Biblical Politics

By Alan Mittleman
Tuesday, October 23, 2012

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 (esed) 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.

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