
interdiction was required for him to make the choice to spare Isaac. So,
when revelation told Abraham two contradictory things, he acted alone but
in conformity with what he knew to be God’s inherent goodness. In this
way we understand LEG’s claim that Abraham’s act was not one of “blind
obedience,” but of “moral insight,” (22) for it is made on his own with
divine *aid* rather than on divine *edict*: “Abraham’s trial tested his
conviction…by refining, strengthening, giving substance to his nascent
conviction of God’s goodness.” (23)

Note that this is one of the strange points where LEG and SK seem to
coincide and diverge: they seem to agree that Abraham’s determination
takes place in the moment of ‘existential decision’; however, where SK
sees that decision an assertion of irrational faith over an ethics of
blind obedience, LEG sees the emergence of a faith strengthened and
substantiated by knowledge of God’s goodness. LEG admits that “Modern
readers may come to the biblical account…from [SK’s] famous meditation
on the subject.” (24) Perhaps unconsciously, LEG makes a very important
statement about SK’s version of the story: it is a reading that is
characteristic of modernity; in this sense he is right that SK reads his
own Protestant sense of faith onto the biblical narrative, as well as a
very Kantian version of ethics. SK did seek to free the Genesis story
from its context so as to preserve what he saw as its existential value;
*Fear and Trembling* is written precisely as a response to modern notions
of ethical life, not as an exercise in biblical hermeneutics. This
brings us to one reason for preferring LEG’s reading: his is a far more
nuanced interpretation which sets itself out specifically as one
component of a larger project with which it is consistent. One cannot
see, however, how SK’s interpretation could fit in with a reading of the
Bible as a whole. To read the Bible as a grounding of ethics is a very
plausible, if very daunting, task; to read it *against* ethics seems
rather incredulous. However, this should not detract from the force of
SK’s version of the story. As stated earlier, it is marked by its
response to a prevalent early modern view of ethics, and signalled a
clear departure from it. And that is one more characteristic which the
two authors share, for it seems that LEG’s project is a response to the
need he sees today for a grounding of ethical monotheism, analogous to
SK’s argument for a conception of faith that would rescue the individual
from its submission to universality. So, if we start by asking who has
the “correct” interpretation of the Genesis story, we might do well to
conclude by questioning whether we *need* one. It might be beneficial to
see both interpretations as products of various stages of modernity, and
as components in the very different overall products of two radically
different thinkers.

(NB: Page references to Goodman are to *God of Abraham*, New York: Oxford
University Press, 1996. References to Kierkegaard are to *Fear and
Trembling*, trans. H. & E. Hong, Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1983. In the discussion of Kierkegaard I was aided by James Collins,
*The Mind of Kierkegaard*, Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1983.)

(David Weininger is a Ph.D. Student at the Department of Religion at
Boston University)

VOLUME 5 (1996), NUMBER 4