This course introduces students to the original meaning and significance of religious law and ethics within Judaism. Law is the single most important part of Jewish history and identity. At the same time, law is also the least understood part of Judaism and has often been the source of criticism and hatred. We shall therefore confront one of the most important parts of Jewish civilization and seek to understand it on its own terms. In demonstrating how law becomes a fundamental religious and ethical ideal, the course will focus on the biblical and Rabbinic periods but spans the entire history of Judaism. Consistent with the First Amendment, the approach taken is secular. There are no prerequisites: the course is open to all qualified students.
The course begins with ideas of law in ancient Babylon and then studies the ongoing history of those ideas. The biblical idea that a covenant binds Israel to God, along with its implications for human worth - including the view of woman as person - will be examined. Comparative cultural issues include the reinterpretations of covenant within Christianity and Islam. The course investigates the rabbinic concept of oral law, the use of law to maintain the civil and religious stability of the Jewish people, and the kabbalistic transformation of law. The course concludes with contemporary Jewish thinkers who return to the Bible while seeking to establish a modern system of universal ethics.
The premise of the course is the discipline of academic religious studies. The assumptions of the course are therefore academic and secular, as required by the First Amendment. All texts and all religious traditions will be examined analytically and critically. Students are expected to understand and master this approach, which includes questioning conventional cultural assumptions about the composition and authorship of the Bible. Willingness to ask such questions and openness to new ways of thinking are essential to success in the course.