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Jonathan A. Jacobs

Jonathan A. Jacobs’s chapter explores why there is relatively little discussion of natural law by Jewish philosophers and considers whether aspects of Jewish thought might be susceptible of natural law interpretations. He argues that something very much like natural law - understood as rational, objective, and authoritative ‘general principles of practical reason… reflecting objective goods for human beings’ - is reflected in Jewish tradition by way of the ‘reasons for the commandments’, rather than having fully independent standing. Thus, there can be significant overlap with natural law theorising (and conceptions of practical wisdom) but Jewish thinkers tend to regard the Law - the s613 commandments - as the primary source for guidance about how to lead an excellent life. Some influential thinkers, such as Maimonides, held that there are rational justifications for all of the commandments and that seeking those justifications is an integral element of Jewish tradition. The justifications for many commandments can be ascertained in terms of their rationality, apart from revelation, but they are still to be understood in terms of their role in a distinctive covenant between God and the Jewish people. Thus, the fundamental notion is the rationality of the elements of a tradition anchored in covenant, even if many of those elements are rationally explicable. These features, for Jacobs, make some important currents of Jewish thought not quite congruent with some key themes of the natural law outlook.