Commentary Magazine

Humanistic Values in the Bible, by Zvi Adar


Humanistic Values in the Bible.
by Zvi Adar.
Translated by Mrs. Victor Tcherikover. Reconstructionist Press. 429 pp. $6.50.

Matthew Arnold, writing in Culture and Anarchy of the “ineffaceable difference” between Hebraism and Hellenism, concluded that “the face which human nature presents when it passes from the hands of one of them to those of the other, is no longer the same.” This opposition has been recognized and accepted by Jews from Maccabean times to the present. In antiquity, those who wished to transform Judaism into a respectable version of Greek culture did not entertain the illusion that Jewish faith was compatible with the world of the Greeks. Similarly, a modern Hebrew poet like Saul Tchernichovsky, who, in a famous poem, stands in obeisance before the statue of Apollo and denounces Jewish history and tradition, would never for a moment suppose that Apollo and the God of Israel could be brought together in a single cultural framework. Yet precisely such a framework lies at the heart of Humanistic Values in the Bible; its author, a professor at the Hebrew University, proposes to use the Hebrew Bible as the main text in a humanistic education—an education whose net effect, it seems to me, would be the hellenization of Judaism.

It should be noted at the outset, however, that Professor Adar is not motivated by feelings of disloyalty to his people or to their traditions. On the contrary, his aim is to preserve and enhance Jewish life, and he sees much value for this purpose in the use of the Bible as the foundation of education. But, like many men of our generation, he is unable to resolve the dilemma of maintaining Jewish-ness while denying its religious beliefs. He wants to preserve the Hebrew Bible, to have it studied seriously, and to find in it the basic values for a rich and meaningful modern Jewish life. Yet being a modern man, he considers it necessary, as a matter of intellectual honesty, to reject all the religious foundations on which the Bible rests.



The problems which Adar faces unfold clearly as he tries to show how to use the Bible in teaching today’s students. He is particularly concerned with education in Israel, where the Bible is universally regarded as the major national classic and is studied in all the schools, both religious and secular, as well as in regularly organized adult study groups. It is, indeed, precisely because of its unquestioned status as the prime classic of Hebrew literature that Adar undertakes to examine the Bible from the point of view of the Israeli educator. The question he asks is: How, as educators, are we to understand the Bible, and with what attitudes and purposes should it be taught?

For traditional believers, of course, Bible study poses no problems. They continue to view the Bible in the perspective of their ancient faith, seeing it as the word of God, and studying it in order to master the fundamental principles of Jewish belief and practice. To be sure, they also understand the Bible by way of rabbinic interpretations and traditional commentaries, but the scriptural text still provides them with all the essential foundations for their personal and communal lives.

Things are not so simple and straightforward for the large mass of unbelievers in Israel. Acknowledging that the Bible is a religious work, they nevertheless reject its claims about God while striving, at the same time, to retain the book not only as a treasured memorial of Jewish antiquity, but as perennially significant for their own lives. It is to the educational needs of these modern, non-religious Jews that Professor Adar’s work is addressed. He is concerned to set forth a meaningful way of teaching the Bible in Jewish schools that are essentially secular, by teachers who do not believe in God, to pupils who share their unbelief.

In such a setting, according to Adar, the Bible obviously cannot be presented in the traditional religious way. Similarly, he finds neither the nationalistic nor the scientific-critical approach pedagogically satisfactory. Adar believes that the nationalistic conception of the Bible tends toward a chauvinistic exaltation of the nation, an attitude which is intrinsically bad. Moreover, it is a violation of the biblical spirit, which consistently attacks “overriding national pride.” As for scientific-critical studies of the text, they are important for scholars and provide students with useful information. At best, however, they are a preparation for Bible study, not the kind of confrontation between student and book that Adar is seeking. He proposes instead his “humanistic” approach.

Three problems suggest themselves as we consider Adar’s program. First, what becomes of the Bible when it is turned into a humanistic text, and what can one make of the Bible if one is unable to believe in the existence of God and His functioning in history? Second, even if one can make something of literary interest out of such a humanized Bible, is it a Jewish Bible, and can it serve as the main source for Jewish education? Third, in rejecting God as the source of values, what does Adar have to offer instead?



Adar is fully aware that he is seeking to understand the Bible without subscribing to its most fundamental religious claims. He acknowledges that throughout the Bible, in contrast to classical Greek literature, “God is the main hero of each tale, as well as its reason and significance.” Adar sees that Abraham, like other biblical characters who are driven to contend with God, is moved by the knowledge that if the idea of God “is distorted, then there will be no sense in the very existence of man, and of the whole world.” The prophets, in his reading, understand themselves as speaking God’s message, and the prayers of the Psalmist are addressed to a God who both hears and cares. Adar treats the religious motifs in the Bible with respect and interest, but he is consistently forced to explain that “modern men” cannot accept or even understand properly the faith which stands at the center of the entire biblical experience. This leads him to an occasional admission that his humanism puts severe limits on his capacity to come to terms with the Bible, and (one would suppose) to teach it to others. Indeed, he states explicitly that “we must recognize at once the boundaries of the humanistic viewpoint: it cannot grasp (and who can?) the way ‘downwards,’ the very essence of prophecy.” This is no small matter, since prophecy constitutes, for Adar, a very large part of what is educationally important in the Bible.

His troubles are compounded when he comes to deal with biblical poetry—another major portion of his curriculum. While affirming that many biblical poems, particularly the prayers, “arise from a basic faith in God and an acceptance of Him in all ways of life,” Professor Adar finds that “this faith and this acceptance are alien to our modern spirit.” The barrier which divides contemporary man from the Bible is both emotional and intellectual. In spite of his questioning spirit, biblical man does not seek intellectually satisfying answers, but only the sense of God’s nearness and His love. God does not justify Himself to Job, He only assures him of His presence. For Job this is enough. But Adar sees in this attitude of biblical man an orientation which only baffles our contemporaries. As he puts it: “To the modern world this spirit of ‘neither do I exercise myself in things too great, or in things too wonderful for me’ is surely alien. The modern man strives precisely for ‘things too great,’ in all the spheres of life. He has no intention whatsoever to enter into a mood of resignation, and the happiness of a man in God’s bosom seems to him a strange fantasy.”

Adar’s Bible without God is, finally, unintelligible. If modern man must reject all the religious foundations of the Hebrew scriptures, if the God of Abraham does not exist for him, then he should be ready to admit that the Bible cannot speak to him and his condition. Adar admits, even affirms, that modern man (i.e., himself) cannot believe in God or in His presence in history, prophecy, or prayer. Yet, strangely enough, he thinks that after he has stripped away these religious essentials from the Bible, the book can become clearer and more authentically Jewish. One cannot help but feel that Adar is being tendentious, even disingenuous, when he views his reading of the Bible as superior to the religious way and defends “the humanistic approach, which regards the Bible as a perfect way to acquire the knowledge of God—that knowledge which is a necessary condition to the understanding of the Bible.” In this reading, which is paradoxical to say the least, the best way to know God is by denying Him, so that we can then understand with special power the book at whose center He stands.



The depth of the internal contradiction under which Adar labors becomes more fully exposed when he turns to the problem of inculcating values, a purpose for which he considers the Bible especially suited. It is his contention that the values taught by the prophets “are the central factors without which human society would not be possible. It is the prophets who reveal the moral world which makes man truly human. . . .” He goes on, however, to show that “all the prophetic values derive directly from the absolute acceptance of the supreme existence of God, while for us such acceptance is no longer self-evident.” How, then, can we aim at implanting prophetic values in our students, “while denouncing the source of those values”? The problem appears to be insoluble, especially since Adar never indicates the source of his own values. Early in his book he considers it wrong to claim any knowledge of moral certainties, and therefore argues against any fixed attitude toward the values of the Bible. He is especially concerned to protect pupils from a moral orthodoxy that will prevent the development of their own critical judgment. He says, with appropriate modesty, that “we have no right to regard ourselves as supreme arbiters of human values. Do we actually possess a system of absolute truths, so that we may judge every human deed, to condemn or acquit?” If we had such truths, his argument continues, we ought simply to hand them over to our students, as traditional believers are thought to do. Lacking such certainties, we can with propriety only work toward increasing sensitivity and independence of mind in our students.

Later on, however, Adar defends the Bible as having fundamental moral truth, even if its details are wrong. Though we cannot accept the code of biblical law, nevertheless, “We seek with the help of this code, which is based upon true moral principles, to bring to light the spirit of the laws and thus arrive at a conception of law which would befit our generation” (emphasis added). Thus we move from moral doubt to true moral principles by way of the Bible, whose essential religious foundations we reject.



Adar’s humanistic reading of the Bible is an earnest but unsuccessful attempt to defend the worth, the centrality, even the sanctity of the Bible as an instrument for Jewish education. A Bible without God, prophecy robbed of its transcendent source, prayer addressed to no one, and morality which has neither religious nor secular ground—this is what Adar believes is demanded by a modern educated man. If this is what modern man demands, then it ought to be admitted that the Bible can no longer speak to him. He may, of course, read it out of curiosity or antiquarian interest; he may study it because it is an essential key to much of the art, music, and literature of Western civilization. Such a Bible may be adequate for paideia—a cultural notion much admired by Professor Adar, though one which remains, in the words of Werner Jaeger, “a Greek word for a Greek thing”—but it can never serve as Torah.

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