Universalism and Jewish Values
May 15, 2001
Transcript of the lecture delivered on May 15, 2001, at the Harmonie Club in
New York City.
My talk this afternoon was inspired by an earlier Morgenthau Lecture, Amartya
Rights and Asian Values" (PDF: 1.37 MB, 35 pages). Sen's subject is
perhaps best described as the universality of universalism itself, which has
been called into question by Asian traditionalists who claim that universal
doctrines like "human rights" are Western inventions and imperial
impositions. Sen shows, in an admirably convincing way, that similar doctrines
can be defended from within the world of Asian cultures. I want to make an
argument of the same kind about the smaller world of the Jewish tradition -- an
argument that has, I think, both local and general interest.
Throughout the enlightenment years, which in the case of the Jews extended
from the last decades of the 18th century to the end of the 19th, prodigious
efforts were made to discover a Jewish universalism or, better, to define
Judaism as a universal religion of ethical reason. These efforts were sometimes
philosophical, sometimes polemical, sometimes merely apologetic; they were in
any case convincing for one practical reason: the politics of ordinary Jews
during those same years (and ever since) seemed to confirm them. Everywhere, Jews
played a leading role in universalist political movements, liberal, socialist,
and, later on, communist too. Wasn't this politics, in some sense at least, an
expression of, or a secular continuation of, their Judaism?
But these were emancipated Jews, and even when the writers and activists
among them looked to Jewish sources for their universalism -- the creation of
men and women in God's image, the liberation from Egyptian bondage, the
prophetic critique of injustice, the vision of a general redemption -- the
actual creeds they espoused were more likely to derive from Kant or Marx than
from the Bible or Talmud. Indeed, they could find what they needed in the
Bible and Talmud to support a universalist politics and morality, but the
discovery was too easy: they simply picked the nicest passages and ignored
everything else. Their programmatic politics had little in common with the
tradition as a whole or with the traditional life of the scattered Jewish
communities of the exile.
Hence counter-enlightenment followed quickly upon enlightenment. Already in
the 19th century there were Jewish writers who defended the traditional way of
life and described enlightenment politics (and reformed religion) as a flight
from Judaism, an effort to assimilate into the gentile world. Similar arguments
are still being made today: "The Judaism of the last two centuries,"
writes Michael Wyschogrod, perhaps the most interesting of American orthodox
intellectuals, "is the Judaism of self-liquidation." As Wyschogrod's
brilliant book, The Body of Faith, suggests, an anti-enlightenment
traditionalism can still be defended 200 years after the death of Moses
Mendelssohn -- and defended with what, from the other side, has to be
described as unexpected vigor.
This defense of tradition represents a Jewish
version of the argument about "Asian values." Orthodox Jews (not all
of them, but many) uphold what they take to be the true understanding of divine
election and halakhic
[Jewish law] order against the ever-encroaching forces of Western culture. They
are resolutely opposed to universalism, at least in its secular philosophical
and political versions. They have little use for the idea
of human rights or for the claims that are made in its name. Like Asian
traditionalists, they reject feminist demands for equality and insist that their
own familial life, with all its hierarchies, is superior to anything available
in the West. In Israel's disputes about foreign policy, they are unwilling to
recognize a universal right of self-determination or to
acknowledge the claims of Palestinians to land and sovereignty.
Though I am a product of enlightenment and emancipation, I don't think that
it is enough today to respond to the traditionalist revival by reiterating 19th
century descriptions of Jewish universalism. Judaism is
manifestly not a religion of ethical reason; no one looking at contemporary
orthodoxy and ultra-orthodoxy can have any illusions about that. Like the
other world religions, it includes powerful rationalist and ethical doctrines --
and reform Jews especially have made the most of these; but it includes much
else besides. At the most abstract level, monotheism, creation "in the
image," and messianic redemption can generate a
powerful universalist commitment.
That son of Perdition anti-Christ
But the concrete life of the Jewish people for most of its history hasn't
been dominated by those abstractions, but rather by a God of history who not
only created the universe but who also
chose the Jews, and who will one day bring them a redeemer, the king messiah,
son of David.
He did, they rejected him and now will
"Choose" one who will come in his own name
Between the historical moment of election and the promised but always
postponed moment of redemption, the life of religious Jews has been narrowly
circumscribed, highly vulnerable, and intensely parochial. Especially so during
the long years of exile, before emancipation and sovereignty: the scattered
communities were everywhere subordinate and, most of the time, beleaguered and
We can readily imagine this experience as the basis for a
"liberationist" ethics and a liberal or leftist politics; it can also,
however, produce an inwardly turned traditionalism, hostile toward the outside
world, resentful of would-be intermediaries, and deeply suspicious of any kind
of moral, political, or social inclusiveness. Among religious men and women,
this latter outcome seems the more likely one. Wyschogrod, once again a useful
example, describes "ethics"
as the Judaism of assimilated Jews.
Nonetheless, there are interesting universalist or universalizing arguments
that have been made within the Jewish tradition, in the classical texts and
commentaries that reflect what I've called the concrete life of the Jews --
which means, they are not philosophical or polemical or apologetic in character.
I don't want to deny the value of arguments that take these latter forms -- and
that figure in the work of major Jewish writers like Philo,
Cohen; but I am looking for something else: for the concrete, inescapable
universalism of people who are not, so to speak, first-order universalists. And
the place to look is in what might be called the intellectual marchlands,
the border areas where practical encounters with "the
others" ordinarily occur (and also
where they are imagined, worried about, anticipated, and reflected on). In
biblical history and prophecy there are repeated efforts to deal with, if not
quite to understand, the gentile nations, and the same efforts are continued or
renewed in rabbinic legal discussions.
These arguments are valuable and worth recovering precisely because the
universalist positions they sometimes defend differ from the standard versions
of philosophical universalism. They reflect the impact of a strongly
particularist creed, and they represent, most of the time, a voice from below.
Enlightenment universalism in its original French version was, after all, the
universalism of an elite class in the leading country of the Western world; and
though the Jewish maskilim (enlighteners) were from a different class and
country, they did the best they could to adapt and naturalize the original
version. Pre-emancipation Jewish universalism, by contrast, is the universalism
of the weak. I want to reclaim it now, without pretending that it dominates the
tradition; I claim only that it is a significant presence, which has been
repressed by most contemporary "traditionalists." Traditions should
never be left to their conservative defenders.
My account of this peculiarly Jewish universalism will focus, appropriately
for this occasion, on international politics. Once the Jews are a stateless
people, of course, international politics doesn't take conventional forms, but I
think that I can make it recognizable. I will begin before statelessness, with
two biblical examples. In thinking about these two, it is important to remember
that the Israelite kingdoms of the biblical age were themselves small and weak,
and that the local imperialisms -- Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian -- were
violent and brutal and, in historical succession, triumphant. So there is a
significant sense in which the Bible is already the textual record of a
subordinate people, even though modern Zionists looked to it as a prooftext for
Jewish political independence and warrior heroism. After the biblical examples,
I will turn to two rabbinic arguments that are not discussed, as far as I know,
in secular or Zionist literature.
Consider first the following lines from the prophet Amos:
Thus said the Lord:
For three transgressions of Damascus,
For four, I will not revoke it [the decree of punishment]
Because they threshed Gilead
With threshing boards of iron....
Thus said the Lord:
For three transgressions of Gaza
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because they exiled an entire population....
Thus said the Lord,
For three transgressions of Tyre,
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because they handed over
An entire population to Edom
Ignoring the covenant of brotherhood....
Thus said the Lord:
For three transgressions of Edom,
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because he pursued his brother with the sword
And repressed all pity....
Thus said the Lord:
For three transgressions of the Ammonites,
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because they ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead
In order to enlarge their own territory....
Thus said the Lord:
For three transgressions of Moab,
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because he burned the bones Of the king of Edom to lime....(Amos 1:3-2:1)
In his Ancient
Weber describes the "transgressions" listed here as violations
"of a form of international religious law which was presupposed as valid
among the Palestine peoples." "Religious law" sounds right, given
the commitment to divine punishment with which each indictment begins. But whose
religious law is this? The acts described are not mentioned in any of the
Israelite codes; they are not the subject of any divine commands elsewhere in
I suspect that this is in fact conventional law or, perhaps better, a kind of
moral custom, obviously violated in practice, but nonetheless the product of
informal, perhaps sometimes of formal, agreement. The prophet promises divine
enforcement; he doesn't speak of divine revelation, and the only covenant he
mentions is between two of the "Palestinian" kingdoms, not between
Israel (or any of the other nations) and God. Nor is anything said about the
idolatrous practices of the nations listed in the passages I have quoted; they
are not condemned for their idolatry; no specifically religious demands are made
upon them; they appear here as equal members of a society of states.
Note the substance of the transgressions: what is
indicted here is extreme cruelty, reaching, probably, to massacre; mass
deportation and enslavement; the violation of treaties; and the desecration of
the dead -- all taking place in time of war. In the verses that come
immediately after the ones I've quoted, Amos turns to Israel (Aholibah)
and Judah (Aholah) with equal fierceness, but
in those cases he is concerned with idolatry and domestic injustice ("they
trample the heads of the poor..."), not with foreign affairs, and he
explicitly invokes divine law and covenantal responsibility.
These last are familiar texts; they show the prophet at home, in his role as
social critic, and along with similar passages in other prophetic books, they
have undoubtedly played a part in shaping the liberal/left universalism of
emancipated Jews. But the earlier passages are at least equally interesting,
even though Amos shows no concern for social justice within the neighboring
nations. He is concerned only with what we call war crimes; the Amos text is a
very early example of the effort to set limits on the conduct of war.
It is revealing, I think, that the effort is made within the small
international society of what Weber calls "the Palestine peoples" --
that is, the two Israelite kingdoms and their immediate neighbors. The limits
that are set, though apparently ineffective, are reciprocal: most of the crimes
that Amos describes were committed against Israel or Judah, but he also
takes notice, as Weber says, of "the injustice of a third people against
against Edom. The promised divine punishments (omitted from the quotation
above) don't quite fit the customary code. Some of them seem to be directed only
against what we would call military targets: "I will set fire to the wall
of Rabbah,/And...shall devour its fortresses." But God also
says: "I will wipe out the inhabitants of Ashdod," which suggests that
he too has "repressed all pity." The conventions apparently don't
apply to him.
Nonetheless, when prophets like Nahum condemn the cruelty of the Assyrians,
they are relying on understandings about legitimate warfare exactly like those
that underlie the Amos text. The understandings, then, are taken to have
universal extension; they apply to everyone's behavior. But they were first
worked out among the small peoples; there is no evidence that the Assyrians
accepted them, though even they understood the obligations of a treaty and,
despite their reputation for cruelty, may have believed themselves to be
fighting within some set of rules.
For my purposes here, I simply want to point to the Israelite acceptance of
conventional law alongside divine, revealed law and to the prophetic invocation
of the moral/legal conventions in arguments about military conduct in the
international arena. Statehood makes this sort of thing possible, and perhaps
necessary, even when the state structures are fairly rudimentary. In the long
years of statelessness, the laws
of war were mostly ignored by Jewish writers (they are obviously relevant again
today). Weber is surely right in reading the Amos text as the reflection of an
actually existing "international law." But its actuality goes deeper:
the text also reflects an
existing international morality, underlying the law (as morality commonly does),
which must have been worked out in the course of a long series of cross-border
encounters, for the protection of the protagonists. God is, again, only the
agent of enforcement; the prophet doesn't claim any more creative role for him.
The condemnation of cruelty, exile, betrayal, and murder is, so Amos seems to
assume, natural to humankind--even if it is also
natural for human beings to be cruel, murderous, and so on.
One might also deduce
from the international law of the small peoples a condemnation of empire -- as
Isaac Cardoso does in his Las
Excelencias de los Hebreos. According to Cardoso, the smallness of God's
promised land is meant "to show that great realms are great plunders, and
that the domination of foreign territories is more the result of violence and
force than of justice and equity..." But this is a seventeenth
century argument. Despite the critique of Assyria, I don't think that the
prophetic texts reach as far. Amos's indictments tell us more about the equal
standing of the small peoples than about the necessary illegitimacy of the great
My second example is a famous text that appears in the books of Micah
and Isaiah, with only very minor word changes. A majority of contemporary
biblical scholars (though these majorities are highly volatile) regards the
source as unknown, probably from a third hand; this is a "floating"
prophecy. The date is contested, and pretty much irrelevant to my purposes here,
but I shall assume that it comes from the time of Micah and Isaiah, roughly, the
last several decades of the 8th century BCE.
In the days to come,
The Mount of the Lord's House
Shall stand firm above the mountains
And tower above the hills;
And all the nations
Shall gaze on it with joy.
And the many peoples shall go and say:
Let us go up to the Mount of the Lord,
To the House of the God of Jacob,
That He may instruct us in His ways,
And that we may walk in His paths."
For instruction shall come forth from Zion,
The word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Thus He will judge among the nations
And arbitrate for the many peoples,
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks:
Nation shall not take up
Sword against nation;
They shall never again know war. (Isaiah 2:2-7)
This is clearly a messianic vision, though there is no king messiah mentioned
in the text.
Jesus, the Son is born unto us, READ all of ISAIAH
Partly for that reason, the last five lines have played an especially
important role in the literature and culture of the universalist left. But the
prophecy as a whole points toward a distinctive form of universalism, which
hasn't been imitated or adapted, or even discussed, in modern times. The
prophet's universe is not composed, like the world of contemporary philosophers,
of individual men and women who have somehow escaped their parochial identities
and transcended their differences; they have only stopped fighting about
identity and difference. Nations and peoples still exist and, what is more
telling, they still find themselves in conflict; they are different, and they
differ. They come to Jerusalem for divine judgement and arbitration.
The vision is not imperialist (though there are imperial visions in other
prophetic texts): Israel neither encompasses the other nations nor rules over
them. A recent commentator on the parallel passage in Micah nicely describes
what happens when Zion "towers above the hills":
The result is not a religious empire or a world subject in humiliation to a
triumphant Israel. The nations bring their crises to YHWH, their disputes are
dealt with, and they depart. They are not dominated and incorporated in a
power structure, but helped and led to a new policy that makes for life. The
vision is not of some final stage in the struggle for power, but of its end. .
I want particularly to call attention to the commentator's perception that
this is a messianic
age in which there are still "crises." Crisis is a natural
consequence of the continued existence of national and ethnic pluralism. In the
overwhelming majority of religious milleniums and secular utopias, pluralism is
rejected precisely in order to avoid its natural consequence. In this
"floating" prophecy, which was sufficiently popular to be adopted by
two prophetic schools, political pluralism is made possible, and peaceful, by
religious monotheism. But the common faith of the nations or, at least, their
common willingness to seek the judgement of Israel's God, doesn't bring them
into harmony, let alone into union. That "God's
name is one," as the prophet Zechariah says it will be in the days to
come (14:9), doesn't mean that humanity is one.
The Name above every name....IAM
Ex:6:3: And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name JEHOVAH
(YHWH) was I not known to them.
This is a vision that comes out of the same world as the Amos indictments, a
world of small nations, whose members are, so to speak, accustomed to one
another. They fight and they negotiate; they share a common law, which they are
often tempted to violate. Their vision of peace not only includes the others but
accepts their otherness. The prophets of an imperial power would be likely, I
think, to give an entirely different account of the days to come. Presumably
they would be critics of imperialism, but what they would yearn for is an empire
without domination, a world state of equal citizens, not a jumble of
heterogeneous and contentious nations.
Imperial intellectuals are commonly captured by the idea of a "pax
Romana" even when they have no illusions about the character of
"Roman" power. They imagine the pax without the power. The Israelite
prophet solves the power problem by invoking a "pax deii," but he then
returns to the familiar jumble of nations. It's that return that gives his
vision its attractive modesty. If "swords into plowshares" is utopian,
the plural "nations" and "many peoples" is realistic.
The third argument that I want to examine develops around the legal maxim
with which the rabbis accommodated themselves, and
the nation generally, to the political conditions of the exile. Now statehood
and sovereignty have been lost; the Jews are scattered, ruled by alien kings.
They no longer play a part in international society. But they still need what we
can think of as a foreign policy: they have to deal with the alien kings. This
can't be a single foreign policy, conducted from a central ministry. (Chabad
Lubavitch) It is highly localized, the work
of many intermediary figures (like the "intercessors" of the medieval
period). Nonetheless, it has remarkably similar features across the diaspora.
Everywhere it starts from the legal
position first adopted in Babylonia:
"The law of the kingdom is law." Dina d'malkhuta dina.
See HJR 104, PL 102-14
The function of this maxim is not only to accept gentile rule, but to
incorporate it into the halakhic system. Now Jews who obey the law of the
country in which they find themselves are also,
first of all, obeying a Jewish law that tells them to obey the law of the
country in which they find themselves. The law of the country is domestic in
character; the halakhic maxim is something like international law for the
diaspora -- and its extensions and qualifications, as we shall see, take on
universal meaning. Dina d'malkhuta dina is recognizably linked to the
international law of the small peoples of the biblical age: it is another
example of the universalism of the weak.
The maxim doesn't stand by itself; it can't be unqualified, else it would
leave no room at all for any Jewish law except this one self-immolating
principle. In practice, its effects are limited to civil law;
it involves an acceptance of the king's right to tax and of his regulation of
the property system. Religious
law, by contrast, is not subordinated to the law of the kingdom, and since
religious law includes personal status (marriage, divorce, conversion, and so
on), there continues to be much work for the rabbinic courts.
But this important exception to the (gentile) king's authority, insisted upon
for the sake of religion, was not developed into a general demand for a
separation of religious and civil jurisdictions -- and certainly not into a
claim for religious freedom. Here a universalist moment is missed: the standard
argument isn't that people generally should be allowed to follow their
understandings of God's law, but only that Jews must obey the divine
commandments that were delivered to them at Sinai.
These are their traditional Oral Laws which their god
said he would KILL them by dropping the Mountain upon them if they did not
accept....What a god, theirs is..........whooooeeeeeeeeey
The Jews in effect separated the
synagogue from the (gentile) state, but they did not argue that
separation was a good thing; it was just one more perverse
but necessary feature of exilic life. Even so, they might have recognized
that it was necessary also
for other "exiles," that is, for minorities generally; but I know of
no writers who made that argument.
Still, the maxim about dina d'malkhuta was qualified in other ways
that are more readily universalized. For the rabbis did not mean to expose Jews
to arbitrary or unfair laws.
From very early on, cases of confiscatory taxation or tyrannical decree or
discriminatory legislation were not taken to be "covered" by the
maxim. It might be necessary to pay the taxes or obey the decrees, but it wasn't
necessary to call them legitimate. And the standard way of refusing to do that
was to say, this isn't "law." The strategy was to essentialize law and
thereby to universalize it. What isn't law isn't legitimate -- in principle, it
isn't legitimate for anybody.
HJR 104, PL 102-14 inculcates "Everybody"
except them who refuse to Deny the fulfillment of all Law, Jesus Christ the King
The strategy can be extended: if the king confiscates the property of one of
his subjects or gives arbitrary power to a tax farmer, setting no limits to what
he can extort, that isn't "taxation," it's robbery. Imagine, says Maimonides,
that the king "takes the courtyard or field of one of the citizens [as the
biblical King Ahab tried to do], contrary to the laws
he has promulgated: he is deemed a robber..." (Most Jewish burghers dealing
with most gentile kings in the years before emancipation thought, probably
rightly, that they were being robbed.)
But the most important demand of the Jews in exile was for equal treatment:
law must be general and nondiscriminatory in its application. The "general
rule," according to Maimonides, is that "any law promulgated by the
king [must] apply to everyone and not to one person alone..." This isn't
quite the same thing as a demand for full equality before the law; it doesn't
reach, for example to class differences. Ideally, however, it does reach to
national differences, as the Bible seems to require: "There
shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you"
(Exodus 12:49). There are other biblical commands, however, that require
discrimination, and this verse from Exodus was probably honored most often in
Of course the jews breach this command, making them
selves as gods over their "Goyim" Host states
Still, it was what Jews hoped for in the lands of the exile. Their extreme
vulnerability sometimes forced them to concede that special laws
might be enacted for "strangers" like themselves -- and then they
asked only that all Jews be treated equally. It is worth noting that this
concession was forced by the harsh conditions of Jewish life in Christendom;
rabbinic authorities in Muslim lands claimed a more general equality (which is
not to say that the claim was accepted). Of course, the rule that law must be
non-discriminatory was a formal principle of both Christian and Muslim
jursiprudence, even when "strangers" were in fact discriminated
against. But it was the strangers themselves for whom the principle had
practical value; it was worth insisting on whenever they were able. "This
is not a fair law," says a thirteenth century rabbinic responsum,
criticizing an act of royal discrimination, "and is not law..." Here
again is the universalism of the weak.
As in my other examples, it is a very modest universalism. It doesn't require
that the law be substantively just, only that it not be radically unjust. And,
at least in its Jewish version, it doesn't propose resistance or revolution in
the face of illegitimate law. In general, I think, the members of pariah
religious and ethnic groups can't be revolutionaries; emancipation is the
precondition of revolutionary politics. And resistance, in the
"internationalist" terms that I have adopted here, would have to take
the form of a war -- a just war, perhaps, but not a possible course of action
for the scattered and vulnerable Jewish communities.
What the rabbis propose instead
is evasion: since this isn't a tax, you are justified in looking for any
possible way of not paying it. Since this isn't a law, you
are justified in disobeying it and also
in lying about your disobedience. There is no call for civil, that is
public, disobedience in the Jewish texts; that kind of behavior depends upon a
significant degree of trust in the overall justice of the political system, and
the Jews had no such trust, and no reason to have it, in pre-emancipation times.
What they did have was a minimalist sense of what justice might mean in a system
that included small peoples like themselves. The minimum requirements were all
negative in character: taxes should not be arbitrary or unlimited; the king
should not rule by decree (but only by public enactment or longstanding custom);
the laws should not
discriminate among the individuals and/or nations subject to the king's
My last example is the Noahide
Code, which represents the Jewish tradition's closest approximation to a
standard universalism. The actual meaning and purpose of the Code is the subject
of much debate both in the classical texts and among contemporary scholars. I
won't provide an account of the debate here, though aspects of it will be
reflected in my own analysis. I am radically dependent in this section on two
wonderfully erudite and subtle books by David
Novak that analyze the Code as a kind of natural law.
These are the laws
that, according to the Talmud, were given to Adam and again to the sons of Noah
-- that is, to humankind generally. The number varies in different versions, but
the standard number is seven, and six of these laws
are, again, negative in character: the Noahides are forbidden to practice
idolatry and blasphemy; they are forbidden to commit murder, robbery, and a set
of sexual acts that includes incest, adultery, and homosexual intercourse; and
they are forbidden to eat the flesh of a living animal (this last is read by
Maimonides as a ban on cruelty). The seventh law is positive: they are required
to establish a judicial system (presumably to enforce the first six laws).
These seven are derived exegetically from verses in the book of Genesis that,
with the exception of the bans on murder and the flesh of a living animal, do
not bear the interpretations they are given. The Noahide
Code is a speculative venture of the rabbis; it describes at once the
obligations of all humanity before the Sinai revelation and the obligations of
non-Jews after -- the Jews having been given a much larger set of laws,
which includes the original seven. The seven, however, are so generally stated
that they invite elaboration, and in some versions they pretty much cover the
same ground as Jewish law except for its ritual provisions: holidays, the
dietary code, sacrifices, purity, and so on.
It is easy to see how the Code could come to
represent a Jewish version of natural law. It incorporates the standard
moral rules, which have in (some) other traditions also
been thought to include or require a commitment to monotheism. And a number of
Jewish writers have explicitly argued that it is possible
to arrive at the seven laws through
reason alone or, more specifically, through reflection on the human need
for society. But in the original rabbinic teaching, the laws
of the Noahides are commandments, not rational deductions and hence not, in the
usual sense, "natural" to humankind; they are the first example
of revealed law; the Torah delivered at Sinai is only the second. This is how
gentiles are recognized by religious Jews as moral beings: they live, like the
Jews, "under the commandments." There is quite a bit of leeway for
interpreting the commandments, but all human beings start by being commanded.
The traditional Jewish view is that we do not create the moral universe; we only
inhabit it. What's important here is that we all inhabit it.
But it is also the
traditional view that we inhabit it by choice. Human beings are free to refuse
the commandments and walk out of the moral universe. It is wrong to do that, but
not impossible. And the standard Jewish claim about the idolatrous
nations is that they have done exactly that. It is virtually analytic to the
Jewish understanding of idolatry that idolators recognize no moral restraint.
If they violate the primary Noahide
commandment, then they violate all the others. Simple empiricism would lead
observers of real-idolators-in-the-world to question this analysis, and such
questions do surface in rabbinic literature.
and Jesus Christ is still KING of KINGS and LORD of
LORDS ye HYPOCRITES of HELL
But the double standard with which early Jewish law
treats Jews and gentiles makes sense only if the idolatrous others are taken to
be radically lawless. (They have no sense of property, for example, hence
the law about the return of lost articles [Deuteronomy 23] doesn't apply to
them...and so on.) One
purpose of the Noahide Code, then, is to mark out the people to whom the double
standard doesn't apply and with whom moral co-existence is possible.
It could do much more than this: the Code also
provided the basis for a full acceptance of the "other" as a religious
equal. Thus Menachem
Meiri, a 14th century halakhist and talmudic commentator living in Provence,
writes that "Every Noahide
whom we see, who accepts upon himself the seven commandments, is one of the
saints of the nations of the world, and is in the category of the religious, and
has a portion in the world-to-come."
In some sense, this is the standard view of the Noahides, though the meaning
of its various parts (above all the phrase "accepts
upon himself") is disputed, and Meiri's strong statement owes a
great deal to the relatively benign character of Jewish-Christian interaction in
14th century Provence. But the central focus of the legal literature is not on
individual Noahides, but rather on the gentile nations. The
Code is, again, a kind of international law; the agents to whom it is chiefly
addressed are organized groups of men and women, imagined as accepting the Code
or not, living with or without legal constraint.
At the same time, many of the rabbis, in both the talmudic and medieval
periods, regard the Code as if it was designed for resident aliens in the Land
of Israel, the subjects of a Jewish king. Since
there was no continuous tradition of gentile acknowledgement and observance of
the Code from the days of Noah forward, and since the Noahide
Code was included in the Sinai
revelation (in effect, revealed again), these rabbis take the Code to be,
effectively, Jewish law for the gentiles.
This is "our" universal law for "them"--much like the
earliest form of the jus gentium, which was simply a form of Roman law
Hence the Noahide
Code is meaningful only when Jews exercise political power: they take
responsibility for the seventh commandment and set up a judicial system to
enforce the other six commandments on their non-Jewish subjects. In
this form, "natural law" is very much an imperial creation, and here,
as in other empires, it marks out a way of tolerating foreign nations. Or, at
least, it defines a limited toleration: resident aliens must give up idolatry;
they need not convert to Judaism.
If the Noahide Code is
an imperial creation, then, so it is often said, it must have been created in an
empire. This belief has led some scholars to
date the Code from Hasmonean
times, when Jewish rule extended over a number
of non-Jewish nations. But some of these, like the Idumeans, were
forcibly converted -- which suggests that adherence to the Code was not
yet available, or not yet acceptable, as an alternative to conversion.
Probably, the Code is a later creation, the product of an imperial
imagination rather than an actual empire. The rabbis
imagined a messianic age when a Jewish king would rule, not over the world, but
over the land of Israel, and they imagined the land with its existing
soon the anti-Christ False Christ will rule over all
the earth....er...um...temporarily that is, for that True Christ King will
destroy him by the brightness of his coming
Given their unhappiness with the Hasmoneans and with the policy of forced
conversion, they then had to work out a more minimalist set of rules for gentile
residents. These are
conceived to be rules that all human beings must obey, but mostly don't; so
the rules are enforced by the Jews wherever they are able to enforce them
(but this is, again, a purely imaginary "ability").
Maimonides, the greatest of the medieval Jewish philosophers, (Mammoneye,
see dollar bill) seems to have held this view of the Noahide
Code. Isaac Cardoso argued from it, on the principle of reciprocity, that
Christians should give to Jews the same status as Noahides would have or, as he
thinks, once actually had in a Jewish kingdom -- "resident sojourners,
who...were able to live among [the Israelites], although they did not follow
But there is an alternative understanding, according to which the Code is
simply the law of the Noahides, and the Jews have no special responsibility for
its enforcement. This alternative is less the product of philosophical or
theological reflection than of experience. Exilic Jewry had no powers of
enforcement, and yet in all the countries of the exile the Code was
more or less effectively enforced by the Noahides -- that is, the gentiles --
themselves. So here is a set of laws/commandments,
revealed to humankind in the days of Adam and Noah, knowable by reason, and
visibly established in the world.
Taking the Noahide
Code to be the actual law of the gentile nations is a way of recognizing what
Novak calls the "normativity" of the others. Not only do non-Jews live
"under the commandments," but they also
live -- some of them, some of the time -- according to the commandments.
Anyone who wants to deny non-Jews this status must also
deny or minimize the meaning of the Code. Thus Wyschogrod: "But the law is
addressed only to Israel. It is not a universal law, obedience to which is
expected of all peoples. Apart from the Noahide
commandments, the Torah is addressed only to Israel..." Wyschogrod says
nothing more about the Noahides. But focusing on their "normativity,"
as Novak invites us to do, has important and interesting consequences.
Galatians 3:9. in faith of Jesus Christ we are ISRAEL
of spirit, do not be deceived. IT is they who are of the Bondwoman Agar after
the manner of the Great Harlot jerusalem who are subject to us in the Kingdom of
First of all, the Noahide
Code provides a new grounding for dina d'malkhuta dina, which appears now
as something more than an exilic accomodation to gentile
power; it is also
a recognition of the substantive validity of gentile law. "The law of the
kingdom" is based on revelation and/or confirmed by reason, exactly as
Jewish law is -- or, better, revelation and reason provide critical standards
for non-Jews as well as for Jews. Second, the Code, and the gentile law that it
validates, provide a comparative standard for Jewish law:
"they" are more strict here, "we" are more strict there;
"they" do things this way, "we" do things that way.
see HJR 104, Pl 102-14
I don't want to suggest that comparative law was ever a central feature of
Jewish scholarship. Until very recently, at least, it wasn't. Indeed, curiosity
about the "others" is barely visible in
the classical Jewish texts. There was no Jewish Herodotus
in ancient times, and while writers like Philo and Josephus labored to explain
Judaism to the gentiles, they made no effort, nor did anyone else, to explain
Hellenistic culture to the Jews. With rare exceptions, that pattern persisted
into medieval and early modern times.
But the complex engagement of exilic Jewry with gentile law forced Jewish
writers to think, sometimes, about legal practices in a comparative way. And
Noahide law provided a framework within which to do this.
If there was legitimate law and law enforcement among the gentile nations,
there were also, visibly,
different versions of legitimate law among the different gentile nations. The
idea of Noahide law made
for pluralism: the Code could be realized in different ways. Jews believed, of
course, that the Torah was the ideal legal system, but it wasn't the only one.
Whether founded on revelation or reason, the law of the gentiles was
"essentially independent." At the same time, it was possible to
recognize a minimalist version of the Code, which it was
incumbent on all nations to enact and enforce. And here "we"
could learn from "their" enactments. "The recognition and
affirmation of the presence of dinim (laws,
legality) among the gentiles," writes Novak, "provided a theoretical
model for determining the necessary minimal moral standards to which Jewish law
I am unsure about the idea of a theoretical model, but the "recognition
and affirmation" certainly had a practical effect, which is
reflected in another legal maxim: "There is nothing
permitted to Jews that is prohibited to gentiles" (B. Sanhedrin 59a). It
would have been a scandal and a discredit to God, so the rabbis thought, if
Jewish law on any subject was more permissive than gentile law. A discredit in
whose eyes? Obviously, in the eyes of the gentiles, whose "normativity"
is thus given extraordinary force. Of course, the reverse form of the
maxim is not accepted: "There is nothing prohibited to Jews that is
permitted to gentiles." The strictness of gentile law is controlling, not
its leniency. In traditional Judaism, strictness is more valued -- and yet,
sometimes, the gentile nations are more strict! The ability to acknowledge this
fact is the unexpected outcome of the revelation to the sons of Noah.
I have tried to describe a number of approaches to universalism from within
traditional Judaism. Think of these as moving toward, perhaps eventually
constituting, what might be called a "low-flying" universalism; that
is, one worked out in close contact with the political landscape. Its crucial
moral perception is the existence of other nations as moral and legal agents.
This acknowledgement of the others derives from Jewish particularism; it is, so
to speak, the turning outward of a particularist perspective. Sometimes the turn
can reach to what I have described elsewhere as a "reiterative
universalism"--as in the following passage from the prophet Amos:
To Me, O Israelites, you are
Just like the Ethiopians
--declares the Lord.
True, I brought Israel up
From the land of Egypt,
But also the
Philistines from Caphtor
And the Arameans from Kir. (Amos 9:7)
This suggests that there isn't one deliverance (and one election) but a
reiterated series, each engaging a different nation. The nations are fully equal
in God's eyes, and so they should be in each others'. Amos's argument was never
accepted (in fact, it is rarely mentioned) in later Jewish texts, but note that
his universalism is also
worked out close to the ground--on which real Philistines and real Arameans
walked. In this sense, it fits nicely with my four examples, in all of which the
ongoing co-existence of Israel and the nations is assumed.
Co-existence is necessarily rule-governed. That, at least, is the Jewish
assumption; there is no love of anarchy among traditional Jews; antinomianism
appears sometimes in mystical thought, but not here in the marchlands, where one
actually has to deal with the other nations. Here there are rules for the
conduct of war; divine arbitration; legal limits on taxation and on state action
generally; rules of adjudication; and, finally, a basic moral code. All these
apply across actually existing national and religious boundaries. Some of their
content is included in Halakhah, formally incorporated into Jewish law. But all
of them are first imagined and developed outside, and they are best understood
as constituting a Jewish universalism -- which takes the characteristic form of
a common law for the nations.
In fact, we should think of it as a common law in the making, as common law
commonly is. Amos's rules for war are not a code, but only a series of examples;
the argument invites more work, and the work is well worth doing. The wars of
modern Israel have led some contemporary rabbis to struggle with halakhic
precedents about military conduct, but these are meager (because there were no
Jewish armies whose conduct required
regulation, and they are scarred by exilic resentments.
Amos's customary law reflects, as I have already argued, a state-like posture
and a morally helpful commitment to ongoing relations with other states.
Similarly, the limits on dina d'malkhuta dina have to be figured out anew
in each "kingdom" -- and why not in Israel too, where the principle of
non-discrimination could play a useful critical role? And,
again, the Noahide Code is far too vague to serve as an actual set of laws; it
has to be expanded and interpreted -- and has been the subject of a wide range
of expansions and interpretations.
None of these examples are definitive, but the arguments themselves have
served as a useful background for everyday encounters with the "others."
There is no reason why these arguments cannot go on today, taking into account
the place of Jews in the modern world and of Israel in the society of nations.
In any case, they have gone on long enough so that it makes no sense to claim
that universalism depends on Greek philosophy or on Christianity (or on some
combination of the two), or that it is a secular liberal invention, or that it
must be philosophically grounded in Kantian ethics, or that it is uniquely
Western (or, for that matter, that it is the product of Jewish assimilation).
There are many different universalisms, many different idioms in which similar
universal values can be and have been expressed.
Among the Jews, one can find both high-flying (philosophical) and low-flying
(political/legal) versions of universalist argument. I have focused on the
second partly because it is less well understood, but also
because it is more realistic and perhaps more useful on the ground. But does
this second version reach as far as many Jews today want to go? Does it reach to
an account of human rights? Does it allow for feminist claims to equality? There
is no reason why Amos's ban on the exile and enslavement of "an entire
population" cannot be expressed in the language of rights (as the
condemnation of "ethnic cleansing" is expressed today), and no reason
why the Noahide Code's
ban on murder and robbery can't be taken to rest on rights to life and property.
What is today called "rights talk" could easily be introduced into the
common law of the Jews.
Feminism is harder, given the overwhelmingly patriarchal character of
rabbinic Judaism. But the comparative perspective opened up by the Noahide
Code offers interesting possibilities. For if gentile men
are now prohibited from ruling tyrannically over their wives and daughters, how
can this be permitted to Jewish men? It would be a scandal and a
discredit to God.
I don't say this to mock the tradition. In fact, I am being true to it.
Polygamy was finally ruled out as a Jewish practice, sometime around the year
1000, with arguments of exactly this kind. When Rabbi Gershom and his colleagues
forbade marriage to more than one woman, they acted, writes Robert
Gordis, because "they found it intolerable for Jews to maintain an
attitude toward marriage...that set women on a lower social and ethical plane
than did their monogamous Christian neighbors." That is a good argument,
and it is no sign of progress that contemporary orthodox writers would probably
find it incomprehensible or repugnant -- a call for assimilation. This way of
recognizing the possible moral value of what the "others"
think and do is a key feature of low-flying universalism, and low-flying
universalism arises within the tradition. You live with other people, and you
have to look and see what they are doing.
There are still judgements to be made, of course, and these will reflect
Jewish experience and values. But Jewish experience isn't the whole story;
Jewish values aren't the only ones. The arguments that I have canvassed here are
invitations to further argument, which will rightly be shaped, in the future as
in the past, by the ongoing, permanent engagement with other nations and
religions. Anyone who claims that this engagement is an imposition of Western
culture isn't being faithful to the Jewish (or, I suspect, to any other)
traditional way of life.
Mt:23:13: But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.