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Fox Law and Ethics in the Case of Moses Mendelssohn

Fox Law and Ethics in the Case of Moses Mendelssohn

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Law and Ethics in Modern Jewish Philosophy: The Case of Moses MendelssohnAuthor(s): Marvin FoxSource:
Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research,
Vol. 43 (1976), pp. 1-13Published by:
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Accessed: 29/06/2011 11:41
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LAWANDETHICS IN MODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY:THECASEOFMOSESMENDELSSOHN
byMARVINFox
BrandeisUniversityStudentsof modern Jewishphilosophicalthoughthaverightlynotedthespecialconcern whichisgiventoethicsbyJewishphi-losopherssince theeighteenthcentury.Nathan Rotenstreich ex-pressesthequalityofthisconcern whenhesays,"Whatstrikesus as new isthe insistenceontheprimacyofethicsinthesphereoffaith;traditionalreligionis divested ofitsbeliefsin transcen- dence,andpressedinto the serviceofmorality."lThis insistenceontheprimacyofethics,and ontheindependentstatus oftheethical,representsa radicaldepartureinJewishthought.Itis apositionwhichis neitherinharmonywiththe Biblical-rabbinictradition,norwiththemainlines of medievalJewishphilosophy.NeithertheBible,nor theTalmudknowsof anindependentrealmof the ethical.2 Law and ethicsareone,havingasinglesource,namely,divine commandment.God,the creator andmasteroftheworld,hasmade his law knownto manthroughthe TorahofMoses.It isHis commandments whichobligateus,andhispromiseof rewardandpunishmentwhich makesitprudentforus to observe Hislaw. Thereisnodistinctionamongthecom-mandmentseither as tosource orauthenticity,noraretheydis-tinguishedbyvirtueofmoralworth. Theverse intheTorah whichcommands ustoloveourneighbor, supposedlythehighestof moral
I
NathanRotenstreich,JewishPhilosophyinModern Times(New York,
1968),6.2Thosefamiliar rabbinicpassageswhichareregularlycited as evidencethatthe rabbisrecognizedtheindependenceof theethical,seem to me tobeseriouslymisinterpreted.or a discussionof thispoint,seemy"MaimonidesandAquinason NaturalLaw,"DineIsrael(Tel-AvivUniversity),III(1972),vi-ix.1
 
duties,sfollowedmmediately yanotherwhichprohibitskilayimandshaatnez.Therabbis,similarly,nstructus to beequallymeti-culousinthe observanceof allthecommandments,ince wedonot knowwhichmeritsagreaterorlesserreward.3Itmaybethoughtthat the situation sdifferentwhen wecometothe medieval Jewishphilosophers.Asis wellknown,Saadiaintroducedntoourliteraturehe term"rationalommandments",and thereare those whosupposehatwe have here thebeginningofanindependentthic.4Carefultudywillshow,as Ihavetriedto demonstratelsewhere,5hat we do not haveinSaadiaan ethicbasedon reasonalone. Thisisnot theplacetoargueoutthedetailsofthatclaim.Itis sufficient otakenote oftheindisputablefact that Saadiahimself,despiteadmittedambiguitiesnhisposi-tion,consistentlyreatsthecommandmentssdivinelawwhosebindingforcelies intheirdivineorigin.HesaysexplicitlythatGod firstcommandedusandinsodoing,obligatedustoHiswill. Itwasonlyafterwardswe were ableto discover hatsomeofthesecommandmentsada basisinreason,6buttheydonothaveindependenttatus.Moreover,amongthosecommandmentswhichhe classifiessrational,notall,byanymeans,wouldqualifyas"ethical"ntheusual modernsense.Whatis true of Saadiais true of the other medievalJewishphilosophers,espiteheten-dencyofsomemodern thinkersoinvoketheauthorityof theirmedievalpredecessorsojustifyclaimshatJudaismecognizesnindependentthicapartfromthe law.7
3M.Abot,II,1.4SeferEmunotve-Deot, III, 1, 2,3andpassim.5Cf.my"On theRationalCommandmentsnSaadia'sPhilosophy:A Re-Examination,"nModernJewishEthics:TheoryandPractice(Columbus,OhioStateUniversityPress, 1975),M.Fox(ed.),174-187.6Emunotve-Deot,III,1;cf.,IV,1(end).7Astrikingcase is thatofHermannCohenwho issoconcernedto estab-lish therationalityof the commandmentsasafixed(andcorrect)doctrineof themedieval Jewishphilosophers,thathemanagesto close hiseyestoall thecontraryevidence.As Leo Straussnotes in hisIntroductoryEssaytotheEnglishtranslationof Cohen'sReligionofReason,CohenpraisesIbnDaud "whohadassignedaverylow statusto the'prescriptionsf obedience'
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