BIBLICAL VIEW OF MAN, THE
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by Rabbi Dr. Leo Adler
Translated from the German by Daniel R. Schwartz
Foreword by Shimon Gesundheit
Hardcover, 141 pages
ISBN 13: 978-965-7108-96-3
ISBN 10: 965-7108-96-9
The Biblical View of Man argues cogently that the Bible is more
about human beings than about God, and insists that in the biblical
view, what human beings need is not so much wisdom or grace
but rather their own free will to fulfill the obligations that a loving
God has bestowed upon them in order to allow them to prove and
While plato thought no man who knew what was right could do wrong, and Paul thought that no man, even if
he knew what was right, could do it without the help of divine grace, the
Bible – so argues Leo Adler – is realistic enough to know that people
can sin knowingly, but also optimistic enough to teach that God has
given them both the choice and the ability to do right. According to
Adler, the exercise of such free will requires a firm commitment to God:
“The Bible’s recognition of the inner uncertainty of man’s being makes
the divine a necessity, pure belief in God something taken for granted,
and faithfulness to God the highest human virtue.”
The Biblical View of Man was originally published in German by Ernst Reinhardt Verlag in 1965, and appears now in English for the first time.
About the Author:
Rabbi Dr. Leo Adler (1915–1978), whom the upheavals of the
twentieth century took from seminary studies in Germany to study in the Mir
Yeshiva in Lithuania and then in Shanghai, spent the last quarter-century of his life
as rabbi of the Jewish community of Basel, Switzerland. During that period he
also earned a doctoral degree in modern philosophy and wrote several books in
German on Jewish tradition and religious thought. The Biblical View of Man brings
together perspectives that were nurtured by Jewish culture, by philosophical
inquiry, by his own study of the Bible, and by his manifold experiences in a troubled
Daniel R. Schwartz is a professor in the Department of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Shimon Gesundheit is a lecturer in the Department of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Praise for The Biblical View of Man:
"In The Biblical View of Man, the late Rabbi Dr. Leo Adler produced
a rare and moving account of how the Hebrew Bible views the human
condition under the sovereignty of God. Erudite, profound and inspiring,
it is marvelous that this work is now available to an English readership
through the superb translation of Professor Daniel Schwartz. Adler
reminds us compellingly that the Bible is not man’s book of God but
God’s book of mankind. This is a work that deserves to be widely read
by Jew and non-Jew alike."
–Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth
Writing this is different for me than writing the typical book review; the author is my grandfather. His biography, and the central message that
emerges from his writings, therefore, resonate for me in a uniquely personal way. However, I believe that many readers will appreciate the
central values inherent in this work.
Rabbi Dr. Leo Adler's life and thought was shaped by the chaotic historical events that marked his time period. He was raised and educated
in Germany, moving from Rabbinical seminary studies there to the Mir Yeshiva in Lithuania, and from there with the yeshiva to Shanghai, during
which time he was separated from his wife and infant son for over six years. He was later reunited with them, built a family as a refugee on
the shores of America, and ultimately moved to Basel, Switzerland, where he served as community rabbi until his death in 1978. In this capacity, he served not only his observant constituents, but interacted with the larger, non-observant community, as well as non-Jewish personalities of
the area. His ability to successfully relate to all, without compromising his ideology, was a hallmark of his character. He is therefore a paradigm
of that rare figure of which we have few examples: a religious personality steeped in secular culture and knowledge, yet profoundly and emotionally committed to halachic Jewish experience and observance.
Heavily based in modern existentialist philosophy, the central premise of this book is that the Bible is a work of anthropology, and not of
philosophy. This means that the Bible's essential purpose is not to convey abstract philosophical principles about God (Who is ultimately
beyond comprehension) but is a work intended for man - to direct him as to how to live his life. Man is not a neutral creature. Left unattended, he will fall into the abyss of moral depravity and bestial behavior. The Torah and its laws, therefore, transform and save man, giving him not mere principles and ideals in which to believe, but behaviors and actions in which to engage. The heart of Judaism, therefore, is the ethical-moral action as commanded by the Torah in the service of God. This is man's mission, and the path to his redemption.
The main premise is laid out in the opening chapters. Further chapters go on to analyze Biblical concepts in light of this principle. Concepts such as tzedek, mishpat, tzdaka, anava, yirat Hashem, and the nature of kedusha are all interpreted in this framework. The next section deals with later time periods in Jewish history, understanding apocryphal literature and the debate regarding Greek wisdom in the context of this theory as well. For example, the reason chazal excluded certain works from the canon, and were wary of chochma yevanit, (Greek wisdom), the author argues, is because these works opposed chazal's view of man's relation to God, valuing the rational over the behavioral, and understanding God in terms of metaphysics and ideas, instead of commanded behavior and experience.
What can this work, written in German in 1965, offer today's reader, or today's educator? As previously stated, the author possesses the ability
to craft a philosophy of Judaism, which is at once thoughtful and intellectually stimulating, while at the same time religiously sincere and
spiritually uplifting. In addition, its message is one whose articulation, sadly, often gets lost in the current dialogue about what it means to be a
truly religious Jew - that the major objective is personal character and behavior, and the rest is commentary.
In this recently translated work, Leo Adler argues cogently that the Bible is a book about human beings rather than a book about God. He maintains that it is both realisitc enough to know that people can sin knowingly, but also optimistic enough to teach that God has given them both the choice and the ability to do right.
-Jewish Book World
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.
-Dr. Israel Drazin
The Jewish Eye