Prophets in the Public Square – Part II

More from an unpublished talk I presented at the 19th Annual Journal of Law and Religion Symposium at Hamline Law School in 2009.

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In Part I, I talked about the importance of “authenticity” and the risk of succumbing to “cheap prooftexting” when Jews bring their religious values to bear in public debate.  While the general notion of “authenticity” is obviously also relevant to Christian interventions in public debate, it might seem at first glance that Christians need not worry about the more specific challenges facing Jews — especially the need to distinguish between religious law and religious exhortation and also between intra-group and universal norms.  After all, most Christians, unlike Jews, do not treat law, with its rigor and limitations, as central to religious life. Nor do Christians, at first glance, seem to be caught up as Jews are in a tense polarity between particularism and universalism.

But I want to sketch an argument that, to the contrary, there is a lot of resonance between the two cases. Read more

Prophets in the Public Square — Part I

I want, in three posts adapted from an unpublished talk I presented at the 19th Annual Journal of Law and Religion Symposium at Hamline Law School in 2009, to add a bit to the possibly already-stale conversation over the role of religious voices in the public square.  If I can add anything, it will be to focus on the distinctive challenges, both internal and external, that confront those religious voices as they try to translate theology into policy.

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Years ago, I attended a panel discussion on Jewish views of the American welfare state. My memory of the event is hazy, but I do recall that several speakers discussed strands in Jewish law that might support income redistribution, national healthcare reform, or the like. Finally, the last panelist got up and argued that Judaism actually had little to say about the American welfare state, and that most of the textual sources from which the other speakers drew conclusions about contested matters of American policy were, as a matter of Jewish law, only relevant to the internal life of Jewish communities or to a Jewish polity.

What should we make of this critique?  This isn’t the place to review the legal analysis. So I will, on the one hand, just assume, for the sake of argument, that it was correct. But there’s another hand: Though law is at the heart of Judaism, not all Jewish religious discourse is legal. There are other registers through which Jewish tradition speaks, including Biblical narrative and poetry, rabbinic homiletics, systematic moral philosophy, mysticism, and more. And even the law has a vision – attitudes and aspirations and ideals – beyond its strict four corners.

There is also a third hand, however. For if religious arguments do get made in different registers, it is important to get the discourse right. Read more