Between Past and Future: Law and Ethics in Judaism and Islam

Treatment of women in both Judaism and Islam has changed over the millennia, but in somewhat opposite ways, according to both Rabbi Judith Hauptman and Prof. Azizah al-Hibri, who spoke at the CIU’s conference, “Between Past and Future: Law and Ethics in Judaism and Islam…a conversation.” The discussion was held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in March.

Dr. al-Hibri, Professor Emerita of the T.C. School of Law, University of Richmond, explained, “The Prophet [Mohammed] tried to roll back patriarchal practices [that restricted women] and said, ‘do not follow your fathers, but do what is just.’She noted that within 50 years after the Prophet’s death, pre-Islamic customs crept back into Islamic law and society, distorting Islam’s pristine teachings. She noted that within 50 years after the Prophet’s death, pre-Islamic customs crept back into Islamic law and society, distorting Islam’s pristine teachings.

Conversely, Rabbi Hauptman, the E. Billi Ivry Prof. of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary, explained, in Judaism, the original laws concerning women in the Torah were very restrictive and regarded women as having a lesser status than men. Over time, the laws were reinterpreted and succeeding generations gave women more control over their lives and higher status. Dr. Hauptman also explained, “When one implements law in real life, it has to be adjusted for cultural context. For example, feminism in American society has led to changes in Judaism today, but those changes need to be applied in the context of Jewish law.”

An invitation only discussion, the “Law and Ethics” conference consisted of two sessions, the first of which dealt with the question, “Are there tensions between law and ethics in Judaism and Islam?” and the second explored the place of women in Judaism and Islam.

(Click here for short biographies of panelists and moderators)

During the first half of the “conversation,”  Rabbi Saul Berman, Associate Prof. at Yeshiva University, said the purpose of Halacha (Jewish law) is to perfect human beings, to bring us to the truth, one of which is that the divine spark exists in every human being. He said that the core ideal of Judaism prompts us to work for a just society. “Ultimately,” he explained, “it is up to the individual to maximize his or her ethical aspirations in the gap between the law and its goal of perfecting humans.”

Although not directly answering the question about tensions between law and ethics, Ira Forman, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism for the U.S. State Department, voiced his concerns that free speech is not compromised in our efforts to counter hate speech, especially in view of attacks such as the one in Paris against Charlie Hebdo. He said it is urgent that clergy especially work to promote tolerance, particularly in Europe, to prevent anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Speaking on behalf of Islam, Prof. Ahmet Kurucan said that if we look at the primary rules and provisions of Islam, the Quran, and the Prophet’s hadiths (teachings and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) political matters do not constitute even 5% of Islam. The remaining 95% is about the connection to Allah, personal relations and good ethical conduct.

President of the Islamic Society of North America, Imam Mohamed Magid’s description of Islam was remarkably similar to Judaism.  He said that there are three basic relationships in the Islamic tradition: the relationship between humans and God, the relationship we have with our internal selves, and the relationship we have with others. Insofar as law and ethics intersect, he believes that practice and observance are not enough if one acts badly toward others. “Problems exist,” he continued, “because of the creation of law without considering aspects of human nature.”  He said that we are tribal, we are local, but we must remember we are in a global community.” The entire first section was moderated by Marshall Breger, Prof. of Law at Catholic University in Washington D.C.

The women’s section that followed was moderated by Dr. Jennifer Breger, editor of the journal of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). Rabbi Hauptman pointed out early on that in the previous session Rabbi Berman, Imam Magid, and Dr. Kurucan addressed ethics…[but] little attention was paid to the legislators themselves—all of them men. She rhetorically asked, “So when we talk about a male-dominated society that treats women as lesser, and constrains their ability to learn and pray, should we assume that they will make laws that improve the lot of those of lesser status? …Did you think then, that the laws would be favorable to women?”  She pointed out that if we want to call Judaism an ethical religion today, we must give examples of how Jewish law is changing to recognize the full equality of women.

Apropos of Rabbi Hauptman’s observation regarding the source of religious laws affecting women, Prof. al-Hibri went on to question the authenticity of some of the hadiths reported about the Prophet.  She cited as an example the following hadith: “If I were to order someone to prostrate himself before another, I would have ordered the woman to prostrate herself before her husband.” When she researched this hadith, she discovered that the various reports about it suffered from serious historical, substantive and other defects.  So these reports were not reliable, a conclusion that throws the authenticity of this hadith into serious question.

Commenting on the rights of women in Islam and Judaism, one of the participants, Nuray Tugrul Yurt, Central Jersey Director, Peace Islands Institute, noted that women’s rights go beyond religion. She discussed how women in the west did not get inheritance rights until 1850, were not able to file for divorce, still don’t get equal work for equal pay, and that it took almost to the end of the 20th century before women could even come close to calling themselves equal. “So the problems continue to exist in the broader civilization as well,” she concluded.

Many participants found the discussion to be so enlightening that they called for another meeting. To that end, Prof. al-Hibri and her organization, Karamah, ( will be hosting a follow-up conversation in Washington D.C. in December.