Saiman, “Halakhah”

9780691152110_0Ever since we started this center in 2010, one of our primary areas of focus has been comparative religious jurisprudence. It’s a fascinating subject, and one that draws little attention in the American legal academy, even in jurisprudence classes. Several years ago, a group of scholars tried to spark a Religious Legal Theory movement. Our center hosted one of the early conferences, in fact, which produced a number of excellent papers. But the movement seems to have fizzled out, sadly. The academy is a very secular place.

Still, comparative religious jurisprudence is an important object of study. Law figures, in some form, in every religion. But it plays very different roles. In Judaism and Islam, for example, law is the primary means for believers to interact with God–to learn and apply His will for humanity. In these religions, law plays the role that theology, properly understood, does in Christianity. Law is a vehicle for meditating on the divine.

I’m speaking in very broad terms; the subject is quite a bit more complicated. But I’m sure that the new book by our friend and colleague, Chaim Saiman (Villanova), will be a great and helpful addition to the literature in comparative religious jurisprudence. The book is Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, from Princeton University Press. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

How the rabbis of the Talmud transformed everything into a legal question—and Jewish law into a way of thinking and talking about everything.

Though typically translated as “Jewish law,” the term halakhah is not an easy match for what is usually thought of as law. This is because the rabbinic legal system has rarely wielded the political power to enforce its many detailed rules, nor has it ever been the law of any state. Even more idiosyncratically, the talmudic rabbis claim that the study of halakhah is a holy endeavor that brings a person closer to God—a claim no country makes of its law.

In this panoramic book, Chaim Saiman traces how generations of rabbis have used concepts forged in talmudic disputation to do the work that other societies assign not only to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics but also to art, drama, and literature. In the multifaceted world of halakhah where everything is law, law is also everything, and even laws that serve no practical purpose can, when properly studied, provide surprising insights into timeless questions about the very nature of human existence.

What does it mean for legal analysis to connect humans to God? Can spiritual teachings remain meaningful and at the same time rigidly codified? Can a modern state be governed by such law? Guiding readers across two millennia of richly illuminating perspectives, this book shows how halakhah is not just “law” but an entire way of thinking, being, and knowing.

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