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

The Struggle for Iraq, and What It Means for Israel

Oct. 17 2018

Almost immediately after the 2003 invasion, Iraq became a battleground between the U.S. and Iran, as the latter sent troops, money, and arms to foment and support an insurgency. The war on Islamic State, along with the Obama administration’s effort to align itself with the Islamic Republic, led to a temporary truce, but also gave Tehran-backed militias a great deal of power. Iran has also established a major conduit of supplies through Iraq to support its efforts in Syria. Meanwhile, it is hard to say if the recent elections have brought a government to Baghdad that will be pro-American or pro-Iranian. Eldad Shavit and Raz Zimmt comment how these developments might affect Israel:

Although statements by the U.S. administration have addressed Iran’s overall activity in the region, they appear to emphasize the potential for confrontation in Iraq. First and foremost, this [emphasis] stems from the U.S. perception of this arena as posing the greatest danger, in light of the extensive presence of U.S. military and civilian personnel operating throughout the country, and in light of past experience, which saw many American soldiers attacked by Shiite militias under Iranian supervision. The American media have reported that U.S. intelligence possesses information indicating that the Shiite militias and other elements under Iranian auspices intend to carry out attacks against American targets and interests. . . .

In light of Iran’s intensifying confrontation with the United States and its mounting economic crisis, Tehran finds it essential to maintain its influence in Iraq, particularly in the event of a future clash with the United States. The Iranian leadership has striven to send a message of deterrence to the United States regarding the implications of a military clash. . . .

A recently published report also indicates that Iran transferred ballistic missiles to the Shiite militias it supports in Iraq. Although Iran has denied this report, it might indeed attempt to transfer advanced military equipment to the Shiite militias in order to improve their capabilities in the event of a military confrontation between Iran and the United States and/or Israel, or a confrontation between [the militias] and the central government in Baghdad.

From Israel’s perspective, after years when the Iraqi arena received little attention from Israeli decision makers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have mentioned the possibility of Israel’s taking action against Iranian targets in Iraq. In this context, and particularly in light of the possibility that Iraq could become an arena of greater conflict between the United States and Iran, it is critical that there be full coordination between Israel and the United States. This is of particular importance due to [the American estimation of] stability in Iraq as a major element of the the campaign against Islamic State, which, though declared a success, is not yet complete.

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More about: Barack Obama, Iran, Iraq, ISIS, Israel & Zionism, U.S. Foreign policy