The Yoke of Heaven, the Question of Sinai, and the Life of Law
University of Toronto Law Journal, Vol. 44, p. 353, 1994
48 Pages Posted: 26 Nov 2010
Date Written: 1994
This paper is part of my ongoing project that tries to give an account of the jurisprudence of Jewish Law:
Halakhah is Jewish law. And for Judaism, law is a central category of religious life. The arena of law was, for historic Judaism, an expression of divine love, and an occasion for human beings to return that love. For all this, though, the same question can still be asked for the halakhah as for any other legal system: What gives it force? What makes it bind?
Today, even religiously serious Jews are divided in their attitude to halakhah. In the "traditional" view, the halakhah is, simply put, binding. For "liberal" Jews, the halakhah is, also simply put, less than binding. These two camps, traditional and liberal, disagree on a good deal. But one thing that does often unite them is a similar analysis of what it is that drives their disagreement. Leading thinkers in both camps, with notable exceptions, assume that their attitude to halakhah rests on their respective accounts of divine revelation at Mount Sinai. For many Jews taking a traditional view of halakhah, the law is binding because God revealed it, literally and explicitly at Mount Sinai. For many Jews taking a liberal view, the halakhah is not binding because no such revelation took place, at least not literally, at least not as explicit legal rules.
I argue, against advocates of both the traditional and the liberal camps, that belief or disbelief in a literal revelation at Sinai is neither necessary nor sufficient to either accepting or rejecting traditional halakhic commitment. I also argue that even how one interprets halakhah – strictly or leniently, purposively or textually – need not be determined, one way or the other, by one's view of its precise provenance.
Keywords: Halakhah, Jewish Law, Tradition, Revelation, Bindingness of Law, Authority of Law, Legal Interpretation, Constructive Postmodernism, Jewish History, Responses to Modernity
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