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Jewish Political Theory

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

It is often said that neither the Bible nor Judaism has a theory of politics or, indeed, of political systems. This is untrue.

For 2,000 years, Jews lived under political systems in which, even when they had a degree of communal political self-rule, Jews were always subservient to the ruling powers and systems of their host lands.

After all this time, Israel has given the Jews an opportunity for self-rule and the resurrection of a specifically Jewish form of political government. But Israel today is a secular democratic state that runs according to other non-Jewish systems and models of practice (with a small element of Jewish law). So, what do I mean by a Jewish political theory or system?

The Torah, which many like to describe as containing a Jewish constitution (and much more), has moral and civil codes. But it gives a range of different models of political leadership systems. Moses (and Joshua, who succeeded him) was an absolute dictator appointed by God. And although he was able to call on Divine support, he had to face constant challenges and rebellions. It was his father-in-law, Jethro, who first suggested that he appoint a council of 70 elders to help him govern. This was, of course, the model for the Sanhedrin — meritocratic appointments based on sterling character and expertise (in theory).

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Yet Moses welcomed dissent, so long as it was framed respectfully, and the motives were not a selfish grab for power.  In the Book of Numbers, Chapter 11, when Eldad and Medad started prophesying outside the Tabernacle, Joshua wanted to get rid of them. To which Moses replied, “Don’t be zealous for me. I wish God would give prophesy to all the people and give some of His spirit to every one of them.” This was a refrain echoed by Miriam and Aaron.

But the Torah also gives other models of power: the aristocratic and hereditary priesthood, tribal leaders, judges, kings, priests, and prophets. It is as if the Torah is intentionally saying that there are different models of governance that may be suitable at different times and conditions. It also suggests that there is nothing wrong in borrowing systems of rule from other peoples and civilizations, so long as the Torah remains the touchstone. And indeed, over the years, the Israelites experienced all of these kinds of rule at different times.

In 2017, Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes published The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel. It analyses the emergence of a specifically Israelite political system as expressed in the Books of Samuel. It is well worth reading. To quote:

Whenever retaining, holding on to high office, rather than realizing an ideological vision or implementing a political program, becomes the dominant aim of politics, sovereign power becomes for its wielder an end in itself, even while being publicly justified as a means for providing collective security. Although power is always justified to subjects as a means of repelling foreign conquest and attaining other collective goods, for the one who exercises it, sovereign power may easily turn into something desired for its own sake. This inversion of a means into an end, is all too common now as then.

In the Ancient and Near Middle East, the King was God on earth. The king’s palace, the temple, and the judiciary were part of one system and located in proximity under the control of the king. This is why in the Bible, so much of the language about God’s control and authority is framed in a contemporary style borrowed from surrounding monarchical promises to protect and benefit the loyal while threatening dire consequences for rebellion.

The Mosaic model was that God was the King. Any human leader was subject to His authority. Moses and Joshua were simply His agents. The transition to a monarchy, as described in the Book of Samuel, introduced Israelites to a new reality where kings acted to protect their own power and authority, often in contravention of the Torah. So too, sadly, did many of the judges and priests.

Human kings were supposed to uphold God’s law. The split into rival kingdoms after Solomon’s death accentuated the division between pagan Israel and faithful Judea. The rule of the king gave way in exile to the influence of councils. During the Second Temple came the transition from Ezra’s meritocratic councils to a self-serving priesthood, followed by the Hasmonean experiment that started so optimistically, but descended into corruption and the end of autonomy.

After the Roman wars, Jews were confined to running their own communities. And this was when the Babylonian Shmuel introduced the principle of the “Law of the Land is the Law” in civil matters as an accommodation. In many communities, both in the west and the east, Jews ran their own affairs. The best known and documented example was the Council of the Four Lands. From 1580 till 1764, it was an authority of Jews governing their own communities of Greater and Lesser Poland, Galicia, and Volhynia. But all such councils or committees were circumscribed and subject to superior authority, and then abolished when it suited the powers that be. This explains why no philosophical theories of Jewish autonomy were either needed or allowed.

The late Daniel Elazar (1934-1999) was prominent among those scholars who put the study of Jewish political philosophy on the map, as well as professor Stuart A. Cohen. In recent years, innovative thinkers have continued the task. Joshua I. Weinstein of the Herzl Institute just published a fascinating book, Plato’s Threefold City and Soul.

I do not believe that the Bible would have adopted any specific modern political theory of the right or the left in its entirety. All political institutions need to accept moral constraints. But the Torah places personal responsibility for society, and the welfare of its members of all classes, on the shoulders of all its citizens, whether rich or poor, gifted or not. Everyone has a part to play. That is the ultimate goal of humanity. But so far, it has yet to be achieved.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US.

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