What’s Legal about Jewish Law?

In his book, Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law (excerpted in Mosaic), Chaim Saiman aims to explain exactly what halakhah—usually translated as “Jewish law”—actually is. Moshe Koppel writes in his laudatory review:

Saiman notes at the [book’s] outset that halakhah is less than law in that it is neither legislated nor enforced by state institutions and hasn’t been for at least two millennia. He also notes that it is more than law in that it engages its adherents much more thoroughly and intensely than a legal system engages its subjects; no layman goes to hear a lecture on financial regulation, though many go to lectures on Bava Kama, [the talmudic tractate dealing with torts]. . . . This argument is so convincing that it suggests that, if one wishes to explain halakhah to the uninitiated, perhaps law is not the most apt basis for comparison.

The correct comparison, in my opinion, is to a system of social norms, the set of informal rules that, though not enforced by any official bodies, govern our lives much more thoroughly than do laws: how to dress for an occasion, where to stand in conversation and what to say, when gifts are required and what is an appropriate gift, to whom to show deference and how, table manners, workplace interactions, phone etiquette, dating rules, and on and on.

Halakhah is a lot more like a system of social norms than like a system of law, along all the dimensions that Saiman mentions. Apart from the fact that such norms are neither legislated nor enforced by the state, they also engage people in much the way halakhah does. The literature on social norms includes codes (Emily Post and wannabes), responsa (agony aunts and self-styled ethicists in newspapers), and learned novellae by legions of academics. And if people don’t often flock to lectures on the ins and outs of social norms, it’s only because such lectures are unnecessary. The pop culture they consume, from self-help books to Hollywood movies and television sitcoms, already consists of thinly-veiled morality tales designed precisely to instruct them in current standards of appropriate behavior and warn them of the consequences of failing to comply.

To be sure, I am not suggesting that halakhah is simply another system of social norms and nothing more need be said. Obviously, committed Jews regard violating the laws of Shabbat as a more serious matter than belching at the dinner table. [And], as Saiman illustrates at great length, the literature on halakhah through the generations relates to halakhah as if it were legislated and enforced, even if in fact the relevant institutions have been in abeyance for a few millennia.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Halakhah, Judaism, Law, Religion & Holidays


Why President Biden Needs Prime Minister Netanyahu as Much as Netanyahu Needs Biden

Sept. 28 2023

Last Wednesday, Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu met for the first time since the former’s inauguration. Since then, Haim Katz, Israel’s tourism minister, became the first Israeli cabinet member to visit Saudi Arabia publicly, and Washington announced that it will include the Jewish state in its visa-waiver program. Richard Kemp, writing shortly after last week’s meeting, comments:

Finally, a full nine months into Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest government, President Joe Biden deigned to allow him into his presence. Historically, American presidents have invited newly installed Israeli prime ministers to the White House shortly after taking office. Even this meeting on Wednesday, however, was not in Washington but in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

Such pointed lack of respect is not the way to treat one of America’s most valuable allies, and perhaps the staunchest of them all. It is all about petty political point-scoring and interfering in Israel’s internal democratic processes. But despite his short-sighted rebuke to the state of Israel and its prime minister, Biden actually needs at least as much from Netanyahu as Netanyahu needs from him. With the 2024 election looming, Biden is desperate for a foreign-policy success among a sea of abject failures.

In his meeting with Netanyahu, Biden no doubt played the Palestinian issue up as some kind of Saudi red line and the White House has probably been pushing [Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman] in that direction. But while the Saudis would no doubt want some kind of pro-forma undertaking by Israel for the sake of appearances, [a nuclear program and military support] are what they really want. The Saudis’ under-the-table backing for the original Abraham Accords in the face of stiff Palestinian rejection shows us where its priorities lie.

Israel remains alone in countering Iran’s nuclear threat, albeit with Saudi and other Arab countries cheering behind the scenes. This meeting won’t have changed that. We must hope, however, that Netanyahu has been able to persuade Biden of the electoral benefit to him of settling for a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia rather than holding out for the unobtainable jackpot of a two-state solution.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Joseph Biden, Saudi Arabia, U.S.-Israel relationship