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

An American Withdrawal from Iraq Would Hand Another Victory to Iran

Since October 7, the powerful network of Iran-backed militias in Iraq have carried out 120 attacks on U.S. forces stationed in the country. In the previous year, there were dozens of such attacks. The recent escalation has led some in the U.S. to press for the withdrawal of these forces, whose stated purpose in the country is to stamp out the remnants of Islamic State and to prevent the group’s resurgence. William Roberts explains why doing so would be a mistake:

American withdrawal from Iraq would cement Iran’s influence and jeopardize our substantial investment into the stabilization of Iraq and the wider region, threatening U.S. national security. Critics of the U.S. military presence argue that [it] risks a regional escalation in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Iran. However, in the long term, the U.S. military has provided critical assistance to Iraq’s security forces while preventing the escalation of other regional conflicts, such as clashes between Turkey and Kurdish groups in northern Iraq and Syria.

Ultimately, the only path forward to preserve a democratic, pluralistic, and sovereign Iraq is through engagement with the international community, especially the United States. Resisting Iran’s takeover will require the U.S. to draw international attention to the democratic backsliding in the country and to be present and engage continuously with Iraqi civil society in military and non-military matters. Surrendering Iraq to Iran’s agents would not only squander our substantial investment in Iraq’s stability; it would greatly increase Iran’s capability to threaten American interests in the Levant through its influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Read more at Providence

More about: Iran, Iraq, U.S. Foreign policy