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Classics

Alliance or Contract, Hope or Fear

This volume contains a collection of some significant papers by the American Canadian philosopher and theologian Novak, traditionalist Jew and ordained Rabbi, and now lecturer at the University of Toronto. The volume eloquently shows how an extremely religious man can stand with his feet firmly planted in the most advanced society in the world. By means of a cutting and in places absolutely brilliant interpretation of the modern theory of democracy, with methodical rigour Novak shows how his own Jewish identity can be a resource for contemporary political and legal systems.

 

 

The fil rouge that takes the reader from ‘ethically sensitive’ topics, to the theory of human rights, to the conception of the public sphere, for the author originates from the very nature of religious freedom, which he shows he takes very ‘seriously’. For Novak, in fact, such freedom is made up of three aspects: that of practising one’s own religion, with regard to political power; what one gains personally from religious practice (Novak does not dwell upon this for long, but it is understood how this aspect represents a real form of satisfaction for him); and, lastly, that of being believers right to the end, even in the public sphere. This aspect is highlighted by the author throughout his book.

 

 

Novak learnedly separates the Scriptures and ancient and modern Jewish thought, making them interact with some of the mainstream themes of contemporary political and juridical philosophy and showing how a believer can gather the elements in his own tradition that let him be a citizen with full rights, rather than giving up his own culture in the name of democratic ethics. In many passages he shows how the Scriptures can support social life and found political coexistence even better than and more deeply than the voluntarist and contractualist theory: there is the extraordinary passage in which he expounds the difference between God’s Alliance with the Jewish people and the social contract. Novak, in fact, highlights how the Alliance, which is necessarily eternal, constitutes above all a promise, that God first of all makes to Israel; on the contrary, the notion of contract refers at least implicitly, in eminent authors, to a sanction foreseen for those violating it. The Alliance arises from the faith in a relationship that will never fail and which kindles the hope for each man and for the entire people; the social contract, on the contrary, gives life to a society founded on the threat towards those that betray it. The alternative is therefore between the hope generated by the lliance and the fear created by the contract.

 

 

Novak does not merely offer us a pamphlet, full of polemical verve but without depth: his sound method and the solidity of his reasoning constitute an extremely important back-up to the debate presently going on regarding the role of religion in public life. This is an honest clear book, which will probably have no difficulty in splitting the readers into supporters and detractors, so limpid are his affirmations. Nonetheless, whatever the position is of the readers, everyone must recognise the excellence of Novak’s effort, the moral courage and the methodological soundness with which he took on the challenge: to put religious man together again, divided between the private capacity of believer and the public one of citizen. A division which, as Habermas has explicitly admitted, only falls back onto the believers in contemporary democracies.

 

 

Novak does not accept the conjecture that the layman would be a better citizen, but rather the opposite. He stresses that those who reconstruct political coexistence in neutral terms, closing it off to transcendence, reason in terms of rights and continuously support new claims. The Canadian theologian, asking himself how we can think of living in a society where claims proliferate, while responsibilities and duties take second place, shows how the practising Jew – educated since childhood to do his duty before God and the community – can understand democracy in an even more comprehensive way than a layman.

 

 

Andrea Pin

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