More difficult than flinty rock: natural law and the Noahide commandments
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The Noahide code is one of the most versatile conceptual resources in the Jewish tradition. I begin my thesis by identifying some peculiarities regarding the status of the code itself: the order, number, and content of its laws are unclear; it was not publicly promulgated or expressed in general terms; as a matter of historical fact, Jews couldn't effectively enforce the commandments, nor was doing so clearly required or even expected, and so forth. Placing these thorny issues to one side, I move on to survey some of the varied applications of Noahide law in jurisprudence, criminal law, immigration law, just war theory, foreign policy, and even animal rights. Then I turn to what is in my view the most ambitious interpretation of the code, namely the claim that it is a form of Jewish natural law. After going over some of the arguments in favor of this move, I argue that- pace Rabbi David Novak in particular- the Noahide commandments cannot be properly understood a form of natural law theory. In casting doubt on this view through a mix of historical considerations, I also endeavor to salvage some sense of the Noahide code's vast importance for Jewish ethical thought. I conclude that the Noahide is more than merely divine fiat, but less than natural law, representing a complex and fragmented doctrine that can be only partially explained in terms of rational morality.
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