Why Philosophers Should Take Biblical Ethics Seriously

University departments of philosophy often exclude the Hebrew Bible from discussions of the history of ethics, treating it as belonging solely to the domain of religious or ancient Near Eastern studies. In his Ethics in Ancient Israel, John Barton, an Anglican priest and Oxford professor, seeks to return the Tanakh to its rightful place as a work of ethical profundity. James Nati sums up his approach:

Barton is particularly motivated by the desire to push back against the idea that the Hebrew Bible simply demands obedience to the deity. [As he puts it:] “There is an almost universal popular belief, supported by much technical biblical scholarship, that biblical morality is the parade example of a divine-command theory of ethics. . . . The Bible thus comes down very clearly on one side of the [question debated in the Plato’s Euthyphro]: what is good is so because God commands it. . . . One aim of this book is to contest this assumption.”

[Barton sets forth] seven ways in which the Hebrew Bible attests to an idea of a moral order that is distinct from positive legislation from the Deity, even if that legislation aligns with the moral order in some instances. . . . He acknowledges that the popular idea which he is combating—that the Hebrew Bible simply demands adherence to divine commands, and that these commands are often irrational—is present in a number of biblical texts. Chapter 5 [of the book] takes up these examples, and seeks to argue that, while they are certainly there, they are not as thoroughly positivistic or irrational as is often assumed.

[T]he book as a whole is a very impressive work of scholarship that takes aim at a widely held and overly simplistic view of ancient Israelite ethics as obedience to divine commands. . . . Perhaps most praiseworthy is the fact that running through it is an effort to combat characterizations of ancient Israelite ethics that have been used as fodder for anti-Semitism. This is an absolutely essential component of any treatment of thought in the Hebrew Bible, and especially, I would argue, for those of us who teach in divinity schools.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Ethics, Hebrew Bible

Understanding the Background of the White House Ruling on Anti-Semitism and the Civil Rights Act

Dec. 13 2019

On Wednesday, the president signed an executive order allowing federal officials to extend the protections of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to Jews. (The order, promptly condemned for classifying Jews as a separate nationality, did nothing of the sort.) In 2010, Kenneth Marcus called for precisely such a ruling in the pages of Commentary, citing in particular the Department of Education’s lax response to a series of incidents at the University of California at Irvine, where, among much elase, Jewish property was vandalized and Jewish students were pelted with rocks, called “dirty Jew” and other epithets, and were told, “Jewish students are the plague of mankind.”

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel on campus, U.S. Politics