For the Talmud, Divine Law Is Not Absolute Law

Jan. 13 2017

Responding to a series of essays on her recent book, What’s Divine about Divine Law?, Christine Hayes elaborates on its central thesis: namely, that the talmudic rabbis—following ideas found in the Bible itself—saw halakhah as reflective of the divine will but not as an immutable, abstract reality existing independently of human interpretation. This view differs from that expressed in certain apocryphal works and in those of the Jewish philosopher Philo. For the latter, divine law is much like the Greek idea of “natural law,” which is derived by reason from the reality of the universe. And yet, Hayes argues, there are important similarities between the rabbinic view of divine law and the Greek view of natural law, especially as understood by the Stoics:

For all their differences, the Stoics and the biblical writers were driven by a shared vision. Each was seeking to ground written laws, the black-letter rules and legislation governing human society, in an authority that transcends mere convention but does not at the same time absolutize them. To connect the laws that govern us to a transcendent authority, . . . while retaining the possibility for critique, modification, and evolution of those laws, to bestow written law with authority without immutability, . . . authority without authoritarianism—is a tough needle to thread, yet both traditions manage it albeit it in dramatically different ways.

It is my contention, then, that both the Stoics and the biblical authors understood that to accord immutability and truth to written laws is the first step on the road to authoritarianism because the seduction of certainty and absolutes in the realm of the uncertain and relative (i.e., life), is beyond the ability of many mortals to resist. Indeed, as evidence of that seduction I would point to voices in both the philosophical and the biblical traditions that express a yearning for what I call in the book “robo-righteousness:” a desire to achieve virtue without the need to obey laws and commandments or to fight against sinful passions.

This powerful and anxious longing for robo-righteousness proved to be dangerous when, in the course of history, the two conceptions of divine law . . . were conflated. . . . Ironically, then, with this conflation of Torah and [the Greek version of divine/natural law] in the Hellenistic period, there emerged a conception of written law that neither the Stoics nor the biblical tradition had wanted and that each had taken great pains to guard against—a written law deemed immutable, rational, ontologically and metaphysically true, increasingly exempt from the adjustments and refinements of moral critique and moral reasoning: in other words, the Bible of much of subsequent Western tradition. . . .

It is this that the dominant voice of the Talmud resisted. . . . The talmudic vision is a difficult and demanding one because it requires constant work. It requires moral reasoning, debate, and argument, and subsequent Jewish tradition has not been consistently loyal to this vision through the ages.

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Read more at Ancient Jew Review

More about: ancient Judaism, Apocrypha, Natural law, Philo, Religion & Holidays, Talmud

 

Israel Should Try to Defang Hamas without Toppling It

Feb. 22 2019

For the time being, Hamas has chosen to avoid outright war with the Jewish state, but instead to apply sustained, low-intensity pressure through its weekly border riots and organizing terrorist cells in the West Bank. Yet it is simultaneously engaged in a major military build-up, which suggests that it has not entirely been deterred by the previous three Gaza wars. Yaakov Lappin considers Jerusalem’s options:

In recent years, the Israel Defense Force’s southern command, which is responsible for much of the war planning for Gaza, identified a long-term truce as the best of bad options for Israel. This is based on the understanding that an Israeli invasion of Gaza and subsequent destruction of the Hamas regime would leave Israel in the unenviable position of being directly in charge of some two-million mostly hostile Gazans. This could lead to an open-ended and draining military occupation. . . .

Alternatively, Israel could demolish the Hamas regime and leave Gaza, putting it on a fast track to a “Somalia model” of anarchy and violence. In that scenario, . . . multiple jihadist armed gangs lacking a central ruling structure would appear, and Israel would be unable to project its military might to any single “return address” in Gaza. This would result in a loss of Israel’s deterrent force on Gaza to keep the region calm. This scenario would be considerably worse than the current status quo.

But a third option, in between the options of leaving Gaza as it is and toppling Hamas in a future war, may exist. In this scenario, the IDF would decimate Hamas’s military wing in any future conflict but leave its political wing and police force in place. This would enable a rapid Israeli exit after a war, but avoid a Somalia-like fate for Gaza with its destructive implications for both Israelis and Gazans. . . .

On the one hand, Hamas’s police force is an intrinsic support system for Gaza’s terrorist-guerrilla forces. On the other hand, the police and domestic-security units play a genuine role in keeping order. Such forces have been used to repress Islamic State-affiliated cells that challenge Hamas’s rule. . . . Compared to the alternative scenarios of indefinite occupation or the “Somalia scenario,” a weakened Hamas might be the best and most realistic option.

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More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security