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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More about: ancient Judaism, Apocrypha, Natural law, Philo, Religion & Holidays, Talmud

 

What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy