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David Novak, In Defence of Religious Liberty

David Novak, In Defence of Religious Liberty, ISI, Wilmington (Del) 2009, p. 211

This book includes some of the most important essays by Canadian-American philosopher and theologian David Novak. Affiliated with traditional Judaism, Novak is an ordained rabbi who teaches at the University of Toronto. In this eloquent collection we can see how a very religious man can stand on his own two feet in the most advanced society of the world. In a critical and at times brilliant analysis of the modern theory of democracy, Novak shows with great methodological rigour how his personal Jewish identity can be a resource for today's political and legal systems.


For the author the common thread that takes the reader from "ethically sensitive" issues to human rights theory and the idea of public sphere stems from the very nature of religious liberty, something which he actually takes seriously. For him religious liberty has three aspects. First, in relation to political power, there is right to practice one's religion; secondly, in relation to religious practice, there is one's right to personal fulfillment (Novak does not directly address this but it can be surmised that it s a source of personal satisfaction for him); and thirdly, in relation to the public sphere, there is one's possibility to be fully religious. Throughout the book his emphasis falls on this last aspect.


Novak cogently interweaves the Scriptures and ancient and Jewish thought into some aspects of modern political and legal philosophy, showing how a believer can find in his or her own traditions those elements to enable them to exercise full citizenship, rather than having to forfeit their own culture in the name of democratic ethics.


In many passages he shows how the Scriptures can sustain communal life and be the basis on which political coexistence can even be better and deeper than voluntarist and contractualist theories. Especially effective is the passage in which he describes the difference between God's Covenant with the Jewish people and the social contract. In fact Novak highlights how the Covenant, which is necessarily eternal, constitutes first and foremost a pledge that God makes first to Israel. By contrast, the notion of contract for some major scholars at least implies that any breach of contract has to be sanctioned. The Covenant emanates from the trust in a relationship that will never fail and which raises hope in everyone and the people as a whole. The social contract, on the other hand, gives rise to a society founded on a threat against those who break that trust. Thus the alternative is between hope generated by the Covenant and fear inherent in contracts.


Let us be clear, Novak's Defence of Religious Liberty is not just another well-written but superficial pamphlet. The reliability of his method and the strength of his arguments constitute an important contribution to the current debate on the role of religion in public life. His book is an honest and frank piece of work which will easily find supporters and detractors since its views are clear cut.


Never the less, whatever point of view readers may take they must at least recognise Novak's valiant effort, his moral courage and the methodological soundness with which he took up the challenge in order to restore the wholeness of believers hitherto split between the seemingly private nature of their beliefs and the public nature of their role as citizens, a split whose burden in modern democracies Habermas explicitly acknowledges only falls on the shoulders of religious believers.


What is more Novak does not accept that a secularist is ipso facto a better citizen; indeed for him the opposite is true. For him oftentimes those who define political coexistence in terms of neutrality without any references to the transcendental tend to reason in terms of rights and continuously support new claims. By wondering however how one can live in society in which claims proliferate whilst duties take the back seat, the Canadian theologian shows how practicing Jews, educated from birth to fulfil duties vis-à-vis God and the community, can better understand democracy than secularists.