BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
A universal ethics
, June 6, 2015
Contemporary politics and social policy:
Through the Lens of Traditional Faith and Universal Ethics
by Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen
(Melbourne, Institute for Judaism and Civilization)
Paperback: 201 pages
Available through the Institute for Judaism and Civilization
Reviewed by Gabrielle Walsh
Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen
This slim but timely text explains the common elements and values found in the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, based in the Noahide laws, which form the foundation of a universal set of ethical principles.
The book has been written in the context of current world affairs yet focuses on Australia’s diverse multi-faith community and is a welcome contribution to the debate on the importance of a shared ethic. It explores the transmission of faith to the young through education to nurture a life-long adherence to an accepted set of universal ethics.
Rabbi Cowen also expands on the practical interface between these universally accepted ethics and mainstream social institutions, such as the law and economic structures in Australia.
The author draws our attention to the fact that in Australia we face a time of cultural shift away from commonly held Judeo-Christian beliefs, and more broadly Abrahamic ethics, as institutions foundational to society are under serious challenge, such as man-woman marriage, secular content in the National Curriculum and more.
In expanding his basic thesis Rabbi Cowen discusses a “shared ethic for citizenship”, as education should pursue social harmony through “unity around common aspirations and values”. He holds that values need to be partnered with a belief system rooted in a wider view of life, and that it is easier for children who have an inherited belief system which offers a basis for the development of a value system.
To be more specific, Rabbi Cowen explains that life has three main aspects where sound values need to be applied: personal (inner self); interpersonal (relations with others); relations with the natural world. These dimensions are filled out by the comprehensive, shared ethic of the Abrahamic religions with their integrity and strength.
Rabbi Cowen makes his thesis by way of submissions to parliamentary commissions, public documents and interviews with respected academics and leaders in the community.
Included in the book is the Submission to the National Curriculum Review promoting “the spiritual development of young Australians”; which, according to Rabbi Cowen, has been eschewed in the National Curriculum. This, he believes, hinders the development of spiritual literacy, which is necessary at a time when families need support in the transmission of a universal ethic.
Rabbi Cowen makes an important point that God is written into the preamble of the Australian Constitution, in recognition of the religious tradition of Australia. Acting as the interviewer Rabbi Cowen leads a discussion with former Chief Justice Murray Gleeson. The interview technique is effective in exploring the interface between the shared ethic and the law. It supports his argument and helps expose areas where the law is embedding secularism through the courts, such as with the rights agenda.
Rabbi Cowen explores the shared ethic and marriage through an interview with Professor Patrick Parkinson on family law and the biblical concept of marriage. Since the decline of religious practice there has been a corresponding decline in marriage. The challenge in Australia is to hold to the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act as “the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others voluntarily entered into for life”. It is worth keeping in mind that the institution of marriage was established for the protection of children, the family unit being recognised as the “optimal environment” for the care of children.
Another area of Australian life is the coercion of conscience enshrined in S.8 ALRA 2008 in Victoria. He quotes from messages from the Rabbinical Council of Victoria and the Board of Imams Victoria that explain how the anti-conscience clause 8(1) forces believing Jews and Muslims to act against their consciences and faith on pain of punishment.
Rabbi Cowen rightfully points out that the Tasmanian Reproductive Health (access to terminations) Act 2013 expands the restriction to the right to conscience beyond the doctor, nurse or ancillary staff to other groups such as protesters outside abortion clinics.
On the issue of same-sex marriage, Rabbi Cowen explains that it is a political movement that promotes homosexual activity along the continuum to “homosexual marriage” with the aim to “institutionalise homosexual practice”. But for the religious believer marriage is seen through the lens of the human soul and human tradition, which “resonate over time with a set of universal norms – a Divine Template – through which the human being models or images the Divine One”. Man-woman marriage and the children of the marriage are the fulfilment of the Creator’s plan for humanity.
This text is highly recommended as it promotes a bold vision of a shared ethic of the three Abrahamic religions whose core values are under threat in Australian society. The battle for their survival can be evidenced through the action of members of the community whose work it is to maintain the important interface with fundamental social institutions, education, law and economic structures within the natural law that is written in every human heart.
In an appendix to his brief but penetrating book on the natural law, The Abolition of Man, theologian C.S. Lewis provides a long, though selective, list of what he calls “Illustrations of the Tao”, by which he means examples of the commonality of morality in all civilisations and among all peoples.
It is a list that well complements the practical considerations that Rabbi Shimon Cowen examines in his book reviewed on page 20 above.
Lewis writes: “The following illustrations of the Natural Law are collected from such sources as come readily to the hand of one who is not a professional historian. The list makes no pretense of completeness. … I am not trying to prove its validity by the argument from common consent. Its validity cannot be deduced. For those who do not perceive its rationality, even universal consent could not prove it.”
The following are a selection from the selection Lewis made.
I. The law of general beneficence
“I have not slain men.” (Ancient Egyptian. From the Confession of the Righteous Soul, Book of the Dead)
“In Nastrond (= Hell) I saw ... murderers.” (Old Norse)
“Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” (Ancient Jewish. Exodus 20:16)
“Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” (Ancient Chinese. Analects of Confucius)
“Love thy neighbour as thyself” (Ancient Jewish. Leviticus 19:18)
“Do to men what you wish men to do to you.” (Christian. Matthew 7: 12)
2. The law of special beneficence
“You will see them take care of their kindred [and] the children of their friends ... never reproaching them in the least.” (Native American)
“Nothing can ever change the claims of kinship for a right thinking man.” (Anglo-Saxon. Beowulf)
“If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith.” (Christian. I Timothy 5:8)
3. Duties to parents, elders
“Your father is an image of the Lord of Creation, your mother an image of the Earth. For him who fails to honour them, every work of piety is in vain. This is the first duty.” (Hindu)
“Has he despised Father and Mother?” (Babylonian. List of Sins)
“Honour thy Father and thy Mother.” (Ancient Jewish. Exodus 20:12)
4. Duties to children and posterity
“To marry and to beget children.” (Greek. List of duties. Epictetus)
“Great reverence is owed to a child.” (Roman. Juvenal)
“The Master said, respect the young.” (Ancient Chinese. Analects)
5. The law of justice
‘Has he approached his neighbour’s wife?’ (Babylonian. List of Sins)
‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ (Ancient Jewish. Exodus 20:14)
‘I saw in Nastrond (= Hell) ... beguilers of others’ wives.’ (Old Norse)
6. The law of good faith and veracity
“A sacrifice is obliterated by a lie and the merit of alms by an act of fraud.” (Hindu)
“With his mouth was he full of Yea, in his heart full of Nay?” (Babylonian)
7. The Law of Mercy
“Whoso makes intercession for the weak, well pleasing is this to Samas.” (Babylonian)
“When thou cuttest down thine harvest ... and hast forgot a sheaf, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.” (Ancient Jewish. Deuteronomy 24:19)
8. The Law of Magnanimity
“I know that I hung on the gallows for nine nights, wounded with the spear as a sacrifice to Odin, myself offered to Myself.” (Old Norse)