Touro Law Review


Through his landmark exploration of obligation as the conceptual touchstone of what he describes as the “Jewish jurisprudence of the social order,” Robert Cover offered an alternate language for legal regimes grounded in a rhetoric of individual rights. The present essay revisits Cover’s account of the socially embedded nature of law and juridical process, taking seriously both its claims, as well as the cautions of its critics. The essay thus neither abandons the concept of rights as key to jurisprudence nor seeks to present a naïve or romantic characterization of Jewish legal thought, and proceeds wary of the pitfalls inherent in such comparative efforts. At the same time, it argues that Cover’s primary insight regarding the notion of a socially imbricated obligation as a core feature of Jewish jurisprudence and provides an important contribution. This theory is especially valuable in contexts in which contemporary policymakers and advocates have lacked success in locating a language or strategy sufficient to appreciate and address overwhelming modern problems at the juncture of individual and community. More specifically, drawing on our previous work exploring Jewish law lessons for information privacy and environmental ethics, this essay argues that a nuanced adaptation of Cover’s theory of “incumbent obligation” as the organizing feature of Jewish law, can provide contemporary policymakers with a set of conceptual tools to help develop alternative approaches to metastatic surveillance and environmental collapse.

The notion of obligation as the heart of an ethical and jurisprudential system provides a powerful corrective to the post-Enlightenment West’s centering of the “individual moral adventure” and the privileging of individual rights that has gone hand-in-hand with this ethos. The pre-modern roots of halakhah (Jewish law) permit a powerful challenge to this paradigmatic hegemony, as the Jewish legal tradition precedes liberalism and thus predates conceptions of the individual that undergird much of modern thinking, even as Jewish jurisprudence embodies a deep commitment to protecting individuals. Engagement with this tradition need not supplant liberalism. Rather, it presents a complementary ethical framework that can work within and enrich post-Enlightenment Western discourse. Reflecting this opportunity, revisiting Cover’s work provides a conceptual frame that is sufficiently flexible and capacious to provide an additional legal vocabulary and set of jurisprudential values that can help confront the greatest challenges of our age.