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How the Rabbis Put God Back in Divine Law

April 12 2018

In the Bible, “divine law” means laws conveyed by God to man, usually via Moses. To ancient philosophers like Cicero, the phrase meant what we would now call natural law—laws in keeping with the world as God Himself (or the gods) designed it. The 1st-century-BCE Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, perhaps reflecting the attitudes of numerous Hellenistic Jews, sought to synthesize these views. At least, this is the schema put forth by Christine Hayes in her book What’s Divine about Divine Law? In her understanding, things proceed to become more complicated when we get to the apostle Paul, and even more so when it comes to the talmudic rabbis, who are her book’s main concern. Richard Hidary writes in his review:

Ironically, Philo’s defense of Torah as natural law opened a path toward dispensing with it altogether. If one could access and internalize the laws of nature directly as Abraham [supposedly] did, then what need was there for the external rituals? Paul’s answer to Professor Hayes’s question is that divine law isn’t the Torah. Mosaic law was a temporary set of rules promulgated at Sinai to keep the sinful Jews in check until Jesus’ redemption by faith.

Finally, [the 2nd-century-CE sage] Rabbi Joshua exclaims, “The Torah is not in heaven!” Divine law is not immutable natural law, [as Cicero or Philo would have it]. It was given from heaven at Sinai, but it is now in the possession of the sages to interpret as they best see fit. . . .

Hayes’s encyclopedic and nuanced study shows how this biblical model was distorted by Second Temple-era Jewish writers who accepted a Greek dichotomy of divine-versus–human law. The biblical vision, however, found continuity in the Talmud, only to be crossbred again with Hellenistic notions of divine law by later philosophers, kabbalists, and halakhists—though this last medieval and modern part is not really part of the story.

Hayes’s conclusion that the rabbis were the primary inheritors of the biblical notion of divine law will be certain to provoke many scholars of classical Judaism who take for granted that the rabbis moved farther away from biblical religion than did other Second Temple groups. The common assumption is that in their struggle to create a version of Judaism that would help them survive the trauma of the loss of the Temple, the rabbis turned to various forms of midrash to reinterpret the Bible radically, while incorporating at least some Greek terms and notions. . . . Yet Hayes convincingly shows that although the rabbis often deviate from biblical law in its details, their fundamental understanding of the divinity of the Torah’s laws directly continues that of the Bible itself. . . . In fact, the rabbinic willingness to modify the Torah’s laws follows from precisely the biblical understanding of law as the expression of the divine will that can change and that, in any case, must be interpreted.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Halakhah, Hebrew Bible, Judaism, Natural law, Paul of Tarsus, Philo, Religion & Holidays, Talmud

What U.S. Success in Syria Should Look Like

April 26 2018

Surveying the history of the Syrian civil war, Jack Keane and Danielle Pletka explain that Bashar al-Assad’s brutal rule and vicious tactics have led to the presence in his country of both Shiite terrorists, led by Hizballah and backed by Iran and Russia, and Sunni jihadist groups like Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda. Any American strategy, they argue, must bear this in mind:

The best option is a Syria without Assad, committed to a future without Iranian or Russian influence. This is not a Pollyanna-like prescription; there are substantial obstacles in the way, not least those we have encountered in Iraq. . . . [But] only such a Syria can guarantee an end to Iranian interference, to the transshipment of weapons for Hizballah, and to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction of the kind we saw used at Douma. (Iran has been instrumental in Syria’s chemical-weapons program for many years.) And, most importantly, only such a Syria can disenfranchise the al-Qaeda and IS affiliates that have found a foothold by exploiting the Syrian people’s desperation.

How do we get there? The United States must first consolidate and strengthen its position in eastern Syria from the Euphrates river to the eastern Syrian border. This involves clearing out the remnants of Islamic State, some several thousand, and ultimately eliminating pockets controlled by the Assad regime and Iranian forces in northeastern Syria. This would enable the creation of a control zone in the eastern part of the country as a base from which to build a credible and capable partner that is not subordinate to the Kurdish chain of command, while effectively shutting down Iran’s strategic land bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean. A regional Arab force, reportedly suggested by President Trump’s new national-security adviser, would be a welcome addition. But we should seriously doubt [the Arabs] will participate without American ground leadership and air support.

In western Syria, the United States should rebuild a Syrian opposition force with advisers, weapons, and air power while upping the pressure on Assad and his cronies to select a pathway to a negotiated peace. Pursuing a settlement in Geneva without such leverage over the Assad regime is pure fantasy. Finally, the United States and other Western powers must impede Iran’s and Russia’s ability to be resupplied. Syria’s airfields must be destroyed, and Syria’s airspace must remain clear.

Read more at National Interest

More about: Hizballah, Iran, ISIS, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy