Book Review: The Ethics Of The Halakah

The Ethics Of The Halakah, by Jacob Zallel Lauterbach

With friends like these, the halakah doesn’t need enemies.  Even if I did not find this to be the best of the author’s work, or even that accurate of a book in discussing the corpus of biblical law, I certainly found the rhetoric of this book to be highly interesting.  The general rhetoric of this book shows Lauterbach subtly impugning the rabbis of ancient times for their lack of fidelity to the Torah in their interpretations of biblical law.  Specifically, the author uses this particular occasion, the 1913 Central Conference of American Rabbis, to position himself and fellow reform rabbis with highly critical views as being in the same position of rabbis who viewed themselves as the authorities over what was proper conduct rather than subject to the judgment of the law or of God.  And while I am not sympathetic to this view [1], or to the way in which the mishnah frequently attempts to contradict the biblical law, I could at least respect the author’s chutzpah in viewing liberal Jews as engaged in the same work as the founders of the orthodox Jewish perspective, and that is worth something at least.

This book of about 40 pages is a reprint of the author’s discussion, and one wonders if the hearers and earliest readers were as skeptical about the author and his approach as I am.  While most of this address is aimed at a Jewish audience in seeking to pit the ethic of the Jewish law against some of its claims, and to point to some of the “higher law” criticisms of the Torah that led rabbis to contradict its tenets in their own human reasoning, at least some of this book manages to misrepresent Jesus Christ and Paul as being antinomians and to engage in Jewish polemic against Christianity.  At times, the author manages to get specific by pointing out particular cases where biblical laws were allowed to fall into abeyance because of some sort of supposed humanitarian justification, which provides evidence that the early Pharisees were not as beholden to biblical law as should have been the case, which incidentally enough validates the criticism against their approach to law that is made by Jesus Christ and Paul in the New Testament.  Of course, this is not the time or place for the author to concede this point, for he is wishing to use the supposed ethics of the early Pharisees to support his own liberal and critical agenda.

And I must admit freely that I am open foe of this agenda.  Again, this book does not present the context in which this book came, because it could have been the case that the author faced not only a critique from the side of Jewish Christianity, as I would present, but that the author was also opposed by orthodox rabbis or even conservative rabbis who did not want to admit that they were opposed to the Torah in their own approaches to biblical law, or that there was an opposition between the written Torah and the oral Torah.  Quite honestly, I was not impressed with the author’s arguments on the supposedly enlightened nature of rabbinical opposition to biblical law and attempts to pit the spirit of the law against its letter rather than to place the letter of the law in a context that honors its spirit as well by dealing with some of the second-order repercussions of that law in justice and mercy.  Indeed, the author’s arguments struck me as being very similar to that made by Christian antinomians whom I oppose similarly for their attempts to pit parts of the bible against others, and to feel themselves to be followers of God without actually following His ways.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: The Ethics Of The Halakah

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Taste Of Text | Edge Induced Cohesion

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