Michael Walzer is a pivotal figure in the recovery of the Jewish political tradition. From his early book, Exodus and Revolution, which traced the impact of the Exodus story on Western politics, through his editorship, with Israeli colleagues, of the projected four-volume Jewish Political Tradition, Walzer is almost unrivalled as a scholar of Jewish political thought.
I say "almost" because another figure, the late Bar Ilan University professor Daniel J. Elazar, provided the major arguments on behalf of the view that there was a Jewish political tradition in the first place. Elazar was a maximalist. He believed that the Torah was a kind of ancient constitution that bespoke both an institutional design for politics and a value-rich political culture. Furthermore, he held that the Bible's political constitution and values were replicated, albeit transformed, by subsequent expressions of Jewish political life down through the ages. Walzer, by contrast, is a minimalist. He believes that the Bible, although it takes political life into account, is pervasively unconcerned with politics as a thematic field of human endeavor. Furthermore, the subsequent Jewish political tradition is largely bookish; it is an ongoing conversation about political things, not an actual history of institutions struggling to hold the Jews together politically after the loss of sovereignty. The publication of Walzer's most recent book, In God's Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, a judicious and authoritative account of its subject, gives us an occasion to contrast his view with Elazar's.
Elazar, in works such as Kinship and Consent: The Jewish Political Tradition and Its Contemporary Uses and Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel, argued that the biblical motif of covenant is the organizing principle of biblical and of all subsequent Jewish political life and thought. Covenant entails a voluntary agreement by a group to keep faith with one another and with a central, transcendent authority. Consent to God's law and fidelity (ḥesed) to God and to one another found a political community (edah). A decent politics begins in agreements—with consent, not coercion. Furthermore, the transcendent authority of God relativizes the authority of human expressions of power. Elazar believed that biblical and subsequent Jewish politics always checked power against power; classically kings, priests, and prophets were all expressions of legitimate authority. Their contestation and negotiation with one another evoked the original rough equality and consent of the covenantal founding. Covenant as an organizing principle is flexible enough to survive the demise of statehood. It continued to animate a sense of nationhood, legitimate authority, political obligation, and sacred community through centuries of exile.
Walzer believes that Elazar has greatly overstated his case. He grants that the biblical practice of covenanting is much more than a theological trope, but he denies that it grounds a full-fledged political principle or theory. Thus, "Daniel J. Elazar constructs full-scale biblical political doctrine on the basis of the covenantal model, but it is very much a construction, not a finding. The covenant is there, in the texts; the doctrine, it seems to me, isn't." Like Elazar, Walzer sees covenant as nation-founding. Israel as a "genealogical collective" already exists, but it takes on a heightened form of belonging through covenant. The mix of "kinship and covenant, descent and consent, are simultaneously at work." But what the consenting people, now rising to the level of nationhood, agree to is obedience to a sacred, divinely given law, which, far from enabling them to have a political life, nips it in the bud. The law (or, more accurately, laws; Walzer has a chapter on the discrepant law codes of the Bible) places Israel's action into a register where politics is scanted and legal reasoning rules. The leitmotif of Walzer's book is that politics, understood as a wholly immanent, practical, quintessentially human activity, cannot flourish "in God's shadow." Thus, where Elazar reads biblical texts as evidences of a kind of politics in a religious world, Walzer reads them as evidence of religious considerations constraining or aborting politics.
For Walzer, the Bible is "the record of a nation whose God did not leave much room for independent decision making." Thus, "the political activity of ordinary people is not a biblical subject; nor is there any explicit recognition of political space, an agora or forum, where people congregate to argue about and decide on the policies of the community." The gates of the city—the biblical equivalent of a public square—are places of legal adjudication, not political discussion. The elders who assemble there and who, in many texts, seem to have a truly political role—consider the episode in which they go to Samuel and demand a king "like all the other nations"—are never adequately described or explored by the biblical authors. We never see the elders deliberating, arguing, or negotiating with one another, as political men must. They seem to represent the people, but we don't know how; there is no biblical discussion of their function as representatives or the basis of their legitimacy. The biblical texts did not take an interest in politics in this sense:
Who makes decisions and how decisions are made: these are questions in which the biblical writers take no sustained or critical interest. The central concerns of political philosophy as the Greeks understood it—ruling and being ruled, the best regime, the meaning of citizenship, the deliberative process, civic virtue, political obligation—were never central in Israelite thought.
We can tease out perspectives and positions that are relevant, Walzer notes, but we can't find arguments. The light that politics needs to flourish cannot be found in God's shadow.
Walzer's book carefully analyzes the topics germane to political life as they emerge, however obliquely, in the Bible. Matters such as the interpretation of law, conquest and holy war, models of kingship, the public aspects of prophecy, the public role of the priesthood, the endurance of the nation in exile, the courtly, practical rationality of the Wisdom literature, and the messianic hope for a national restoration are all treated to close study, enriched by academic scholarship. Walzer is no less indefatigable than Elazar in pursuing the political content of biblical texts. But in almost every instance, Walzer finds a red light where Elazar found a green one.
There are several ways to parse this debate. One could say that Walzer is the more austere reader; that Elazar, as an engaged intellectual in the Israeli context, was searching for a usable past and was willing to press the texts into service. There is some truth in that. Elazar wanted to see Zionism and the restoration of statehood not as an absolute break with diasporic political quiescence but as spectacular successes within an ongoing political tradition, rooted in the Bible. Elazar was so focused on an argument for the continuity of a political tradition, the vast disruptions of history notwithstanding, that he needed to see the Bible as its first stage. Walzer, by contrast, takes the Bible fully on its own terms, alert to its contexts and voices. He is not concerned with the Bible's effects on subsequent Jewish or Western tradition, at least in this book. His is a highly disciplined stance and, I say this as a disciple and friend of the late Dan Elazar, a compelling one. I think that, as a project of textual interpretation, Walzer makes the better case.
Another way to see what is at stake here is to consider the two authors’ discrepant understandings of politics. For Walzer, politics is human, all too human. For Elazar, politics can indeed flourish in God's shadow. For Walzer, "The people consent, but they do not rule. Only when God is conceived to withdraw, to stand at some distance from the world of nations, to give up his political interventions, is there room for human politics." Politics needs a God-free space in which to flourish. For Elazar, God enables human beings, through granting them liberty, to work out their own destinies under His law. As a political philosopher of a conservative bent, Elazar was suspicious of a purely modern version of liberty; he inclined toward the positive liberty of the covenant, rather than the negative liberty of the social contract. What is ultimately at stake here—the comparative sagacity of biblical interpretation aside—is the status of secularism vis-à-vis the possibility of a good politics. Elazar eschewed a purely secular politics; Walzer seems to endorse it. The stakes of this debate could not be higher.
Alan Mittleman teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His last book was A Short History of Jewish Ethics.
In any case, Elazar was on to a fundamental issue unjustifiably dismissed by Walzer and Mittleman. This has come out even more clearly after the recent realization of how deeply covenantal values in the Torah and Rabbinic literature influenced the formation of modern parliamentary liberal democracy in the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries, particularly amongst Dutch and English Protestant political thinkers searching for a new foundation for Christian society. On this, see Jason P. Rosenblatt, Renaissance England's Chief Rabbi John Selden 2006), Gordon Schochet, Fania Oz-Salzberger and Meirav Jones, eds., Political Hebraism: Judaic Sources in Early Modern Political Thought (2008), and Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (2010).
For a remarkable demonstration of how specifically covenantal theory as such not only leaves room for political renewal and innovation, but even more importantly how it can reshape contemporary political theory and practice for the better for all humanity, building on the concept of a universal Noahite covenant that can allow for peaceable unity in diversity, and can also serve "social justice" goals, see the brilliant and truly luminous writings of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, such as his The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (2003), The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society (2007 and his more recent Future Tense: A Vision for Jews and Judaism in the Global Culture (2009). All of these books explore the astonishingly rich ramifications of covenantal political theory.
Those who know me might be surprised to learn that I have "liberal progressive religious/political views." At any rate, this is not how scholars should assess scholarly work. Walzer's book is no left wing screed. It is a cautious, judicious, well argued work of scholarship. I simply judged it on its merits. As someone who has done a lot over the years to keep Dan Elazar's work on Jewish political thought in the conversation--as at a Bar Ilan conference a few months ago--it did not please me to disagree with him. But I think Walzer made the better case.
As to my own thinking about covenantal politics, Ben Tzur might consult my chapter in the Oz-Salzberger, Schochet, Jones book to which he makes reference, as well my book on (biblical) hope in a democratic age.
But is it true of Biblical Judaism? Several objections arise. The first is the primary role of the assent of the community to community leadership, an assent that can be withdrawn if that leadership arrogates too much power to itself (as notably occurred with King Rehoboam, causing the defection of the Northern Tribes: I Kings 11-12). The second is the acknowledgement of individual uniqueness and indeed the high status given the individual in Biblical Judaism. It may even be suggested (as many have done) that the modern concept of the individual first emerges in Biblical Israel. It has its root in the idea that each of us is created in the divine image, and that each person's uniqueness is a kind of signature pointing to the uniqueness of the one God. The basic equality of all human beings, despite and even via their diversity, flows from this. Berman's book, already mentioned, provides a good path into this aspect of Biblical political theory. The third is the stress on separation of powers or functions in the polity, which Elazar also points to: this helps to counter excessive power over the community and gives social space for diversity, and ultimately via voluntary associations (so noticeable in later Jewish societies) even for individual diversity. There are many other elements of Biblical political thought that could be drawn upon to round out this portrait, but in summary it would appear that Elazar was not off-base. A good overview of Biblical views is provided by Lenn E. Goodman, "The Individual and the Community in the Normative Traditions of Judaism," in Autonomy and Judaism: The Individual and the Community in Jewish Philosophical Thought, ed. Daniel H. Frank (1992), pp. 69-119.
It is therefore not coincidental that later Rabbinic thought stressed the status of the individual both in the general sense of political theory and in terms of Jewish law. It was faithful, that is, to Biblical values in this. See other contributions to the just-mentioned book, and also Louis Jacobs, Religion and the Individual: A Jewish Perspective (1992).
None of this means that Biblical or post-Biblical Judaism political philosophy was uniform in itself or was identical to modern secularist hyper-individualist values. Nevertheless, there were deeply liberal political views, in the sense of classical liberalism, already in Biblical and later Judaism which not only helped to create modern liberal democracy as such, but also today can provide a principled critique of its increasingly obvious excesses.
Elazar did this well. He dedicated an issue of "The Jewish Political Studies Review," to the contrast, conflict, and possible reconciliation of what he called "liberal democracy" and "communal democracy." These, in turn, tracked what his beloved Puritans called "natural" and "federal" (i.e. covenantal) liberty. He saw the Jewish political tradition as tending toward communal democracy, today best represented by the Swiss, and the modern tradition expressing itself in liberal democracy, with the US as the "first new nation." He wanted to bridge these forms in order to energize the Jewish political tradition. (His article may be found here: http://www.jcpa.org/dje/articles/commdem-jpt.htm) My point is that Elazar was deeply aware of the clash between liberal and other, more communal or covenantal expressions of democratic republicanism and that he was committed to the best of both of them, as am I. But bringing them together is a real and an unsolved problem and merely making pejorative illusions to left-liberalism doesn't come close to grasping or addressing it. Ben Tzur's further exploration of individualism within a Jewish context--and he has adduced two fine studies that help with this--is much more promising. But it would be best to read these works within the horizon of political theory mapped by Elazar in his article.
I am particularly grateful to you for directing my attention to the article by Daniel Elazar in the Jewish Political Studies Review, which as you say is available on-line. I did not know of this on-line resource, and shall have to set aside time to read more deeply into it. The Elazar article is a personal reflective overview of his views, and shows how much we have lost with his passing. However, I find that some of the problematic definitions of "liberal democracy" (and the "communal democracy" allegedly characteristic of Jewish political traditions and classical liberalism) that troubled me in your article are already there in Elazar's. They still remain dubious. It may even be the case that the faulty definitions give rise to false dichotomies and contradictions between classical liberalism based on "political Hebraism" and "liberal democracy" that has freed itself from Hebraism per se, between religious and secular understandings of society, etc., that make it certain that Elazar's -- and your -- quest to overcome the gulf between these two traditions, Jewish and "liberal democratic" thought, can never be found. It would be like squaring the circle, with these definitions. Perhaps the terms need re-working?
It is not just a matter of European classical liberalism being deeply indebted to covenantal thinking and political Hebraisms. Historians now accept that it was. Nor is it a matter even of the Puritans, which you mention. The Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution both frankly posit and even emphasize covenantal Biblically grounded assumptions. Elazar himself acknowledges this, but does not pursue the matter further (he cites William Everett, God's Federal Republic, in footnote 9). After all, the founding figures of the American nation, deeply influenced by the pietists who had fled from Europe, had also read the works of the political Hebraists of the previous two centuries or at least were influenced by their assumptions. Those assumptions had become part of the general cultural framework of life in the colonies, affecting even the less pietistic sectors of the population, giving axiomatic force to the formulation, "One nation, indivisible, under God!" So there is no contradiction in these founding documents between American liberty and a God-centered polity. The Exodus analogy of escape from Europe/Egypt so often invoked by the American colonists was crowned, for the founders of the United States, with a semi-secular equivalent of the Sinai revelation which created the Jewish nation, namely the newly covenanted nation of the United States itself. The Biblical covenantal conceptions both in its Sinai form and in terms of the Noahite Covenant are even used as models. This is entirely within the world of classical liberalism. If we apply the terms used by Elazar, and again by you above, the US is not "in the modern tradition of liberal democracy."
I will quite readily grant that the cultural tendencies of American democracy today are far more secularist, individualistic and "pluralistic" than at its founding -- or that was envisaged by its founding fathers. Whether, however, that is a good thing or a bad thing is something else altogether. Leo Strauss has a point when he argues that there is a kind of irresistible logic leading to meaninglessness, relativist nihilism and amoralism rooted at the heart of the egalitarian Enlightenment democratic dream, which has grown in the course of the last century to constitute a fundamental crisis and possible breakdown of Western civilization. Edmund Burke was on to something.
As for Elazar and Walzer, I believe that Elazar wrote much less on Biblical literature than Walzer did. His focus was on the long-term themes of Jewish political thinking. Nevertheless, his points were well-taken, and the covenant theme is indeed basic to Biblical Judaism, and affected all aspects of its outlook. As for Walzer's writings being a left-wing screed, that is not what I said. That is far too dismissive. I said those writings, which are in my opinion very valuable and important contributions to our knowledge of Biblical Judaism, nevertheless betray their own agenda, which is indeed left-wing and which demonstrate a desire to attribute to Biblical Judaism emphases that are useful in modern political advocacy. There is no contradiction between the two points.
Aside from the definition of good being a most relative and shifting term in modern politics, one observes that a number of passionate articles and comments have centered on "secularism" with the adjective, Jewish, appended. A number of JID articles have had jolly good dust ups over what it means to be Jewish and theist, as to be Jewish and atheist, as to be Jewish and secular. The resultant unresolved dialogues ended up without resolution or a synthesis between opposing modes of thought.
Therefore I would ask, just what is "secularism" within the scope of Judaism? To my understanding, "secular" is a word meant to indentify that outside the scope of religion and religious traditions. It is a word from the Latin, not the Hebrew. So the question I ask becomes simple. What does "the status of secularism vis-à-vis the possibility of a good politics" mean? I read it as a nonsense phrase.
Mittleman writes of Walzer, "Politics is human, all to human." One sees this in bible narratives aplenty. One sees it today among the so-called Right and among the so-called Left. One sees this within Judaism and beyond the borders of Judaism. Green light? Red light? I suspect there can be no sythesis between them except a bland gray. Arriving at the "secular" from a Jewish tradition while others arrive at "secular" from non-Jewish traditions means many arriving at "secular" station, and probably ready to dismount the traditions in due time and season.
The article ends "The stakes of this debate could not be higher." It seems from one distant vantage point that the stakes of this debate will always be the same, and will not be solved in favor on one political pole for many generations to come. When one sees the opposite that another sees, it predicts no resolution because it is no resolution. So I see no stakes here at all, high or low. Just oppositional politics, again.
It would seem that it was indeed reviewed and posted, only to be subsequently withdrawn; and, since it was removed, why post the correction to it? Let alone the "S W" 2:17 remark, which now operates in a vacuum!
And should not JID readers know that "S W" and "Ben-Tzur" if not the same person, are identical twins in their opinions?
Mr. Inquiring Mind, I am not a "twin" of Ben Tzur. Rereading of my original comment might clarify. Between the article's author and some comments which followed, there are supporters of Walzer and of Elazar as well, their points well and respectfully made. My original comment was simply that the two sides of the political argument are, as have been for millenia, not easily reocnciled and boil down to, as Mittleman observed, the fact that "Politics is human, all to human."
My question to all who herein wish to further the discussion rather than to wander away to irrelevancies is this, as I wrote two days ago: "...just what is 'secularism"' within the scope of Judaism?"
Rather than devolve into such as Marcus' interjection without cause or apparent URL citation as citation, it would be interesting to read what an inquiring mind might write as to "secularism within Judaism" which seems to me to be rather clearly not secular. I see "secular" as a word specifically parsing away the adjective "religious" and for the purposes of this discussion on JID "Jewish."
Else we all might just read Secular Ideas Daily, though I think there are options enough for that. Melonie's comment is echoed by me, for this site has fine articles, and some interesting exchanges from which one might draw a new idea or revisit and old one worth the renewal.
Furthermore, the rule of halakhah, Sinaitic law, which Walzer, as a secularist, seems to treat so slightingly, even claiming that the laws differed amongst themselves (i.e., that there was over the centuries a diversity of legitimate opinions about their application), actually ensures that the polity that developed would have the covenantal flexibility and stability that any democratically-oriented and internally changeable political system needs as its solid foundation. The law was not a prison within which all freedoms were suppressed, but on the contrary it made those freedoms possible. It was, quite properly, the bottom line, just as it is today in the US and other liberal democracies. Fittingly, its administration was drawn from local communities and authorities and not simply imposed autocratically from above. But its common moral and spiritual grounding went much deeper than is usual today in the US and Europe, and this transcendental anchor thereby ensured the continuity and permanency of the Torah society despite all the very worst upheavals and slings-and-arrows of history, in a way that a more relativistic and happenstance sort of "pluralism" and purely secular nationalism simply cannot. Whether there is a future for Western liberal democracy is far less certain than turned out to be the case for the Torah polity.
However, the covenant still had great effect in ancient Israel's political thinking. For example, that there was, under the Sinai covenant, a very non-statist conception of government in the entire society together with a very lively public discussion of political issues, is shown, for example, in a very important passage dealing with King David in II Samuel chapter 24 that I do not believe Walzer has noted (I would be interested to learn how he dealt with it, if he did -- I do not find it in his comments in The Jewish Political Tradition, which is strange). The issues this passage raise echo on in many other Torah descriptions of other kings and later generations (and the passage itself echoes themes appearing already in the Genesis account of Babel and Nimrod, and the Exodus account of Pharaoh). It specifically concerns the census that King David made of all the people of Israel, both in the north and south. This imposition of bureaucratic control was evidently deeply resented and felt to be a threat not just to the people, but to the covenant itself. Although no mention is made of prophets declaiming these ideas, so they apparently arose from community discussion and consensus, God's wrath is said to have flared up, and a plague fell upon the entire community, which the community openly blamed on King David as an offence against God and the covenant, and for which he had to repent and do restitution. Even this restitution had to take the form of acknowledging the legitimate rights of his subjects to their own property, and therefore that he could not simply appropriate it no matter what his need (see the final verses of this chapter). All of this obviously reflects public discussion of political matters and issues. So it turns out that statism is sharply criticised in the Torah.
This leads to another point: the place of the prophets in ancient Israel. Walzer, from what I have read of him (The Jewish Political Tradition volume on Authority has a number of essays by him on this), saw the prophets as being above political debate and outside it. But is this true? Actually, the prophets as an institution were only possible through the covenant belief in the inalienability of the land entrusted to the Twelve Tribes in an egalitarian way. The king could not do away with the land-base and therefore the economic well-being of those who opposed him, for this had been given to them by God. This in turn legitimated the prophets and their criticisms, because the prophets not only came from the people, they could also return to them and be sheltered by them, and the king could not just destroy this built-in oppositional base. It is true that they spoke with God's voice, but this is where the Torah discussions of the legitimacy of prophecy are so important politically: this legitimacy came not from the king or any specific worldly power. It rested with God, certainly, but this also means with the community as a whole who followed God and preserved his teachings. The prophets who severely criticised the powerful were able to give voice not just to God's criticisms but the criticisms of the common people. The king, therefore, might have the force of worldly power, but he could not have the last word. Quite contrary to Walzer, I consider the prophetic institution as a profound brake on despotism and force for a more democratic and open politics.
Finally, now that I have shown that covenantal politics can include a great deal of secular freedom and political life, both in ancient Israel and in the founding of the US, I would like to come back to the question I raised above: since all that is so, is it not the case that "liberal democracy" does not necessarily require the radical secularizations that Walzer, and perhaps also Alan Mittleman and Daniel Elazar seem to think necessary?
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