Minding the Gap: Judaism Between Law and Ethics ©Ariella atzmon
To talk about ethics is no easy task. In contemporary liberal democracies we are witnessing a severe tendency towards dismissing ethics and morality in favor of legal maneuvers. Contrariwise, referring to the ethical judgment as a vigilant act, attributable to the transcendental subject rather than to the empirical individual, hints at the uncanniness of human existence.
In compliance with this position I contend that viewing justice in legalist terms signifies the Westerners’ betrayal of its 'polis' heritage, where the political is bound to ethics. In Sophocles’ Antigone Heidegger presents us with a human swirl, as a reflection upon arguing rightly and thinking humanely[i]. In violating the overpowering limiting power of ‘Being’ poetically, creative thinkers have created ‘the place’ in the polis, where the rhetorician, politician, philosopher, or legislator aspired to convince the public about the 'truth value' of innovative bits of knowledge in order to be won. Physics which epitomizes the fluidity of concepts that once had been defined, their content being constantly altered, reminds us of the ‘empty space’ in the centre of the polis. In Judaism, where ‘truth’ is divine, this ‘empty space’ does not exist! Thus, it is deprived of the ethical whirling experience. The question is: How is it possible for the ethical episode to happen, if science and art are prohibited, and justice is replaced by obedience? Jewish law tolerates neither empty spaces to be filled up by rhetoric, nor disparity to be acted out by the means of theatre or epics.
But, the ‘empty space’ is the core of hermeneutics, as the art of inspiring new chains for understanding a text creatively. The Judaic approach to the playfulness of language is more elusive than it seems. The Jew who oscillates between immutable textual knowledge and the “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it”, without plumping for either, is jammed into false hermeneutics. Hence Judaism which conceives the human being as subordinated to the Text, the claim of bringing hermeneutics to its prime fails.
In his article ‘The Law Wishes to have a Formal Existence’ Stanley Fish speaks ironically about the threat of hermeneutics, as the exposure of a text to too many uncontrolled interpretations. The two threats to ‘The Law’ are morality, to which the law pretends to be related, and interpretation. If justice could be inferred directly by a chain of moral obligations there would be no need for a legal system. The fear of the ‘deleterious’ influence of morality maintains the formal existence of the law. Oddly enough, formal legalism coincides with Judaic conceit of elevating hermeneutics to its peak and at the same time preserves zealously the formal status of The Law. Thus, for the purpose of distancing the observant subject from imaginative reading leading to unruly moral thinking, an esoteric hermeneutics followed by rhetorical spins was elaborated. In devising self-executing formalities Jewish hermeneutics ascertains the meaning as possessed by the last word. Lyotard asks: if deconstruction is about something badly constructed, how can deconstruction deconstruct a text which cannot be amended? The problem with the Jews is that instead of being the ‘Guardians of Being’, they turned into the guardians of ‘not-forgetting-the-forgotten’, distorting justice in the name of ‘The Law’[ii]. Hence in fact the ‘people of the book’ are the ‘people of the one and the same book’, they are literate but not knowledgeable. Conceiving themselves as the ‘light of the nations’, they fail to show any eagerness to be enlightened. Judaic zeal for abstract signification, the refusal to supply presentation for the unpresentable interferes with a capacity to speculate with ideas.
This irreconcilable gap between Hellenism and Judaism can be exposed in the Decalogue where sin is not defined in ethical or moral terms, and ethical wrangling is replaced by dutiful obedience. For more than 2500 years the world was suffused with the myth of justice and social welfare which the Ten Commandments bestowed upon it. From a cautious reading of the Ten Commandments, an all-embracing intention to disconnect human beings from their natural instincts, impulses and natural drives can be revealed.
Start with the commandment that tells us to respect and love our parents. We love our parents instinctively, but rebel against their authority through many life episodes. This ethical intricate burden that was relentlessly reconsidered by Greek mythology and tragedy, is delivered as an imperative, which excludes any ethical battling with the ‘given’. To be commanded to respect our parents in exchange for being rewarded with long life in the Promised Land does not sound like a revelation of truth and justice. Likewise with the ‘Sabbath’: in the ancient world the tillers of the soil had to plough, sow and reap. Once the tears and toils of farming and growing were ended by joy, they celebrated with feasts of wine and dancing. The harmony of man and nature was signified by the rhythm of nature’s passing seasons, hoping for balance in a soft way. After sweating in the fields, people took a rest to rejoice. To punctuate peoples’ lives by six days of ‘labour’ and ‘rest’ on the seventh is not such a great socially beneficial legislation. Notably on the Sabbath Jews are not allowed to ignite fire or to move from one place to another; in Judaism things cannot be left alone for a moment. Actually, with pagans as ordinary human beings the values of decency, civility, respect for parents and the elderly, obedience to magistrates, and submission to laws are venerated in most ancient pagan texts.
Jewish monotheism is distinct not only from the Pagan world but also from Christianity. As a tribal cult, regarding themselves as chosen, Jews differentiated themselves from the gentiles whom they held in contempt. Christianity as a universal religion enables ethical contemplation without the interference of supremacist postures. Judaic Law is thus an impoverished system of justice. Even the six tomes of the Talmud as a collection of behavioral guidance are scarcely engaged in moral intuitions. Here are some disturbing questions to raise: If Jewish scholarship, should as declared by Jews be accredited as a universal wisdom embracing ethics and morality, why is it that the more the Jews are engrossed in this learning, the more segregated they turn out to be? How can ethical thinking mesh with learning that results in segregation? Is it the Judaic suppression of 'the image' and the submission to the Word, which is recognized as the reign of intellectuality over sensuality that distances its bearers from being in tune with earth and heaven?
Despite Jewish attempts to persuade us to extract wisdom from the Talmud, it never evolved into an essential part of western intellectual thought. Its polemical image disguises a tradition of chewing ready-made disputes, in which the views and opinions of previous scholars are faithfully preserved verbatim citing the rabbi who first uttered them. Hence, whilst grieving the forgotten wisdom of the Talmud, Jewish scholars disguise its formal judicial nature. Jewish Law is not founded in a moral or an ethical conception of man; but rather as a set of regulations which grew out of social conditions and cultic motives obsolete and no longer understood.
The Jews, who praise themselves for rescuing the oriental world from the cruelties of paganism, actually impersonated their own mental picture of an invisible God as a simulacrum of an oriental pitiless tyrant who grounds His power in the Mosaic Law. In fact, this conception of God is the most ingenious device ever invented for cementing a tribal group. It is a mastermind’s indestructible strategy, that in combining repression with gratitude, it authorizes a perfect scheme for self-preservation.
Mosaic monotheism always aimed at achieving a complete grip on Jewish daily life. In the shma Israel prayer, Israel is told ‘…You must love your God with all your heart and soul and strength, when you lie down and when you rise’. This double-bind imperative: loving God coupled with dread, imposes indebtedness for being bestowed with stolen treasures ”Your God will bring you into the land which he swore to your forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that he would give you a land of great and fine cities which you did not build, houses full of good things which you did not provide, cisterns which you did not hew, and vineyards and olive-groves which you did not plant. When you eat your fill there, be careful not to forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt. The spirit of the Jewish religion was not inspired by ideas, but rather by a covenantal pact of conditional activities which took over all aspects of the peoples’ life. Yet, many non-observant Jews follow the Jewish rites, and maintain the same vague admiration for Judaic wisdom. This brainwashing regarding the intellectual intensity of the Talmudic debate is sustained by a predetermined common ignorance. While Orthodox Jews reject external knowledge, most secular Jews are unfamiliar with the Talmudic text.
Since Rabbinic tradition does not supply an intelligible moral meaning for the Law, decision-making is authorized by tribal needs or personal greed, whilst moral issues are approached in terms of profit/loss calculations. Relations with God are conceived in contractual terms: good deeds are measured against bad, as in a business balance sheet. Bultmann points to the disturbing nature of blind obedient ethics where the realization of the ideal man is replaced by the glorification of God. Differing from Greek thought, Jewish morality is perceived in terms of action and not as one of the virtues of the ‘ideal man’[iii]. The people who are inspired by the god within differ from those who are led by the pillars of ‘cloud and fire’. Devotion based on fear, leaves the trembling Jew to propitiate ‘God authority’ by ostentatious obedience. But then, what is moral satisfaction when based on dread rather than love? What does God’s ‘Love’ means, if it is associated with intimidation and fright? Thus, whilst Hellenism inspired Western thought throughout 25 centuries, the Old Testament’s contribution can be entirely dismissed. Yet, any attempt to highlight this gulf between Athens and Jerusalem, is immediately denounced as anti-Semitism.
The Law flourishes on the ruins of ethics. Heidegger opined that the more people are immersed in legalism, the more they quit the embrace of ‘Being’. While legalism is anchored within rules, justice is the object of an idea. While an ethical judgment is a game without rules, the Law is a linguistic ‘fashioning’, elevated to a supreme sacred stage of secular fundamentalism. If ethics manifests itself in the inexpressible twilight zone where universalism surrenders particularism, how can Judaism which resists 'pluralism’ make an ethical act happen? Is it the subservient choice which prevents theological reflection.
In the book of Job which is the only biblical-theological text on God’s justice, we learn how Job’s children are killed, servants slaughtered, Job himself is brought to the brink of death, his wife and his friends deny him any support and understanding. Tragically, from the depths of his misery, Job meets with a stone wall, to discover that his complaints cannot obtain a hearing from the judge who is so much praised for his justice. The denial of fair trial is the worst of all. If this is a lesson God teaches us about fairness; why are people in court asked to swear upon a book which presents us with such heartless injustice? Jung justly asserts that God is far more preoccupied with a manifestation of His might than sustaining His right.
The view regarding human beings as endowed with the ability to make rational judgments divides mainstream Enlightenment approaches from Judaism and Islam in an insuperable clash. Conceiving the human subject as spoken rather than self-defining individuals, rejects the notion of democracy. Yet, whilst Jews are bestowed with a special status in the eyes of God, Islam is not a tribalistic religion. Judaic righteousness is motivated not by love but by the fear of a jealous power. The bible commands: In the cities of these nations whose land the Lord is giving you as patrimony, you shall not leave any creature alive. You shall annihilate them all. Among the incompatible groups who resist western thought, Judaism is the most uncompromising. A quest to decipher the triumph of Jewish monotheism over western civilization is yet to come.
In this paper I focused on Judaism, as dichotomous from Hellenism and from the other two monotheist religions. Judaism celebrates the primacy of the ear over visual representation. But despising the vividness of the referent leaves the Jewish subject sealed in a segregated bubble, impelled into an incurable detachment. The Jews are homeless; but frightened by uncanniness. Although regarding themselves as ‘citizens of the world’, they feel most secure within the walls of their mental ghetto. In the no man's land, between Law and Ethics, Is it not too dangerous for people who lack the care for Being, to manifest themselves as a political-national entity?
[i] Heidegger, M. (2000), Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory fried and Richard
Polt, New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 159-176
[ii] Lyotard, J. F. (1988 a), Heidegger and “the Jews”, Minneapolis: University of
[iii] Bultmann, R. (1958), Jesus and the Word, Fontana Books, pp. 57-8
[iv] Bultmann, R. (1960) , Primitive Christianity, The Fontana Library
*Ariella Atzmon. Israeli born. Senior lecturer in the School of Education and the School of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (retired in 2002). Author of "Multiple Amnesia: a poststructuralist gaze".