The Injustices of the Moment Are Our Eternal, Research Time, 31/01/2017

Here's a deeper theme of my in-progress Utopias, my published Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, and a lot of my current philosophical and journalism work – justice, understanding what justice is, and what it can be in my world.

It’s a bit of an old problem in the tradition of philosophy. And as I look through the different corners of the history of Western philosophy, I see different approaches to that problem which will be useful to my own work.

Elements from the Jewish philosophical traditions will appear in Utopias both explicitly and implicitly. I found in Jerusalem a little while ago a wonderful example of how a work of philosophy engages the concept of justice itself and the practical workings of justice in our own world.

Chava and Fyedka from Fiddler on the Roof: A Jew marries outside the
faith – a gloss on the dangerous practice of eroding a community,
when there's no sign that the minority religion will ever be respected
in that household.
It’s a moment where Moses Mendelssohn appears, from our perspective, literally hundreds of years ahead of his kind. It’s a footnote that runs nearly two pages long, arguing for a woman’s right to divorce her husband.

Let's remind ourselves that Jerusalem was published in 1767. Kind of a conservative setting. And a woman’s right to divorce is based in her basic right to live her life as she chooses.

If her husband radically changes or breaks the terms under which they agreed to marry, that gives her the right to leave the marriage free of penalty. Because her husband has broken his promises to her.

An argument that cuts at the heart of the era’s immense cultural and political conservatism. An argument for divorce on a woman’s initiative on the ground of universal moral principles – fidelity to the terms of a promise, the fundamental autonomy of a person to live as she wishes.

Now consider the example he uses to illustrate this. It’s an example with a deep and chilling political relevance to mid-1700s German society. Even more chilling when you read Mendelssohn today.

Rahel Vernhagen, the Jewish-to-Christian
convert at the heart of Hannah Arendt's first
major book.
When a man converts from Judaism to Christianity, his wife has the right to divorce him for those universal reasons. A key part of the marriage contract is the manner in which they will raise their children. So if a woman gets married with the implication that their children will be raised in her religion, she expects that to result.

Moses Mendelssohn’s life was defined by the constant attempts fellow German intellectuals made to convert him to Christianity. If his life is any indication – and there’s plenty of historical evidence beyond that implication – then German Jews were under constant pressure from neighbours and authorities to convert.

And in the patriarchal laws and culture of 1700s Germany, if a man converted to Christianity, he was obligated to have his wife and their children all baptized and remove them permanently from the Jewish community. It was a form of hostile conversion – the work of converting only one Jew brought a full family to the Church.

Mendelssohn’s argument for the right to divorce was more than a recognition of one important aspect of justice and freedom. It was also a direct response, calling upon values of justice and freedom, to the real political problem of the social pressures grinding away at the Jewish communities of Germany.

The real injustices that you see in front of you in your own life call you to seek after the fundamental ideal of justice and freedom.

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