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.