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.

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

“Ending the War in Yemen” Would Lead to More Bloodshed and Threaten Global Trade

Dec. 13 2018

A bipartisan movement is afloat in Congress to end American support for the Saudi-led coalition currently fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. With frustration at Riyadh over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, reports of impending famine and a cholera outbreak in Yemen, and mounting casualties, Congress could go so far as to cut all funding for U.S. involvement in the war. But to do so would be a grave mistake, argues Mohammed Khalid Alyahya:

Unfortunately, calls to “stop the Yemen war,” though morally satisfying, are fundamentally misguided. . . . A precipitous disengagement by the Saudi-led coalition . . . would have calamitous consequences for Yemen, the Middle East, and the world at large. The urgency to end the war reduces that conflict, and its drivers, to a morality play, with the coalition of Arab states cast as the bloodthirsty villain killing and starving Yemeni civilians. The assumption seems to be that if the coalition’s military operations are brought to a halt, all will be well in Yemen. . . .

[But] if the Saudi-led coalition were to cease operations, Iran’s long arm, the Houthis, would march on areas [previously controlled by the Yemeni government] and exact a bloody toll on the populations of such cities as Aden and Marib with the same ruthlessness with which they [treated] Sanaa and Taiz during the past three years. The rebels have ruled Sanaa, kidnapping, executing, disappearing, systematically torturing, and assassinating detractors. In Taiz, they fire mortars indiscriminately at the civilian population and snipers shoot at children to force residents into submission.

[Moreover], an abrupt termination of the war would leave Iran in control of Yemen [and] deal a serious blow to the global economy. Iran would have the ability to obstruct trade and oil flows from both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb strait. . . . About 24 percent of the world’s petroleum and petroleum products passes through these two waterways, and Iran already has the capability to disrupt oil flows from Hormuz and threatened to do so this year. Should Iran acquire that capability in Bab el-Mandeb by establishing a foothold in the Gulf of Aden, even if it chose not to utilize this capability oil prices and insurance costs would surge.

Allowing Tehran to control two of the most strategic choke points for the global energy market is simply not an option for the international community. There is every reason to believe that Iran would launch attacks on maritime traffic. The Houthis have mounted multiple attacks on commercial and military vessels over the past several years, and Iran has supplied its Yemeni proxy with drone boats, conventional aerial drones, and ballistic missiles.

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More about: Iran, Oil, Politics & Current Affairs, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy, Yemen