Natural Law and Judaism: The Case of Maimonides

By Konvitz, Milton R. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Natural Law and Judaism: The Case of Maimonides


Konvitz, Milton R., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Is there natural law in judaism? Leo Strauss has given a partial answer to this question by saying that

Where there is no philosophy, there is no knowledge of natural right as such. The Old Testament, whose basic premise may be said to be the implicit rejection of philosophy, does not know "nature": the Hebrew term for "nature" is unknown to the Hebrew Bible. It goes without saying that "heaven and earth," for example, is not the same thing as "nature." There is, then, no knowledge of natural right as such in the Old Testament. The discovery of nature necessarily precedes the discovery of natural right. Philosophy is older than political philosophy.(1)

This passage bristles with problems. First, let us admit that the term "natural right" does not appear in the Hebrew Scriptures; that is, not as such. But just as one could have been speaking prose for forty years without knowing it,(2) so, too, the Bible can contain Natural Law (or Natural Right) without explicitly avowing the theory or conception. The Hebrew Scriptures does not identify erotic or romantic love "as such," eo nomine, but can one argue that it is missing from the Song of Songs? Furthermore, as we shall note in the passages from Cicero and Grotius, Natural Law is not dependent upon philosophy, nor upon a philosophy of nature, but upon the nature of man. It is based upon a belief that the nature of man necessarily involves certain natural laws. The theory does not involve general nature, a philosophy of nature, but only Man, the nature of man. Let me quote the passage from Cicero:

No single thing is so like another, so exactly its counterpart, as all of us are to one another. . . . And so, however we may define man, a single definition will apply to all. . . .(3)

And what is the "single definition" that is applicable to all men? Every man has "right reason" - every man has intelligence, rationality; every man has reason and can be reasoned with:

For those creatures who have received the gift of reason from Nature have also received right reason, . . .

And if every man has reason and can be reasoned with (right reason),

. . . therefore they have also received the gift of Law, which is right reason applied to command and prohibition.(4)

The background for Strauss's strange statement is his belief that men cannot live without knowledge of the good to guide them individually or collectively; and this knowledge can be had either by "the unaided efforts of their natural powers" or by "Divine Revelation." Strauss puts these alternatives as stark, separate choices; there is no overlap, no middle ground: "No alternative is more fundamental than this: human guidance or divine guidance." Human guidance is characteristic of philosophy, divine guidance is presented by the Bible.

The dilemma cannot be evaded by any harmonization or synthesis. For both philosophy and the Bible proclaim something as the one thing needful, as the only thing that ultimately counts, and the one thing needful proclaimed by the Bible is the opposite of that proclaimed by philosophy: a life of obedient love versus a life of free insight.(5)

This is a fine example of the either/or logic. Things are either black or white; there are no shades of color. Strauss falsities both religion and philosophy, and thus provides a perverted view of Natural Law. He does not consider the possibility that "free insight" could lead to "obedient love."

Even a cursory examination of the history of Greek philosophy would show the complex and intimate relation of philosophy and religion. Greek philosophy began in religion, and Greek philosophy, as in Plato and Aristotle, ended in religion. From a concern with external nature the ancient philosophers moved to a concern with the nature of man, to psychology, logic, politics, ethics, epistemology. They discovered the soul, added the dimension of spirituality to the nature of man, and projected immortality for the soul. …

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