Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

“Talmudic”⁠—Properly Understood

In his otherwise fine article, “Why the News Makes Us Dumb” (October 1991), John Sommerville writes, “Belief in the first amendment is not to be questioned. In fact, the faithful show their devotion by a hundred Talmudic expansions on that simple commandment.” . . . In such usage “Talmudic” connotes a process of hairsplitting and constructing legal fictions far out of the context of the original text. It stems from the charge made by many Christians throughout history that Jewish tradition had distorted the true meaning of Scripture. Using “Talmudic” in such a connotation is similar to the use of “casuistical.” . . . In fact, since the terms are often used interchangeably to suggest a rabbinic-scholastic type of exegetical slight of hand, it behooves both Jewish and Catholic scholars to remind even intellectuals that Talmudic reasoning which is quite casuistical and casuistical reasoning which is quite Talmudic are examples of profound human reasoning when done properly. Perhaps both forms of reasoning have gotten a bad name because Jewish rabbinics scholars and Catholic scholastics have often done them badly. Indeed, if Talmudic-casuistical reasoning is the attempt to expand the wisdom of Scripture and its traditions into contemporary situations⁠—the “public square” if you will⁠—then First Things and its authors should strive to be Talmudic casuists in the very best sense.

David Novak
Department of Religious Studies
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA

Travesty and a Tragedy

The October issue of First Things included an article that posed the question, “What can be asked of a judge?”, the thrust being that the only question that should be put to a nominee for the Court is whether he understands and will be faithful to the Constitution that the Founders produced. It added, “All the rest is partisan smoke.” How ironic that partisan smoke was already filling the stately theatre of the Senate Caucus room while this issue was being read by its subscribers. An American Tragedy was being played out as Judge Clarence Thomas was put on an unprecedented public trial in which he was made to defend his character and reputation against the allegations of a woman brought in at the eleventh hour to discredit him. As the drama unfolded, the world watched the cruel shattering of a decent man in a seventeenth-century Salem-like atmosphere, interrogated beyond human endurance while the world listened. The ending of the drama saw the confirmation of this honorable man, and perhaps in some way revealed qualities we may not have known about him⁠—his sense of the moral, his forthrightness in facing the Senate, his courage in the face of his ordeal. But something in this process has left a wound on our nation just as if it left a wound on Judge Thomas. If we allow the process to go beyond the fundamental questions of whether a judge understands and will be faithful to the Constitution, then we are in grave danger of making a cruel mockery of the confirmation hearings, and discouraging good men from coming forward . . . .

Hortense Cupo
Staten Island, NY

Morality and Paternalism

I have read with interest Gerard Bradley’s piece, “The Constitution and the Erotic Self” (October 1991). Not being trained in either law or philosophy, it is possible that I simply missed some of the nuances. So I will not engage in a dispute over constitutional law. But if I understand Mr. Bradley’s basic premise correctly, the article illustrates a fundamental cleavage among conservatives (of whom I consider myself one). On the one side are conservatives like Mr. Bradley . . . who see a paternalistic role for government, and on the other persons like myself who fear strong government of any sort and want to keep its power strictly limited.

Most of us probably prefer to live in and be members of a moral society. But conservatives of my ilk worry that any government with the power to exercise a “paternalistic concern for the moral character of persons” will also be a government that can easily be tyrannical. Consequently, we wish a government with only such power as is absolutely required to maintain public order and protect life, limb, and property. The vital responsibility for teaching morals rests with the church as an institution parallel to, but wholly separated from, government, and the only moral responsibility of government is to assure that individuals live in a society where moral choices are possible.

To be sure, American government departs from my idea in many ways. With so many other interest groups looking to government to correct perceived wrongs and grant special favors, it is understandable that religious leaders would do so too. Unfortunately, too many of us want government to protect us from our own lapses and failures. Yet if many of us adopt the sexual mores of swine, it is not an indictment of government but of the church. The distressing failure of church leaders to accept responsibility for their own shortcomings as teachers is not cause for government intervention to suppress the erotic self, but for renewed effort by the church to be about its job of transforming that self into a new creature, saving souls the only way they can be saved, one by one.

James C. Hite
Clemson, SC

Applause, Applause

My heartiest applause goes to Jon D. Levenson for his essay “The God of Abraham and the Enemies of ‘Eurocentrism’” (October 1991). He presents a strikingly complete synthesis of the apocalyptically dangerous assumptions that continue to undermine our Judeo-Christian heritage. He exposes the great demons of our age: the assertion of “superior” races, the denial of transcendent principles and objective discourse (including the myth of Eurocentrism), and the heinous excesses of modern feminism as but the three heads of one Hydra. My great fear is that while the theological ramifications and cultural expressions of the Jewish and Catholic traditions squabble, the beast slowly devours both the natural and adoptive children of Abraham.

God bless Professor Levenson for lessening my fears a little.

Thomas M. D’Alessandro
Sacred Heart Religious
Education Center
Rochelle Park, NJ