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John Hare’s God’s Command, 7.2 “Novak”

By Jonathan Pruitt

In the second section of his chapter on Jewish thinkers, Hare explores David Novak’s Natural Law in Judaism. Hare sees Novak as trying to find a “middle way” between grounding moral knowledge and ontology in revelation or reason. If ethics is grounded solely in revelation, it will be arbitrary and inscrutable apart from revelation. If grounded merely in nature or reason, it will not need a personal, immanent God. Besides this general concern, Hare also sees Novak as specifically motivated by the testimony of the Hebrew Bible and a desire to make Jewish thought relevant to public life. This latter concern is what drives Novak to make moral precepts accessible and discernible by reason.

Novak considers a challenge from Richard Rorty. Rorty has said that appealing to the will of God is a “conversation stopper” in democratic society. Novak accepts Rorty’s claim and tries to overcome it. His first step is to draw a distinction between the command of God and the wisdom of God. God commands the Jews to not eat pork, but the command to refrain from murder is the wisdom of God. Novak thinks that the commands God gives to Noah after the Flood represent “divine wisdom.” God’s command is grounded in revelation while the God’s wisdom in nature or reason. The wisdom of God can be introduced into public dialogue because one need not appeal to the will of God to show it is true, but God’s commands cannot be.

Hare objects to Novak’s reply to Rorty. Hare thinks that Rorty is simply mistaken and that one can appeal to the will of God and make societal progress. Following Miroslav Volf, Hare suggests that Christians have a unique vision of the good life that is helpful to society, but that potentially Christians can benefit from open conversation with other faiths and worldviews. It is precisely because of the different understanding of revelation in different religions that conversation is beneficial. History also shows that faith often unites people in a common cause, like civil rights, rather than divide them.

Hare also criticizes Novak for misinterpreting the account of Abraham “bargaining” with God at Sodom and Gomorrah. Novak sees this account as implying that Abraham had prior knowledge of “divine wisdom” and this is the basis for God’s knowing Abraham and blessing him. What God knows is that Abraham knows the divine wisdom and will keep the natural law. However, Hare points out that the basis of the blessing is Abraham’s faith in God; it is primarily relational and personal, rather than rational (though it is not inconsistent with reason).

Cover for Gods Command Next, Hare turns to Novak’s interaction with Maimonides. Novak’s work tries to take seriously this idea from Maimonides: “Therefore I say that the Law, although it is not natural, enters into what is natural.” Novak thinks this means that one can only receive the Law given in the Torah when it can be shown to be rational. Reason precedes revelation and makes it possible. Novak, following what Hare thinks is a misinterpretation of Maimonides, argues this view coheres with the Torah because creation and revelation are single act. The moral law and creation are the result of the same divine act, so they are intimately intertwined. One may discern, then, the moral law from creation or nature. Hare argues that this is not what Maimonides had in mind; all he meant was that creation and revelation are the same kind of act, and not numerically the same. Further, if morality can be totally deduced from creation, then this results in a reductive view of God, perhaps even a view that eliminates God entirely. God’s commands may be consistent with nature, but it is not deducible from nature, even the Noahide commands. Hare points out that this is not Novak’s intention, but Novak’s view has been compromised by conceding too much to Rorty. Hare thinks that, epistemically, revelation should be sufficient for justifying moral knowledge.

Novak, again, is trying to find a “middle way” between revelation and reason. So far, he only tried to show how revelation is consistent with reason, but he also suggests some ways it is limited. To this end, Novak identifies three “teleological errors,” one of which will always occur in rationalistic attempts to ground moral knowledge. The first is the error of Saadiah. According to Novak, Saadiah mistakenly thinks that humans only relate to God through creation, and thus moral knowledge is discernible fully in the world. But God is not merely relating to humanity through, but also within it. The second error is from Maimonides, whom Novak thinks is guilty of making the human telos too rationalistic. Novak understands Maimonides as saying that the human telos is contemplation, but this is inconsistent with the reality of a meaningful, intricate material world and humanity.  Kant is the proponent of the final error. Novak thinks of Kant as setting morality over God, but Hare thinks this is bad reading of Kant. Kant, per Hare, thinks that Kant repeatedly appeals to God’s commands as grounds for morality, at least ontologically.

Instead of thinking that human nature will provide complete moral knowledge, Novak suggests that nature, properly understood, provides only moral limits and these limits are outlined in the Noahide laws. In other words, Novak thinks that the prescriptions of the Noahide laws are discernible by reason and form the precondition for more developed morality. Hare thinks this view is problematic for two reasons. First, the Noahide laws give much more than merely human dignity (the content of the precondition) and they also give less. They give more in the sense that articulate specific institutions that are not likely explained just by facts about human nature. Hare cites as examples private property, marriage, and a legal system, all of which are at least implicit in the Noahide laws. If human beings behaved in a way that was fully consistent with their nature, possibly none of these intuitions would be needed. They give less in the sense that they do not seem to meet the demand of universal discernibility by all rational creatures.  Novak thinks that there are clear facts about human nature which entail these moral values, but in human history these moral values are frequently ignored or violated. In hunter-gather societies, it may have seemed more natural to value the lives of one’s own tribe over the lives of the other.

The bottom like for Hare is that Novak ends up collapsing the distinction between revelation and reason, even though that was not his intention. The result is a contradictory position. The remedy, according to Hare, is recognizing the validity of natural law because it is verified by special revelation, and not the other way around.

Image: By Spaceboyjosh – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,