Law, Religion, and Pluralism: The Thought and Experiences of Nathan Isaacs

68 Pages Posted: 1 Jul 2013

Date Written: June 1, 2013


Nathan Isaacs was a professor of Business Law at Harvard who publicly embraced his Jewish identity at a time when that was rare at American universities. Isaacs‘s academic work was organically bound to his many faceted activities in the American Jewish community. He endorsed a pluralist vision of America in which ethnic groups would retain their cultural identities while contributing to the American mosaic. Isaacs encouraged fuller observance of Jewish law and he also urged that Jewish law should adapt to changes in society. He believed that Zionism presented the opportunity to apply the principles of Jewish law to the industry and commerce of a modern state. Thus, he protested the classical Jewish Reform movement‘s rejection of the authority of Jewish law and Zionism. Isaacs‘s unique background and analysis of the history of Jewish law enabled him to craft a theory of legal development that suggested that legal systems advance in a cycle of successive periods of codification, literalistic interpretation, legal fictions, principle based interpretation, followed by legislation and re-codification. Isaacs believed that these modes of legal thinking also affected the substantive evolution of the law. Isaacs cultivated his cycle theory under the influences of Hegel, the Historical School of Jurisprudence, and the reaction against formalism in American law in the early twentieth century. However, he was also a defender of the authority of Jewish law and a possible motivation for his work was a desire to refute the arguments of biblical critics. Isaacs‘s attempt to forge a synthesis among Jewish law, Anglo-American law and society is a remarkable example of fruitful intellectual cross-fertilization.

Keywords: Jewish Law, Legal History, Law and Religion

JEL Classification: K40

Suggested Citation

Flaks, Samuel, Law, Religion, and Pluralism: The Thought and Experiences of Nathan Isaacs (June 1, 2013). Touro Law Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2013, Available at SSRN:

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