Philosophy, Theology, and Hermeneutics


                                                                         By Israel Drazin


Most people listen to a sermon and think, “This is Torah,” and never ask if what they hear is philosophy, theology, or hermeneutics. There is a big difference.


Philosophy is the search for the truth. Ideas are developed from what is sensed by the five senses, proven scientific findings, or logic. A Jewish philosopher first tries to find the truth and then see if the finding is reflected in the Torah. This was Maimonides’ method. He was impressed by Aristotle’s logic and based his thinking upon the logic. Then he showed that the Aristotelian teaching is in the Torah. For example, Aristotle’s basic idea is that what distinguishes humans from animals and inanimate objects is intelligence. He stressed that if people want to be human, they must develop their intelligence, and the best way to do so is through the study of science. After understanding and accepting this basic idea, Maimonides found it reflected in the biblical concept that humans are created in God’s image.[1] Another example is whether God needs sacrifices. Starting from logic, Maimonides reasoned that God is perfect, has all that is needed, and gains nothing from sacrifices. Therefore he taught that God neither needs nor wants sacrifices, but allowed them as a concession to the Israelites who saw other nations offering sacrifices and wanted to use sacrifices to worship God.[2]


Theology takes the opposite approach. Theologians are interested in explaining the Bible or a religious concept. They begin with their understanding of what the Bible is teaching and try to support it or rationalize it by their logic. Thus, they see that the Torah spends pages discussing sacrifices and conclude that God wants them. Sages such as Nachmanides then developed notions of why God “needs” sacrifices.[3] Another example is the general population’s belief that God can appear to people though “His Shekhinah.” This idea is problematical because it smacks of polytheism. It seems to say that there is God and there is a manifestation of God, two separate divine beings. It is also problematical because it assumes that God needs a helper. Saadiah Gaon, a theologian, resolved the problem by saying that the Shekhinah is not a separate being, but a light that God creates and causes to appear to people. Maimonides disliked the theological approach. It answered the first problem but not the second. Maimonides suggested that there is no being called Shekhinah. When the rabbis[4] spoke of the Shekhinah, they meant a “human feeling” of the presence of God. Saadiah developed his theological response because he wanted to explain what he felt was a Jewish concept. Starting instead from logic, Maimonides rejected this notion of the masses.[5]


Hermeneutics is a fancy name for sermonizing. It is the approach of most clergy today, including rabbis. Rather than searching for the truth or trying to explain the plain meaning of scripture, rabbis focus on an idea they think is important, such as modesty or charity, and try to persuade congregants that the concept is important by means of jokes, stories, statements by prominent rabbis, and their understanding of a midrash or verse, an understanding that too-frequently reads meaning in the midrash and verse out of context.[6]


Thus when people hear a sermon or read a book on ethics, they should ask themselves: “Am I learning some true facts about life, the world, and society? Is this only the rabbi’s opinion supported only by the rabbi’s interpretation of scripture or anecdotes? Is what I am hearing the truth or only what the rabbi feels people need to hear?” Am I being entertained or taught?

[1] Guide of the Perplexed 1:1.

[2] Guide of the Perplexed 3:32, “God allowed these kinds of services to continue.” Also I. Drazin and S. M. Wagner, Onkelos on the Torah, Leviticus, pages xx11-xxx.

[3] Commentary on Leviticus 1:9.

[4] The concept of Shekhinah is not in the Bible.

[5] I. Drazin and S. M. Wagner, Onkelos on the Torah, Leviticus, pages xvii-xxii.

[6] Additionally, these rabbis do not inform their congregants that there is frequently more than one midrash that addresses the situation or tells the story and that usually each version is somewhat different.

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