Politics and Religion: Politics and Judaism

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The Jewish religion is foundationally political. God is imagined by means of a religious language replete with political roles (king, warrior, judge) and political relations (ruling, lawgiving, providing). Central to the Jewish religion is a law that mediates revelation addressed to an elected people. And history is marked by the polar extremes of exile and messianic redemption. These themes are succinctly encapsulated in the preamble to the Sinaitic covenant in which God addresses the newly redeemed people of Israel that have exited Egypt with the following calling: "Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a Holy nation" (Ex. 19:56, New JPS). Israel is envisaged as a kingdom and a nation.

From the moment this religion is conceived of as a religion of a people, as a religion in which individuals approach God from within a congregation, Judaism is conceived of as a political project. Election, covenant, law, prophecy, priesthood, monarchy, and redemption all emanate from this religio-political core. Furthermore, over its continuing history, the Jewish religion and the Jewish people have created various religious and political institutions and regimes (monarchies, communities, and a nation-state). These in turn have generated a variety of claims to authority, divine and human, Jewish and Gentile, sacred and worldly. These positions have received articulation in texts that have undergone the painstaking process of continuous redaction and canonization over millennia. The basic Judaic narrative structure of election in terms of exile and redemption has been reiterated time and again in Western history by national movements and liberation movements, as indeed has been the role of the prophet as a divinely inspired social critic.

It should be noted that the foundational texts of Judaism predate the sharp distinction between politics and religion. The term politics is Greek in origin. In medieval Hebrew it is translated medini from medinah, city, and is used in modern Hebrew for "state." The closest word to politics as a domain of activity in biblical Hebrew is probably melukhah or malkhut, both meaning kingship, or memshalah, governance (cf. the distinction in 2 Chron. 19:11 between "matters of the Lord" and "matters of the king"). The former two may signify the general activity of governance but are distinctively monarchic. The medieval and modern Hebrew equivalent of the Latinate religion is dat, law. Prior to medieval theological reconstructions of Judaism such terms were not used as organizing concepts. Our present use of them is for analytic purposes but the cultural relativity of these concepts should be kept in mind.

Rather than claim a unified political theory of Judaism the present discussion limits itself to an examination of a set of tensions characterizing this core itself as expressed in the canonical presentation of foundational texts. It will not address all manners of power relations and domination but rather focus on the institutional organization of polity and nation and then turn to the core value of justice echoing throughout Judaic canonical texts.

Theocratic and Secularizing Conceptions of Politics

The political nature of theology in Jewish religious discourse generates a set of tensions and problems regarding the legitimacy of human politics that permeate most layers of historical Judaism. The politicization of theology that claims political agency for God affects the very possibility of human political agency. Human initiative in political action, the founding of human institutions, and the possibility of rational comprehension of political events is thus constantly problematized in this religious tradition: "For My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your waysdeclares the Lord. But as the heavens are high above the earth, so are My ways high above yours and My plans above your plans" (Is. 56:89).

This voice, however, is only a partial representation of the political complexity of the Jewish political tradition. Thematically speaking, we may distinguish between two fundamental trends regarding politics in the canonical texts of the Jewish religion. The first trend, which may indeed be termed theocratic, views politics and political agency as a divine prerogative. Josephus coined the term theocracy :

There is endless variety in the details of the customs and laws, which prevail in the world at large. To give but a summary enumeration: some peoples have entrusted the supreme political power to monarchies, others to oligarchies, yet others to the masses. Our lawgiver, however, was attracted by none of these forms of polity, but gave to his constitution the form of whatif a forced expression be permittedmay be termed a "theocracy," placing all sovereignty and authority in the hands of God. (Contra Apion, 164167)

In contradistinction to the Mishnaic notion of malkhut shamayim, the kingdom of heaven (Berakhot 2:2), which denotes a normative space whose authority and yoke a person accepts in the daily recitation of the shema, Josephus's theocracy is an institution: It is not a regimen, it is a regime. Josephus's theocratic conceptualization of the Sinaitic regime is developed again in the pre-Enlightenment political philosophy of early modernity by such thinkers as Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, chap. 35), Barukh Spinoza (Theological-Political Treatise, chap. 17), and John Locke (Letter Concerning Toleration, p. 73). These thinkers reexamined the biblical conception of politics in their efforts to articulate a theory of legitimacy for the modern republic. The theocratic conception of Judaism was developed again in the twentieth century. Martin Buber developed Spinoza's favorable description of the pure theocracy of ancient Israel, arguing in his Kingship of God for an anarchistic conception of a holy community. Buber argues his point historically, but his position provides a utopian articulation to his own dialogical religious philosophy. On the other hand, and following Hobbes's and Spinoza's critique of religion, Gershon Weiler's Jewish Theocracy critically equates theocracy with clerical power and portrays it as inimical to democratic civil society.

Human attempts to assume political agency are viewed on the theocratic account as an act of hubris and as idolatrous insofar as they express the usurpation of a divine attribute. Theocratic positions assume that there are select human beings who have some form of direct access to God's will and often maintain that divine rule is not exercised directly by God but by human intermediaries. This latter point is emphasized by critics of theocracy, among them Spinoza, who argue that theocracy in effect, means not the reign of God but the rule of his human representatives.

The second trend, no less authentic to the Jewish religious tradition, may be termed a "secularizing" trend; it views politics as a worldly activity and as a legitimate human endeavor. Rather than serve as a radical alternative, theology on this account variously sets boundaries, guides and affirms the human exercise of power; it may either curtail human power or legitimate it.

Politics, on the secularizing account, is a human and worldly affair. Ensuring the king does not become a god does not necessitate turning God into a king. Theocracy, argue its worldly critics, leads either to anarchy or to a clerical despotism. The biblical critique of theocracy finds its expression both in the Pentateuch and in the Prophets. The overall narrative structure of the book of Numbers can be construed as an antitheocratic argument according to which even Moses, the first and foremost of prophetic leaders, was incapable of generating stable political leadership. Similarly, the book of Judges can be read to argue that the loose tribal federation of premonarchic Israel led to an anarchy typified by the three cardinal sins: idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual license. "In those days there was no king in Israel, everyone did as he pleased" (Jgs. 21:25).

The founding moment of worldly politics is the description of the creation of the monarchy in 1 Samuel 8. Human political agency is asserted in the initiative to constitute a regime. And although God in this chapter expresses reservations concerning the very enterprise, Samuel the prophet is directed to heed the people all that they ask. This worldly conception of politics is echoed in classic future discussions. The Mishnah places the king beyond the reach of the human representative of divine law: "The king neither judges, nor is he subject to judgment" (Sanhedrin 2:3). Kings are necessary for social existence, and in what can be read as a rebuke of prophetic political subversion, the Mishnah seems to maintain the position that bad kings are better than no kings. This form of realism was followed by the mainstream of rabbinic decisors in the Middle Ages. It finds its fullest theoretical expression in Moses Maimonides, who codifies this ruling in his Mishneh Torah and in the Guide of the Perplexed. Maimonides begins his discussion of halakhic regimentation in the latter, citing Aristotle's maxim "man is political by nature" (II: 40). Human political association is ultimately grounded in our worldly, rational character as a species.

The secularizing conception of politics ultimately carries the day in biblical political history the moment a monarchy was constituted in ancient Israel. Moreover, the founding of the Davidic monarchy radically altered the Jewish religion. It created Jerusalem as its capital city with a permanent Temple, and implanted the messianic idea that would ultimately form the horizon of Jewish historical self-understanding.

Yet given the deep roots of both these conflicting tendencies in the Jewish religion a general characterization is in place. Jewish politics has traditionally a worldly base that must always negotiate the holyespecially when it finds expression in the form of a theocratic impulseas part of its politics. The question whether the sacred will curb human violence or sanction it ought to be a central standard for judging political theologies. The long history of Jewish communal existence has indeed given rise to various such political theologies for legitimizing authority by means of the adequate channeling of the sacred. Some predate the exile, such as the Davidic political theology, and some serve to justify the renunciation of power of an exilic community. The great medieval theolgians such as Judah Halevi, Maimonides and Moses Nahmanides all provided theological-political paradigms as an integral element of their work. Among the basic strategies for negotiating the theocratic impulse that can be discerned in Jewish political history three are especially pertinent. One is biblical and monarchic and the other two are modern and relate to the modern project of the secularization of culture. The two latter models are especially important in understanding the major forms of Jewish political life in modernity. First is the diasporic Jewish community that lacks political autonomy and whose members are citizens of the non-Jewish hosting republican civil society. Second is the Jewish secular nation-state of Israel.

The Davidic recasting of theology

The foremost monarchic dynasty of ancient Israel deeply affected the entire theological structure of the Jewish religion. Central to the theory of legitimacy of the house of David is a political theology whose purpose is to recast the role of the sacred in Jewish theology. This new theology receives its clearest biblical articulation in the "royal" psalms (e.g., Ps. 2, 89). Although the king is not conceived as a deity as in the Mesopotamian or Egyptian models, he is a pivotal figure politically and religiously. The king is God's anointed one (Heb., mashiah ; "messiah" in its anglicized form), his inheritance, and his son. The covenant with the people of Israel now passes through him. Whereas in earlier texts the covenant is conditional upon its performance, in its Davidic form it is eternal. The Temple of Jerusalem is founded by this dynasty in its capital city and operates under its auspices. Theology here provides the legitimating basis of monarchy and dynasty.

Spinozistic sovereign supremacy

Spinoza views the sovereign to have supreme authority over all public expressions of religion. The sovereign himself is not a religious figure, but no sovereign can afford to remain indifferent to religion. Therefore it is the role of political theology to provide religious support for the democratic secular republic as the best means to further peace and security. His biblical criticism aside, Spinoza believed the Bible is well equipped to provide such support to the republic because the political history it includes depicts the original covenant of God and Israel as a democratic social contract.

Zionist appropriation of national history and destiny

The Zionist movement of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries argued that there was no place for Jews in a Europe made up of nation-states and called for the creation of a Jewish nation-state in the land of Israel (Palestine) as the only viable solution to the plight of Jews in Europe. It was primarily a movement of secular Jews that called for a repudiation of traditional Jewish exilic historical passivity. Zionism provides a classic model of the modern appropriation of traditional theological models by secular states and political movements. Although it was primarily a secular movement, its appropriation of responsibility for the national destiny of Jews and its discourse of redemption enabled it to change the political forms of Jewish life. The movement succeeded in creating the State of Israel and was imagined by many Jews in the twentieth century to be a carrier of national historical identity. Zionism is thus a unique model of secular political theology that appropriates the salient political features of a theological tradition without (so it hoped) its sacral and theistic components.

Justice as a Core Value

The commitment to justice as a core value is derivative of the very political character of the Jewish religion, for justice is the criteria for evaluating the basic institutions of society and the exercise of power and its distribution. The Abrahamic theology of the tetragrammaton is presented in the book of Genesis in terms of a moral commitment. God singles out Abraham as one who will "instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord [= tetragrammaton] by doing what is just and what is right" (18:19). God's way is the way of justice and of righteousness and this is repeated throughout the Bible and the rabbinic tradition.

Two main avenues are developed in the Judaic tradition to ensure justice. The first is law. The centrality of law in the Jewish religion reflects the reasoned organization of divine authority and social structure. The rulelike character of law ensures generality and equality before the law (cf. Nm. 15:1617) and minimizes arbitrariness. The foundation of the law is the covenant that ensures the inclusivity of society and the grounds of acceptance (cf. Dt. 29:928).

The second is the prophet who gives voice to the suffering of injustice in society and rebukes the violence of unbridled power. Many prophets are often characterized by their noninstitutional role and at times subversive stance with regard to the reigning powers. Indeed the prophetic posture and its attendant divinely charged rhetoric have been reiterated throughout history (consider such diverse twentieth-century figures as Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Joshua Heschel). Caution, however, is due in identifying prophecy with social criticism. For although prophets often did fulfill such a role they also engaged in promoting the divinely sanctioned foreign policy as they understood it to be over and against the realpolitik of human monarchs (see, e.g., Is. 10:520, chaps. 3639).

Perhaps it is the tension between institutionalized law and charismatic prophecy that leads the Bible to construct the image of Moses as a prophetic lawgiver spanning both these roles in his person. A different form of this combination may be seen in the traditional portrayal of David as an inspired king. The vitality of these synthetic combinations can be seen echoed again in such leadership roles as that of the Hasidic tsaddiq millennia later in early modernity. They also reflect the need to combine divine claims, justice, and legitimacy in a viable worldly politics.


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Menachem Lorberbaum (2005)