Kenneth Seeskin is Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University. He is the author of several books, including Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides, winner of the Koret Jewish Book Award, and is the coeditor of The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Culture, and Religion, winner of the Jewish National Book Award.
At the age of 68, when most people adopt a relaxed and easygoing way of life, I have a chip on my shoulder. It is not that I myself have been cheated out of something. Rather, I cannot help but think that the religion I practice has been misunderstood—not just by those outside it but by those inside as well.
The basis of the misunderstanding is that Judaism is believed to be more concerned with what a person does (what foods she eats, clothes she wears, holidays she celebrates) than with what she thinks. No one but a fool would deny that Judaism is concerned with what a person does. But this does not mean that what a person thinks should be brushed aside.
The standard Christian criticism of Judaism is that it is a primitive religion that lacks a reflective component. Christianity, it is said, superseded Judaism because it saw that faith in God is more important than obedience to a list of commandments. It is this line of thought that still encourages people to refer to the Hebrew Bible as the “Old Testament,” suggesting that it is only the first half of an extended work that culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Unfortunately, Christians are not the only ones who look at Judaism this way. I remember an editor at a university press who once warned me never to put the word “philosophy” in a book intended for a Jewish audience because if I did, no one would buy it. Jews, it seems, are willing to learn about their history, literature, or sociology, but if you ask them to examine the worldview that underlies their religion, you are asking for trouble.
It is this attitude that I want to combat—not only because I believe that Judaism does present a worldview but because I also believe that its worldview is worth taking seriously. It is impossible for a book that talks about God, puts forth standards of right and wrong behavior, and holds out the promise of redemption not to raise important questions about the meaning of human life, love, sin, and regard for others.
Sometimes I imagine that if the Torah were to speak to us, it would say: “You cannot read me in the way you read any other book. It is not just that I am the product of a divine revelation but that my meaning is too rich for any one person or age to exhaust. If you want to understand me, you will have to see the art and architecture that I inspired, hear the music, study the religious and political movements, and reflect on the philosophy. If all you do is read the stories and study the laws in isolation, you will be selling me—and yourself—short.”
Let us not sell anyone short. Let us read the Torah with an open mind and think about the lessons it is trying to teach. Although it may leave some questions unanswered, in my view that is a good thing. Living a life is more complicated than baking a cake or assembling a TV stand—cases where all you have to do is follow a few simple steps and then pat yourself on the back when it’s done. It is this fact that allows art, literature, and philosophy to raise questions and explore a range of possible answers. The importance of these questions is what allows a document composed in the ancient world to continue to speak with authority in this one.