Novak- Natural Law in Judiasm part 1

Natural Law in Judaism – David Novak (Cambridge UP). Here we go again with another volume.

This book, except for a few slips and snipes, is not directly against liberals. Rather it presents Novaks view of Judaism.

Chapter One – Jews were outside public sphere in middle ages and did not know how to enter. We need natural law based on God’s wisdom to engage public life.

Chapter Two – The Bible is filled with stories showing the pre-existence of morality. They prove natural law. Novak does not really entertain that they might be intuitionism like Saadyah Nahmanides, and Rav Kook, or virtues and phronesis like Maimonides, or cultivated conscience like R. Israel of Salant.

Chapter Three – Jewish ethics are based on natural law. Novak assumes that we are darshinan taama dekra (expose reasons for the scriptural law),  we work on reasons for the commandments, and that the Talmudic discussions on rational commandments were actually derived by reason. The Noahide law shows that natural law undergirds the Talmud. He also assumes that the Meiri’s category of “people of relgion” to be the Noahide laws and that the Meiri is the best explanation for the Talmudic law. He assumes the natural law, which preexists the halakhah, includes the principles of avoiding desecration of the name, human dignity, and misleading someone in business.

Chapter Four – Maimonides showed the rational structure to the law and its teleology in accordance with nature.

Chapter Five is the core argument of the book. Albo brought the term natural law into Judaism but it was always there.We receive norms from God on the right way to act. We avoid the two incorrect positions – it is incorrect to act from autonomy and it is is incorrect to think we have to wait for Divine commands. God gave us the basic principles as norms know through natural law. The Talmud is a record of the Jewish understanding of what natural law requires.

Novak rejects legal formalism and is happy  that his approach rejects the approach of the legal formalist Hans Kelsen. Unlike formalism- Novaks law corresponds to a divine reality, is given to humans to make the world a better place and shows the primacy of God’s wisdom in our world. Our major activity in maintaining the world through Torah is the development of the rational laws through philosophic activity. Jewish law, philosophy, and theology all merge in our quest to apply the natural law to the world’s problems.

He pushes Maimonides slightly on the side because he is too Platonic and based on an ideal nature. Now we are post Cassier and Habermas and knowledge is for human construction and to serve human interests.

Novak quotes Etienne Gilson on the need for revelation and to see divine wisdom in our world. Rav Lichtenstein quotes the same idea from Gilson But for Rav Lichtenstein, the Divine wisdom is the Talmud as know through the books in the Beit Midrash; the halakhah in is playing out by the hakhamim is Divine wisdom. For Novak, the divine wisdom is the Jewish natural law, the norms given by God and know as the basis of the Bible and as the principles on which the Talmud is based. The divine wisdom is in our rationally understanding these norms of natural law and philosophically applying them.

Novak does explicitly rejects Rabbi JD Bleich  who equates halakhah and ethics. Novak argues that ethical principles inform the law and one cannot decide the law without philosophic principles.

Novak avoids the presentation of Maimonides as done by David Hartman and Isadore Twersky where Maimonides combines halakhah with philosophic quest. In contract, Novak presents Maimonides as working for natural law philosophic principles to derive Jewish law.

Chapter Six – Noahide Laws The Noahide laws are not just something before Judaism or of a lower status but they are the basic principles of morality for Jews too. Moral by definition mean the Noahide laws. The image of God means that people can make more of themselves than they can from a natural state.

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Etienne Gilson

3 responses to “Novak- Natural Law in Judiasm part 1

  1. If one accepts Novak as Jewish thinker akin to Hartman, Soloveitchik, Berkovits, Heschel, et al. than this book is forgivable and can be viewed as a particular take on Judaism.

    He is then part of both a long and a late 20th century Jewish discussion about Natural Law.

    Presumably, this would go over well in a Catholic University.

  2. I am not sure that placing him a set changes anything?
    Forget the Catholic readers, who are not as naive as you make them. What does this hold for Jews? Is it compelling? There are many thinkers that I disagree with that still have compelling visions of Judiasm or important answers to our lives. Who among Jews would accept this view of halakhah?

  3. Based upon your comments, I could see Novack as compelling for Jews with a traditional conservative public oriented orientation.

    His rejection of halakhic formalism is appealing as well as his anti-elitism (in his rejection of Twersky & Hartman).

    It’s not too difficult to argue for some form of Natural Law in Judaism. Novack just pushes the envelop as far as it can go.

    Personally, I may not find what he is saying within the sources and I have a skeptical attitude towards natural law.

    Those without as strong an issue with use (or abuse) of sources and have an intutive sense of natural law could find this vision of Judaism useful.

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