Chaim Ingram

Towards a universal Torah ethic


A Populism of the Spirit: Further Essays in Politics and Universal Ethics.  By Shimon Cowen  (Connor Court Publishing, 2022)

 Reviewed by Rabbi Chaim Ingram OAM

“Populism” is best defined as a grass-roots movement asserting sometimes latent key values or principles of importance to ordinary people. It can have both positive and negative connotations.

In his new book, A Populism Of The Spirit, Rabbi Dr. Shimon Cowen calls for a rank- and-file-led return to the most fundamental set of spiritual values known to humankind, namely the Noachide Code, propagated not only by Judaism – which of course follows a much more rigorous code of laws enshrined in the Torah – but also embraced by the other Abrahamitic faiths of Christianity and Islam. This universal code encapsulates seven basic moral and ethical staples: affirmation of and respect for the G-D of Abraham; eschewing of idolatrous concepts; prohibitions of murder, abduction, larceny, incest, sexual intimacy outside the sacred confines of a union between a man and a woman, abuse of animals and the environment; and the enactment of statutes to uphold justice.

Dr. Cowen writes passionately against what he describes as “hedonistic materialism”, an ideology acknowledging neither G-D nor what he idiosyncratically terms the “small G-D in the human being, namely the soul or conscience”. He bemoans in particular the secular-humanistic disregard for the sanctity of life in the widespread acceptance of elective abortion at one end of the life spectrum and assisted suicide – euphemistically rebranded as “assisted dying” – at the other.

The author cites in particular the injustice of the Victorian and Tasmanian Abortion Laws (2008 and 2013 respectively) where “a doctor who has a conscientious objection to an abortion is forced to refer a woman to a practitioner who, they know, will perform an abortion” even in “capricious” cases where the parents simply discover that the unborn child is a girl and they would rather have had a boy!  In the words of an unnamed retired former judge whom he cites, it is no less immoral than “hiring a thug to kill a person”.    Dr. Cowen similarly calls out moral and ethical corruption with regard to other components of humanity’s universal moral code.

I was particularly intrigued by chapter 4 of the book which the author entitles The Basis For A Commonly Recognised Universal Ethics in the World Religious Cultures. Here, Dr. Cowen utilises eminent sociologist Max Weber’s classification of the world’s faiths to argue that Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, despite their “cosmocentric” rather than “theocentric” orientation, could “open sufficiently to the transcendent source of the Noachide laws to allow a true human-spiritual commonality of the major religious cultures to emerge. When presented with the actual definitive content of the Noachide laws as revealed at Sinai and as transmitted through the tradition from Sinai, the adherents of these world faiths may well recognise and affirm the universal laws of the one G-D as binding them all”.

As the book is a selection of essays and writings in response, as the author says, to “a host of circumstances” but with a common theme as denoted in the sub-title of the book, there is some overlap. However I would imagine the book is not intended to be devoured in one sitting! Almost invariably, even when there is repetition, new points are emphasised or introduced.  Readers will appreciate the light relief in the recounting of seminal illustrative parables of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav in section 3 of the book. The fourth and final section, “Manifestos”, presents the clearest disposition of the author’s Weltanschauung and is particularly impressive.

Dr. Cowen is a sincere seeker after eternal truths.  I heartily recommend the book to those of similar mind!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at