Jewish Hermeneutical Theology

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Michael Fishbane
Library of Contemporary Jewish Philosophers, volume 14
  • Boston, MA: 
    , October
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This edited volume is part of the Library of Contemporary Jewish Philosophers series, which offers biographies and contributions from some of the last century’s greatest Jewish thinkers. This volume concentrates on the life and work of Michael Fishbane, who is the Nathan Cummings Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish Studies at The University of Chicago. Fishbane has contributed significantly to the area of biblical studies and to modern Judaism for over forty years. This book is aimed at academic readers with interests in biblical studies, hermeneutical theory, Jewish studies, and philosophy. This is not strictly a biography, nor is it a Festschrift where other authors attempt to articulate themes relating to an honored scholar. Instead, the book opens contains six essays by Fishbane sandwiched between an intellectual portrait by Sam Berrin Shonkoff and an interview of Fishbane conducted by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson. This approach provides a succinct yet dense representation of Fishbane’s life work.

Shonkoff begins by justifying Fishbane’s place as a Jewish philosopher. While the majority of Fishbane’s work has been in biblical studies, “Fishbane’s historical and constructive works are the offspring of dynamic unions between philological prowess and psychological sophistication” (4). Shonkoff’s sketch of Fishbane’s early years, from his intellectual reflections and desire for spirituality as a child to his early studies in the history of religions, form the basis for Fishbane’s views and methods today. Fishbane identifies as a Liberal Orthodox Jew caught between new and challenging ideas and progressive values and holding onto his tradition (238-39). It was Fishbane’s PhD in biblical studies that grounded his work in “foundational texts building from the ground up” (8). A commitment to critical studies of primary sources rather than theoretical frameworks has provided Fishbane with a hermeneutical method that is rooted in Jewish historical interpretation and yet also “opens up potential paths of creativity” (59).

The six essays by Fishbane present his Jewish hermeneutical theology. The first essay, “Modern Jewish Theology and Traditional Hermeneutics,” highlights the value of understanding past traditions and hermeneutics. Fishbane refers to ancient methods of Jewish biblical interpretation as a way of transcending the meaning of scripture. This interpretation is known by the acronym PaRDeS (Peshat, Remez, Derash, and Sod), which contains four levels of interpretation beginning with the plain meaning and ending with the mystical meaning of scripture. This method of biblical interpretation is central to the book and reflects Fishbane’s seminal work, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (The Clarendon Press, 1985).

The second, third, and fourth essays examine these methods within the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish texts. “Midrash and the Nature of Scripture” focuses on the method of derash (or midrash), which establishes correspondences and equivalents though exegetical inquiry and looks at multiple understandings of words through the context of all scripture (85). Fishbane explains that “Scripture serves as a go between for revelation of God at Sinai and continual discourse. God’s word is revealed in human speech. This speech is midrash” (82). Fishbane also looks at the relationship between scripture and Jewish mystical traditions, which include mystical experience rooted in the visions of Daniel, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, and which continued to be explored by the rabbis providing a mystical commentary on the scriptures. However, Fishbane is wary of overly exoteric interpretations and experiences and believes they must be grounded in scripture.

The final two essays by Fishbane define and encapsulate his proposal of “A Jewish Hermeneutical Theology.” Fishbane argues that theology is not so much the knowledge of God but rather “God-mindedness.” The end of Fishbane’s hermeneutical theology is to “interpret sacred scripture in ways that sharpen our religious awareness of a God-centred life, and to allow our reinterpreted lives to disclose ever-wider and deeper spiritualties” (159). It is an alternative to the rigidness of focusing on halakhic discourse and the systematic doctrinal boxes that many conservatives are limited to. The final essay, “Biblical Hermeneutics and Philosophical Theology,” Fishbane looks at the philosophical outworking of his hermeneutical theology. He writes, “Biblical hermeneutics needs philosophy to reach beyond historical theology and its regional assertions of value” (198). Fishbane thinks beyond the remits of scripture and theology and looks further to questions of being and life. This multifaceted hermeneutical approach presents a postmodern and pluralistic openness to his philosophy that remains incredibly rooted in Jewish thought and tradition.

The book concludes with a lengthy interview with Fishbane by the series editor Hava Tirosh-Samuelson. Fishbane’s answers are measured and thoughtful as they demonstrate his deep reflection upon his life, work, and Judaism. Fishbane believes his work extends beyond Judaism, having ramifications for Christian and Islamic studies. In general, anyone committed to biblical studies or hermeneutical theory would benefit from this book. Christian scholars of biblical studies will be interested in how the methods of ancient Jewish exegesis and interpretation are identifiable in the writings of the New Testament.

The approach of this volume condenses Fishbane’s life work into a single volume in his own words which works effectively to demonstrate the legacy of his contribution to numerous fields of study and his Jewish faith. The downside to the structure of the book is the repetition of certain information throughout the book as Fishbane’s essays are independent from one another. (In particular the description of the acronym PaRDeS was overly repetitive.) Overall, however, this book is a welcomed volume to the series on Jewish philosophers and also to interdisciplinary studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anthony Royle is on the Faculty at King's Evangelical Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Fishbane is Nathan Cummings Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Trained in biblical studies and the ancient Near East at Brandeis University, he has written on rabbinic interpretation, medieval Jewish philosophy and mysticism, Hasidism, modern Jewish philosophy, and Hebrew poetry. His earlier groundbreaking historical work has provided the foundation for his more recent constructive hermeneutic theology. Among his numerous books are the award-winning Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (1985) and Kiss of God (1994), Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (2003), and Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology (2008). He is, in addition, an elected member of the American Academy of Jewish Research and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


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