Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Jewish Political Thought

Authority, Power and Leadership in the Jewish Polity: Cases and Issues


Daniel J. Elazar

Jewish Political Studies as a Field

Jewish political studies is one of the most recent fields to be separately articulated within the framework of the social scientific study of the Jews. It should be noted at the very beginning that one of the characteristics of Jewish political studies is that, while there is a very strong contemporary and empirical dimension to it, it is historical and textual as well. To study the political phenomenon of the Jewish people -- at any time, at any place, under any circumstances -- requires a combination of empirical research and reference to historical documentation and the classic texts of the Jewish tradition.1

This is not the place for a review of the development of the field, even though its intellectual history is interesting in its own right. As with most intellectual phenomena, the academic discipline owes a substantial debt to events in the development of its own self-articulation. Just as sociology grew out of attempts to systematize and analyze events of the nineteenth century, so Jewish political studies in great measure stands in debt to Zionism, to the re-establishment of the State of Israel, to the conscious decision on the part of Jews to restore their own polity.

The work that has been done in the field to date demonstrates that the Jews continued to exist as a polity throughout the years of exile and dispersion. Nevertheless, in terms of conscious perceptions of matters political, the field emerged because of the decision on the part of large numbers of Jews to become political as Jews, and not just as individuals, in their respective societies. The Zionist revolution, the establishment of the State of Israel and the carry-over in the Diaspora, particularly the United States, some 15 or 20 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, gave all this an additional impetus.

Indeed, we see this reflected in Jewish historiography. The work of the Zionist historians such as Yitzhak Baer and Ben-Zion Dinur was part of the prologue to this perception.2 They turned the study of Jewish history in a Zionist direction by focusing on the ways in which Jews functioned in communities and maintained them as polities under the various conditions of exile and dispersion, thereby reinforcing Zionist aspirations from their respective points of view.

The systematic and comprehensive study of the Jewish experience from a political science perspective began in the late 1950s. A group of interested political scientists was formed in 1968 and organized together into what ultimately became the Center for Jewish Community Studies in 1972. The first course in the field was a graduate seminar that Gerald Blidstein and this writer offered at Temple University in 1970. Charles Liebman, Eliezer Don-Yehiya, and this writer began the development of a substantial program at Bar-Ilan University shortly thereafter, offering the first advanced degrees in the field including the Ph.D. Subsequently, course offerings spread to over 20 universities on three continents.

There followed two other intellectual turning points. One was the convening of a seminar at Kibbutz Lavi in Israel in 1975 under the auspices of the Institute for Judaism and Contemporary Thought and with the cooperation of the Center for Jewish Community Studies, which examined the Jewish political tradition and its contemporary manifestations. That seminar produced a volume entitled Kinship and Consent, the Jewish Political Tradition and its Contemporary Uses, the first to attempt to delineate the field.3 It was followed by a second seminar a year later, under the same auspices, exploring Israel as a Jewish state.

In the summer of 1981 the Center for Jewish Community Studies, by then part of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, inaugurated the Workshop on the Study and Teaching of the Jewish Political Tradition. It led to the writing and publication of The Jewish Polity and to the introduction of new courses in the field.4 In 1983, the Workshop became an annual event under the auspices of the International Center for the University Teaching of Jewish Civilization in cooperation with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

One other factor of importance is that at the beginning of this decade Jewish political studies as a discipline found a profession with which to relate and interact, the emergent profession of Jewish communal service, particularly but not exclusively in the United States. While Jewish political studies was being articulated as a separate discipline in Jewish studies, the social workers in the communal agencies of the United States who staffed the Jewish community federations, rather than, say, the Jewish community centers or Jewish family service agencies, began to detach themselves from their social work colleagues, at least to the extent of defining themselves as a sub-field of Jewish communal service. They created a professional association, the Association of Jewish Communal Organization Professionals (AJCOP), and several professional schools to provide training for people planning to enter the field, some of which were tied closely to social work, but others of which sought a new direction. In the process of doing this, Jewish communal organization became a profession which increasingly found that it was drawing intellectually upon the resources of Jewish political studies. That offered another set of opportunities for teaching, one which required a the development of professional school courses.5

The Theoretical Framework of This Book

Jewish political studies as a field of inquiry has developed a theoretical framework of its own within which to operate. That theoretical framework gives teaching and research in the field a coherence of its own, not as some kind of "party line," but in the way that proper theory does, by creating a dialogue among people who are concerned with the problem of system and coherence in a particular intellectual activity.

An outline of that theoretical framework will be of help to the reader of this book since the chapters in it are built on that framework or in reference to it. First of all, we can define the field in the simplest way as that sub-field of political science, on one hand, and of Jewish studies, on the other hand, which deals with the Jewish people as a corporate entity functioning as a body politic in any place where Jews are organized for public purposes, even for limited ones, and in some places, as in the State of Israel, where they are organized in a comprehensive way. It is not only concerned with contemporary Jewry, but with the phenomenon of the Jewish collectivity at any time and in any place.

This approach to the field rests upon certain assumptions. The first is that the Jewish people is a corporate entity, hence by definition it must find some way to function as a polity under difference circumstances in order for it to pursue its normative aspirations, whether these be defined as survivalism, as seems to be the case for much of contemporary Jewry, or whether they be defined in the traditional terms of Jewish religion as the pursuit of malkhut shamayim (the Kingdom of Heaven), or anything in between.6 Jews sooner or later -- usually sooner rather than later -- come to the conclusion that the Jewish people must function as a polity in order to pursue their normative ends. Therefore, the Jewish people will always seek ways to function as a polity.

Central to the Jewish political tradition is the idea of covenant (brit in Hebrew) and its application to the world of action. The constitution of the Jewish people as a whole reflects a mixture of kinship and consent. In other words, people born into a particular set of tribes consented through covenant to function as a community. One can read the Sinai Covenant from a political point of view as the establishment of Israel as both Am (people) and edah (congregation or assembled community). In Jewish political terminology harking back to the Bible, an Am is a nation (goy) with a God-given vocation. For Jews, that vocation was established by covenant. The Am becomes the kin consenting while the edah is the organized product of that consent -- the polity.7

The second assumption is that exploration of the Jewish polity can be undertaken with the tools of political science. We are not merely reviewing Jewish history, philosophy, or sociology under another "hat," however much we draw upon these sister disciplines. Rather, we are bringing our own tools and perspectives, and therefore, adding another dimension to understanding Jewish phenomena.

The third assumption is that Jews have continued to function as a polity throughout their history. One of the most intellectually interesting aspects of the discipline is the study of the adaptation of what is, after all, the oldest extant polity in the Western world to a great variety of circumstances. Its closest rival in longevity is the Catholic Church, some 1500 years younger at least. Interestingly, these two oldest polities of the Western world operate on diametrically different principles of organization with regard to the allocation of authority and the organization of power. The Catholic church is hierarchical; the Jewish people, covenantal or federal (based on the Latin foedus=covenant). The intellectual opportunities for exploring the adaptation of two long-lasting political frameworks operating on such diametrically opposed principles is in itself a contribution to the study of political science.

Working then, with those definitions and assumptions, we have developed certain propositions for research and teaching in the field. One is that the Jewish people is organized in several arenas. The people as a whole constitutes itself as an edah -- in principle the assembly of all citizens of the polity -- the entire population for constitutional matters -- which, of course, had to be adapted once the Jews were no longer in the desert, to something other than the literal assembly of the entire citizenry. In classic political language, edah is the Hebrew equivalent of the democratic republic because it is based on the consent of its citizens. The way in which Jews have periodically reconstituted themselves as an edah in response to changing circumstances is a major issue for both study and teaching, one that is addressed in this volume over the entire range of Jewish history and in the present.

Within the framework of the edah there is an intermediate arena of organization. Initially it was composed of the tribes (shevatim in Hebrew) and subsequently, territorial jurisdictions (medinot -- jurisdictions -- or aratzot -- lands). All three of these terms are used in Jewish political language.

The local arena is the smallest arena of Jewish political organization. At one time, prior to permanent settlement, it was the extended family (bet av). After settlement in Eretz Israel it became the township (ir) and, in the diaspora, the community (kehillah).

These three arenas are constants in Jewish political organization. There is never a time when there is not an effort to organize simultaneously in all three arenas, though the character of the organization has varied tremendously from the time when the edah was a concentrated population in a state in Eretz Israel to the situation -- at certain times during the Middle Ages -- in which the edah was no more than a communications network of posekim (rabbinic decisors). Some of the chapters in this volume address themselves to the edah as a whole while others focus on the intermediate and smaller arenas.

The second proposition is that the Jews organize or constitute themselves in their respective political frameworks through covenants or covenant-like arrangements, whether they are called britot as they are a good part of the time, amanot (compacts) or haskamot (articles of agreement), following the same principle. This is not merely a terminological matter but often involves an actual covenanting when a constitutional change takes place.

The third proposition is that the polity is one of separated but shared powers. It can be said that it is so built that power is never concentrated in a single human authority.8 Because the Jewish polity embraces a complete civilization including its religious dimension, even prior to the classic separation of powers into executive, legislative, and judicial, the edah separated spheres of authority, known classically in Hebrew as the three ketarim (literally: crowns). The clearest expression of that separation is in Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), Chapter 4, which mentions keter torah (the Crown of Torah), keter kehunah (the Crown of Priesthood), and keter malkhut (the Crown of Kingship or civil rule), and then goes on to claim that keter shem tov (the crown of a good name) is greater than all three. That verse assumes that Jews in the time of the Second Commonwealth understood that authority and power in their polity were divided among these three ketarim.9

The keter torah is responsible for the communication of God's will to the edah. Torah was communicated to the edah first through the Eved Adonai (God's Chief Minister, a title bestowed only on Moses and Joshua), then through the ro'eh (seer) and the neviim (prophets -- singular, navi), and ultimately through the hakhamim (sages) and rabbanim (rabbis).

Understood from a political perspective, the keter kehunah is responsible for enabling the edah to communicate with God, whether through sacrifices, prayer, or whatever. This domain is explicitly separated from the keter torah by a separate covenant. The keter torah was transmitted through Moses; the keter kehunah was transmitted through Aaron. After the destruction of the Temple and the disappearance of the kohanim (priests) as an active political force, the keter ceased to have institutional embodiment for the edah as a whole, but new institutions were developed in the kehillot, such as the hazan (originally the governor of the synagogue, now the reader or cantor) and the modern congregational rabbi, to carry out those purposes and to exercise authority in that domain.

Finally, there is the keter malkhut, which deals with the civil dimension of the edah and which is responsible for the tasks of normal governance. Its first separately articulated representatives were the zekenim (elders), an institution that dates back at least to the Egyptian bondage, and their principal officers, the nesiei haedah (the magistrates) and continues through the shofetim (judges), melakhim (kings), nesiim (patriarchs) and parnasim (officers) down to the present time. Each of these offices is recognized in the Bible and the separate legitimacy of keter is a whole is manifested in God's covenant with David (this though there is a controversy in Jewish political thought regarding kingship itself). Thus each of these ketarim is independent of the others, drawing its authority directly from Divine mandate, though in practice the bearers of each keter must work with the others in order to govern the edah.

The fourth proposition is that the edah has undergone periodic reconstitutions because of changing circumstances. Those reconstitutions have recurred at regular intervals which can be mapped out. Consequently, Jewish history can be studied as political history, indeed as constitutional history, through a number of epochs. We have identified fourteen epochs of Jewish history, each of which involves a constitution or reconstitution which brought with it reorganization in all three arenas, within each keter, and in the power relationships among the ketarim. Each of these epochs follows a reasonably regular pattern of political and constitutional development.10 Table 1 lists the epochs and their principle characteristics.

  1. Ha-Avot/The Forefathers c. 1850-c. 1570 BCE
  2. Avdut Mizrayim/Egyptian Bondage c. 1570-c. 1280 BCE
  3. Adat Bnei Yisrael/The Congregation of Israelites c. 1280-1004 BCE
  4. Brit ha-Melukhah/The Federal Monarchy 1004-721 BCE
  5. Malkhut Yehudah/The Kingdom of Judah 721-440 BCE
  6. Knesset ha-Gedolah/The Great Assembly 440-145 BCE
  7. Hever ha-Yehudim/The Jewish Commonwealth 145 BCE-140 CE
  8. Sanhedrin u-Nesi'ut/The Sanhedrin and the Patriarchate 140-429 CE
  9. Ha-Yeshivot ve Rashei ha-Golah/The Yeshivot and Exilarchs 429-748 CE
  10. Yeshivot ve-Geonim/Yeshivot and the Geonim 748-1038 CE
  11. Ha-Kehillot/The Kehillot 1038-1348 CE
  12. Ha-Va'adim/Federations of the Kehillot 1348-1648 CE
  13. Hitagduyot/Voluntary Associations 1648-1948 CE
  14. Medinah ve-Am/State and People 1948- CE

A fifth proposition is that there is a Jewish political tradition that has emerged out of all this, with a language of politics and a way of thinking and acting politically that has shown great persistence and continuity and continues to inform Jewish public life. In a sense, the identification of this political tradition, the language of politics, the modes of thought and the modes of action, constitute the substance of the field. That tradition, despite its continuities, is not monolithic. It is like a river full of currents and eddies. That is why we talk about a "tradition" and not an ideology or doctrine. We need not look for uniformity past a certain point to be able to identify the tradition, its implications and manifestations. What holds the tradition together are shared questions, issues, and concerns.

The Reassertion of Jewish Political Expression Today

In our time the expression of the Jewish political tradition, whether consciously or not, is growing, because the mode of Jewish collective expression today is becoming increasingly political. The mode of Jewish expression in pre-modern times was comprehensive in the sense that Jews expressed themselves as Jews in every facet of their lives. They had a complete civilization. Modernity tried to transform that mode of expression into religious expression alone because those were the terms for entering Western society. The end of modernity came with the revival of the search for political expression in Zionism and a little later, in renewed expressions of Jewish ethnicity in the West.

Outside of Israel, most Jews no longer live within a comprehensive Jewish environment, and even only those who live in Israel are subject to the pervasive influences of contemporary culture. At the same time, most Jews do not find a sufficient basis for full expression of their Jewishness through what was defined as "religion" in the modern epoch. Indeed, many Jews are finding that they express themselves Jewishly through political means, if at all, whether that entails support of Israel or other causes which then become "Jewish" causes, or through working within the political and communal organizations of the Jewish people, which increasingly are perceived for what they are, namely, means of organizing power.

Israelis have always understood this since Zionism was avowedly political from the first. By the late 1960s, diaspora Jewish leaders began to perceive that their Jewish activities were not simply philanthropy. By the early 1980s, the most perceptive of them understood that what they were doing was a form of governing. The result was a reversal of the modernist dictum of Y.L. Gordon, the great poet of the Eastern European Hebrew Enlightenment, that one should be a Jew in his tent and a man outside. People who do not know how to be Jews in their tents anymore, want to be Jews outside -- in the political arena. Thus the study of the Jews as a body politic takes on an added contemporary importance. Moreover, the traditional foundations of the Jewish polity remain the bases for Jewish political and communal organization.

Issues of Leadership, Domain and Representation in the
Contemporary Jewish Polity

The most accurate and intrinsically most Jewish way to understand the divisions in Jewish public life today remains the division into the three ketarim. This classic model tells us more about Jewish public affairs than any other model we might choose, just as understanding the Jewish community as an edah and its leaders as nesi'ei ha-edah is a more useful way of conceptualizing the Jewish polity than any other.11 Once we understand that authority and power in the community are shared among the representatives of these three ketarim, the discussion shifts from the conventional question of who is entitled to do what in the Jewish community -- rabbis or laymen, professionals or volunteers, synagogues or community federations -- to one of how each of these institutions is to be understood and what its role and functions are to be in the overall scheme of things.12

The leaders in the communal-welfare, Israel-overseas, and external relations spheres of contemporary Jewish life, both voluntary and professional, have assumed the mantle of keter malkhut. This is not to say that there are not other actors in the community who play some role, but it is essentially a residual one. In the United States, for example, the federations gained this mantle in the post-World War II generation after turning back a challenge by synagogues. In France, the Consistoire had more or less absorbed the functions of that keter in the nineteenth century, but lost to the FSJU and the CRIF during that same generation. In Britain, on the other hand, the keter has been firmly in the hands of the Board of Deputies since the eighteenth century, while in Israel it is unquestionably vested in the state institutions.

What are the issues what have developed to this domain? Most have to do with intra-ketaric competitions, such as the conflict between the federations and the community relations organizations in various diaspora communities. Some echoes of such earlier contests remain but only in relation to specific functions, not overall role. No doubt there will continue to be controversies of this kind between these various spheres, and there will never be a time without controversy, but there is a difference -- it is not now a struggle for the keter malkhut as such.

Today the keter kehunah is mostly in the hands of rabbis and hazanim. Indeed, the major change that has taken place in the rabbinate as a result of the modern epoch was to give rabbis responsibility for the functions of the priesthood, the sacerdotal functions of the edah, especially the rites of passage, functions previously performed by baalei-batim while rabbis functioned within the keter torah as dayanim and posekim, (halakhic jurists). Indeed, although there are some authoritative personalities in other spheres of Jewish life who play something of a sacerdotal role on the symbolic level for the edah as a whole, this function is basically a local one in rabbinic hands, assisted by the hazanim.

The question of who is a rabbi has reemerged within the last decade as a major issue around the questions of ordination of women and Orthodox recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis, both schismatic issues in the public life of the Jewish community. A similar issue confronted Western Jewry one hundred years ago and more when non-Orthodox movements emerged that required rabbis who functioned in other than the traditional pattern and were trained accordingly. The result at that time was that the edah (although not all its parts) recognized non-Orthodox rabbis but, in the process, shifted the rabbinate as a whole from the keter torah to the keter kehunah, de facto if not de jure.

An even more important question is whether rabbis' functions are a matter of private right or are they public responsibilities? This is an issue that is perhaps most strongly manifested in the Reform movement, where every rabbi is entitled to personally decide whether or not to perform a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew and under what conditions. The movement has expressed a negative view of such an act (and others of similar import, such as the question of patrilineal descent), but sees it as a private decision in which every rabbi is sovereign. Yet the question is not as easily disposed of. Is every rabbi authorized to decide who is a Jew without being responsible to any system? Are these public responsibilities? Is this part of the privatization of Jewish life, and is it going to have a great effect on the definition of citizenship within the Jewish polity? In its essentials, this is a question of citizenship, of who is eligible to be part of the Jewish people. The notion that any person may privately decide who is eligible to be part of the Jewish people is a very problematic one from the perspective of the polity no less than from a traditional religious perspective.

One of the major contemporary issues which has emerged with regard to the keter torah grows out of the question of who represents this keter. There is a certain contest between the various claimants for prime roles as its representatives. Rabbis, for example, have not easily conceded the function. The studies indicate that congregational rabbis continue to define themselves first and foremost as teachers but that their congregants do not because they expect ritual, pastoral, or counseling services from their rabbis first and foremos

Today, authoritative scholarly personalities, most but not all of whom hold rabbinical ordination (semikha: literally, a grant of authority) are the principal bearers of keter torah. Few, if any, hold pulpits. Most are Torah scholars at yeshivot, seminaries, or universities, who possess the personal ability to reach out. It is not the fact that they are rabbis that makes them authoritative. The title may add to their status, but it does not define it. A few are professors whose scholarly attainments are less traditional in character but who play a similar role. Finally, there are the rebbes and "gurus" who, for their own personal followers, are seen as bearing the keter torah.

The second issue is more critical than ever before, and that is the question of what constitutes "Torah"? Between the time of the Karaite schism in the eighth century of the common era and the nineteenth century, common traditional understanding of Torah prevailed. Even those who rejected Judaism shared in that common understanding. Since the rise of Reform, that understanding has faced one challenge after another. Today we are seeing even greater competition for the definition of what Torah is, including some very strange definitions. In one sense, this is a tribute to the strong hold that the principle of Torah retains on Jews of all kinds, so much so that every ideological claim on Jews as Jews must find its link with Torah. On the other hand, some of the claims attack the very foundations of reasonable understanding of what is expressed in the Torah and its tradition.

A third issue, growing out of the second, is how do Jews see themselves bound by Torah. For both the am and the edah, Torah is constitutional. However much room there may be for interpretation and choice within the tradition, it is not merely a nice set of ideas and traditions to be taken or left as one pleases. Contemporary Jewry has recognized the truth of this in at least one modest way, by introducing certain standards of Jewish observance such as kashrut, motzi, and birkat hamazon, or kiddush and havdalah where appropriate in Jewish public institutions (including those of the State of Israel) and at public functions. On a private level, the issue is nowhere nearly as resolved. Moreover, Jewish public institutions have not really grappled with the constitutional character of Torah outside of the ritual sphere, all too often reducing its role to questions of ritual observance.

All of these are issues which will continue to confront the institutions of the Jewish polity since there are practical decisions to be made in the community with regard to each. Sooner or later every one of these institutions confronts the necessity to make such decisions, must decide who will participate in them, and will be called to account for them by one constituency or another.

In a sense, these institutions have addressed themselves to these issues in two ways. One is by providing funds to help educate the next generation, including the future bearers of the keter torah. Beyond that, the institutions of the keter malkhut, to a great extent, have been the legitimizers of the new authoritative personalities who have challenged the congregational rabbis for more major roles within the keter torah. This is a reflection of how, in the postmodern epoch, the keter malkhut has become a major source of authoritative recognition for most Jews. This is true not only in the case of the professors who are featured at their functions from time to time; only a few of whom are brought to teach Torah. To a certain extent even major figures in the traditional rabbinate have acquired authority beyond their immediate circles because of recognition by the keter malkhut and its leadership, whether by election as chief rabbis in Israel and those diaspora communities which maintain that institution and place it within the jurisdiction of the keter malkhut, or by common consent.

Note, for example, the role which that leadership has played in the rise to universal prominence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (who certainly does not see their recognition as in any way authoritative) and his Chabad movement and the expansion of its influence in contemporary Jewish life -- through their contributions as private individuals, through opening doors to community institutions, and simply by lending Chabad their prestige. The same thing occurred in connection with the Rav (Rabbi Joseph) Soleveichik, in a more subtle way. Jewish institutions began to seek his counsel. No board or executive meeting decided that he was the new authoritative personality. Rather, it happened within the informal dimensions of the keter malkhut.

What this suggests is that in the perennial competition among the three ketarim, today the keter malkhut has the upper hand, marking the end of a period of one thousand years or more in which the keter torah had the upper hand. The breakdown of the traditional community, the secularization of Jewish life, and the reestablishment of the Jewish state, have all led in that direction but it is only in this generation that Jews are beginning to feel its consequences.

In no small measure, the increasingly dominant role of the keter malkhut comes from its function as the only domain where Jewish unity can be maintained under current conditions. Thus the Orthodox camp refuses to sit together with representatives of non-Orthodox movements within the framework of the keter torah since that would mean recognition of the legitimacy of those movements within that keter. (In truth, the ultra-Orthodox will not sit with the mainstream Orthodox either.) Much the same is true for the keter kehunah, although there the record is mixed in certain diaspora communities, especially in the United States. Yet all camps and their subdivisions will sit together within the institutions of the keter malkhut, whether the World Zionist Organization, the World Jewish Congress, the Knesset and government of Israel, countrywide boards of deputies, or local federations, since it is only in the other domains that the Orthodox camp insists on maintaining its monopoly. That strengthens the role of the keter malkhut immeasurably.

Another issue with regard to keter malkhut is the role of Israeli leadership. In the course of the first postmodern generation, the Israeli leadership was given a major role in the keter malkhut by virtue of Israel's status as the Jewish state. They will continue to play a major role but they will not necessarily be accepted in as uncritical a manner as was true in the first generation, because of the changes which have taken place in Israel and in Israel-diaspora relations in the past decade. During that decade, a new intimacy was established between Israel and the diaspora and, as is always the case where intimacy is involved, familiarity removes pedestals. To the extent that Israeli leaders gained status because of those pedestals, their standing has been altered. While this had a temporary deflating effect, in the long run it should create a new and stronger basis upon which Israelis can play a leadership role, rooted in mutual acquaintance and understanding.

Finally, the 1970s witnessed the emergence of a world Jewish leadership. The catalyst for this division was the reconstitution of the Jewish Agency in 1970. The reconstituted Agency offered a forum for leaders of the diaspora communities to become involved in Israel and world Jewish affairs in other than philanthropic ways. Once tasted, this became a very attractive opportunity indeed. Moreover, as a forum, it brought together Jewish leaders from various parts of the world and from various modes of Jewish involvement, creating bonds among them whose implications are just beginni

In sum, when we look at the classic Jewish model of the three ketarim, we see that the issues of Jewish leadership have been conceptualized incorrectly for many years. That question was all too often phrased as "Who will lead the Jewish community?" -- as if there were to be one leader, one institution, or one narrow group that was to do so. But the Jewish community classically is governed through the kind of mixed system of checks and balances, represented by the division of authority and power among the three ketarim.

The problem of the contemporary Jewish polity is no longer one of addressing that old question, but rather that of addressing the new issues that are derived from the new balance of power among the ketarim. One of the issues is the question of how new issues are raised and placed on the Jewish agenda. In a polity based on trusteeship, it is not possible to rely upon the trustees to look for all the new issues. All that can be expected from the trustees is that they will be willing to respond to issues raised elsewhere. The trustees are busy dealing with existing issues and maintaining consensus, such as it is.

When the new issues which well up are major ones, of critical import, they are most likely to gain recognition through at least a modicum of confrontation. That is part of the natural history of such things and it is not a bad thing. Not every confrontation need lead to change. What can be expected is that the trustees will be brought to respond in some appropriate way because of the values which they and their colleagues share. What is bad is when there is polarization which cannot be bridged.

Generally speaking, contemporary Jewry has not done badly in that regard. As a result there is general consent, at worse grudgingly given, to the present system, even on the part of its declared critics. In the last analysis, however, it is necessary to make a constant effort to keep the edah from simply becoming a new kind of oligarchy, either of the interested volunteers or the professionals. The Jewish civil service must be encouraged to regulate themselves (and one of the virtues of professionals is that they emphasize self-regulation; they do set standards for themselves and their members). That is necessary but not sufficient, because no person or group can be the judge of his or its own cause. Hence all segments of the polity must work together to create the appropriate relationship between the bearers of the three ketarim and between the various leadership circles and the Jewish public such as it is, as appropriate manifestations of the continuing yet reconstituted edah.

The keter malkhut itself has developed more elaborate and intricate governance structures as it has increased in power within the Jewish polity. What is important to note, however, is the degree to which those structures resemble each other, whether in Israel or the diaspora, and within the various community structures that exist.

This common governance structure can be described as congressional in character (as distinct from parliamentary, presidential, or separation-of-powers, or any nonrepublican system), in the sense that it is based on assemblies, congresses or trustees or delegates who come together to constitute a common body without surrendering their responsibilities as trustees or delegates; i.e., do not become collective bodies with a sense of collective responsibility. The structure includes two or three planes, serving the edah, its medinah and artzot, and their kehillot. Governance in each plane begins with a large forum designated as the principal decision-making body, in which all the elements federated together to form the entity are represented. This large body will meet relatively infrequently, either annually or only every several years if it serves the edah as a whole or some major segment of it; quarterly or annually for countrywide communities; and monthly or quarterly if it serves a local kehillah. It elects a smaller board to handle continuing policy-making responsibilities on a regular basis, which meets more frequently, usually once a month or more. Either the assembly or the board chooses an executive committee which handles the daily business of governance. The executive committee which handles the daily business of governance. The executive committee usually functions on the basis of community and collective agreement (without a sense of collective responsibility) although the chairman or president may have some special status as its convener and spokesman.13

The congressional principle of representation of the federated bodies usually continues to be of some importance in both the board and executive committee as well as the assembly, although the smaller the body, the more the element of collective responsibility is present. At the same time, while, in theory the larger bodies are superior to the smaller, in fact, as in parliamentary systems, the smaller tend to direct the larger. At best the larger exercise veto powers over policy proposals generated by the smaller ones or, where there are three planes, perhaps the largest two have something of a check and balance relationship with one another.

Representative Government Within the Edah

From the first, three principal strands have shaped the edah. It is federal in the fundamental sense of being grounded in covenant as well as in its structure. It is republican in the fundamental sense of being a res public, belonging to its public and the private preserve of no one. It is theocratic in the fundamental sense that it strives for the holy commonwealth on earth (theos=God, cratos=rule). The combination of these strands means that within the framework of its constitution, its government must be participatory and representative of its people and their communities.

Representative government within the edah subsequent to the period of the Exodus and conquest of the land is, in many respects, a continuing effort to maintain ancient forms of participation in new guises, forms which have disappeared in other modern polities and which are only now beginning to change for the edah as a whole.14 At least formally, the basis of governance in the original edah (ca 1280- 1000 BCE) was the assembly of all its citizens for covenanting and other fundamental constitutional questions, all adult males for deciding basic policy questions (e.g., declarations of constitutionally permitted wars), and the tribally selected nesi'im on an ad hoc basis for special tasks and a permanent basis for continuing ones. Governance in the periods between the increasingly less fragmented edah-wide assemblies was in the hands of notables, apparently designated by some form of consensus, based upon the recognition of certain families as leading ones.

By the time of the institution of kingship (1000-722 BCE), it was already apparent that the edah no longer attempted to assemble as a whole, although there were still assemblies of notables drawn from all of the functioning tribes to play the role of the assembly of the whole. This system may have persisted in Judah after the fall of the northern kingdom ca. 721-440 BCE) -- evidence is scanty -- with assemblies of the Am Ha-aretz, consisting of local notables replacing assemblies of tribal leaders.

When Ezra and Nehemiah reconstituted the Jewish polity (ca. 440 BCE), a majority of world Jewry continued to live outside of Eretz Israel, hence assembly of the entire edah was impossible even in theory. It was then that a system of virtual representation was formally introduced through the establishment of the Anshei Knesset haGedolah, which assembled in Jerusalem. This new body was made of 120 members symbolically representing a minyan (quorum of ten men) from each of the twelve tribes and, hence, the edah as a whole, a sign that virtual representation was the intent behind its establishment. In fact, it was composed of people who lived in Judah plus one or two olim from the various communities of the exile who came to settle in Judah and could be added to the body, who spoke, at least nominally, for the whole diaspora. The nature of the transportation technology at the time made any other system impossible.

This system of virtual representation continued through the next nine hundred years of Jewish history, even after the diaspora Jewish communities developed fully articulated governing institutions of their own. The only changes were that in certain periods there was regularized representation from the diaspora in the edah's sitting decision-making body located in Jerusalem until 70 CE and subsequently in other parts of Eretz Israel. It came to an end only with the abolition of the Nesiut (Patriarchate) by the Romans, ca. 429 CE.

The yeshivot in Babylonia continued this pattern when power passed to them. They became the virtual representatives of the edah in its rule-making and adjudication functions, paralleling the Rosh HaGolah (Exilarch) who was the edah's chief magistrate. The yeshivot continued the tradition of bringing in people from around the Jewish world to the extent possible on a voluntary, personal choice basis, consisting of those who decided to come, study, and stay. This arrangement persisted for six hundred years, until the system was disrupted by the abolition of the office of Rosh HaGolah in 1042 CE.

After that, the edah was unable to sustain equivalent common institutions, surviving as a communications network for halakhic decision making through correspondence rather than an assembly. Political organization was confined to local, countrywide, or in rare cases, multicountry regions. Hence, the system of virtual representation existed in principle rather than practice as the structure of the edah changed over the next nine hundred years, being expressed through a handful of notable halakhic figures whose decisions gained edah-wide acceptance or a handful of shtadlanim whose influential services were recognized edah-wide.

The problems of transportation and communication encountered by Ezra and Nehemiah in the fifth century BCE remained unchanged until well into the nineteenth century CE. Indeed, at times, deterioration of conditions made them even greater. It was not until the development of the steamboat, railroad and telegraph that a new technology made continental and intercontinental links feasible.

The World Zionist Congress convened in 1897 was the first effort made to establish a body representative of the edah in modern terms, namely, through constituency elections of delegates to a worldwide congress in which all communities were potentially if not actually to be represented. Since that time, there has been a striving to establish such institutions. The WZO was and is a membership organization. It did become worldwide in scope but never embraced a majority of the edah as members. The World Jewish Congress, established in 1936, tried to overcome that problem by being based on country affiliates, the major representative bodies from each countrywide Jewish community, but its strength was and is concentrated in Europe and Latin America with no real presence in the world's largest Jewish communities -- the U.S.A., Israel, the USSR, and France.

Framing organizations were established in the local and countrywide arenas by the end of the modern epoch or during the first generation of the postmodern epoch as a culmination of the modernization process. They were accompanied by a general revolution in transportation and communications based on air travel and the airwaves. Jews are now engaged in the reestablishment of effective, continuing edah-wide framing institutions, principally through the reconstitution of the Jewish Agency and the WZO. Since transportation and communication technologies now permit this, it is likely that something serious will come out of the effort. Nevertheless, this will not be the whole story since there are structural limitations to the degree to which formal representatives of all segments of the edah can assemble on a regular basis. Thus we are returning to the situation of ancient Israel, only on a worldwide scale, when leading figures representing the various elements of the edah come together at regular intervals, are involved in consultations in between, but the day-to-day business is still conducted by virtual representatives, including people co-opted into the governing circles who might not be formally chosen through the standard processes, because of their proximity or their wealth.

It should be noted that the effort to reconstitute the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) as an edah-wide instrument was not initiated without a struggle. Initially, the reestablished State of Israel was viewed by many, especially Israelis, as the sole institutional embodiment of the edah, hence, the Israeli Knesset was established with 120 members in imitation of Anshei Knesset HaGedolah and with the clear intention of being the virtual representative of all of world Jewry because of its constituent position as the center of authority in the Jewish state. This did not happen because the diaspora would not -- indeed, could not -- accept the Israeli legislative body as its spokesman, hence the need to go back to the WZO/Jewish Agency to develop a more broadly representative body, albeit one in which Israel would play the leading role.

This pattern is carried over to the other arenas as well. The growth of Jewish population and its concentration in larger metropolitan centers means that, except in the smallest communities, even the local arena cannot function on the basis of the assembly of all citizens. The congressional model, then, serves as a substitute similar to that of the limited town meeting in New England. The advantage is that in the local arenas, there can be real representation of different constituencies, not only virtual representation. The governance structure that has emerged reflects this pattern.

The other dimension of representation in the Jewish polity is that Jewish leaders tend to wear many different hats, hence both the representatives and the represented appear simultaneously in many forms and either represent or need to be represented in many different forms. Not only are there so many different bodies but Jews, if active at all, tend to be members and even active in many overlapping organizations and institutions. It is well to remember how many Jews belong to more than one synagogue, not to speak of membership in a number of different Zionist organizations or Zionist and other organizations, in addition to contributing to the Magbit or paying taxes to the Israeli government or whatever.

This is not simply a contemporary phenomenon; it was always true to a greater or lesser extent. Even in the small medieval community, Jews who were members of a common kahal were also members of different hevrot. They sought to express themselves through the kahal as a whole and through the special interests of the hevrut.

Given the somewhat amorphous nature of the community's boundaries and the inability to decide on one comprehensive set of institutions or instruments of governance, this weaving of many nets serves to strengthen Jewish unity and make more intensive use of Jewish talent. Hence it is accepted as inevitable and necessary, in Israel as well as in the diaspora. There is every reason to believe that, like the congressional system, it is part and parcel of Jewish political culture.

Both of these dimensions reflect the way in which the Jewish polity is one of those which is built from the ground up, that is to say, from the smallest arena to the largest rather than vice-versa. In this respect it is like the Swiss and American polities, whose origins were simultaneously to be found in the Landesgemeinde and the town meeting, respectively, as well as in larger arenas. The result of this ground-up construction is that political life begins with all citizens expecting to participate as equals in some respect, an expectation which they retain even after larger arenas have been established, and which they seek to transfer to these larger arenas in some appropriate, if lessened, way. Like the Americans and the Swiss, the Jewish polity has had to maintain some kind of primary citizen involvement through appropriate mechanisms applied to its very different and unusual situation. The vulnerability of these systems to large scale public reactions, whether in the form of demonstrations, as in the State of Israel, or in some other way, is a constant reminder of where the locus of power lies.

All this stands in sharp contrast to polities organized from the top down in which citizens do not expect to participate on a continuous basis, merely to be consulted, or to ratify, or to choose which elites will govern them -- all of which leads to a very different approach to representation. This is the difference between the parliamentary and the congressional systems, despite their external structural similarities. Parliaments developed within hierarchical polities to modify the control exercised by those on the top (usually monarchs), by requiring them to secure the approval of representatives of the people or the various estates of the realm before pursuing their policy ends, whereas congressional systems developed from the bottom up or, more accurately, from smaller to larger arenas. A full examination of the representative institutions of the Jewish polity as examples of congressional government is yet to be undertaken.

The Focus and Contents of This Book

This book is divided into three parts. The first deals with the historical polity. It begins with a chapter by Daniel J. Elazar on "The Polity in Biblical Israel." In it, this writer delineates the political organization of ancient Israel in biblical times utilizing the models outlines above. In addition to describing the various political regimes of biblical Israel, the chapter shows how the main institutions and relationships of the Jewish polity were established in the biblical period and serve as a paradigm for what comes later, this despite the changes in the specifics of regime, office and locale.

In the second chapter, Stuart A. Cohen focuses on "Continuities and Convulsions: The Three Ketarim During the Second Jewish Commonwealth." In it he provides a comprehensive treatment of the functioning of the threefold division of political authority in the critical epochs of the formation of rabbinic Judaism. He reveals the political dimension of the struggle of the Pharisees for control of the edah.

Chaim Milikowsky continues this discussion in "Authority and Conflict in Post-Destruction Roman Judea; The Patriarchate, the Rabbis, the People, and the Romans." Milikowsky traces out the history of the conflict over authority in the centuries following the destruction of the Second Commonwealth, showing how the principles of politics established in the biblical period were adapted to a new set of relationships between rulers and ruled.

These three chapters, which cover a period of nearly 1800 years, are followed by one by Ivan G. Marcus on "The Political Dynamics of the Medieval German Jewish Community" that focuses on the medieval Jewish community in Ashkenaz (France and Germany of today). The period that he treats is known as the classic age of the kehillah, when circumstances fragmented the Jewish polity among myriad separate local communities. While Dr. Marcus does not use the terminology of Jewish political studies in his analysis, his article should be read with that terminology in mind since it demonstrates the continuity of the original biblical model in a very different setting.

In Part II, we confront the contemporary polity after the Jewish people lost both its autonomy in the diaspora and its homogeneity as a faith community and, with one exception, after the Holocaust and the reestablishment of the State of Israel. While the focus of Part II is on the diaspora, Israel and the diaspora are part of the same continuing political tradition in which the elements identified at its very beginning emerged after another readaptation to shape and direct Jewish affairs.

One of the classic models of modern Jewish communal organization is the Board of Deputies of British Jews whose origins go back to 1760 and hence is the oldest continuing governing institution of any functioning diaspora community today. While the Board of Deputies is structured as an institution of the keter malkhut, it is organized so as to maintain an established relationship with the keter torah as well. David Cesarani examines the workings of the Board in the early twentieth century in "The Politics of Anglo-Jewry Between the Wars." Cesarani's chapter focuses on the struggle between Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists for control of the keter malkhut from the Balfour Declaration to the Holocaust. While Cesarani does not use the political models and terminology upon which this volume is anchored, it is relatively easy to apply both as one reads his case study.

In Chapter Six, Jonathan S. Woocher looks at "The Democratization of the American Jewish Polity." He traces the emergence of a structured American Jewish community after World War II and how the governance of that community moved from the hands of a group of self-selected notables to a broader set of constituencies which more or less represent all the segments of American Jewry. Woocher sees the American Jewish community as solidly within the Jewish political tradition even though it represents such a radical departure from premodern Jewish tradition in so many other respects. Hence he examines community organization within

French Jewry is usually hailed as the first formally emancipated community, but in fact the population of French Jewry has been transformed at least twice since the revolution. The French Jewish community today with its majority of Sephardim from North Africa is a far different community from the one of the interwar period or the Jewish community of nineteenth century France. In Chapter Seven, Ilan Grielsammer examines "The Democratization of a Community: The Case of French Jewry." Grielsammer's article parallels Woocher's, since he looks at the process of movement from control by a handful of notables to a more popular model, a process which has not gone as far in France as it has in the United States. In "The Dynamics of the Three Ketarim in the Political Transformation of Contemporary French Jewry," Shmuel Trigano examines the patterns of power in the contemporary French Jewish community in terms of the classical model.

In Part III, four distinguished scholars examine four of the continuing issues that have confront the Jewish polity since its beginning and which continue to do so. In "Leadership in the Jewish Polity: Early Rabbinic Views," Stuart A. Cohen examines the overall question of leadership within the context of the models and terminology presented here. Reuven Kimmelman focuses on "The Ethics of National Power: Government and War in the Jewish Tradition," with an eye to the problems confronting the renewed independent Jewish state in Eretz Israel. Gerald J. Blidstein probes a minor but real note in the Jewish political tradition in his chapter "On Political Revolution in the Jewish Tradition," in which he examines the biblical and halakhic treatment of the problem of resisting illegal or unjust authority. Finally, Morton Weinfeld and Phyllis Zelkowitz examine the most important continuing task of any Jewish community, but particularly the diaspora Jewish communities of today, namely the education of the next generation in "Reflections on the Jewish Polity and Jewish Education," using the Canadian experience as a case study of the problematics of universal Jewish education under contemporary conditions.

Needless to say, a collection of this kind cannot be comprehensive. At most, it dips into a rich history and tradition at certain critical points and in relation to some important topics. In doing so, it serves students of the subject the way in which geological mapping does the oil industry -- a generalized map is prepared on the basis of a series of test bores. This volume concentrates on the empirical dynamics of the Jewish polity. As such, it is a companion volume to Kinship and Consent: The Jewish Political Tradition and its Contemporary Manifestations, which provides an outline of the theory of the Jewish political tradition and The Jewish Polity: Jewish Political Organization from Biblical Times to the Present, which outlines the constitutional and institutional structure of the Jewish polity.


1. For an overview of the field, see Daniel J. Elazar and Stuart A. Cohen, "A Framework and Model for Studying and Teaching the Jewish Political Tradition," Jewish Political Studies Review 1:3-4 (Fall 1989).

2. Yitzchak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1961); Ben Zion Dinur, The Historical Foundations of the Rebirth of Israel (New York: Harper and Row, 1955) and Jewish History; Its Uniqueness and Continuity (Neuchatel: Editions de la Baconniere, 1968).

3. Daniel J. Elazar, ed., Kinship and Consent: The Jewish Political Tradition and Its Contemporary Uses (Ramat Gan: Turtledove, 1981).

4. Daniel J. Elazar and Stuart A. Cohen, eds., The Jewish Polity: Jewish Political Organization from Biblical Times to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

5. Cf. Daniel J. Elazar, Participation and Accountability in the Jewish Community (New York: Council of Jewish Federations, 1981).

6. Cf. Jonathan Woocher, Sacred Survival (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1986); and Ella Belfer, "The Jewish People and the Kingdom of Heaven: A Study of Jewish Theocracy," Jewish Political Studies Review 1:1-2 (Spring 1989).

7. Cf. Daniel J. Elazar, "Covenant as the Basis of the Jewish Political Tradition" in Kinship and Consent.

8. Obviously, from a traditional point of view there is a single Divine authority. Indeed, the first mention in the literature of what later became the classic Montesquieuian formulation of the three branches of government is in Isaiah Chapter 33, verse 22, which reads: "Adonai shofteinu, Adonai mechokikeinu, Adonai malkeinu; Hu oshi'ainu" (God is our judge, God is our legislator, God is our king; He will save us.) It both acknowledges the reality of the three branches of government and their ultimate concentration in Divine Hands.

9. Cf. Stuart A. Cohen, "The Concept of the Three Ketarim: Its Place in Jewish Political Thought and Its Implications for a Study of Jewish Constitutional History," AJS Review IX:1 (Spring 1984).

10. Cf. Daniel J. Elazar and Stuart A. Cohen, The Jewish Polity.

11. Stuart A. Cohen, The Concept of the Three Ketarim.

12. Cf. Daniel J. Elazar and Stuart A. Cohen, The Jewish Polity, Epoch 14.

13. For the definition of congress, see the Oxford English Dictionary. On forms of representative government, see Edmund Burke, A Letter to the Sherriffs of Bristol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936); Alfred de Grazia, Public and Republic: Political Representation in America (New York: Knopf, 1951) and Apportionment and Representative Government (New York: Praeger, 1963); John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1958); Carl J. Friedrich, Man and His Government: An Empirical Theory of Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963); Lewis Anthony Dexter, "The Representative and His District," Human Organization, no. 16, pp. 2-13; and "Representation," in David Sillo, ed., International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 18 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1968-1979), pp. 461-479.

14. Cf. Elazar and Cohen, The Jewish Polity.

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