Harold Berman 1918-2007

Here’s the Emory University Center for the Study of Law and Religion obituary and Hal’s last remarks that summarize his insights about the role of spiritual values, religious traditions and law in guiding the world through crisis toward a world community. From the remarks cited above:

“My own interest now is above all in the coming together of the different cultures of the world. For the first time in the history of the human race, the entire population of the world is beginning to interact one with another all over into a kind of a merging world society. We have a world economy. We are developing a world society with a world law and this law is an important factor which we should be concerned with. And as we’re concerned with that, we have to look at the different belief systems which underlie these various cultures. Our law and religion program, which already has different theologies represented with Islam, Judaism, will give a whole new direction to legal education. Legal education could help to bring the world together through the world economy, through world sports, through human rights, through all the intellectual property which is becoming more and more universal.”

Update: Obituaries from NY Times, Daily Report, Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (here and here) and Wall Street Journal. Scholarly and personal reflections from Volokh’s Zywicki, HNN, Legal History Blog, Brian Leiter, Blithering Idiot, Mirror of Justice, NRO’s Goldberg, and Cafe Hayek.

Update 2: Many people have come to this blog using searches for Harold Berman Jewish or Christian.  If you are interested or know about this, email me.

Note: On Berman’s mentor Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy

“Now we’re all in touch with each other everywhere. I think this is providential. We have to find now common spiritual values to hold us together or we may destroy each other with our nuclear weapons. We’ve got to go back to human nature, the common features, common spiritual values if we’re going to give a legal foundation to this new world economy and this new world society that’s emerging which would some day will become, I hope, a world community. But it’s going to take generations and centuries before this emerging world society develops finally into a world community. And we have to avoid above all the dangers to the destruction of the human race which is a possibility. We’re faced with this incredible choice between self destruction of the human race and the coming together of all these cultures and law can play a particularly vital role. That’s my world law.”

As a college senior (1995), philosophy professor Elfie Raymond grasped my interests in finding lasting ways to address humanity’s problems. We spent several months of our weekly meetings talking about Berman’s masterpiece Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition in addition to Plato’s Dialogues, plays about the French Reign of Terror and other materials from class.

To say that Law and Revolution was a revelation to me is both saying too much and too little. Hal would agree, playfully, I imagine, that suggesting divine presence in his text borders on blasphemy. While that word has been domesticated to mean novelty, when I say revelation I intend a trace of its early intimation. Berman’s work that touched me in ways I am still contending.

One night I was working late in the Admissions Office waiting to field phone inquiries. There was enough down time that I became lost in reading Law and Revolution. Perhaps it was my introduction to the scope and direction of history. in any case, I experienced a thumping in a part of my brain, like a pleasurable migraine. The feeling, though firm, was light and airy. I felt mildly transported into the ideas of the text and then back to my chair.

I had never studied the impact of Church law and theology on modern society. At that point I proudly retained my twin biases against the Church, one instinctual from my Jewish heritage and the other a more “learned” liberal- tolerant- multicultural belief that the Church is the source of West’s many sins.

For years after college, I continued to read Berman’s books a few hours each weekend. I would trace each chapter again and again, realizing the vocabulary and concepts that had been brand new were now familiar enough that I could observe more clearly the form of Berman’s arguments. As I sat on my floor leaned against my bed on a sunny weekend morning, I read about Berman’s conversion to Christianity. I dropped the booked and worried that all my learning would be predicated on taking that leap. I recoiled for a few weeks and returned to Berman’s writing. Elfie and I continued to discuss Berman’s thesis about the centrality of the Canon law to invigorate Western society. Doesn’t honor the the secular leg, Elfie, a scholar of Greek philosophy and Reformation theology, once told me. Though she felt he didn’t acknowledge the contributions of the covenantal tradition, I assured her that Hal’s students, such as the very talented John Witte, are filling in these gaps.

Lastly, Berman also introduced me to the writing of his undergrad professor, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. He and I exchanged emails in 2002. I was able to track down his editor’s demand that Hal cite a common phrase of Eugen’s. I was hoping meet Hal at the next summertime gathering of Rosenstock students and scholars. I did not to attend the recent 25th Anniversary of the Law and Religion at Emory University which Hal started when he “retired” from Harvard. The third volume of Law and Revolution, focused on the French and American revolutions, had been started at least five years ago. I am feeling both a loss and gratitude. I continue to to strive to honor Hal’s lesson’s in the spaces where I live and work. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up at Emory someday.


50 Responses to “Harold Berman 1918-2007”

  1. Chuck Hartman Says:

    Thanks for this!

    ‘…all my learning would be predicated on taking that leap.’

    Did you take it, then?

    Pax Christi,


  2. david anthony Says:

    thank you for sharing,

    we have common spiritual values, and those of us that understand,
    have a responibility to help others remember!

    one world, one race, humanity.

    David Anthony.

  3. Scott Says:

    Chuck, in many ways I am stretched by the chasm, or by the four forces. So, no, I haven’t taken the leap. Thanks for your interest!

  4. John Mulholland Says:

    I remember reading a passage where Berman tells of his conversion, but I cannot find my notes about this. Can you tell me where to find this?

  5. Kathleen Herighty Says:

    I am just beginning my study of Professor Berman’s great books. I am an attorney and a nurse interested in the foundations of bio-ethics. I hope to find a guiding light in the works of this esteemed professor.

  6. Scott Says:

    Thanks for checking this out Kathleen. Foundations of bio-ethics, hmmm, very important today. I can’t offer an exact guide to what you may discover in Berman’s work related to this issue. I’m not sure if he directly addresses it at all.

    Beyond his important history of Western law (and the transfer of religious to secular legal authrority), Berman describes an Integrative Jurisprudence (see Faith and Order) that draws together the three types of law — positive (formal enactments), moral and historical. Most bio-ethics research seeks to revive moral or natural law to counter the absence of regulation (positive law). Though raising the banner of natural law may lead to greater restrictions on scientific research in the US, or at least federally funded research, much genetic research is already taking place outside of national laws or scientific standards — in unregulated areas where funders set up labs.

    In this dynamic, moral legal theory can raise the debate in specific polities. However, moral persuade will have a limited scope. The HISTORICAL school law, which focuses on the purpose and future of the shared legal community, can extend moral reason’s reach.

    For law to adequately address contemporary challenges we must rely on the past eras of emphases on truth & science while we operate in the third era, that of society, or mutuality. In this domain of inquiry, we cannot hope to persuade for religious, moral, or scientific truth but explain the impact that scientific innovation is having on our fellow social members in the context of a revived commitment to our common destiny.

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