Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue - The Judaic Context

This pieces was written as a response to Karen Taliaferro's post, "A Tale of Three Laws," which can be found here.

By: David Novak

The natural law is something which is considered to be a fundamental precondition for the intelligent acceptance of revealed law. Revealed law says much more than natural law, but it does not say less. Natural law becomes sort of a bottom line beyond which the tradition cannot go. 

This is how natural law has functioned within the Jewish tradition. It functions as a border concept—a very important limit on chauvinism, fanaticism, and fundamentalism in the pejorative sense of that term. (Interestingly, in the Jewish tradition, the term “natural law” was not used until the fifteenth century by Spanish Jewish theologian Joseph Albo, who, by the way, was heavily influenced by Thomas Aquinas.) This is how natural law functions internally. 

Externally—and here’s where the question of religious liberty comes in—the natural law played a very important part in the Jewish entrance as full participants in the Western world in the eighteenth century. When the question of Jewish citizenship arose in new nation-states, which were not taking their direct authority from the Church, the assumption was that Jews were living under so narrow a law that only applied to themselves that they couldn’t possibly be part of societies that were based upon notions of the fundamental rights of man. Therefore, it was argued—and backed by Jewish thinkers—that there is a tradition in Judaism which is capable of recognizing universal rights: We Jews are willing to grant them to those who live under our power and ask that they be granted to us living under someone else’s power. 

Where religious liberty comes in is that in the Jewish tradition—it’s a very arguable point and one of these perennial debates—Gentiles considered to be living under natural law and who have a sense that this law is not human-made but is God-created will be the full equals of Jews (even in the sense of inheriting the world to come). 

In that way, it means that people did not have to be practicing Jews in order to become full members of society, let alone even to be granted life in the world to come. It could be recognized that one had the freedom to either be or not be a part of whichever particular religious tradition he had. And this is very interestingly based upon a notion that is discussed in the Talmud. In ancient Israel, there is the notion of the resident alien, or a non-Jew living under Jewish rule. These people had to affirm what is considered to be seven Noachide laws about humanity, but they did not have profess belief in the Jewish tradition, and according to many, not even a belief in God. They had to renounce idolatry, but even a non-believer could renounce idolatry: “I don’t know if there’s a God or not, but this idol certainly isn’t it.” 

In a sense, this is very much recognition of religious freedom. Now granted, it’s not very much discussed in the tradition, but it’s one of these things that reappears today when religious liberty is such an important question. There are sources in every tradition that seem to be very narrow, arcane, and anachronistic, and all of a sudden, a new situation arises, and they gain a whole life of their own. 

One last point is that there is a great deal of talk of including Muslims in what for the past 40 years has been a very vibrant Jewish-Christian dialogue. The problem is that Jews and Christians share a common revelation and that revelation is not shared with Muslims. Therefore, in the conversations between us authors [David Novak, Anver Emon, and Matthew Levering], we were convinced that it was far more profitable that we discuss a problem that faces all three of our monotheistic traditions of revelation. And that is the problem of the law. 

The problem is: How do we on the one hand not acknowledge certain universal norms without basing it on authority of our tradition, or on the other hand sinking into some kind of vapid universalism where everybody is really saying the same thing and all of our specific differences are simply minor when actually, of course, they’re quite major? That was the task that faced us, and I think that we had some degree of success in dealing with this issue in our book Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue

David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies as Professor of the Study of Religion and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto since 1997. 

This piece is an edited partial transcript from the RFP's book event "Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue." Read Anver Emon's comments on Islam and natural law, or watch the full event video hereThis piece was first published in this form on August 13, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/14/natural-law-a-jewish-christian-and-islamic-trialogue