April 9th 2016


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Euthanasia: A truly counter-cultural perspective from history

CANBERRA OBSERVED Harsh realities a bridge too far for this election

EDITORIAL Malcolm Turnbull's election strategy emerges

FAMILY AND SOCIETY SSCA sets mines to basic building blocks of society

DOMESTIC AND FAMILY VIOLENCE Never mind the issue: this is the agenda

ASIA-PACIFIC AFFAIRS Taiwan, China find rapport over South China Sea

ART AND CULTURE Beauty and the beholder

OPINION Labor's princeling class licks dole plate clean

SEX ABUSE ROYAL COMMISSION Truth takes a back seat: scapegoating Cardinal Pell

POLITICAL HISTORY The Labor Split spillover

MUSIC Minimalism more than the sum of Arvo Pärt

CINEMA More like home than utopia: Zootopia

BOOK REVIEW Retrieving meaning

BOOK REVIEW Midget submarine op

BOOK REVIEW A Jewish view of universal ethics

LETTERS

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BOOK REVIEW A
Jewish view of universal ethics




News Weekly, April 9, 2016

 

THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF UNIVERSAL ETHICS: The Noahide Laws

by Shimon Dovid Cowen

(The Institute for Judaism and Civilization Inc, Melbourne/NY)
Hardcover: 388 pages
ISBN: 9780826608437
Price: AUD$21.95

 

Reviewed by John Young

 

The author, Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen, is founder and director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilization in Melbourne. His late father, Sir Zelman Cowen OBM, was a governor-general of Australia.

The aim of this book is to present a scheme of ethics derived from the Old Testament (particularly the Noahide laws) and applicable universally.

These moral laws, for the most part, are also known by reason (although Rabbi Cowen principally appeals to the biblical testimony). They provide common ground for Jews, Christians, Muslims and other faiths, as well as for people without religious faith but willing to follow their God-given nature.

Rabbi Cowen bases his position on the truth that God is the Creator of all things and that the human soul is made in his image and likeness. All morality is founded on God, and the basic moral principles are knowable by us because the human soul responds to the Supreme Being in whose image it is made.

Persons are intrinsically valuable, an awareness of which leads us to avoid exploiting people. Certain values are absolute and universal, whatever society may say to the contrary.

The truth that God created man and woman as complementary to each other, with marriage as a union between one man and one woman, rules out adultery and homosexual unions. Regarding the current push for homosexual relations to be seen as normal, Cowen notes how detrimental this is to people with these tendencies.

He writes: “For those for whom homosexual inclinations derive from physiological or mental sources, the public legitimation of homosexuality in fact converts these into a ‘fate’, which can paralyse the struggle of homosexuals to deal with or overcome them.”

Rabbi Cowen quotes approvingly the view of Viktor Frankl (author of Man’s Search for Meaning and Holocaust survivor) that God’s existence can’t be proved philosophically, and he also endorses the position of famous medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides that we can only know God negatively: that is, by saying what he is not. For example, to say that God is living is to say that he is not non-living. I disagree with Rabbi Cowen on these positions, but there is no space to go into that deep issue here.

There is a perceptive treatment of the hedonistic materialism so prevalent in Western society. As Cowen explains, this is based on denial of the existence of God and of the human soul, with the reduction of man to the level of the other animals, and the elevation of pleasure as the supreme good to be sought.

I agree with most of Rabbi Cowen’s conclusions, with the occasional exception. Regarding abortion, while he sees most abortions as evil, he considers it morally lawful to kill the baby if this is necessary to save the mother’s life, claiming that the baby in such a case is an unjust aggressor against the woman.

I also disagree with him where he argues that the Jewish people have a God-given right to the land of Israel: “[T]he land of Israel has not been stolen because its ultimate owner, G-d [because of his reverence for the Divine name, Rabbi Cowen does not spell it fully] – the true lord of the land – took it from those to whom He had previously granted possession of it, and then gave it to the Jewish people as an eternal inheritance … From that point onwards it is the inalienable possession of the Jewish people.”

This, too, is an issue that can’t be explored in a brief review.

Rabbi Cowen has a high regard not only for the seven Noahide laws (with which his book is primarily concerned), but also for the 613 laws discussed by Jewish authorities. Some of these are specifically Jewish (for instance the commandment forbidding a Jew from wearing a garment made of a mixture of wool and linen).

But for the most part the principles and applications proposed in this scholarly work should be endorsed and practised by every reasonable person. They are a blueprint for a truly happy society. Rabbi Shimon Dovid Cowen is a thoughtful and courageous man who is not intimidated by the political correctness so prevalent among our religious and political leaders.

 

The seven Noahide laws, as traditionally enumerated:

1. Do not deny God.

2. Do not blaspheme God.

3. Do not murder.

4. Do not engage in incestuous, adulterous or homosexual relationships.

5. Do not steal.

6. Do not eat of a live animal.

7. Establish courts/legal system to ensure law obedience.


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