Book Review: The Philosophical Quest

I get lots of email. So I like to scan my inbox and delete stuff, sight unseen, if it looks like it might be spam. For months I’d been deleting stuff from book publishers just like that, without bothering to read the contents.

But one day, for some reason—maybe it was a slow mail day—I opened one such email from Koren Publishers and realized that they were offering me review copies of new books.


I scanned the titles and chose two.

(photo credit: courtesy Koren Publishers)
(photo credit: courtesy Koren Publishers)

Koren sent one of my choices. Actually, it was my second choice, a book called The Philosophical Quest: Of Philosophy, Ethics, Law, and Halakhah, by Rabbi J. David Bleich. I noted the attractive olive green cover (and new book smell—ah, heaven!).

Along came Shabbos, the time when I read real live books, as opposed to stuff on the ‘Net. I finished the newspaper and then pulled out the Bleich book and dug in. I was hoping for a nice escape from my daily pace as a writer for Kars for Kids, a car donation program.

As always, I read with my dictionary next to me, happy to learn new words. But Rabbi Bleich used words never seen between the covers of a dictionary—words like “hylic,” “telos,” and “clarificatory.” The liberal sprinkling of $10 words was a challenge at first, then a distraction, and finally, an annoyance.

But I persisted.

After all, asking for a review copy feels like a commitment to the ideal that I would actually WRITE A BOOK REVIEW. Which meant I had to actually read the book. So I kept on with my reading.

Rabbi J. David Bleich (photo credit: courtesy Koren Publishers)
Rabbi J. David Bleich (photo credit: courtesy Koren Publishers)

And a funny thing happened: I began to get into it.

Rabbi Bleich took me back to my final summer in the States before I made Aliyah, when I was 18. I’d found an English translation of Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed among my late father’s things and became totally engrossed in his 26 Propositions Employed by the Philosophers to Prove the Existence of God. It was the first really difficult piece of scholarship I’d ever tackled.

I spent hours working on that, getting it all straight in my head so that it made logical sense.

Later, when I mentioned it to people, they said, “Pshaw. Metaphysics. Not real science.”

But it was like a brilliant exercise for the mind. I loved it.

Once I got used to Rabbi Bleich’s style, I was able to take in the precision of not just his language but the way he made difficult concepts comprehensible and clear. It was a bit shocking to me as a Haredi woman, to see how deeply Rabbi Bleich had apparently delved into Christology in trying to understand the Jewish views of Christian thought. There was much I didn’t understand, not having studied these topics. I had no knowledge, for instance of Ebionism and Docetism.

Nonetheless, like water dripping onto a stone, some of it sank in.

Lo Ba-Shamayim Hi

I especially enjoyed the fifth and sixth chapters, the former expounding on the precept, “Lo Ba-Shamayim Hi (Deuteronomy 30:12) which translates to, “It is not in the heavens.” Rabbi Bleich was able to demonstrate for the reader just how much data had been concentrated and packed into this short and simple phrase. He called this chapter a “philosophical pilpul.” I just know that I will be pulling this equivalent of a rabbit out of my hat—Lo Ba-Shamayim Hi—in many future theological discussions. It was a magical chapter.

Here’s an excerpt: “The revelation at Sinai was exhaustive in nature and the Torah was given to man in its entirety. No aspect of Torah was withheld as subject to ongoing jurisdiction.

“From this doctrine flow two basic principles. First, since there is no longer a residue of unrevealed Torah in the heavens, there cannot be a second substantive revelation. Such a revelation, were it to occur, would be devoid of content. Hence any claim with regard to supplementary revelation must be dismissed peremptorily even if it were in no way to conflict with Sinaitic revelation.  Secondly, this doctrine excludes not merely further innovative revelation but, according to Maimonides, it excludes clarificatory revelation as well. Not only can new commandments not be added to the Torah by means of revelation but, moreover, matters of question, doubt, interpretation and application with regard to the content of existing revelation cannot be resolved on the basis of even revelation which is entirely clarificatory in nature.”

Judaism And Natural Law

The sixth chapter is a discussion of Judaism and natural law. I felt that girded by the knowledge I gleaned from this chapter, I’m prepared to do a whole lot of myth-busting the next time I decide to enter the ring and battle my liberal leftist friends. This:

“When reason “inclines” toward acceptance of a moral proposition, but is not compelling, the proposition cannot be regarded as a first principle; acceptance is therefore in the category of convention. One who confuses a convention with a first principle is hardly a wise man.”

That is a thought to return to again and again.

And I know that I will.

The Philosophical Quest: Of Philosophy, Ethics, Law, and Halakhah, Rabbi J. David Bleich, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem (December 1, 2013). ISBN 978-1-59264-343-1

About the Author
Varda Epstein is a blogger and Communications Writer for