Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Review of Moshe Koppel's Meta-Halakhah

(Note: Normally after reading a book, I would just type out something as an afterthought and post it here. This time is no different, but this time it comes with an apology to the author. This book deserves more than some afterthoughts, I am just not in a position now to write any up right now.)

I think Jewish philosophy took some wrong turns over the years. Let me explain. A significant portion of Jewish philosophy has always been, parasitic, if you will, off all other philosophy. This is not a bad thing. To the contrary. Jewish philosophy, in its good days, took the latest tools from the mainstream philosophers, and applied them to problems of Jewish concern - sometimes integrating them with Jewish thought, or criticizing them from the perspective of Jewish thought, or criticizing Jewish thought thought from the perspective of the most modern pieces of secular philosophy. Some of the most prominent Jewish philosophers did that, and it is mainly because of their ability to do that so well, that we now see them as part of mainstream thinking. When we think of Philo, Maimonides, Gersonides, Mendelssohn, Albo, Krochmal, and many others, this should be readily apparent.

Modern Anglo philosophy broke with European philosophy with the works of Frege and Russell. As the story goes, Russell broke off with Hegelian idealism, and two streams of thought started - one caught on in English-speaking countries, and the other on the
continent. That is not to say that there is not a lot of overlap in the questions they ask, the methodology they employ, or the answers they give. But there are considerable differences between them, and for better or worse, philosophers in the "continental tradition" and philosophers in the Anglo "analytic tradition" do not read each other's works much. The Anglo philosophers tend to see their philosophy through the light of formal logic, whereas the philosophers on the continent tend to see their philosophy through the light of sociology. These are different takes on philosophy.

More modern European Jewish philosophers like Franz Rosenzweig wrote within the tradition of Hegel and the Europeans. The tradition continues with Levinas doing Jewish-like philosophy within a very Franco-European tradition. (Sometimes manifested in works of people like Marc-Alain Ouaknin.)

All of this is not about being territorial. Rather it still about the "wrong turns" I mentioned. J. B. Soloveitchik, perhaps the most important Jewish philosopher in the English-speaking world alive in my lifetime, also took inspiration from much of the
European existentialism in which he was educated. Naturally, an industry grew up studying Soloveitchik. What has failed to happen in Jewish thought was any attempt at analytic Jewish philosophy - that is Jewish philosophy that has emerged using the tools of modern 20th and 21st century Anglo thought. (There are some works that might be classified as exceptions.)

I think that for all I don't like about it, Moshe Koppel's Meta-halakhah might have been the first book that competently employs the tools of modern logic and analysis to Jewish thought. Koppel tackles some of the hardest and trickiest problems that Halakhah (Jewish Law) faces. These are not questions about any particular law, or legal problem, but rather he asks the questions about the foundational issues about the law. Jewish law is notoriously complicated. There are disputes, reconciliations, open questions, and principles of derivation. Some of the toughest moments come when we ask questions like: can all of Jewish Law be derived mechanically from the original Law (at Sinai)? What is the nature of an "interpretation" of Jewish law? How could Moses not have understood the laws being taught in his name by Rabbi Akiba? What does it mean for the Torah to be a "living" document and also be divine? If God has the law up in Heaven that is perfect, why do we consider it a foundations of Jewish Law that the Torah is "not in Heaven"? Why was it so bad to write down the law? Isn't it better, if the law is perfect, to have it down so it does not get changed?

Koppel deals with all these questions, and more using the notions of computability, model, derivability, verifyability, provability, etc. He gives a spirited defense of an understanding of Jewish law that has a two-fold nature. That is there is a level of Jewish law that is intuitive, and a level on which it is logical. He claims that prophets only have intuitions about what the law is, and interpreters of the law are only able to put them in to formal models. Each has its advantages, but both are necessary for the complete functioning and understanding of Jewish Law.

Like I said, because of this book's uniqueness in treating issues of Jewish Law in a sophisticated way it deserves more careful consideration than I am giving it here. I will just say that while I think Koppel's treatment must be on the right track, I am not convinced that it is right. He claims outright that he did not write a scholarly book, and that is correct. He should have. There is some literature that would be useful, and the topic deserves a more extensive treatment. Nonetheless this is a valuable contribution, and the lack of critical reception over the past 10 years since the book came out speaks more of the sorry state of contemporary Orthodox Jewish thought than it does of the book itself.

It should be read by all who want to start understanding the hard questions about Jewish Law.

(PS I'm not sure what the deal with the approbation is. I didn't really understand it. It looked weird.)

1 comment:

Ben said...

Apology accepted.
A scholarly version would've taken twice as long to write and been twice as boring.
The "approbation" is satire.