Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Kazen, Thomas, Emotions in Biblical Law: A Cognitive Science Approach (Hebrew Bible Monographs, 36; Sheffield: Sheffield-Phoenix, 2011). Hardcover. Pp. xiii + 211. £50.00 $90.00 €60.00. ISBN 978-1-907534-29-4.

Kazen's book ambitiously examines embodied religion by addressing the role of emotion in the pentateuchal legal corpora.[1] The book begins with a short introduction (3–6), which argues for the centrality of the body in religion, including the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and introduces the larger work. Although Christianity in the modern West has been a “matter of the head” (4), Kazen contends that the body remains the locus and seat of morality and indeed the center of human personality. In fact, he suggests that morality originated with and developed from bodily reactions. In order to understand the role of body and its emotions as the origin of morality and ritual, Kazen's book turns to the cognitive sciences and offers a textual analysis of four bodily emotions in pentateuchal law.

Chapter 2 (9–19) offers a biological perspective on evolution, emotions, and morality. Kazen suggests that insights can be gleaned from evolutionary biology, primatology, neuroscience, and developmental psychology that help interpret biblical texts addressing moral and ritual issues. Building on the work of Antonio Damasio, he argues that from an evolutionary perspective “beings existed before mind, and consciousness and thinking developed gradually” (11). In turn, emotions are integral to human morality, which results from “our emotions, our cognitive processes, and the complex relationship between the two” (13).[2] In fact, “moral judgments are often triggered instantly, by intuition, and then only subsequently rationalized” (14).[3] Nonetheless, although biologically based on the human emotional capacity, intuition is informed by rational conditions and culture. In other words, the mind and society in some way condition the body to respond intuitively and emotionally.

Having examined the biology of morality, Chapter 3 (20–31) addresses the role of culture. Kazen contends that while morality is ultimately based on biology, it is also shaped by culture. Culture modifies innate morality through “selective loss of intuitions,” “immersion in cultural complexes,” and “peer socialization” (20), especially effecting the ethical domains of community and divinity. As a result, “even though people in all cultures have more or less the same bodies, they have different embodiments, and therefore they end up with different minds” (21).[4] Kazen proceeds to explore the relationship between ritual and morality, especially in the realm of purity, concluding that “a clear dividing line between ritual and moral issues, between purity and morality, is not supported by ancient comparative textual evidence” (31).

Chapter 4 (32–47) presents four moral emotions: disgust, empathy, fear, and a sense of justice. By moral emotions, Kazen means “emotions that are linked to the interests or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or agent” (32).[5] For Kazen, disgust is “an emotional reaction against that which is experienced as revolting or objectionable” (33), which developed to protect the organism from dangerous elements. Tasting, smelling, or touching the objectionable causes instant recoil; the mere thought of it may also be repellant. Rather than being innate, disgust triggers are socially-conditioned, and the specific elements that trigger disgust vary across cultures. Empathy is “an affective response more appropriate to someone else's situation than one's own” (37).[6] Kazen argues that “humanitarian behavior has a firm evolutionary base and is grounded in our neurobiological constitutions. At the same time, it is thoroughly shaped and constrained by culture” (41). Fear “manifests itself as a sudden response to direct stimuli” (42), and as broadly conceived includes post-stimulus fear and anticipatory anxiety. Fear evolved to protect “the physical organism from damage and death” (42), and its triggers can be classified into four broad categories: interpersonal situations; death, injury and illness; animals; and agoraphobic fears. “From a cognitive science perspective, the sense of justice is a more complex phenomenon…, involving an interaction between a number of different emotions” (44). Its goal is the restoration of equilibrium, the perception of which is also socially conditioned.

Chapter 5 (51–70) provides a standard overview of the pentateuchal legal collections under investigation—those in the Covenant Code (CC), Deuteronomy (D), and the Priestly texts (P), which includes the Holiness Code (H). Kazen notes that the function of this legal material is particularly enigmatic since there is little indication that it was used for judicial purposes in the Bible and ancient Near East.

Chapter 6 (71–94) analyzes disgust in the various purity laws. For Kazen, emotional disgust applies to certain perceived contact-contagions, as well as various prohibitions concerning the consumption of certain animals, inappropriate sexual behavior, and false worship. Kazen identifies three strategies for dealing with the objectionable—rejection, regulation, and removal.

Chapter 7 (95–114) examines empathy in CC, D, and H, focusing on the multiple layers of empathy toward the vulnerable in society. For example, in Exod 22:20–26, which addresses the marginalized, Kazen argues that the laws appeal to the empathetic capacity of the recipients. “The prohibition against oppressing foreigners is motivated by experience of having been foreigners in Egypt (v. 20)” (99). In the narrative world of the text, an emotional match is envisioned that is based on the audience's firsthand experience. For the intended audience, who have no experience as foreigners in Egypt, “a cognitive type of empathy, based on the human capacity for perspective-taking” likely features. Nonetheless, the shared inherited experience of being a foreigner adds an affective component. Based on his dating of CC to around 700 b.c.e., Kazen argues that the “complicated political situation and tribal demography…would have ensured that a number of people actually had first-hand experience of minority situations,” suggesting empathy based on mediated association (100). The appeal to Egypt is thus structured to “trigger a multilayered empathy” (100).

Chapter 8 (115–40) addresses the fear of foreigners, of God, and of demons in the legal corpora. In this chapter especially, a conflicting interplay between emotions is apparent as foreigners elicit disgust, empathy, and fear. However, fear of foreigners is rarely explicit. Instead, the threats intended to limit foreign contact are grounded in fear of divine punishment. In fact, the texts use fear of divine retribution to enforce obedience to all manner of divine dictates, both “for reinforcing empathetic attitudes and counteracting them” (137). Kazen proceeds to address the perceived fear of demons in the ritual legislation.

Chapter 9 (141–64) examines a sense of justice, focusing on reconciliation and the use of the root kpr to achieve it. For Kazen, kpr refers to the “removal of offense by a mitigating token that signifies a wish to restore balance,” while its disparate uses are linked by emotions of fairness (141). Whereas compensation involves full restitution, kofer (“ransom”) typically addresses situations in which “the value of what is at stake—human life—cannot be compensated for” (150). In such cases, a kofer is offered as a sign of reconciliation, such that the offense may be removed, life may be preserved, restoring a “fictional balance, a mitigated equilibrium” (152). Kazen argues that the verb kipper functions similarly. For example, he claims that the ḥattaʾt and ʾasham offerings (the so-called sin and guilt offerings) address the imbalance in divine-human relations, not as “full restitution or payment for wrongs against the deity, but as a mitigating token of restitution, signaling a direction of will and appealing to the offended party, in this case the divine power, for emotional acceptance” (158).

In chapter 10 (167–75), Kazen offers his conclusions. He suggests that human values and cultural development depend “as much on biologically evolved emotions as anything else” (168), and the complexity of life and its emotions interact to produce complex and often contradictory urges. The pentateuchal legal collections are emotional texts, and their emotional nature lends to their persuasive power. Within these corpora, attitudes and behaviors that at first seem at odds find common ground in that they are motivated by similar emotional reactions. Kazen concludes that rather than simply being a matter of the head, religion “involves the whole human embodied experience” (175).

Kazen is to be applauded for an ambitious and helpful examination of the role that emotion plays in the biblical pentateuchal law. Rather than simply adding an insight or two, Kazen approaches law from a different perspective, stressing its emotional nature. He thereby adds an important interpretive tool to the study of biblical law in particular and biblical literature more generally. Kazen also appropriately redirects religious study away from an exclusive focus on the mind to that of the full body experience. Biblical scholarship will especially benefit from his introduction and application of the insights of the cognitive sciences and his four emotional categories, which are well-defined, appropriate to the texts, and useful as explanatory tools. His analysis of the complex interplay of emotions and their effect on formulations of law also provides an important contribution.

As with any innovative and broad-reaching study, there is room for improvement. Broadly speaking, it would be helpful to differentiate between origin and rhetoric, between the emotions that helped to generate a law and the emotions used to promote it. While the former are more difficult to identify, the latter are more explicit. For example, while calling a practice an abomination to YHWH clearly uses disgust (and fear) to trigger obedience, it is less clear if the practice originally evoked disgust or that such disgust featured prominently in the development of the prohibition. In addition, it is also important to better distinguish between origin and justification, between the emotions prompting a law and those used to justify it. As Kazen notes, legislation is the result of a complex interplay of factors, including various emotions. As with any lived system or artificial system based on a lived system, it is impossible to pinpoint definitively how or why a law developed or to identify a principle or principles that explain all laws. Life and law are far too complicated for such simplifications. In turn, Kazen's emotional categories are no doubt helpful, yet they remain limited in establishing the underlying and original rationale of pentateuchal legislation. At the same time, these categories (as well as others) are especially helpful in explaining how people justify their laws. Rather than inventing new categories, laws and other human explanations typically serve to codify and justify what people are already doing and what they already view as appropriate. For example, although it is difficult to tell if certain animals initially elicited disgust, their rejection no doubt enhanced if not produced disgust in those who accepted such a prohibition. As a result, people justify the prohibition of the consumption of certain animals with the very disgust their initial prohibition inspired.

More specifically, Kazen's identification of kipper as a mitigated token designed to appease the deity and restore a fictive equilibrium is problematic and requires further defense. While it is clear that a ransom (kofer) generally restores equilibrium without full restitution and that both kipper and kofer enable equilibrium in situations where straightforward and full restitution are not easily achieved, it does not follow that kipper functions like kofer. In the text, there is little indication that the deity's emotions are at stake, that kipper redresses an emotional imbalance or assuages the offended deity with a token gesture. The issue is rather the pollution generated by an action or condition that is perceived to be real and adversely affects the sanctuary and the individual. In fact, there is little indication that kipper functions as a mitigated token at all, and such an assumption may be reading New Testament Christology into the Hebrew Bible. Instead, it is equally if not more likely that an appropriate offering is understood to fully remove the pollution and restore equilibrium, the result of which is labeled with the verb kipper. The fact that the solution is not a direct match to the problem does not mean that it is a partial solution. Ritual is specially designed to redress immaterial but nonetheless real stains. The Priestly system culminating in Lev 16 seems to envision a full, albeit temporary, restitution. In addition, the sacrificial portions allotted to the deity and the priests may also be understood as payment for services rendered.

Despite any limitations, Kazen's book is original, creative, and often insightful. Anyone who seriously engages with biblical law should read it and apply its insights to her or his analysis. Those with other specializations will also greatly benefit from its use of the cognitive sciences and its appropriate focus on emotions and embodied religion. All in all, Kazen's Emotions in Biblical Law is to be highly recommended.

Michael B. Hundley, Georgetown University

[1]See now also Y. Feder, “Contagion and Cognition: Bodily Experience and the Conceptualization of Pollution (ṭumʾah) in the Hebrew Bible,” JNES 72 (2013), 151–67, which addresses the embodied logic of pollution in the Hebrew Bible, using the categories disgust, fear, and outrage. reference

[2]Quoting J. Teehan, “Kantian Ethics: After Darwin,” Zygon 38 (2003), 49–60 (58). reference

[3]In making this claim, he draws from J. Haidt, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” Psychological Review 108 (2001), 814–34. reference

[4]Quoting ibid., 827. reference

[5]Quoting Haidt, “The Moral Emotions,” in R. J. Davidson, K. P. Scherer and H. H. Goldsmith (eds.), Handbook of Affective Sciences (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 852–70 (853). reference

[6]Quoting M. L. Hoffman, “The Contribution of Empathy to Justice and Moral Judgment,” in N. Eisenberg and J. Strayer (eds.), Empathy and its Developments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 47–80 (48). reference