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In 2016, Newsweek published an article entitled "Book traces foundations of true civilisation". Australian Senator Eric Abetz attended the book launch of "The Theory and Practice of Universal Ethics: The Noahide Laws" written by Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen. The Noahide Laws are Jewish laws which apply to non-Jews, forbidding them freedom of worship, freedom of sexual choice, and freedom of speech (no blasphemy). The Noahide Laws also give Jews more rights and legal protections that non-Jews. In regards to Noahide Law, the senator states: "As a legislator, I am very conscious that I want to encourage good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour in any legislative instrument... Now, out of this diversity Rabbi Dr Cowen has extracted ethics that have a very wide or universal application... This does not include everything which assumes a religious veneer, but rather religion focused on monotheism with the universal values projected by it". Many Jewish writers have stated that the universal application of Noahide Laws would be execution for non-Jews who do not comply, is this what the senator is referring to?
Book traces foundations of true civilisation
by Eric Abetz
News Weekly, January 30, 2016
Senator Eric Abetz delivered the following address on the occasion of the launch of Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen’s new book, The Theory and Practice of Universal Ethics: The Noahide Laws, on November 16, 2015, at the Jewish Russian Community Centre, Balaclava, Victoria. Rabbi Cowen is the son of a former governor-general of Australia, the late Sir Zelman Cowen, and is director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilization, Inc.
If ever there was a need for our world to understand, appreciate and salute some fundamental unifying ethics, surely it is now.
We’ve had the recent vile and violent attacks in Paris. The so-called thought leaders of the Western world describe us as being “postmodern” for want of being able to provide an adequate descriptor. Anxious to junk the values which have seen personal wellbeing blossom like never before as “outmoded”, “dated”, “no longer relevant”, we are being left with nothing except an ideology of self-centredness, which is the antithesis of a recipe for a cohesive society.
Into this void bravely enters our author, Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen, with this wonderful offering, The Theory and Practice of Universal Ethics: The Noahide Laws.
In fairness, if you want a light read while watching the cricket, this book is not for you! Every chapter, every line, every word needs to be pondered and considered if the reader is to begin to absorb the wealth of wisdom, tradition and guidance in this 386-page masterpiece detailing the foundations of true civilisation.
Only a few pages escape without an impressive list of footnotes highlighting the scholarship and wide research of our author. The list of references draws on a library of sources, especially historic traditional writings.
As a legislator, I am very conscious that I want to encourage good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour in any legislative instrument.
So, what determines “good” and “bad”? One’s perspective on how to categorise a particular piece of legislation will depend on one’s moral compass, which in turn is determined by one’s religion or worldview. And, as we know, there are a substantial number of religions – each with its own traditions and teachings.
Now, out of this diversity Rabbi Dr Cowen has extracted ethics that have a very wide or universal application. Over 75 per cent of the world’s population have adopted religions that reach back to the Noahide laws, which provides a commonality among them.
And, talking of religion, allow me to quote from page 21 – an extract which our journalists and commentators, who have become increasingly anti-theistic, will do well to read and absorb: “This beholdenness to something higher than psychophysical elements, the primacy of the spiritual, marks a civilised society. This does not include everything which assumes a religious veneer, but rather religion focused on monotheism with the universal values projected by it …
“Civilisedness is not the same as reason by itself: a society could be the most scientifically and intellectually developed of its day, as was the Germany in which Nazism arose, and yet manifest the ultimate barbarism.”
When given the privilege of addressing students, I encourage them to excel, but I also seek to stress that excellence of itself is not sufficient. The juxtaposition I employ is the oratory skills of Hitler and Martin Luther King, both of them capable of holding a crowd and swaying their audiences.
On oratory qualities alone, both might score equally well.
So, do we celebrate and salute them equally? Hopefully not. Because another measure is required – morality. One used his oratory gifts for untold good; the other for untold evil. We celebrate one and condemn the other. We salute one and rightly shun the other.
Our attitude and value judgement is ultimately based on our religion or worldview. And Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen makes that point more emphatically, eloquently and capably than I ever could do.
In short, this insightful treatise takes the reader on an excursion through ancient writings and traditional interpretations, and transforms them to make them relevant for today’s world, highlighting the essential need for the spiritual in order to enjoy a civilised society.
I wholeheartedly endorse and praise this robust and well-researched treatise, noting my lower status than those who have already done so – such substantial figures as: a former governor-general of Australia, General Michael Jeffery; a monarch, King Mohammed VI of Morocco; a recent president of the European Union, Herman van Rompuy; and learned rabbis.
Hearty congratulations and sincere thanks to the author, Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen, for undertaking this mammoth venture and distilling his findings and scholarship into one volume to help us understand the roots of our civilisation and the essentials for civilisation.
The Theory and Practice of Universal Ethics: The Noahide Laws will be as relevant in a thousand years’ time as it is today.
Senator Eric Abetz is a Liberal Party member of the Senate, representing the state of Tasmania. During the prime ministership of Tony Abbott (2013–15) he was minister for employment and leader of the government in the Senate.