I finished this book with only one lingering question: Why, having alerted his readers so effectively to the dangers of natural law in Jewish theology and having shown, nonetheless, its absolute indispensability, did the author not then go back, in true Thomist fashion, and answer his prior objections by assuring the reader that natural law is still not dangerous? In other words, perhaps the concept of natural law is both indispensable and yet no less fatal for that. I am thinking in this context of a remark by a character in one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories (“A Young Man in Search of Love”) who says: “A voice from heaven should be ignored if it is not on the side of justice.”
I mention this remark here because one of the sure signs of Kant’s victory over the Bible was the scandal that so many Victorian intellectuals and Anglican divines took when they read the story of Saul’s slaughter of the Amalekites under God’s direct orders. Saul obeys the divine dictate to slaughter “every man and woman, babe and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” of the enemy (1 Samuel 15:3). But he decides, on his own authority, to spare the king—a momentary “lapse” of human mercy that prompts Samuel, Saul’s divinely appointed prophet, to rebuke him for his disobedience, at which point Saul dutifully kills the Amalekite king before the Lord’s altar. On the whole, nineteenth–century readers were genuinely shocked at such passages, while many twentieth–century scoffers give the impression that they seek out such passages so that they can take a kind of impish delight in making believers uncomfortable.
Far from wanting to join the professional sneerers, I merely wish to point out that such a sensation of discomfiture was simply unknown in ancient and medieval times among Jewish and Christian writers (except perhaps Ambrose and Origen, who allegorized the passages). Now, however, the situation is quite otherwise: uneasiness against the warrior God of the Old Testament is widespread, most especially among believers, and for precisely the reasons that Novak adduces: the victory of Kant over metaphysics and theology.
That victory is not entirely a matter for dismay, in my opinion, as the example of Islam suggests. Consider the matter of the stoning of adulterers, which, to the great horror of Westerners, is part of Islamic jurisprudence. That practice, as it happens, is not required by the Qur’an. In fact, it was introduced into Islam from Jewish law, according to an oral tradition transmitted by the second Caliph of Medina, Umar ibn al–Khattab (reigned a.d. 634–644):
They brought to the Prophet, on whom be God’s blessing and peace, a Jew and a Jewess who had committed fornication. He said to them, “What do you find in your book?” They said, “Our rabbis blacken the faces of the guilty and expose them to public ridicule.” Abdullah ibn Salam [a convert to Islam from Judaism] said: “Messenger of God, tell the Jews to bring the Torah.” They brought it, but a Jew put his hand over the verse which prescribes stoning [probably Deuteronomy 22:21–22] and began to read what came before and after it. Ibn Salam said to him, “Raise your hand,” and there was the verse about stoning beneath his hand. The Messenger of God gave the order and they were stoned. . . . They were stoned on the level ground and I [Umar] saw the man leaning over the woman to shield her from the stones.
Now, Muhammad is obviously thinking of Moses when he orders the stoning of the fornicating pair, but the crucial point is that the Mosaic law being enforced here has reached the Prophet unmediated by either Talmud or New Testament. Moreover, for accidental reasons of history, Islam never passed through the “fiery brook” of the Enlightenment; its confrontation with Judaism and Christianity in the contemporary world is often intertwined with a simultaneous confrontation with the Enlightenment. The clash gets even more complicated by Islam’s much higher doctrine of revelation, which makes an accommodation with secular Enlightenment morality even more painful than has proved to be the case with Judaism and Christianity. (Islam’s high doctrine of revelation had such difficulty conceding legitimacy to the deliverances of reason that it eventually deprived Muslim philosophers of the oxygen needed for independent, rational reflection; and Muslim philosophy almost entirely died out with the death of Averroës in a.d. 1198.)
At least in certain formal respects, Islam can be described, after a fashion, as “Judaism without a Euthyphro problem,” or Moses without a Talmud, so to speak—as the civil war in Algeria so amply testifies, where the most horrific acts of barbarity are perpetrated under religious auspices and in the name of the God of revelation. The Euthyphro problem lives on in today’s headlines, and it seems to me that David Novak needs to probe this issue more deeply, for his own (admittedly quite mild) Enlightenment–bashing leaves him with more problems than he seems to realize.
I should mention that the author was kind enough to mention in the preface that he was motivated to write Natural Law in Judaism because of certain critical remarks this reviewer made in these pages (June/July 1993) about his previous work, Jewish Social Ethics. While certainly flattering, his admission of my accidental influence on the present book rather deters me from making any further suggestions for his later work, lest I derail his research plans for the next few years. But despite my diffidence, I cannot help but feel that he needs to engage more deeply Singer’s principle that no voice from Heaven can speak against justice and still be, as it claims, from Heaven. This principle seems intuitively true to most believing Jews and Christians today; but if it is true, then we come right back to the Euthyphro problem, rational morality’s inevitable tension inside a religion of revelation.
The author also mentions, if only in passing, that the greatest vulnerability of natural law theory, both in ancient and modern times, stems from a kind of cultural myopia that too easily reads in one’s own local customs or prejudices as “natural,” as in Aristotle’s view that women are naturally inferior to men or St. Paul’s assertion that “nature teaches” that long hair on a man is a disgrace but on a woman is her glory (1 Corinthians 11:14–15). Novak’s concession reminded me of a similar point made by Yves Simon, one that must be borne in mind by all natural law theorists:
For a number of years we have been witnessing a tendency . . . to assume that natural law decides, with the universality proper to the necessity of essences, incomparably more issues than it is actually able to decide. There is a tendency to treat in terms of natural law questions which call for treatment in terms of prudence. . . . People are quick to realize what is weak, or dishonest, in pretending to decide by the axioms of natural law, or by airtight deduction from these axioms, questions that really cannot be solved except by the obscure methods of prudence, and they gladly extend to all theory of natural law the contempt that they rightly feel toward such sophistry. Thus, whereas an ideological current marked by relativistic and evolutionistic beliefs may cause a situation strongly unfavorable to the theory of natural law, ideological currents expressive of an eagerness to believe that some things are right and some things wrong by nature may cause another kind of difficulty and call for a supplement of wisdom on our part.
Russell Hittinger echoes this warning when he points out that “in our time and culture, natural law is invoked as a response to the breakdown of tradition, to moral relativism and nihilism, to various species of utilitarianism, and to legal positivism. It is expected to be an all–purpose antidote to the estrangements of modernity. Called upon to remediate more than reasonably can be expected, natural law is liable to descend into ideology.”
But how does one distinguish between the genuine teachings of nature and the easy ideological import masquerading as the real article? Novak is not the only one who skirts this issue; in fact it marks off a theme too rarely treated across the spectrum of natural law theorists. But unless the issue is treated and resolved, the whole superstructure of natural law could come tumbling down like Samson’s Philistine temple and bury the theory alive. At some point in the future, it seems to me, Novak will need to ask what gets included in natural law: the immorality of contraception? of polygamy? of income–tax evasion? the morality of judicial review? of democratic over theocratic government? of no–fault divorce law?
These rejoinders, however, are mere cavils when set against the greater achievement of this book. The author’s mind is blissfully free of those stale, hoary categories that have led to Judaism’s marginalization, and Novak has also mastered a staggeringly large amount of learning, both Talmudic and philosophical, that he is able to wear lightly. There is something to learn on every page (especially for the Gentile reader) and yet the material is presented so that the text flows easily.
At one point, Novak quotes the Talmud to the effect that “when one grasps too much, one grasps nothing; when one grasps something less, something indeed is grasped.” This also happens to catch the essence of the author’s own scholarship, for he knows just the right text to cite to illustrate his point, yet without overly burdening the reader. (Printing the references as true footnotes, that is, at the bottom of the page rather than as endnotes at the back of the book, also trims a good half–hour off one’s reading time.)
I expect Natural Law in Judaism will prove even more illuminating for Christians (and secularists) than it will for most Jews. As the author says at one point, “An old Jewish proverb has it, when on the right road, one is bound to meet other travellers.” Speaking at least for this traveller, I cannot imagine having a more learned, affable, and lucid companion along the way than David Novak.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is the author of Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and editor of German Essays on Religion