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Examining God’s Plan: A Book Review of A Jewish Philosophy of History

A Jewish Philosophy of History by Paul Eidelberg
Reviewed by Dr. Eugene Narrett

The erudite and ambitious work examines the development of philosophy, ethics, science and theologies from ancient times to the present, tracing the impact throughout of Jewish understandings of God, man and nature. The result is remarkable in its scope, clarity, practical teachings and emotional impact. A Jewish Philosophy of History is in many ways a searching elaboration of good news—many people would say the best possible news,—the rational means and empirically demonstrable stages by which Israel can and will be redeemed.

To any such claim, a contemporary reader, even a favorably disposed reader might well say, “hold on a minute.’ After all, Israel is in the midst, or perhaps at the late stage of a decades-long process of retreat from the redemptive possibilities of its victory in 1967. A short list of these redemptions would have included the full unification of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty; the incorporation, settlement and development of the Jewish heartland and its holy sites, and of the Gilead and Bashan, too; of strategic depth in an ever-more unstable world; independence in energy and politics rather than vassalage to “Uncle Laban.” That is to say, since the military victory in 1967, the governments of Israel have turned away from its roots and identity; they have spurned the nation’s birthright. As part of Israel’s retreat from these historical imperatives, from itself, since September 2000 the Arabs have engaged in Jew-killing and pillage that cripples prosperity and seems to make peace a pipe dream. Indeed, so perverse are our times that in regard to Israel and the Jews settled there, “peace” has been defined as the expulsion of Jews from Judea and Samaria overseen by a long-time hero of the IDF. Moreover, the Executive Branch of Israel’s “best friend,’ America, particularly its State Department is committed to creating a terror state named Palestine in the heartland of Israel and airbrushing from history 3700-years of Jewish presence and worship there, airbrushing, too perhaps, the West’s indebtedness to Israel. And if that means cutting America off from its own roots, well, that is essential to fashioning a “Brave New World.’

Given these conditions, what time does one have for a scholarly study, however plain-speech and reader friendly it is, that sketches an overview of Israel’s saving role in history, a role it can achieve, Eidelberg explains, only as a fully and genuinely Jewish State? But in reply, if not now, when? Indeed, now above all, for not only does the current, long-building crisis cry out for informed action by all concerned, Jews and non – Jews, but as many people recognize, whatever their degree of familiarity with Torah, the great civilizations of the world have been for two centuries in a period of acute crisis and transformation. “Nations are in turmoil, kingdoms tremble; He has raised His voice, the earth dissolves,” as states psalm 46. In ways horrific and inspiring, for life and for death, modern times have seen the re-emergence of Israel to a prominence it has not had since the compiling of the Mishna in the aftermath of its third great war for independence from Rome.

A Jewish Philosophy of History is the culmination of Paul Eidelberg’s lifetime project of studying the relation of cultures to their formative political ideas, ideas that always contain a theory of human nature, needs and origins, and relating this knowledge to Torah, to the condition, influence and capabilities of the Jewish people. The author has built the foundation for the current study through masterworks like Demophrenia: Israel and the Malaise of Modern Democracy (1994) and Judaic Man: toward a Reconstruction of Western Civilization (1996). It is the unique background, diligence and genius of Eidelberg, a distinguished political scientist grounded in classical civilizations and philosophy, a historian of ideas and earnest Torah scholar with singular gifts for analysis and synthesis that provide us in this text with an overview of civilizations, of their governing ideologies and history that is both lucid and magisterial. The development of his thesis has the elegance of a mathematical demonstration; no surprise, for math is one of many primary fields Eidelberg integrates with Torah commentaries ancient and contemporary. Always this type of creative synthesis illuminates foundational concepts of Judaism, providing a persuasive and learned narrative of history as the gradual triumph of Jewish concepts of the Creator, creation, human dignity, responsibility, and redemption.

This is no small accomplishment. A Jewish Philosophy of History is arguably the crowning point not only of Professor Eidelberg’s career but of two centuries of meta-cultural studies by which western thinkers have sought to chart the formative ideas, ideals, modes of expression and production, rise, decline and fragmentation of the West. Since these texts, — Gibbon, Hegel, de Toqueville, Nietzsche, Whitehead, Spengler, and others Eidelberg’s work is remarkable not only for its erudition and lucidity but for the brevity with which it explores and illumines its subject. It is unique also in its tone of hopefulness and affirmation. For in this text Eidelberg, a long-time keen observer and commentator on daily events whose vagaries and follies often pain and shock, keeps his and the reader’s eyes and mind focused on the grand and unmistakable theme of history’s development as encapsulated in the work’s subtitle. The hope and trust, the faith that history is divinely ordained for compassionate and life-enhancing purposes, justice, prosperity, understanding and peace and the “good news” that Israel through many channels has been bringing that grand project to individual men and women and to entire civilizations since Abraham began “forming souls” in Haran, is the scope and ground of this book’s inquiry. It is a grand and very learned midrash.

The prologue to the study masterfully previews the author’s topic. The modern world, its ideology devolving from seminal theories of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Galileo, Newton, and Rousseau has encouraged the “undisguised egoism of individuals” and “the covert egoism of the state.” Combining in the dogmas of moral relativism, utilitarianism, and evolution of species, Modernism has been an era of unprecedented violence, alienation, of cultism vacillating between social revolt and totalitarianism, a pregnant decadence “that calls out for a renaissance of Hebraic civilization.”

Eidelberg begins his inquiry into history’s providential, rationally discernible promise by plunging into recent and current events, particularly as they touch the Jewish people and Israel, a people that is also a nation and a way (derekh) of living whose faith is not a ‘mental’ or ‘emotional’ phenomenon, but embedded in reason, practical deeds, and the materiality of the creation. The practical crisis addressed in starting is the embattled rebirth of Israel. Exhortatory, instructional texts by two Torah masters, Rav Tzvi Kalisher (Derishat Tzion 1864) and Rav Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal (Eim Habanim Semeichah 1943) focus the author’s reflection on the failure of most of Orthodox Jewry to actively support the settlement of the Land, a settlement that had never ceased but that began accelerating markedly in the second half of the 19th century. Rav Teichtal, who perished in the shoah, compared the pious who had failed to ascend, or even urged that other Jews not ascend, with the ten spies who “murmured in their tents…and despised the desirable land” (Psalm 106, cf. Numbers 14).

The same holds true in our time [Teichtal wrote]. This one has a good rabbinical position, this one has an established business or factory, or a prestigious job that provides great satisfaction. They are afraid that their status will decline if they go to Eretz Yisrael…
Quoting Teichtal on the sages, e.g. “he who dwells in Eretz Yisrael is like one who has a God, and he who dwells outside the land is like one who does not have a God” (Ketubot 110b), and “it is prefereable to dwell in deserts in Eretz Yisrael than in palaces abroad (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 39:8), Eidelberg proceeds to the great failure of the leaders and generation after 1967 who ‘despised’ and, in fact, ’spurned’ rather than settled the land. And so the State and people of Israel have been ‘in the wilderness’ since then, led by “a government of fools” that chases the mirage of peace through alienation rather than grasping the joys of identity, settlement, abundance and sovereignty. And so Israel has been “afflicted by a non-nation and a loathsome people,” a rabble whose “nationhood’ may be the greatest political fraud of a century of horrible frauds by which “the past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, and the lie became truth.” But, as Eidelberg often has written, the historical function of this non-nation, the “Palestinians’ was to prevent Jews from forgetting who they are and to remind them that only by grasping and fulfilling their entire mission and morasha will they secure its rewards.

Professor Eidelberg’s achievement includes tireless and insightful efforts to integrate the practical and immediate with the conceptual, foundational and trans-generational aspects of life, to illuminate the present by the context of history and Torah. That is to say that his life work is a quintessentially Jewish project to sanctify and illuminate the creation. So as part of his philosophy of history and the sciences he takes up Israel’s “demographic problem” and the related problem of its chaotic, unresponsive (and often anti-Jewish) form of governance. Here, too, he provides practical, readily achievable means for alleviating these crises. For example, “declare Jewish sovereignty over Judea, Samaria, and Gaza while broadcasting biblical and historical evidence as well as international law affirming Israel’s exclusive rights to these areas. Relocate some cabinet ministries to Judea, Samaria and Gaza, to show that Jews intend to stay there permanently [emphasis in original; the point being to stop all discussions of ‘land-for-peace’]; and to “sell small plots of land in these areas at very low prices to Jews in Israel and abroad with the proviso that they settle on the land for at least six years.” This would remove the socialist-state’s control of Israel’s heartland while facilitating the essential mitzvah of settling the land. It would restore Jewish and Israeli pride, prosperity and sanctify God’s Name.

But the study sounds its most compelling themes when Eidelberg embarks, aided by sources of the most fascinating variety and relevance, on an examination of the culture-forming and deforming concepts and ideologies that have brought us to our day, its crises and choices. His critique of the absurdities and soul-numbing assumptions of moral relativism and psychology, that most grandiose, manipulative and destructive of the social ’sciences’ is a tour de force, the beginning of a simple-language analysis of the history of ideas that should make A Jewish Philosophy of History a required text in all College Philosophy and world History courses. Eidelberg elegantly explains how the subordination of thought and morality to the passions, as formulated in The Leviathan (1659) by the profoundly influential Thomas Hobbes, helped spawn “imaginative man,” the human being of the Romantic period (c. 1780 to the present) set free to master and enjoy a world made in his image and in which human beings confront the phantasmagoria of their passions amplified by technology,—“monsters of the id.’ Eidelberg’s discussion of the historical development from “cognitive’ to “volitional’ to “sensual’ man is masterly and succinct in charting the decay of humane sensibilities and sustainable societies.

In pursuing this diagnostic aspect of his study, Eidelberg examines the self-negations in psychology, explaining how its deterministic and reductive view of human behavior (as being based on repression of instincts) contrasts explosively with its insistence on freedom and gratification, how endless efforts to stimulate desire forever outrun any sustainable or life-sustaining pleasures. Psychology, the popular religion of sensual man and the therapeutic state’s vocabulary and means of control is a culture of “stress, alienation, fatigue, mental impoverishment” and enrichment of drug companies and tax-funded “care-givers’ that destroys families, damages souls, and leads to demands for personal and national security. Those encouraged to “know no boundaries” in their pursuit of “self-realization” are “consumed in bewildering terrors” that invite a global security state, one that intends to police the ‘peace’ earmarked for Israel.

Eidelberg neatly sums up this long-developing spirit of the age: “the conquest of nature [made possible by Galileo and Newton] required the liberation of man’s material instincts and this was facilitated by modern psychology and… its political vehicle, democracy.” But, as laid out by its nihilist forefathers, Machiavelli and Hobbes, modern democracy is norm-less, “non-judgmental’ in principle while arbitrarily judgmental in fact, and with a predictably suicidal tendency to choose “the other’ over itself. Thus, as Eidelberg and others have noted, it is utterly unable (and at the highest levels, unwilling) to deal with the threat of Islamic violence and imperialism.

While Eidelberg has an essential chapter on the current “clash of civilizations,” his most seminal and culture-forming work is his study of the convergence of modern science, especially physics, astronomy, and math with Torah, including its ancient commentaries. He illuminates how Jewish concepts of creation, nature, human nature, and the divine pervaded pre-Socratic philosophies, classical philosophy of nature and ethics, and gave rise to Christianity, that is, to the Greco-Roman synthesis of natural philosophy and polytheism with the Jewish principles of a God that is Unitary, transcendent but also personal, ineffable, caring and providential, a God Who orders history toward a redemptive goal that gives human life and society the dignity of purpose and the promise of kindness and justice rewarded and established.

This part of his discussion draws extensively on the work of Dr. Gerald L. Schroeder (The Science of God, New York 1997), but equally upon the Ramban, the sages of Talmud and Mishna, and the Zohar. At pains to elucidate the rationality and prescience of Jewish understanding of the creation, Eidelberg focuses on the distinct terms “creation,” “making” and “forming” to show how ancient Jewish sources postulate creation (bara) out of nothing and that the beginnings of time with the creation of energy and matter. As the Ramban wrote, “the Holy One, Blessed be He, created all things from absolute non-existence… He brought forth from absolute nothing a very thin substance devoid of corporeality but having a power of potency fit to assume form…” in short, energy. Two hundred years before Galileo, Rabbi Hasdei Crescas cited the Talmudic discussion of the essential uniformity of the universe, all originating from one source of energy and beyond that, the Creator. “Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Joseph: all that exists, including that which is in heaven and earth, consists of earth…everything that exists in the universe, its fundamental elements, are identical to those of earth” (Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 12:11). In addition to the unity of nature from its ineffable source, Judaism affirmed the divinity of the soul, human form and thus of life itself. All share the energy, will, and gracious kindness of the Creator.

Elaborating the above distinction between creating and making, an intriguing case is made that the ‘making’ that occurs between each of the seven days of creation may take any amount of time, after each of which “generations” a “page is turned,’ “and it was evening, and it was morning, a third day.” The work of each day encompasses “the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created” (Genesis 2:4), or, put in relation to human development, “the book of the generations of Adam in the day that God created Adam (5:1). In regard to this last phrase, Eidelberg notes the Zohar’s commentaries on “pre-Adamite” generations and discusses the work of Rabbi Israel Lipschitz, decades before Darwin and Huxley, in correlating Torah accounts of human beginnings with archaeological findings seeming to indicate two different species of man one of which was the issue of Adam’s knowing of female beings during the 130 years between the murder of Abel and the day when he “again knew his wife, Eve.”

This grand meta-history, this unified field history of humanity’s evolution toward recognition of God, an experiment in which the Jewish people serve as “the constant,” concludes with a timely discussion of the related concepts “yerusha” (to conquer and expel) and “yeshiva” (to settle) as Eidelberg reviews their discussion by masters of Torah and their relation to each other in Holy Scriptures. In this he proceeds as a scholar who has absorbed the rigor of Math and Science by elegantly presenting six “orthodox’ arguments against ascending to conquer the Land, and then offering six refutations of these arguments. Along the way he adumbrates the Gemara’s overview of how the Shmoneh Esrei incorporates the stages of redemption and works toward a practical distinction between a hechsher — mitzvah and the mitzvah itself, kiyum — mitzvah. Like a beautifully developed geometric theorem, the argument unfolds and demonstrates itself: the land in fact has been settled and the mitzvah achieved for a long time; it is therefore not only appropriate, permissible and possible but incumbent for Israel lareshet “to conquer” the Land fully. Thus degradation becomes redemption; the state, gravely flawed as it is has helped facilitate the pre-mitzva; and Israel, the people and nation are prepared bring together the world and the Torah, the marriage that is God’s purpose for history and creation. As it states, “kindness and truth have met; righteousness and peace have kissed. Truth will sprout from the earth, and righteousness peers from heaven.”

Eidelberg’s genial and scholarly manner evinces an inspiring passion to know and a joy in unfolding the multi-leveled purposefulness of creation. Though we may not be used to associating rational inquiry and erudition with hopes for redemption, or recalling that messiah will be a very human being, this engaging text has no less ambition than that Israel, and those who sense her historical role, practice the kind of inquiry and action that may hasten to produce the genuine peace behind the diplomacy, and to recognize and empower the man able to achieve it. Eidelberg quotes the Rambam:

Do not think that Moshiach will have to perform signs and wonders,
bring anything new into being, revive the dead or do similar things…
The ancient sages already said, ‘the only difference between the present and the period of Moshiach is that political oppression will then cease” (Mishneh Torah, XI.3, IX.2.8). Redemption will come and it is coming, is the leitmotif of A Jewish Philosophy of History. This is to say that Eidelberg offers his study and conclusions as examples of how the goodness “hard-wired’ into existence may be hastened, as God desires. “Surely His salvation is close to those who fear Him that glory may again dwell in our Land…” Then in concord with human intelligence, labor and hope, “Hashem, too, will provide what is good and the earth will yield its produce. Righteousness will walk before Him and set his footsteps on the way” (Psalm 85).

Acquire this book for yourself, your local library, and make sure your children and grandchildren have it when they begin high school or College. This is one of those wise and elegant texts that not only illuminate but can shape history.

About the reviewer…

Eugene Narrett earned his BA, MA, and PhD from Columbia University in New York City. During the past twenty-five years he has been teaching literature, philosophy and art in the Boston area and has written extensively on culture, politics, and art. He currently Directs and teaches in the Baccalaureate Program in Multidisciplinary Studies at Cambridge College.

Visit Dr. Narrett’s Essay Archive in The Radical Academy

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