On Halakhah, Sharia and Canon

This is a revision of a comment I made to a group on Facebook as part of a discussion on whether and to what extent religious views should influence the civil law of a country.

One of the features of the intellectual history of the Middle Ages was that each of the major religions at roughly similar times came to the realization that some codification of their principles had become necessary. Originally this was not considered important as everything was included in the Torah (Jews), the Christian Bible (Christians) or the Quran (Muslims). But over the centuries more and more principles were added to the core documents, and eventually it became impossible to track it all without some sort of compilation and (eventually) an index.

For the Jews, this framework was called the Halakhah, for the Muslims, the Sharia, and for the Church, it was the Canon.

As things turned out, for all three of these systems unanimous adoption was fleeting (and perhaps never existed). The Jews formally recognized two equally valid systems, basically Eastern and Western (Sephardic and Ashkenazic) in the publication of the major digest called the Shulhan Arukh with the “corrections” of R. Moshe Isserles. Since then even more wrinkles have further divided the notion of a uniform code.

The Muslim version of the Halakhah was the Sharia. It codified the principles of the Quran, the Haddith, and as with the Jews, different versions had to exist to deal with differences among the various Islamic movements and sects. One of the Arabic names of the Sharia is the Qānūn-e Islāmī, which brings us to the third system, the Canon Law of the Catholic Church.

Christians faced exactly the same problems as did the Jews and Muslims, and went about solving them in similar ways. The Roman Church compiled a list of rules which has been subject to revision. And just as the Jews and Muslims divided along various religious fractures, the Christian church split along many different lines. But what to do about the Canon?

Of course it wouldn’t do to create new forms of the Christian church and still acknowledge the authority of the Canon, so the various major movements created different sets of quasi-legal standards. For example, the Anglican Communion spoke of the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Bishops’ Book, etc.

The important point for this discussion is that in the modern world, all of this has coalesced into a series of debates about the extent to which these religious principles should be enforced on the citizens of various countries who may or may not have any connection to the religious communities that created the systems.

We all have heard (but I suspect most of us do not really understand) about the application of Sharia to citizens of some Muslim countries, especially in Saudi Arabia and Iran (which ironically have different Sharia systems owing to the differences among the sects).

One of the fascinating aspects of the creation of the State of Israel is that for the first time since the time of the Maccabees an independent Jewish state has the ability to legislate in a way that affects Jews who might not agree with whomever is in power and even non-Jews who are also citizens of the State. To what extent (for example) should Jews or non-Jews be able to raise pigs on their farms? How kosher do restaurants need be?

And in the United States, where a majority of people identify with Christianity, how much should Christian principles define the life of the country? Not all that long ago, many states had laws which forbade the opening of shops on the Christian sabbath. And employers were free to mandate work on Saturday, which created enormous problems for those Jews who wished to observe their sabbath.

The opposition of the Catholic Church to abortion is summarized in Canon 1398: A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.

The question that the United States continues to work through despite the Supreme Court’s decision upholding a woman’s right to control her own body is whether that Canon will be applied to citizens of the United States who do not recognize the authority of the Church. Protestants, and especially Evangelicals who obviously do not think of themselves as ascribing to the Canon, are nevertheless working their way ideologically through the same issues.

I suspect this argument will be going on for a very long time.

One thought on “On Halakhah, Sharia and Canon”

  1. Thank you so much for the things that you have written. I’m trying to learn Hebrew, and your post on the ‘qametz-qaton’ was very helpful.

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