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Caroline Zelaznik and Joseph S. Gruss Lecture on Talmudic Law

The Torah commands Jews to be holy (Hebrew: qadosh). What that means and how to achieve this state was the subject of Josef Stern’s two Gruss Lectures this year. On a visit to Penn Law in November, Stern, professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and Bar-Ilan University (Israel), analyzed the writings of two great Medieval Jewish philosophers who hold very different views on the subject of holiness.

For one can follow the letter of the Law and abuse its range of permissible actions, acting like a “scoundrel within the Law.”

According to Stern, Maimonides rejects the idea of holiness as a supernatural, magical,mythical power or state. Instead he reduces holiness to the life of the Mosaic commandments. He considers the injunction to be holy to be a general obligation to perform the Law, a responsibility to fulfill all the commandments -and nothing more. At the same time, Maimonides rethinks the role of the commandments as exercises that train one to repress, minimize, and even forsake bodily drives and desires (such as sex) and to detach themselves from moral passions and emotional sentiments that Maimonides took to be bodily. In this sense, the holy life is a spiritual, non-material way of living.

Nahmanides, Stern said, argues that holiness cannot simply consist in the life of the commandments. For one can follow the letter of the Law and abuse its range of permissible actions, acting like a “scoundrel within the Law.” For Nahmanides, the function of holiness is to correct the possibility of such abuse of the Law, to seek broader and higher standards exemplified but not explicitly legislated in the Law, thus to go within the line of the Law. For Nahmanides, the holy life is a spiritual life in that it seeks to achieve not just the letter of the Law but its spirit as well, either through additional injunctions or by cultivating people who have holy characters and holy virtues. The Grusses established the lecture for visiting scholars and contributed a collection of scholarly materials on Talmudic law to the Biddle Law Library in 1987.

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