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

For Israelis, Anti-Zionism Kills

Dec. 14 2018

This week alone, anti-Zionists have killed multiple Israelis in a series of attacks; these follow the revelations that Hizballah succeeded in digging multiple attack tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel. Simultaneously, some recent news stories in the U.S. have occasioned pious reminders that anti-Zionism should not be conflated with anti-Semitism. Bret Stephens notes that it is anti-Zionists, not defenders of Israel, who do the most to blur that distinction:

Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way from, say, readers of the New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. . . . Anti-Zionism might have been a respectable point of view before 1948, when the question of Israel’s existence was in the future and up for debate. Today, anti-Zionism is a call for the elimination of a state—details to follow regarding the fate befalling those who currently live in it. . . .

Anti-Zionism is ideologically unique in insisting that one state, and one state only, doesn’t just have to change. It has to go. By a coincidence that its adherents insist is entirely innocent, this happens to be the Jewish state, making anti-Zionists either the most disingenuous of ideologues or the most obtuse. When then-CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill called last month for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” and later claimed to be ignorant of what the slogan really meant, it was hard to tell in which category he fell.

Does this make someone with Hill’s views an anti-Semite? It’s like asking whether a person who believes in [the principle of] separate-but-equal must necessarily be a racist. In theory, no. In reality, another story. The typical aim of the anti-Semite is legal or social discrimination against some set of Jews. The explicit aim of the anti-Zionist is political or physical dispossession.

What’s worse: to be denied membership in a country club because you’re Jewish, or driven from your ancestral homeland and sovereign state for the same reason? If anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are meaningfully distinct (I think they are not), the human consequences of the latter are direr.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Palestinian terror