God, Judaism, and Divine Law

By :  Matthew Goldstone Adjunct Instructor in Rabbinic Literature Posted On Mar 9, 2018 / 5778 | Speaking of Text: The Jewish Bookshelf | Philosophy

What’s Divine about Divine Law?: Early Perspectives by Christine Hayes (Princeton University Press, 2015).

We all know that divine law is supposed to be true, unchangeable, universal, and make sense . . . right? Wrong. In fact, for the Rabbis, precisely the opposite may be the case. As Christine Hayes argues in her book What’s Divine about Divine Law, many of our preconceptions about what makes Jewish divine law “godly” are, in fact, incorrect.

Hayes sketches two opposing paradigms of divine law. The first, stemming from the Greek philosophic tradition, assumes that divine law must be immutable, rational, and universal. By contrast, divine law in the Hebrew Bible is often changed, devoid of rationality, and formulated particularly for a specific community.  After exploring a number Second Temple period and early Christian approaches to locating the divinity of the Pentateuch’s laws, Hayes moves to the rabbinic period where we find a clash between biblical and Greco-Roman approaches. As inheritors and interpreters of the Mosaic tradition who lived within the Greco-Roman world, the Rabbis grappled with these two contradictory conceptions of law and often adopted an approach that flies in the face of philosophic expectations for divine law.

Like the Rabbis, we are also the inheritors of both the biblical and Greco-Roman philosophic traditions. Yet, despite this dual inheritance, we often marginalize or reject biblical conceptions of God and law. Hayes’s work forces us to actively confront the Greek philosophic assumptions behind many of our beliefs. A must-read for anyone with an interest in theology and halakhah, What’s Divine about Divine Law provides a clear set of paradigms for thinking about what Jewish law is and what it should be.