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America the Biblical

The Greeks did not invent equality.  Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, and the gang famously believed that the rich are different from you and me—not merely because they are shaped by their privileges but because they are actually, literally made of superior stuff.  The Greeks believed that the gods formed the rich from finer clay, with gold mixed in for the aristocrats, silver for the commercial class, and cheap iron and brass for the rest of us lowly plebeians.  Almost invariably, great men were born to aristocratic parents, as Plato and Aristotle were.  Inexplicably, plebian parents occasionally produced a superior man like Socrates; but this was rare. 

Relevant Links
Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece  Kurt A. Raaflaub, Josiah Ober, Robert W. Wallace, University of California Press. Athens may have recognized political equality among citizens, but not just anybody could be a citizen.
Americanism: the Fourth Great Western Religion  David Gelernter, Random House. “America is no secular republic,” Gelernter says; “it’s a biblical republic.”
The Scepter Shall Not Depart from Judah  Alan L. Mittleman, Lexington Books. There is a “theological-political predicament” in modern Jews’ spiritual dependence on their surrounding political systems.

Much of the world, then and since, has agreed with the Greeks.  But as Joshua Berman points out in his important book, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, the Jews thought differently.  The Bible often echoes Mesopotamian myths: Sargon of Akkad, after all, was another baby placed by his mother in a rush basket that was waterproofed with pitch and set afloat on the river.  But Berman, one of a number of scholars currently working to understand the Bible's political and social ideas, shows us that a yawning chasm separates these ideas from those of the rest of the ancient Near East.

Berman illustrates this difference by recounting the great Mesopotamian creation epic of Atrahasis.  It tells us that in the beginning, the world was inhabited only by gods.  There were aristocratic gods called Annunaki and a lower class of gods, the Igigi.  The aristocratic Annunaki, born to rule, owned and ran the world.  The non-aristocratic Igigi did all the work, digging irrigation ditches, farming, cooking, and sweeping up after the aristocrats.  It sounds familiar. 

Then the Igigi revolted, besieging the home of the aristocratic god Enlil and demanding less work for more pay.  The gods averted crisis as only gods can:  One unlucky god was sacrificed and his flesh mixed with clay to create human beings—somebody else to do the menial labor needed to support the gods' lifestyle.  The new humans, like the gods, were divided by birth into classes: underlings, aristocrats, and temple priests.  In Mesopotamian cosmology, the world depended on offerings of wheat and gold that were made to the gods by priests and kings.  Naturally, it was necessary and right that the priests and kings who performed these essential rituals should own the land, exact heavy taxes, and array themselves in gold and fine linen while commoners sweated in the fields, the purpose for which they were created.

The Bible tells a very different story.  Here, too, humans are created out of clay; but the cosmology is radically different.  In the Bible, ordinary men and women are not created to labor for the benefit of others.  From every fruit-bearing tree and seed-bearing herb, God provides food to all of his children, telling them to be fruitful and multiply and giving them dominion over the earth.  God gives possession of the world directly to people in general; not to a king, aristocracy, or temple.

Berman does not argue that every biblical law was carried out as written.  Rather, he shows that parts of the Bible, particularly Deuteronomy, represent a statement of the way society should be structured.  Others have called it an ancient constitution.  And the political, social, and economic program represented by Deuteronomy contrasts sharply with that of the ancient Near Eastern empires.

In Egypt and Mesopotamia, the land belonged to the gods, though it was the temples and the king that collected the rent.  But biblical Israel was a nation of small-hold farmers who held their leases directly from God.  Israelite priests received, and depended on, offerings and tithes from the people; but a 10-percent tithe was a shockingly low tax rate by ancient Near Eastern standards, and a good portion of the tithed produce went not to a king or temple but to the poor.

A man who fell on hard times might sell his land, or himself and his family, into debt-slavery; but every fifty years, in the jubilee year, debt-slaves went free and lands reverted to the families that originally owned them.  These were powerful mechanisms for ensuring that property—and, thus, the resources necessary to enable people to be members of a political community—were broadly distributed.  Whether or not the mechanisms actually operated as written, the biblical text itself became a powerful force.

What is interesting about these laws is that they carefully describe a social and economic system calculated to produce a broad middle class, which is, as it happens, the only type of system in which it is plausible to claim that all men are created equal.  Neither the ancient nor the medieval world paid much attention to these biblical ideas—that all members of a nation should be treated as equals before the law and that society should be organized so as to prevent the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few.  Louis XVI had no more use for such an idea than Joseph Stalin or the Han Emperor.  Certainly neither Bashir Assad nor Kim Jong-un has the least use for it today. 

In contrast, the men and women who founded the American colonies and the American republic were profoundly affected by notions of human equality that are essentially biblical in origin.

This distinguished lineage of ours poses a temptation to indulge in excessive self-congratulation.  But before we succumb, we should remember the protests of this summer and fall in the United States and Israel.  They remind us that both societies have serious work to do in building the egalitarian ideas of our Constitution, drawn from the Bible, into our economic and political reality. 

Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian.  She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.

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Alan Rubenstein on January 17, 2012 at 7:59 am (Reply)
As far as I know, the only discussion in Plato (or Aristotle) of the aristocratic class being literally made of superior stuff comes in the Republic, book 3 . . . in the context of a "noble lie"--actually a self described "audacious fiction" that Socrates hesitantly suggests should be told to the young in the fictional city he is describing. In other words - he didn't believe it. The point: The last word has not been said here on democracy in Greek thought.
Archie1954 on January 17, 2012 at 2:49 pm (Reply)
Today we would call the "gold" mixed in to produce a gifted human "genes." Yes, genetic predisposition is of some benefit; but circumstances are equally important. Wealth assists even the less gifted in rising above the norm in society. If you put genes together with wealth, you have a potential winner.
SW on January 17, 2012 at 4:01 pm (Reply)
As to idea that "noble lie" in the "fictional city" is the "only discussion" of inherent differences in Plato, the notion that the city was "fictional" is a modern spiel; the hypothetical utopia was, rather, a hoped-for goal. To call utopia a "fiction" would, however, be correct, since no attempt to make a uptopian vision concrete has succeeded. The last word on democracy in Greek thought will never be "said," because this forum is not about the Greeks but about Jewish ideas. As the article says, such ideas were in contradistinction to those of the Greeks--and more egalitarian.
Leor Blumenthal on January 17, 2012 at 4:12 pm (Reply)
The Gemara states explicitly what the Torah merely implies: "Why did G-d create a single man rather than many men? So that no one can say, 'My ancestors were greater than yours!'"
Alan Rubenstein on January 17, 2012 at 5:48 pm (Reply)
If it is not about the Greeks, why are the poor fellows getting such a beating in the first paragraph here?

And one other thing: "The Greeks did not invent equality. Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, and the gang..." Wait: Stop there. The "gang" killed Socrates (and was none too fond of Aristotle, either). So it's a good guess that the philosophers in question did not have the same ideas about these matters as the man in the Greek street--or, more to the point, the men with their hands on the Greek levers of power.

We'll do better highlighting Jewish accomplishments (which I am all for) if we avoid mischaracterizing the civilizational alternatives.
Jerry Blaz on January 17, 2012 at 6:43 pm (Reply)
The ancient world of Genesis appears egalitarian; but, once past the premordial period of Genesis, we get into the patriarchal society of clans and tribes. Both Samuel and God appear to have had reservations about it; but when the Children of Israel asked for a king, Samuel anointed Saul, who failed, then David in his stead. The Israelite confederation spent a much greater time as separate Israel and Judea, and both opted for kings. In fact,the House of David, we are told, will rule forever. The Israelites, and later the Jews, lived in a world ruled by kings who had armies and fought with each other. The Second Temple period was characterized by Judea's existence as a vassal state of, consecutively, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Wherever Jews lived in diaspora, they were forced to live under the "protection" of such kings and (so-called) noblemen. The 18th-century philosophes looked not to the Bible but to the ideal, developed through a series of events, that all men were created equal; the first nation to adopt that ideal was the nascent United States. Democracy is still an ideal being realized. So, as much as we cherish the democracy we enjoy in the United States and other countries, we must not desist from seeking the ideal, even if we do not realize it.
SW on January 18, 2012 at 4:18 am (Reply)
"We must not desist in seeking the ideal, even if we do not realize it." Whose ideals are to be the governing ideals? Whose ideals are to be discarded? Idealism per se hides its real ambition behind lovely words, while enacting ideals usually ends up gnawing away at someone else's competing ideals. The ideal that all men are created equal has come up against the reality that not all men will remain equal throughout their lives. Democracy is messy because ideas and ideals about democracy itself contend one with another, often contentiously. Ergo, idealism, dreaming its utopian dreams, might become a killer, as it has been throughout history. I prefer democracy and liberty, for they keep at bay those idealists who despise my ideals and would act against me. That is, until the old madness of crowds overtakes a democracy, as history informs.
Jerry Blaz on January 19, 2012 at 3:48 am (Reply)
The reference was to the perfecting of democracy, an echo of the mishnaic statement that you may not finish the work, but neither are you permitted to desist from it.
SW on January 20, 2012 at 11:41 am (Reply)
Democracy is not an ideal; it is a practice and procedure. If you find democracy in the Mishna, I would appreciate a citation do that I may join you in such scholarship.
Jerry Blaz on January 22, 2012 at 12:37 am (Reply)
I don't think you'll find "democracy" per se (actually from a Greek word, "demos" or people) in the Mishne, but you'll find the adage.
SW on January 23, 2012 at 10:51 am (Reply)
Regarding ". . . but you'll find the adage:" I asked you to cite a source you say exists. If you provide the specifics, we can go to the chapter and verse and see the proof of your argument. If you cannot cite specifics, one could think you don't have that source after all.
Jerry Blaz on January 24, 2012 at 7:22 pm (Reply)
Regarding the adage: As noted, the actual word "democracy" is from the Greek "demos," meaning that the specific term is not mishnaic; but the ideal is to see Israel and the U.S. become more democratic. The mishnaic statement, in Pirkei Avot (Hebrew: פרקי אבות‎), a compilation of ethical teachings and maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period, is, "One may not finish the work,but neither may one desist from it."
SW on January 25, 2012 at 11:47 am (Reply)
Regarding "it is not incumbent upon you to finish the task," the "task" referred to is learning and applying Torah, not perfecting democracy.
Jerry Blaz on January 26, 2012 at 8:46 pm (Reply)
One of the wonderful things about these writings is the latitude the rabbis gave us in reading and understanding them. Working toward a democratic society is a large element of what we call today tiqqun olam; it is there if you look for it. We understand the hakalot of the amoraim on the sayings of the tanaim in light of the societal changes that had occurred when the rabbis took decisions made in an earlier, Judean society and sought to implement them for Jews living in a non-Judean society. Judaism never stood still; and when it appeared to stand still, it was particular rabbis who were standing still, not torah and not Judaism.
SW on January 27, 2012 at 3:26 am (Reply)
We read in Pirkei Avot 2, "3. Be careful in your relations with the government; for they draw no man close to themselves except for their own interests. They appear as friends when it is to their advantage, but they do not stand by a man in his time of stress."
Jerry Blaz on January 29, 2012 at 3:56 am (Reply)
If I lived under a Greek or Roman occupation, as did the tanaim who are quoted in Avot,2:3, I would have written the same thing. It is about as much as I would have dared to say, lest my flesh might feel the combs.
SW on January 29, 2012 at 2:25 pm (Reply)
If you had lived in a Siberian gulag, Dachau, or a Maoist re-education camp, or under South African apartheid or segregation in the U.S. south, or if you were punished for not weeping enough at Kim's funeral, rudely searched by TSA employees, or detained without due process under recently enacted U.S. "indeterminate detention" laws, you might have written the same thing. Clever answers do not change the reality that government is as the rabbis observed so long ago.
Jerry Blaz on January 31, 2012 at 2:25 am (Reply)
To compare serving in the IDF to enduring the Siberian Gulag or a Maoist re-education camp--or to dare to mention Dachau in this comparison--does little credit to the discussion. The rabbis were not talking about an Israeli government, because as was acknowledged, "democracy" was not known to them. They were writing under Roman occupation.
SW on February 1, 2012 at 5:45 am (Reply)
The point remains that for anyone seeking freedom, that freedom is usually understood to be in the phrase, "freedom from government." The rabbis understood this.
Jerry Blaz on February 1, 2012 at 10:02 pm (Reply)
Even iwith despotic governments, Jews found temporal salvation in being able to serve the despots. We lived by special dispensations givien from the top down; while they were always temporary, they represented survival. When governments became representative, the character of government changed: We, the voters, now choose the governments we want. Sure, we make mistakes; sometimes we're convinced by charlatans who falsely appear to be our champions. But the problem isn't government per se any more, it is the gullibility of some. The power is now with the people--if they can keep it and know how to use it. The rabbis of 200 C.E. and of 2012 C.E. do not face the same situation.
SW on February 2, 2012 at 7:47 am (Reply)
If "the problem isn't government per se any more," are the elections in Egypt, which might bring an annulment of the peace treaty with Israel, somehow an error by the "people?" When a government, acting for a democratic majority, attacks Jews, will the response be that the problem isn't government per se any more? From Greece's massive inability to manage its finances to Illinois' being eight months behind in paying its vendors, it isn't government per se? Such idealism.

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