Jonathan Milevsky on why he wrote a book about Toronto theologian David Novak

Toronto’s Jewish community has had its fair share of scholars. But one who teaches in the Department of Religion in the University of Toronto, and lectures regularly at Shaarei Shomayim, stands out as one worth writing a book about.

While others have specialties in the fields of classical, medieval, early or modern philosophy, David Novak is unique in his taking of positions—and openly sharing those views.

So much of scholarship is commentary on other figures. This style of discussion is important, although it often hinges on subtle disagreements. Readers are left to seek a consensus with other scholars in order to form an opinion.

Having started his career as a rabbi, Novak is trained in instruction. His earliest publications are rabbinic responsa. In subsequent books, he both illuminates the subject—his specialty is Jewish ethics—and guides his readers along.

Not everything Novak says is widely accepted. His writings have raised substantial objections from scholars including Marvin Fox and Martha Nussbaum. He has broken with the Conservative Jewish movement.

Novak argues that the 2,000-year-old concept of natural law, which grounds morality in reason, can be seen in several areas of Judaism, in which law is both explained and justified by rational consideration.

The stance is shaped by his aim of showing our religion’s universal appeal, while also defending the importance of revelation.

Another noteworthy thing about Novak is that he interacted with some of the most prominent figures in Jewish thought from the 20th century.

As a result, his treatments of those he knew personally—Leo Strauss, Martin Buber and his own teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel—is not divorced from the people behind these writings, but presented in the context of who they really were. This manifests in an engagement with thinkers that is both informed by the historical background of their writings, and the truest representation of their views.

As a scholar, he is considered one of the most important theologians in North America. Novak’s awards include an Academy of American Religion Award in 2000 and the James Q. Wilson Award from Princeton University in 2019.

There have been conferences held in his honour in the most prestigious universities, and he delivered the Gifford Lectures—which have been given by the most respected thinkers and philosophers, including A.N. Whitehead and Hannah Arendt. Novak was also the intellectual architect of Dabru Emet, a full-page New York Times ad in September 2000, which encouraged dialogue between Jews and Christians. Few others in Toronto have furthered interfaith dialogue in this way.

Furthermore, his work can be appreciated within the context of the history of the Jewish community in Toronto.

Over the past several decades—with the exception of a small number of synagogues—Orthodox institutions have eschewed academic Jewish thought. The implication is that the scientific method undermines the authority of halakhah.

In Novak’s case, however, Jewish Law and the academic approach are not opposed to one another. His work shows how scholarship can co-exist with a commitment to tradition.

Jonathan L. Milevsky is the author of the forthcoming book, Understanding the Evolving Meaning of Reason in David Novak’s Natural Law Theory (Brill, 2022).