What is this thing called Jewish law?

Observant Jews tend to have in mind a specific view of what law is and how it operates

December 5, 2013 14:14
1 minute read.
The Judgment of Solomon by Rafael, 1519

Judgment of Solomon 370. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The full article appears in Mosaic

Spirituality, community, personal growth, views of the future and of the past: all are mediated through the scrupulous practice of halakhah, the “portable homeland” of the observant Jew for more than two millennia.

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In addressing these and other issues, such Jews turn reflexively to see how the Jewish legal tradition has addressed similar issues in the past, and how past legislation informs the religious decisions they make today.

But (with apologies to Cole Porter) what is this thing called Jewish law, and what is the Jewish legal tradition?

In invoking law, or in equating halakhah with law, observant Jews tend to have in mind a specific view of what law is and how it operates. That view is captured in phrases like “uphold the law,” “comply with the law,” “the letter of the law,” “against the law.” All of these usages share a basic assumption: namely, that the law in question is a written formulation and is to be found in a law code.

And yet this very notion—that by “law” we mean written law found in a law code—is itself a relative newcomer in the history of legal thought. Once upon a time, the norms of society—even of Jewish society— were not written. There were no codes.

Read the rest of the essay and debate at Mosaic

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