The Biblical View of Man
By Leo Adler
Translated by Daniel R. Schwartz
Urim Publications, 2007, 114 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 17, 2009
The Biblical View of Man contains Rabbi Dr. Leo Adler’s view of what the Bible teaches about people. Rabbi Adler published the original in German in 1965. He served as a rabbi of the Jewish community of Basel, Switzerland, and received a doctoral degree in modern philosophy. Daniel R. Schwartz, who translated the book, is a professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Shimon Gesundheit, who wrote a Forward, is a lecturer at the same university.
The Bible focuses on humans not God
Rabbi Adler’s understanding of the Bible could be summarized as rational thoughts mixed with the mystical. His states that people, not God, are "the focus of biblical consideration." He notes that throughout "the ages, Jewish intellectual endeavor focused…upon human beings and their responsibilities vis a vis their fellow humans and God, not upon contemplation about the essence of Divinity."
God created evil
He becomes mystical when he writes that "God created neither a whole world nor a half world; He created two half worlds, one filled with light and blessing, the other with darkness and curse." People, he asserts, are also, like the world, "dualistic," containing both good and evil. Man has "two souls…within his breast…. It was for man’s benefit that God created evil, so that man could choose good and thereby earn his own merit." Adler does not explain why God thought that people should earn merit.
One might disagree with Rabbi Adler and say that the world is good, but people can misuse it and produce evil, such as when they overeat. This is the view of Moses Maimonides (1138-1204).
The use of reason is alien to Judaism
Adler rejects the Maimonidean view (although he does not mention the philosopher) that people should use reason. He argues that humans cannot depend upon reason. It is overvalued. It is a notion that has "lost sight of man’s manifold and contradictory nature." Judaism, according to Adler, is "completely opposed to that of philosophy." Philosophy, he insists, is an alien and destructive disease that the Jews caught from the Greeks.
The purpose of divine commands
People need God’s commands, not reason. They need to believe in God and let themselves "be led by God." Thus, Judaism is neither theology that stresses belief, nor anthropology that focuses on people; it is more than either; it is a religion that stresses "faithfulness," which Adler defines as the duties that belief in God imposes upon people, the divine laws. By "faithful," he means "steadfast," "unfailing" and "unfaltering" in observing the divine commands.
Adler demonstrates through many examples that the primary biblical goal is social consciousness, fairness, justice, mercy and equality, all oriented to help improve fellowship, responsibility and society. Adler defines the Hebrew word tzedek, which is traditionally translated as "justice," as "love." Thus, he reads the command of Deuteronomy 16:20 "tzedek tzedek shall you pursue" not as a requirement for judicial justice, but as the obligation that humans should show love.
Surrendering one’s self to God
Adler promotes the mystical notion of self surrender to God, the creation of a new self, an unparalleled humility, "total submission to God," "complete subordination to God," where the individual selves "cease to exist." He recognizes that the notion of "belief" is alien to Judaism. The word is not in the Hebrew Bible. Rather than belief, Adler advocates this selfless reverence of God, this "deepest alliance with God."
Being holy means separating oneself
How does a person achieve alliance with God? "Man never approaches the Godly so clearly as in the self-sanctification which the Bible requires of him." What is "self-sanctification"? Adler explains that the Hebrew kodesh, generally translated as "holy," actually means separate. Thus when God is described as kodesh, the Bible is stating that God is altogether separate from humanity, there is a chasm between people and God, God is not imminent, God is transcendent.
Thus when Leviticus 19:2 states the human obligation, "You shall become holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy" (the italics are in Adler’s book), the Torah, according to Adler, acknowledges the "full baseness of man" and encourages a separation from that baseness, and "seeks to bring man to the realization that all his behavior must be directed toward God."
Can people "become holy" by their own efforts? Adler answers, "Complete holiness (is) a quality of character which man cannot achieve by himself…. That which man begins God completes by giving man the spirit of holiness as a gift." He quotes the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 39a, to prove that this concept of divine grace is Jewish. The Talmud states: "He who hallows himself, God hallows him greatly." However this statement could mean that although people may not do much, God will reward them as if they did a great deal.
In summary, Adler offers an interesting and thought provocative opinion of what he understands the Bible to require from people. Some readers will agree with his assessment. Others may dislike his mystical understanding of total surrender and total disengagement from earthly matters. However, all readers will benefit by being intellectually stimulated by reading his views.