Jews and Political Philosophy

Having come from Conservative Judaism, I still feel some affinity for its scholars and institutions, including JTS. Happily, JTS provides a fair amount of podcast material through iTunes U, including a series of lectures from their library about books in the library collection. (Been to the library there by the way–it’s awesome!)

One of the lecturers in the library series was Yoram Hazony, author of “The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scriptures.” This morning, I was listening to the first part of Prof. Hazony’s lecture, where he explained why he wrote the book: namely, that political philosophy, and philosophy generally, has taken a turn since sometime in the nineteenth century where the Tanakh is not a subject of discussion where it had once been quite prominent in political thought. Prof. Hazony was troubled by the absence of a Jewish voice in modern religious and philosophical discussions, which in the popular press is dominated by either a very Christian vision (however defined) or a very secular, almost militantly atheist approach.

Why, he asked, were Jews absent from this discussion when they could freely, in this day and age, come forward with what Jewish texts have to say, and likely be welcomed into the discussion? Prof. Hazony notes that many Jews would not know what the texts say, and there’s quite a bit to that. But also difficult is that I think most Jews would not be particularly pleased with what they would have to contribute to the discussion from Jewish texts.

Prof. Hazony points out that the prophets talk of peace and justice, etc., and of the idea that the Torah (in its narrow and broad meanings) would be an example for other nations. This is well and good, and it is also true that much of what would be consensus “social justice” is incorporated into many of the Torah’s provisions: care for the widow and orphan, care for the stranger, leaving fields incompletely harvested so that the poor may gather, forgiveness of debts, etc. But when it comes to political matters, most modern Jews are or would be uncomfortable announcing the Jewish texts’ positions on these matters. Here’s why:

The Torah essentially posits a theocracy. The former prophets (specifically, the books of Samuel) disapprove of the people’s request for a king, but the narrative eventually provides for a king (and war in the wake of the monarchy). Most of the kings prove themselves to be more or less moral and political reprobates, and in the Biblical text Samuel warns the people that this would be the case. When we leave the sweep of Israelite history as the biblical narrative posits it–with Ezra and Nehemiah–we have returned to something of a theocracy-cum-vassal state.

So, if you’re a modern Jew in a modern democracy, you’re probably pretty uncomfortable with where the Tanakh puts political discourse. It’s unclear that modern Jews would be especially comfortable with later Jewish political thought, either–whether that thought comes from rabbinic texts that expect courts to wield significant political authority at least within the Jewish community (that’s a pretty theocratic position), or from the work of Isaac Abravanel, who argued that the Torah precludes the exercise of a right of revolt against an unjust government.

A significant problem, then, is that Judaism in its more traditional modes has a lot of material that would not prove especially palatable for the telling, and much of it comes from a period when we were not “winners” in the grand political scheme. In that light, I think it’s hard to blame Jews for not being particularly forthcoming with what traditional Jewish texts have to say about politics.