How a 19th-Century Russian Rabbi Used the Philosophy of Immanuel Kant to Understand Two of the Talmud’s Great Ethical Debates

According to one ancient rabbinic compendium, Rabbi Akiva considered the verse “You shall love your fellow as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:8) as “the great general principle of Torah.” But the same text also cites the opposing view of Akiva’s contemporary Ben Azzai, who, less intuitively, held “This is the book of the generations of man” (Genesis 5:1) to be an even greater principle. In his commentary to this passage, the Russian exegete Rabbi Meir Leybush ben Yeḥiel Mikhl (1809-1879)—better known as the Malbim—explains this debate with an implicit, but unmistakable, reference to the moral teachings of Immanuel Kant. Akiva simply articulated the golden rule, according to Malbim, while Ben Azzai, following Kant, saw it as unnecessarily subjective, instead seeking a universal maxim—thus his reference to the “generations of man,” i.e., all of humankind.

Francis Nataf notes that the Malbim ties this debate to a different opinion of Akiva:

[In] a classic discussion of Jewish lifeboat ethics, [concerning two people in danger of dying of thirst], Rabbi Akiva takes the position that if one has enough water to save only one person, he is fully justified in taking all of the water for himself. . . . The Kantian argument against Rabbi Akiva here would be that there is a categorical imperative of preventing the death of others, whenever one has that possibility. . . . Akiva’s position, however, it that the far more likely result of this scenario is that they will both die. Moreover―and this seems to be what the Malbim wishes to emphasize here―the determination of which life should be saved is subjective.

It must be noted that Jewish tradition has unanimously accepted the ruling of Rabbi Akiva with regard to taking the water for oneself. [Thus, the Malbim] shows why we should not automatically assume that the apparently more sophisticated- and sublime-sounding position of Ben Azzai is worthy of our sympathies. In making this association at the end of his discussion, Malbim is potentially shifting from a wholesale endorsement of Kantian ethics to a highly nuanced critique of it.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Biblical commentary, Immanuel Kant, Jewish ethics, Judasim, Malbim, Rabbi Akiva

Recognizing a Palestinian State Won’t Help Palestinians, or Even Make Palestinian Statehood More Likely

While Shira Efron and Michael Koplow are more sanguine about the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and more critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, than I am, I found much worth considering in their recent article on the condition of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Particularly perceptive are their comments on the drive to grant diplomatic recognition to a fictive Palestinian state, a step taken by nine countries in the past few months, and almost as many in total as recognize Israel.

Efron and Koplow argue that this move isn’t a mere empty gesture, but one that would actually make things worse, while providing “no tangible benefits for Palestinians.”

In areas under its direct control—Areas A and B of the West Bank, comprising 40 percent of the territory—the PA struggles severely to provide services, livelihoods, and dignity to inhabitants. This is only partly due to its budgetary woes; it has also never established a properly functioning West Bank economy. President Mahmoud Abbas, who will turn ninety next year, administers the PA almost exclusively by executive decrees, with little transparency or oversight. Security is a particular problem, as militants from different factions now openly defy the underfunded and undermotivated PA security forces in cities such as Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm.

Turning the Palestinian Authority (PA) from a transitional authority into a permanent state with the stroke of a pen will not make [its] litany of problems go away. The risk that the state of Palestine would become a failed state is very real given the PA’s dysfunctional, insolvent status and its dearth of public legitimacy. Further declines in its ability to provide social services and maintain law and order could yield a situation in which warlords and gangs become de-facto rulers in some areas of the West Bank.

Otherwise, any steps toward realizing two states will be fanciful, built atop a crumbling foundation—and likely to help turn the West Bank into a third front in the current war.

Read more at Foreign Affairs

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian statehood