What follows are my notes (with some editorializing on my part) of Daniel Mark’s lecture at the Acton University in 2017. Mark, who is Jewish, is professor of political science at Villanova University.
Why do Jews so seldom talk about natural law?
Let’s go back to Genesis. For one thing, Jews don’t extrapolate (as many Reformed and Roman Catholic theologians do) original sin out of the Adam and Eve story.
But natural law is “built in.” Adam was obligated to obey the command of God.
For instance, consider the many questions raised in the Jewish tradition about the justice of what happens in the Bible:
- The binding of Isaac and the command to kill him
- The conquest of Canaan
- God harding the hearts of people so they don’t understand/hear.
- The wiping out of the Amalekites.
- And many more…
Where are these questions coming from? Not from revealed law, but from NATURAL LAW.
Leviticus 18:4–“Do my judgments and keep my statutes.”
Do my Judgments: אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ Mishphatim (pl). Having more to do with natural, rational, reasonable thought. What a judge does when she/he has to decide/discern. “Common law.”
And keep my Statutes: וְאֶת־חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ Khuqim (pl). Written statues, clearly defined. Not from human reason. Often used for revealed law as opposed to natural law. “Statutory law.”
Was natural law assumed and never made explicit? Is it true because it’s in the Bible, or in the Bible because it’s true (natural)? The Jewish tradition, unlike the Greco-Roman Catholic tradition, never wrote out extended proofs.
Judaism is less consistent with natural law than Roman Catholicism. RC thinking has “exceptionless norms.” There is daylight between Jewish ethics and natural law.
Whether or not the Torah is fully rational, the goal of Judaism is to spread ethical monotheism, not to make everyone Jewish. Truth cannot contradict truth.
Many fundamentalisms (of all kinds) teach some kind of anthropological ‘total depravity’ which robs us of our ability to reason. Human rationality is judged guilty and not redeemable.
My comments: the entire oral Torah tradition (the original “Wikipedia” spanning centuries) is a skyscraper of natural reason interacting with the rugged fabric of the biblical narrative. As the Jewish tradition paralleled the Greek tradition, rather than flowing out of it, as the Roman Catholic tradition was birthed, it uses different vocabulary not dependent on Greco-Roman philosophical grammars.
Reading contemporary-friendly “plunges” into the oral Torah (see, for instance the work of Avivah Zornberg) is one of the most intellectually refreshing journeys one can make, and a feast of reason meeting narrative.