The Cambridge Companion to Judaism and Law

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Christine Hayes
Cambridge Companions to Religion
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , February
     438 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In 1917, Hayim Nahman Bialik published his well-known essay, “Halakhah and Aggadah.” It beginswith the distinction that “Halachah wears a frown, Aggadah a smile. The one is pedantic, severe, unbending—all justice; the other is accommodating, lenient, pliable—all mercy. … Here there is petrified piety, duty, servitude; and here perpetual renewal, liberty, permission.” Reading this, one might think that Bialik was an ardent champion of aggadah and attached no importance to halakhah. Later, though, he stresses the power of halakhah and the essential balance between the two: “A Judaism all aggadah is like iron that has been heated but not cooled. Aspiration, good will, spiritual uplift, heartfelt love—all these are excellent and valuable when they lead to action, to action which is hard as iron and obeys the stern behests of duty.”

The tension and complex connection between halakhah and aggadah can be conceptualized in various ways: as nomos and narrative, as law and morality, as faith and action, and so forth. The fourteen essays in the present impressive volume, some of them addressing how Judaism relates to law or halakhah, and others looking at the relationship between Jewish law and non-Jewish law, from the Bible through contemporary Israel, exemplify the diverse ways in which Judaism has coped with this dialectic tension. In the editor’s introduction, Christine Hayeswonders whether it is even possible to speak of Judaism and law, because, whereas “law and religion are distinct spheres and sciences of human life” in Christianity, Judaism seems to be only or mainly law. In fact, the external gulf between the two religions—the tension between faith and law—is also an internal tension that has accompanied Judaism throughout history. Chaya Halberstam shows that, in biblical law, it is almost impossible to isolate legal texts from other literary genres; the law is embedded in the narrative, sometimes in order to generate empathy for it and encourage compliance with it. Hayes examines the relationship between halakhah and aggadah in the Mishnah and how the rabbis’ conceptualization of divine law differed from that of their Greco-Roman environment (law as expressing the will of God and not necessarily universal rational truth). Warren Zev Harvey examines a series of medieval texts, ranging from Saadiah Gaon to Judah Halevi, Maimonides, the Zohar, and Isaac Abravanel. Menachem Lorberbaum looks at the antinomian challenges posed by Sabbateanism and Hasidism, showing how, for the latter, observance of halakhah is only one way to draw closer to God. David Ellenson addresses the antinomian tendencies of 19th-century Reform. The book’s third section considers the internal tensions between secular law and the democratic Jewish state.

We may wonder whether the third section diverges from the internal tension presented in the first two sections, a tension rooted within the Jewish world itself and at most related to non-Jewish civil law as a function of the cultural environment in which Jews lived in various periods. (For example, Verena Kasper-Marienberg surveys the various ways that Jews, as individuals and a collective, related to the non-Jewish courts in Frankfurt am Main until the 18th century.) The tension between halakhah and civil law in modern Israel is fundamentally different, because, for the first time in Jewish history, a Jewish state has codified secular laws that are not halakhah. If in the past there was interaction between the Jewish world and the non-Jewish outside world, the case of Israel is different, both because the borders between “inside” and “outside” have been blurred and because the very term “Jewish” has become the subject of fierce controversy (Thus Daphne Barak-Erez wonders what it means for a state to be Jewish. She tries to get beyond the dichotomous definition of a conflict between observant and non-observant Jews or between Jews and Arabs and highlights the cultural sense of the term “the Jewish state”).

The last chapter in the book may shed new light on the entire section: Patricia Woods looks at the women’s movement in Israel and rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court concerning women’s rights. She believes that the legal victories on gender issues in the late 1980s and 1990s were closely linked to the movement’s growing strength and the change in the relationship between the state and Israeli society. These successes involve reining in the power of religious law, which in Israel also regulates personal status (marriage and divorce); the establishment of the International Coalition for Agunah Rights and its campaign for the institution of Family Courts in which woman receive more equal treatment in financial matters related to divorce; and improvement in other religious spheres in which the influence of the Orthodox monopoly infringes women’s rights (from the Shakdiel case of 1988 through the Women of the Wall and the current struggle for women’s voices to be heard in the public arena). Religious organizations have been a conspicuous presence in the battle waged by the women’s movements (so that the conflict was within the religious community as well).

I see an interesting connection between Yonatan Brafman’s article in the second part of the book, which considers the feminist critique of halakhah, and Woods’s chapter. Both of them raise an interesting issue. Whereas the book as a whole examines internal tensions in Judaism—between its conceptualization as law and the accent on its other constitutive elements, such as faith, morality, and values—and emphasizes the challenges to its definition as law, in the early 21stcentury women have inherited the traditional mantle of the challenge to Jewish law, which is presented so persuasively in this volume, and the call for a more appropriate balance between the narrative and legal sections so as to make law more sensitive to gender matters (notably in the writings of Rachel Adler and Tamar Ross). If, as Brafman shows, Cohen, Buber, and Rosenzweig thought it important to respond to the Kantian challenge, the women’s movement seeks to respond to the moral challenge that feminism poses to Judaism. Religious law—halakhah—and the law of the Jewish state must reflect these ideas. In this regard, this book demonstrates how Jewish feminists are writing a new chapter in the history of Judaism and Law.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ronit Irshai is Associate Professor in the Gender Studies Program at Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christine Hayes is Weis Professor of Religious Studies in Classical Judaica at Yale University, Connecticut. A specialist in talmudic-midrashic studies, her published works include Between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds (1997, winner of a Salo Baron Prize), Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities (2002, National Jewish Book Award finalist), The Emergence of Judaism (2010), Introduction to the Bible (2012), and What's Divine about Divine Law? (2015, winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship and the 2016 PROSE Award in Theology and Religious Studies from the American Publishers Association). She is an elected member of the American Academy of Jewish Research and Vice President for the Program of the Association for the Jewish Studies.


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