Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Jewish Political Thought

How the Jewish Political Tradition Can Help Bridge Between Religious and Secular Jews

Daniel J. Elazar

Jewish Tradition as Theopolitical

The Jewish people and Judaism are theopolitical phenomena in both theory and practice. The combination of the theo and the political is an expression of the comprehensive character of Judaism as a way of life and of the Jews as both a people and a faith community. Understanding how the synthesis of the theological and the political is vitally important for understanding the "secret" of Jewish existence and survival. Like all human conditions, however, it is difficult to achieve and maintain the proper balance between the theological and political in Jewish life.

Too much "theo" leads to fanaticism. For example, messianism is an expression of the longing of people, in our case Jewish, for Divine redemption, but messianism is not political. Political involves adjusting to, limiting, and attempting to overcome the harsh realities of the world and the tragic realities of human existence in social settings. Politics can foster the good, but it is not redemptive. The search for messianic redemption is an effort to escape from politics, an effort that is at best futile and often tragic and destructive. On the other hand, too much "political" leads to power-seeking for its own sake, which is fully as dangerous for humans as the worst religious fanaticism, a truth we know all too well from historical experience and especially the most recent experiences of the Jewish people in this century.

The Jewish political tradition is one very important dimension of Jewish tradition as a whole. We are not used to talking about a Jewish political tradition, partly because 2,000 years of exile led to emphasis of other aspects of Jewish tradition in both scholarly and popular discussion. This has been particularly true in modern times in two ways. When modern Jews were seeking admission to their polities of residence as citizens of those polities, they publicly abjured the political character of the Jewish people as a result of external pressures and internal expectations. On the other hand, the counterpoint Zionist argument on behalf of a new political status for the Jewish people emphasized how the Jews had been absent from politics for so long and had to return to political life in order to survive, thereby ignoring the political life of Jewish people in exile. In part, the Jewish political tradition went unrecognized as a separate phenomenon in Jewish life because only in modern times did the idea of separating any tradition into its various strands emerge and become a reality. Prior to the modern epoch, Judaism was, or at least appeared to be to its adherents, all of a piece. Jewish religion was essentially unvaried except for differences in local customs. Religious observance was well nigh universal since Jews lived in their own self-contained communities, sufficiently separated from the general society. It was only possible to enter the general society through conversion to Christianity or Islam. Jewish communities were autonomous and recognized as such by both the exiled Jews and their hosts. Halakhah was the general law of all Jews in those communities and wherever they lived.

The realty is that the Jewish political tradition as an undifferentiated segment of the Jewish way of life at the beginning of the Jewish people. It has continued in one way or another as a major component of Jewish life throughout Jewish history, but it only emerged as a tradition separately understood, in our century after the separate emergence of such other strands as Jewish history, Jewish philosophy, Jewish thought, Jewish sociology, and rabbinics.

The Modern Separation of Judaism and the Political

The irony is that consciousness of the Jewish political tradition as a political tradition has come at the same time that the spokesmen for the Jewish religious tradition overall have drastically reduced or even abandoned their concern with the political. For example, halakhah has remained a living system since the closing of the Talmud through the responsa literature (she'elot and teshuvot on halakhic issues) through which Jews, confronted with one problem or another, posed legal questions to their rabbinic leaders over the centuries, or which those rabbinic leaders posed to one another in an effort to clarify the proper halakhic applications in particular situations. Today, using computer technology, we have been able to analyze thousands of these responsa, a veritable treasure of case law going back some 1,500 years, a characteristically Jewish enterprise that certainly tells us more about the realities of Jewish life and may also tell us more about Judaism as it really was and is than all of the speculative thought that Jews have produced about Judaism.

Now that we have been able to analyze that material on a comparative basis over time and space, we have discovered that before the year 1800 about 80 percent of all responsa were devoted to the civil and governance matters of Jewish communities, all of which were autonomous in their internal self-government, and only about 20 percent to ritual, or what we now call "religious," matters. Since then, i.e., after Jews were forced to give up their autonomous communal governments, the proportion has been almost exactly reversed -- 20 percent civil and 80 percent religious. Responsa in the Ashkenazic world underwent this shift soon after 1800 while Sephardic responsa did not undergo this change until well into the twentieth century since they preserved their autonomous community structures until that time. Thus, we need only look at the written record to discover a very rich Jewish political tradition from long before it was discussed in those terms.

In general, what characterized premodern Judaism was a seemless unity among all its strands. The coming of Jewish emancipation put an end to this traditional society. First Jews were stripped of their communal autonomy and then they were slowly integrated into their countries of residence. Modern Judaism, on the other hand, has its critical divisions that come with modernization. Religiously, Jews today are divided into Haredi or fervently Orthodox, centrist or modern Orthodox, Liberal or Reform, and Masorti or Conservative camps, while the articulation of a separate political strand is closely connected with the emergence of secular Jews such as secular Zionists who are strongly connected with the Jewish people but do not see that connection as a religious one.

One Consequence: Fragmentation

This fragmentation in practice involved an intellectual fragmentation as well. Instead of having a Jewish "identity" (itself a modern concept) as an undivided whole, individual Jews and Jewish groups began to see themselves as segmented and partial in their Jewish identity. Jews began to define themselves by religion, nationality, ethnicity, culture (a term with widely different meanings), and fate (meaning especially being subject to anti-Semitism and genocide).

This fragmentation of identity began in Western Europe and moved from there to all parts of the Jewish world. Today no Jews have escaped from its effects, although in the twentieth century as some Jews were still in the process of modernizing, others began to search for ways to reintegrate this fragmented identity. This was perhaps more easily done in Israel, where Jews lived within their own national and cultural framework, than in the diaspora, although it remains a great problem for many, perhaps even the majority, of Israeli Jews.

In general, this integration on the whole seems to be easier for Orthodox Jews wherever they are, although many of the currently Orthodox do so through a gross imbalance of ritual, religious, and other aspects of Jewish identity. Otherwise, those non-Orthodox who have retained a greater measure of the traditional sense of what it means to be Jewish are better able to achieve this reintegration or to make the transition from the older to a newer model. Among them is probably a very high percentage of Sephardim, partly because many Sephardim came later to modernization, but more importantly because the foreshadowings of what has become the modern fragmentation were present in the Sephardic world much earlier in a way because Sephardic Jews were not separated from the general society around them as were their Askenazi brethren, so early on they developed patterns of personal religious behavior and Jewish identity compatible with the demands of the larger world.

This task, however, is complicated by the ideological wars of the Jews, most particularly the clash between "Orthodoxy" and "secularism." Especially in the last thirty years, the most extreme expressions of both have captured center stage -- ultra-Orthodoxy in the case of the former, and the reconstituted vocal remnants in the case of militant secularism which raised its head in Judaism throughout the modern epoch, in the case of the latter. Both are strengthened by the existence of the State of Israel -- the haredim because, while they may denigrate or reject the state, it protects them and even nurtures them in many ways; the militantly secular because they have only succeeded in surviving as Jews within the framework of a Jewish state while at the same time, by living in a Jewish state they cannot merely melt away into the crowd as secular Jews do elsewhere as individuals but must fight to capture the state apparatus so that it will pursue their secular ends as its own.

Another Consequence: The Ascendancy of Extremists

The sharpened division between the theological and the political has helped make possible the ascendancy of extremism and extremists, both religious and secular, and in the twentieth century has led to extremism replacing moderation as the energetic force in Jewish life. As long as Judaism was an undivided unity, custody of the Jewish tradition remained in the hands of the moderates, not that there were few extremists, but Jewish communities lived by the decisions and leadership of moderates who reconciled the absolute demands of Judaism with the realities of Jewish life at any particular time or in any particular place. This is what Chaim Soloveitchik has referred to as mimetic Judaism, that is to say, a Judaism in which the demands expressed absolutely in Jewish texts are applied moderately with good sense, given specific human realities.

Modernity and the separation of the strands has generated a situation in which too many Jews, whether born into Jewish Orthodoxy or hozrei b'tshuvah, know only the texts and seek to guide their lives exclusively on the basis of textual stringencies. So, for example, while there have always been haredim, they have never been so powerful as a guiding force until our times, particularly in Israel. On the other side, among those Jews who do not consider themselves Orthodox is a small minority of the most militant secular leftists who actively seek to eliminate the Jewishness of the Jewish state. In the diaspora, especially the United States, non-Orthodox Jewish activists have identified with a more abstract set of religious principles and some radical changes in Jewish religious tradition as the essence, if not the whole, of Judaism.

This is a far cry from the Jews who founded the Zionist enterprise in Eretz Israel at the time of the First Aliya (1880-1904). Looking back at them we see a group of traditional Jews who founded colonies on traditional Jewish principles and included traditional Jewish institutions (e.g. synagogues) in the mainstream of their endeavors, even as they sought to revitalize the Jewish people through a return to agricultural work in the Land of Israel. It is equally far from the founders of non-Orthodox Judaism in the Western diasporas who sought to harmonize traditional and modern ways so they could be part of the larger world without surrendering their Judaism.

Thus the objective conditions derived from the re-establishment of the Jewish state, rather than bringing the moderates in both camps to a meeting on common ground, have enabled the extremists in both camps to seize the leadership of each and to precipitate clashes between the two. Not only that, but as extremists will, and as the Zionists, both non-religious and religious did early in the twentieth century, the two extreme groups are seeking to "capture the communities," the haredim in the diaspora, especially outside of the United States where there are still official or semi-official religious communities dominated by Orthodox Judaism, and the secular in Israel. This then is our present situation.

The Public Arena as a Bridge

The one place that may offer the possibility bridging the gaps generated by the fragmentation itself and exacerbated by the extremists' successes seems to be in what Americans felicitously refer to as "the public square," more specifically, where Jews in Israel and their various diasporas meet for public purposes and activities. The Zionist movement discovered this 100 years ago when it moved into the Jewish public square and the world public square as well, in the name of the Jewish people. At that time it was agreed by all Zionist parties that whatever their partisan visions of the future Jewish state, they would join together in the task of restoring the land to the Jewish people and re-establishing a Jewish national home. That alliance has held together with great success, given its stated aims. It is literally only since the 1970s that it has begun to unravel for the reasons suggested above.

Maintaining a united public arena led to the necessity for Jews to square circles in order to remain united, particularly in the case of Zionism and the maintenance of Jewish peoplehood. In the past century there have been four major cases of squaring circles to maintain Jewish unity. Zionism itself was the first, with its necessity to combine secular and religious camps and their ideologies from the beginning of the Zionist movement. The method was by establishing Zionism as a secular movement but providing for religious representation in proportion to the strength of the religious Zionist camp. A floor of traditional Jewish observance was mandated for the public activities and spaces of the Zionist movement -- what later became the famous status quo when Israel was established.

The second was in the matter of nation-building, particularly in Eretz Israel. After the Balfour Declaration and the British conquest of Palestine, the Jewish Yishuv (settled community) in the Land of Israel came under Zionist control in the 1920s. At that time the struggle between Zionists and non- or anti-Zionists who opposed Zionism -- some bitterly -- as threatening their positions in their countries of citizenship had to be resolved so as to combine forces in order to secure the resources needed for building the Jewish national home. The result was the establishment of the Jewish Agency for Palestine in 1929, linking Zionists and non-Zionists in that common endeavor. The Jewish Agency is now the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and has gone through several permutations, but basically it remains the means for bringing together Israelis and diaspora Jews, all of whom like to think of themselves as Zionists today but who have very different conceptions of what Zionism means, into one body to deal with common problems of nation-building.

The third squaring was with regard to Israel-diaspora relations overall. When Israel was established, its leadership fervently believed that the Jewish state would rapidly become coterminous with the Jewish people, through the ingathering of the exiles on one hand, the assimilation of Jews who remained in the diaspora on the other, and because the very fact of politically sovereign statehood conferred that role on Israel by right. The Knesset was established with 120 members on the model of the Anshe Knesset Hagedolah, the governing body in Judea established 2,500 years earlier by Ezra and Nehemiah after the restoration of autonomous Jewish rule following the end of the Babylonian exile. It was an accepted principle at that time that, although the individual tribes of biblical Israel had disappeared as organized entities and would only be reconstituted in messianic times, a body representing the entire Jewish people had to have at least a minyan from each tribe, that is to say, ten times twelve or 120. The Anshe Knesset Hagedolah had 120 members so that symbolically it could speak in the name of the whole people. It was expected that the Knesset with 120 members would have the same authority. In addition, the president of the state was to be looked upon as the president of the Jewish people and the state was to take on the protection of Jews everywhere. This was the Israeli view.

Jews in the diaspora, particularly in the United States, did not see it in quite the same manner. They did not want a foreign state, even a Jewish state, speaking in their names, and with all their love and concern for Israel, saw themselves as separate from it. The matter was resolved in the early years of the state by the realities of Israeli dependence upon American Jewry for support and was formally embodied in the exchange of letters on the subject between David Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein, then President of the American Jewish Committee. Nearly twenty years later JAFI was reconstituted to include the leadership of diaspora communities on a parity with the representatives of those Israeli political parties represented in the Knesset who defined themselves as Zionist to give institutional form to a more equal relationship than had originally been anticipated.

The fourth squaring was the establishment of the religious status quo in the State of Israel. When the state was declared, militant ideological secularism was much stronger in Israel than it is today. Since most of the socialist left were ideological secularists, they would not accept even symbolic expressions of religion unless they were subject to reinterpretation in a secular manner. At the same time, almost all had come from traditional Jewish homes in the Old World and so had substantial familiarity with Jewish tradition. Thus, certain symbols could be so reinterpreted. This led to the formulation of the status quo that Israel's public spaces and activities would be Sabbath-observant or sensitive, that its holidays would be those of or reckoned according to the Jewish calendar and follow at least minimum Jewish practice in the public arena, and that public institutions including the Israel Defense Forces would maintain kashrut. While this status quo has had its ups and downs and has eroded in some ways since its initiation, it, too, made it possible for Jews of very different attitudes to live with one another in unity.

A similar status quo developed in the diaspora and for the Jewish people as a whole. Although Orthodox Jews would not recognize the Reform and Conservative movements as religious movements, all would sit together in the institutions of the keter malkhut, the civil and communal institutions of Israel and the diaspora communities, thus making possible the continued functioning of the Jewish people.

Now we are faced with a fifth task of squaring circles. By now, it should be quite clear to all Jews that plural expression of Jewishness and Judaism is unavoidable and that some way must be found to accommodate that plural expression institutionally in Jewish life. The current issue is over who is a Jew, what is Judaism, and who is a rabbi, i.e., who is allowed to represent Judaism. These are the issues presently being debated within both Israel and the diaspora, and for which the Neeman Commission was appointed to reach some operational arrangements that would effectively allow differing institutionalized expressions of Judaism to cooperate in the realm of keter torah, the halakhic and religious institutions of the Jewish people as well, at lest for certain limited purposes necessary to deal with these issues.

Each time that it has been necessary to square one of these circles it has been with increased difficulty and has led to an increase in the manifestations of religious, political, and cultural extremism within the Jewish people as well as to means to hold the main currents together. In the first, the division between the Zionist movement and the haredim led to the organization of Agudat Israel in response. With regard to the second, the open expression of anti-Zionism through organizational mechanisms such as the American Council for Judaism was the extremist result. The third was related to Canaanism in Israel and an exclusively diasporist Judaism in the diaspora, particularly the United States. The fourth gave rise to the efforts of the haredim in Israel and elsewhere to build a totally separate life for themselves with state support and for the most militant secularists to organize anti-status-quo movements. We all see signs of the extremisms that have crystallized around the current issue.

In the meantime, Jews found that, despite their sharp divisions and increasing fragmentation, they could cooperate on other issues that confronted them in the public square such as fighting anti-Semitism, seeking full integration into the open societies in the world, rescuing Jews from persecution, or supporting their newly reestablished state. Thus, increasingly, Jews who were privately divided in critical ways could unite for what were, and are, essentially political purposes in the public square.

Building the Jewish Political Tradition As a Bridge

Those of us who have studied this phenomenon are prepared to carry it a step further. We argue that it is not only possible to work together in the public square on contemporary issues, but it is possible to delve into the Jewish heritage itself through the Jewish political tradition in its various manifestations and expressions for common meaning, inspiration, and vision. This is not an argument that the Jewish political tradition is sufficient to hold Jews together as Jews, only that it offers a good threshold for doing so. Because the Jewish political tradition goes back to the beginnings of the Jewish people, it has had to contend with all the various problems that Jews have had to face as a collectivity and most of their permutations and has devised ways and means to respond to them that are worthy of our attention as they were of the attention of past generations.

Because Jewish political life, whether in the Land of Israel or in the diaspora, flourished primarily prior to the modern epoch at a time when Jewish tradition was not fragmented, no separate political tradition was identified, even by those who lived it. We inherited that tradition essentially unaware of its existence, accounting for the phenomena that reflected it in Jewish history through other means. This was particularly desirable during the modern epoch when the "emancipated" Jews were seeking integration into the larger world and were abjuring any tradition other than the Jewish religious tradition as part of that effort. Even those Jews who found themselves unwilling or unable to do so, sought to express themselves through culture or ethnicity rather than evoke an explicitly political tradition which could seem to separate them once again from their states of citizenship. So the realities of politics had to sneak back into Jewish life and explicit reference to a political tradition was not deemed helpful under those conditions.

Now, however, the modern epoch has come to an end with the destruction of the old Jewish world as a result of the great Jewish migrations, the twentieth century World Wars, and the Holocaust. The birth of a new Jewish world, led by the reestablished State of Israel and the newly flourishing Jewish communities of the New World along with the reestablished communities of the Old whose character is so different from their predecessors have together opened a new era for Jews. Not only that, but the great Jewish tasks of the past century are coming to a successful completion, leaving Jews looking around for appropriate collective activities, a new Jewish agenda, and a new Jewish vision. The Jewish political tradition is in many respects is admirably suited to the new globalized world of this new epoch.

The Jewish political tradition originated in biblical times and was refined and even transformed subsequently at least twice. Nevertheless, its basics have survived the sharp transition from premodern political organization to modern through re-interpretation and the re-establishment of the Jewish state. What is extraordinary to the observer is the degree to which Jews, severed by modernization from their traditional cultural bases and often cut off from explicit knowledge of their tradition and culture, still reproduced institutions that fit well into the models of their political tradition. There is little doubt that this is because the problems of living Jewishly return in the same dimensions as they always did, even if in revised form, and require similar responses.

Covenant as the Foundation

The Jewish political tradition both as it specifically applies to the Jewish people and as a "mother" tradition in political thought, which, throughout the Bible, it is grounded on and derived from the idea of covenant (Hebrew: brit). In its original biblical form, covenant embodies the idea that relationships between God and humans are based upon morally-sustained pacts of mutual promise and obligation. God's covenant with Noah (Genesis 9), which came after Noah had hearkened fully to God's commands in what was, to say the least, an extremely difficult situation, is the first of many biblical examples. Covenant embodies the understanding that humans establish their political-social institutions and relationships grounded in a fundamental equality of all associated with them and based upon freely choosing to do so (consent), itself a basic political value. A covenant is a morally-informed agreement, or pact, based upon voluntary consent between people or parties having their respective integrities and a sufficiently independent and equal status. A covenant provides for joint action and obligation to achieve defined ends (limited or comprehensive) under conditions of mutual respect which protect the individual integrities of the parties to it. Every covenant involves consenting, promising, and agreeing. Most are meant to be unlimited in duration, if not perpetual.

Covenants can bind any number of partners for a variety of purposes but in essence they are political, having to do with the distribution of power and the relationships between the partners in the pursuit of common goals. Their bonds are used principally to foster the relationships to accomplish the designated tasks.

In its political form, covenant expresses the idea that people can freely establish communities and polities, peoples and publics, and political society itself through such morally grounded and sustained compacts (whether religious or otherwise in impetus), thereby establishing enduring partnerships. In its more poetic (but, for the Bible, no less serious) forms, covenant has even been used to describe relations between God and nature, humans and nature, and the various elements of nature.

In all its forms, the key focus of covenant is on relationships. A covenant is the constitutionalization of a set of relationships of a particular kind. As such, it provides the basis for the institutionalization of those relationships; but it would be wrong to confuse the order of precedence. Thus covenantal relationships and the institutions built upon them stand in great contrast to hierarchical ones in which every person has his or her place in the political social pyramid at a higher or lower level with the higher ruling the lower, or by some kind of natural elite that gravitates to positions of power which it retains unrestrained.

The covenantal basis is the true, some say the only, basis for democracy. From its biblical origins through which it entered first Jewish, then Western, and finally world civilization, the covenant idea has been the central value promoting human freedom and equality. The original biblical covenants were between humans and God. The very idea itself that the two could be joined in covenant was quite radical and involved the limitation (in Jewish terms, the self-limitation) of God by entering into covenant with humans, which, if it did not make humans the equals of God, made them equally responsible for the tasks embodied in each covenant. Much later the Reformed Protestants of Western Europe including the Hueguenots France and the Puritans of England recognized the daring quality of this claim and erected the ideas that became the foundations of Western democracy upon it.

Such Jewish ideas as tzimtzum (contraction), God's partial withdrawal to make space for the world including humanity, and the view dominant throughout Jewish history that humans can indeed argue with God and attempt to convince Him to change His course of action are all grounded in this fundamental covenantalism. According to this view, God may be all powerful, but He does not rule humans hierarchically and thereby properly, God's rule is based on human consent. Humans respond to God by harkening to God's message. God empowers humans to rule themselves.

In the final analysis, this may be the ultimate Jewish value. Culturally, Jews are covenantal through and through, regardless of whether they are religious or secular. The fact that the State of Israel was built upon hierarchical European models while the people of Israel share a very different cultural tradition generates so many of the dysfunctional elements in Israeli society. Individuals whose cultural expectations are covenantal have to work within a system whose institutional structures are hierarchical and thus develop devices to bypass the formal procedures.

Covenantal principles lead to the establishment of partnership relations based upon the fundamental equality of free people in such a way that actions and agreements are achieved through negotiation and bargaining. Negotiation and bargaining, to be covenantal, must be conducted with hesed (the willingness to fulfill one's covenant obligations), that is to say, in a spirit of hasidut with the parties recognizing that they are negotiating with covenantal partners and hence must be prepared to go beyond the letter of the law (defined in the Talmud as lifnim meshurat hadin). Hesed, which is sometimes translated as "grace" and sometimes as "lovingkindness" is not really translatable into English. It is best understood as a loving fulfillment of the obligation flowing from a covenant bond. Here we shall use the term covenant obligation for hesed. A person who acts with hesed is call a "hasid," that is to say, one who builds a life around the rendering of hesed to his covenant partners. The whole concept of Hasidut and Hasidism in Jewish life, both in the biblical period and subsequently, is an outgrowth of this dynamic approach to the covenantal relationship. Otherwise, the relationship becomes simply contractual with each side only interested in maximizing its own advantage. Reflecting this understanding, the Bible pairs brit v'hesed over and over again as a key value concept.

At the same time, Jews have recognized that life is not merely a set of covenants but also rests on an organic dimension. The solidarity among kin is fundamental to human and particularly Jewish existence. To this day, the Jewish sense of kinship and solidarity is legendary and even is seen by some as a form of tribalism carried over into the contemporary world. Jews have made this solidarity a norm for all peoples as separate peoples and collectively as human solidarity. The Bible presents humanity as having two foundations, one, their common descent from Adam and Eve, and the second, their common binding through God's covenant with Noah after the Flood which establishes the rules by which humans must live. A society organized on the basis of an appropriate combination of kinship and consent is normative for Jews.

Neighborliness and Justice

A second comprehensive Jewish value concept that serves as a central pillar for all Jews and for the Jewish state is that of re'ut (neighborliness) as in veahavta reaha kamoha (love thy neighbor as thyself) -- The Golden Rule. Re'ut, a concept that first appears in the Bible and then subsequently in rabbinic literature, deals with the kind of solidarity that a territorially-based community should have. In a sense it is both an extension and a limitation of the value concept that holds all Jews to be arevim ze l'ze (guarantors for one another) because of the links that bind them. While re'ut has been variously interpreted in our times, it not only offers the possibility for solidarity between Jews but also between Jews and non-Jews when the non-Jews are in the category of re'im (neighbors). While many rabbinic sources limited the concept of to relations among Jews, the Bible leaves the matter open. Community solidarity, the logical extension of re'ut, is a particular characteristic that the Jewish settlers of Eretz Israel sought to foster in the Yishuv and in the state, and remains a hallmark of what, in Jewish eyes, makes for a good commonwealth.

A third core value concept is that of tzedakah u'mishpat (just law and judgment) the fundamental justice that is built into the world and is anchored in the fundamental law governing human relations. Tzedakah u'mishpat is the biblical-Jewish equivalent of natural law in Greek and Western thought, except that in its Jewish origins it rests on God's creation and covenants described in the Bible. As a value concept it has been a critical motivator for Jewish life, especially political and social life.

All three of these fundamental value concepts are undergoing great change at the present moment. The Jewish sense of Jews being b'nai brit, covenanted to one another, is undergoing stresses of dealing with the ideological polarization of religious and secular Jews and the diminution among the latter of the sense that Jews are perforce bound together, by the reality of their position in the world, not by Divine commandment. The idea of re'ut is under assault principally through the spread of Western-style individualism in society, with its materialistic and hedonistic elements, that diminish both the sense of solidarity and the perceived demands for it.

Tzedakah u'mishpat are under challenge because of the demise of socialism as the modern ideology in which they were rooted. That demise itself reflects the reality that socialism, which was intended by its adherents as a modern secular way to embody the historic Jewish aspirations of tzedakah u'mishpat, could not produce the intended results but rather created its own injustices and distortions. While the ideology of socialism has been abandoned and so, too, many of its practices, nothing has yet emerged to take its place for secular Jews and many still have a certain nostalgic belief in the ideal of socialism even though they no longer desire the practices.

The Institutions of the Jewish Polity

The Jewish political experience has been extremely varied over the years, ranging from independent statehood in the Land of Israel to communal autonomy in the very difficult circumstances of exile; has included monarchic, oligarchic, and democratic forms of government under different conditions; and has had to find ways of expression in almost every time and clime throughout the world, there are some constant and recurring elements in the Jewish political tradition that continue to be echoed in the American Jewish polity.

The federal element is part and parcel of the very foundation of the Jewish political experience and tradition, both in the sense of the covenantal founding of the Jewish people (federal is from the Latin foedus meaning covenant) and more explicitly in the predominant form of political organization throughout the history of the Jewish polity beginning with the federation of the twelve tribes. Covenant in Jewish tradition has a strong political as well as a theological dimension. Covenants have been the basis for all legitimate Jewish political organization from Abraham and Sinai to the present. Most immediately, the federal element offers Jews a way to deal with the plural expressions of Judaism and Jewishness that are at most unavoidable today and at best enhancing.

Covenant is quintessentially federal in that it conveys the sense of both separation and linkage, cutting and binding. A covenant creates a perpetual bond between parties having independent but not necessarily equal status, called upon to share in a common task. That bond is based upon mutual obligations and a commitment to undertake joint action to achieve certain defined ends, which may be limited or comprehensive, under conditions of mutual respect in such a way as to protect the fundamental integrity of all the parties involved. A covenant is much more than a contract -- though our modern system of contracts is related to the covenant idea -- because it involves a pledge of loyalty beyond that demanded for mutual advantage, often involving the development of a certain kind of community among the partners to the covenant, and ultimately based upon their moral commitment. As a political instrument, covenant resembles the political compacts of the seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophers except that it is not secular in character.

Jewish political institutions and behavior reflect this covenantal base in the way they give expression to the political relationship as a partnership based upon a morally grounded pact and, like all partnerships, oriented toward decision and policy-making through negotiation and bargaining. Beyond that, wherever the possibility has existed, Jews have organized their political institutions on a federal basis, whether in the form of the ancient tribal confederacy, the Hellenistic politeuma, the medieval confederations of local communities, the Council of the Four Lands in late medieval Poland, the communal federations of the contemporary diaspora based on territorial or country-of-origin communities, the federations of functional agencies as in the American Jewish community, or the party and settlement federations of modern Israel, to cite only a few of the most prominent examples.

By nature, a covenanted community is republican in the original sense of res publica, a public thing, rather than the private preserve of any person or institution. In the Bible, the Jewish republic is referred to as the edah, from the term for assembly -- in other words, a body politic based on the general assembly of its citizens for decision-making purposes. The term and its later equivalent, knesset, derived from the Aramaic at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, have continued to be used to describe the Jewish body-politic ever since (adat bnei yisrael, knesset yisrael). The original edah was literally an assembly of the entire people on constitutional matters and the men who had reached military age for others. As such, it parallels and historically precedes similar phenomena such as the Swiss landesgemeinde, the Icelandic althing, and the New England town meeting.

The basic characteristics of the edah can be summarized as follows: 1) Political equality exists for all those capable of taking on the responsibility for the defense of the edah. 2) Decision-making is in the hands of an assembly that determines its own leaders. 3) The edah is portable and not confined to one place. 4) Nevertheless, for it to function completely, the edah needs Eretz Israel. 5) The Torah is the constitution of the edah.

Throughout history, the edah meeting as a whole or through some representative part has been responsible for actions of a constitutional character, whether electing kings in ancient Israel, constituting the Council of the Four Lands in late medieval Poland, or forming communities in the modern United States. The congregational form itself -- the kahal or kehilla -- is a subsidiary product of the linkage of the covenant and the edah. Traditionally, any ten male Jews may come together to form a kahal by covenanting among themselves to establish a local framework within the larger framework of the Torah for the conduct of their religious, social and political life. The constitutional terminology of the kahal reflects its covenant orientation. Among Sephardic communities, for example, the articles of agreement establishing communities are known as askamot (from haskama or consent).

On the other hand, the fundamental egalitarianism of the edah should not obscure the fact that the Jewish political tradition has a strong aristocratic dimension, in the sense that those who hold the powers of government are trustees for both the people and the Torah, traditionally selected on the basis of some qualifications to be trustees -- Divine sanctification, scholarship, lineage, wealth, and in our times a self-selected commitment to active leadership that is recognized by the Jews. In the last analysis, however, the Jewish political tradition is based upon what S. D. Goitein has termed "religious democracy," using the term religious in its original sense of "binding" (as in Ezekiel's masoret habrit -- Ezekiel 20:35-37) uniting God, the citizenry and the human governors empowered under a particular regime operating through covenant.

From earliest times the Jewish polity has been organized in three arenas -- the edah as a whole, an intermediate arena of medinot (used here in its original sense as a political jurisdiction, not necessarily a politically sovereign state) or aretzot (lands), and local 'arim (cities, towns, or townships) or kehillot. At times the locus of power was with the edah as a whole, as it was in the desert and at the time of the united monarchy. At times it was with the medinot as during the Second Commonwealth when Medinat Yahud (Judea) was the central focus of the edah, or aratzot as with the Council of the Four Lands or the Jewish community of medieval Egypt. At times it was almost entirely local as was the case with the medieval European communities. In those times the edah as a whole was linked primarily through the halakhic correspondence between individual poskim (halakhic authorities) which served as a communications network of extraordinary efficiency at a time when Jews were unable to sustain any other edah-wide political institutions. As befits a federal polity, these arenas were always organized on a non-centralized basis, that is to say, with no single center but rather a diffusion of powers among a network of centers of greater or lesser importance.

In this spirit, governance within the edah and its arenas was based upon the delegation and separation of powers. The diffusion of power characteristic of the organizational structure of the edah is to a large extent mirrored and amplified by the traditional insistence on its distribution within the various arenas of government. Hierarchical concentration of political authority is rejected, as it would be in any covenantal system true to its fundamental principles. Thus government normally is handled through various reshuyot (authorities).

These reshuyot are grouped into three domains, dating back to Sinai and known in Hebrew since the time of the Second Commonwealth as ketarim (literally, crowns). According to the Bible, each keter has a grant of authority directly from God, hence all are fundamentally equal as instruments of governance on earth. The three are the keter torah, whose task is to give programmatic expression to the Torah, Israel's Divinely-originated constitution; the keter kehunah, whose task is to enable the edah to reach out to God through shared rituals and symbolic expressions; and the keter malkhut, whose task is to be the vehicle for civil authority to exercise power within the edah.

The keter torah constitutes the vehicle whereby God's teachings to Israel are interpreted, specified and transmitted; the keter kehunah the conduit through which God and the edah are brought into constant contact; and the keter malkhut, the legitimately empowered means whereby political and civic relationships are structured and regulated in accordance with the covenantal stipulations of a divinely-ordained constitution.

The first normally flows from God to the people through mediating institutions such as prophets, Torah sages, and poskim. It is embodied in such classic works as the Torah and the Talmud. The second, which is formally entrusted to the priestly descendants of Aaron, supplemented since the destruction of the Temple by religious and synagogue functionaries, normally involves human initiatives directed heavenward. The third, originally entrusted to elders and judges, then to kings, particularly of the House of David, and then to patriarchs (nesiim), exilarchs, and parnasim (community leaders) emphasizes human political relationships with other humans.

This unique tripartite division of authority, the application of the theopolitical idea, allows the Jewish polity to encompass far more than the narrow functions of contemporary political systems. It embraces religious and social as well as political expressions in a comprehensive framework often referred to as "the Jewish way of life," thus constitutionalizing power-sharing in such a way as to reflect the multi-faceted character of the Jewish people. Each keter has a share in the governance of the edah through the institutions and officers empowered by it. Each, however, is mediated through a different human base.

What distinguishes this division of authority from a conventional separation of powers systems is that the ketarim address themselves first to the source, character, and purpose of authority, only then to issues of function (e.g., executive, legislative, judicial). The latter are usually shared by two or more of the ketarim by design. The distinction lies less in the need that each serves than in the perspective each brings to bear on political activities.

Each keter is to be regarded as a mediating institution between God and the edah in possession of a distinct focus, thereby enabling each to exercise a constitutional check on the others. Each possesses its own institutional structure. The three are interdependent. No Jewish polity is constitutionally complete unless it contains representatives of all three ketarim in one form or another.

While the ketarim may be equal in theory, in practice there have been shifts in the balance among them throughout Jewish history along with a degree of inter-keter conflict. For example, when David became king, he secured his throne and dynasty by securing the dominance of the keter malkhut. He did so by bringing the other two ketarim into his court, preserving them but at the same time subordinating them to the throne. During the Second Commonwealth there was a continuing conflict among the three ketarim which were rather equally balanced, but after the destruction of the Second Temple, the sages representing the keter torah made theirs the dominant one, aided by the unique ability of the halakhah to serve a community in exile with no political sovereignty. The keter torah not only remained dominant for the next 1800 years, it became the grounding for the edah in every respect. In our times, however, the re-establishment of the State of Israel, coupled with the increased secularization of Jewish life in both Israel and the diaspora, has led to a resurgence of the keter malkhut which has gained the upper hand although once again being challenged by the representatives of the keter torah.

It is important to note that these conflicts are based on the premise that all three ketarim must continue to function for the polity to be legitimate. All are agreed on this, even if they contest for power within the framework. Periodically in Jewish history there have been efforts to combine or eliminate one or another of the ketarim, whether at the time of the prophet Samuel who took all three to himself. at the time of Hasmonean rule during the Second Commonwealth when the ruling family combined the keter kehunah and keter malkhut, or in the early stages of the Emancipation when Reformers attempted to reduce Jewry to the keter kehunah alone and Zionist movement when my Zionists thought that only the keter malkhut was important. All have failed, in the first two cases disastrously.

All this points to the great force of constitutionalism in the Jewish political tradition. The Jewish polity is a constitutional polity above all, whose fundamental constitution has remained Torat Moshe (the Torah of Moses), however interpreted throughout the ages. Despite its long and unbroken constitutional foundation, historical circumstances have caused the edah to undergo periodic reconstitutions in order to respond to changing conditions. For the edah as a whole, these reconstitutions have taken place approximately every ten generations or 300 years, thereby establishing a constitutional basis for the periodization of Jewish history. In each of those reconstitutions a new constitutional referent has been introduced as the principal vehicle for interpreting the original Torah, whether in the form of the prophetic literature, the Mishnah, the Gemarah, or the various medieval codes culminating in the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of Jewish law compiled in the mid-sixteenth century..

The edah has passed through thirteen such historical epochs and is now in the early stages of the fourteenth. The Jewish community today is a product of the thirteenth epoch, whose characteristic regime was that of the voluntary association and which coincides with the modern epoch in world history from 1648 to 1948. It is acquiring new form in the fourteenth epoch whose major manifestation is the restoration of the Jewish state and the role it has played in reconstituting the edah so that the Jewish people as a whole again has an actively functioning structure. As we shall see, it may be on the threshold of another major reconstitution reflecting the new patterns of Jewish identity, geography, and demography of the last generation of the twentieth century.

Using Political Concepts as Bridges

The reinterpretation that has taken place in the political tradition can be seen as not unlike the reinterpretation that has taken place in the theological dimensions of Judaism. It has been the lot of both to move from concepts which developed within a comprehensive Jewish framework shared by all or virtually all Jews and considered normative by the entire Jewish people as a collectivity to concepts whose shared framework is or may be more limited. It is hardly necessary to point out that the conceptual framework shared by the Jewish people as a collectivity is far less precise today than in premodern times, more subject to a variety of interpretations and expressions and considered less binding by most Jews, whether they accept it or not. Thus, Jewish peoplehood and the desirability of Jewish unity are political concepts widely accepted among Jews, as is the belief in God and in a Divine source for Jewish tradition as theological concepts, but both sets are interpreted so variously, and have cores so vaguely defined, that their plural expression is at least as real as their unity in conception.

Of these, in fact, the political concepts are probably the most concrete and can be used to bridge the divisions in Jewish life. One of the reasons that they have not been so used in any overt sense today (I would argue that they have been used more than most people realize) is because they are frequently hidden by being described as sociological or anthropological (ethnic) concepts. That is very much a modern Western conceit, part of the denial of a separate Jewish political identity which became part of modern Western nationalism and which the Jews were forced to accept as the price of admission to Western society. Since World War II, payment of that price has no longer been quite so necessary and it is possible for Jews to recognize the political component that holds them together as it is variously understood. However, in an age of privatization, a new challenge has arisen which could weaken Jewish attentiveness to that identity, namely, the new spirituality. Spirituality itself is a good thing, but its current manifestations which are primarily private and which move people toward greater privatism and egoism are not in tune with any Jewish conception of spirituality precisely because they challenge the theopolitical character of Judaism and Jewish tradition.

We already have some sense of what will characterize this new epoch including: (1) plural expressions of Judaism significantly different and greater than any in the past, (2) voluntary adherence to the Jewish community meaning that those who do not wish to remain Jews will not be compelled to do so, and (3) a Jewish people comprised of a series of concentric circles around an inner core of Torah, Judaism, and Jewishness that will function as a magnet attracting those who wish to remain Jews. Those circles will become increasingly divided between core Jews and peripheral ones. The core Jews will be primarily defined by halakhic criteria while the peripheral Jews will be primarily defined by sociological categories. While Judaism and Jewish religious tradition will probably remain the most compelling parts of the magnet, it will be the Jewish political tradition which will function to embrace the entire Jewish people. Judaism may define the inner boundaries but the political tradition will define the outer, if any outer limits are to be defined.

What will hold all together will be the network of covenants through which Jews bind themselves to one another and to the Jewish people, where necessary marking also their separations from one another within a common Jewish framework. One of the major common tasks of the Jewish people will be not only to maintain an Am Yisrael but to include as much of that Am as possible within Adat Bnai Yisrael. To do so it will have to make provision for Jewish expression through all three ketarim while at the same time keeping the workings of the ketarim sufficiently integrated to provide an identifiable and integrated Jewish whole. More than ever, these tasks will require attentive mobilization of the Jewish political tradition.

Meanwhile, the realities of the Jewish political tradition do indeed perform a bridging function. Until the controversy over who is a Jew and what is legitimately Judaism actively boiled over into the domain of keter torah, it remained bridgeable within the keter malkhut. Indeed, it continues to be since whatever the opposition of any of the parties to the compromise as being proposed with regard to the conversion and marriage issues, all still sit together in the institutions of the keter malkhut, whether the Israeli Knesset or the Jewish Agency or the various diaspora communities. Indeed, that very fact attests to the reality of the ketaric division in contemporary Jewish life.

The fact that present demands require cooperation within the realm of keter torah and, even more important, between keter torah and keter kehunah, since that is where the Reform rabbi should be placed by their own self-definition going back to the beginnings of Reform Judaism in Germany in the 1820s, has roiled the waters and complicated matters, even if it we conclude that it was bound to come. Indeed, we might read the Jewish theopolitical map of today as providing for a variety of expressions within the keter kehunah reflecting the way the keter kehunah became localized and private already 2,000 years ago. It has been many years since there has been any effort on the part of even the religious establishment in Israel to try to prevent non-Orthodox synagogues from opening and functioning, although it is true that non-Orthodox rabbis are not recognized for activities beyond the limits of their synagogues. Still, the keter kehunah is a domain in which private expression is widely allowed, not only between movements but within Orthodoxy as well.

On the other hand, as we have mentioned, in the keter malkhut the various groups are committed or have covenanted to work together within the same comprehensive institutions. The struggle, therefore, is basically confined to the keter torah where for a long time a de facto laissez faire attitude allowed the different movements to express themselves as long as they did not trespass on turf claimed by the other movements. Now, however, after repeated efforts, the non-Orthodox movements have been able to exploit Orthodox overreaching to force cooperation or, at the very least, mutual recognition to be extended to the keter torah from whence it will redound to the keter kehunah as well, ipso facto.

In truth, without the division of the institutions of the Jewish people into these three domains, we would have either have split apart or abandoned Judaism as the link among Jews long ago. Jews would have become like many other peoples -- e.g. French, German, even Armenians -- united by ethnicity but divided by religions. That is what Jews for Jesus are trying to bring about and which all other Jews totally reject.

Source Concepts to Draw Upon

We should also draw upon the whole set of concepts rooted in Jewish political culture which find expression among Jews today, albeit without their necessarily being aware of the concepts themselves or their political dimensions. Some examples:

1. Ha-brit v'ha-hesed -- Elsewhere I have suggested that the Neeman Commission's recommendations on the conversion issue fall into the category of hassidut. The conversion problem as posed by the non-Orthodox movements in Judaism is not a problem that affects more than the smallest handful of Israelis and almost all those in Israeli who do not want to make an ideological issue of it can find some way around any problems they might face. Nevertheless, Israel is making the effort that it is making because of its concern for diaspora Jewry and the unity of the Jewish people. In other words, they are engaged in an act of hesed toward their Jewish brethren.

There are many such acts, not only in Israel but throughout the Jewish world, that have helped preserve Jewish peoplehood despite Jewish contentiousness, the sharpness of Jewish disagreements, especially internal ideological and religious disagreements, and the like. Clearly, most Jews who are involved in Jewish life at some point or another recognize their covenantal ties and the need to maintain them through hassidut.

2. Torah -- Once very clear in its meaning, today Torah is understood through varied prisms. Some see it only as a guide for Jewish living, suggestive but not binding. Others see it as a constitutional framework setting forth the basic laws of Jewish living, and still others see it as interpreted through halakhah as a comprehensive and binding code of Jewish behavior. Aside from this symbolic recognition of the Torah as the heart of Judaism, it should be possible to find additional common ground for an understanding. This may be more possible in its less specific points although there is a strong ground for Jewish solidarity around those as well in my opinion.

3. Arevut (mutual responsibility) -- This is a principle strongly maintained by Jews and is strongly imprinted on Jewish collective consciousness. It involves a conscious sense of Jewish solidarity based upon the combination of kinship and covenant which lies at the foundations of Jewish peoplehood and Judaism. Indeed, the Jewish response to fellow-Jews in our century has reflected arevut at the highest levels. Now Jews must reaffirm this commitment in new ways in light of Jewry's new diversity.

4. Edah -- The organization of the Jewish people within common institutions based upon republican organizational forms can be seen as reflecting the old concept of edah. The conscious further development of these forms can enhance the concept of edah as a unifying principle.

5. Ketarim -- We have already discussed the three domains of authority, responsibility, and power-sharing and how important they are, enabling Jews to find ways to maintain unity where they can, even as they are sharply divided in certain respects.

6. Re'ut -- This sense of being neighbors with neighborly responsibilities to one another, once concrete, is now virtual as Jews are spread all over the world. Still, it is a sensibility that unites the various streams in Jewish life and unites its central and peripheral regions. Tied in with arevut and giving concrete expression through the new computer-based technology, it can be a powerful way of joining Jews who may not feel the pressures of kinship as much as their joint ancestors did, but recognize the existence of ties among Jews. Re'ut can only be used to supplement arevut, but arevut within the Jewish community that can be developed into a Jewish basis for proper ties and connections with one's non-Jewish neighbors in this world.

7. Ezrahut -- The idea of being a citizen of the Jewish people is a very important one. One of the problems which contemporary Jewish life among the nations and the intermarriage that has resulted from it almost as a matter of course is that all too often neither the Jewish nor the non-Jewish partners are prepared to seek the non-Jew's conversion to Judaism on the grounds that Judaism involves a set of religious beliefs and they are not believers. Were conversion to Judaism seen as entering into the Jewish people and the acquisition of citizenship in that people, it might be more widely acceptable in our time. More than that, it would strengthen the sense of being Jewish among those who do convert, who often see it in non-Jewish terms as merely the adopting of a set of religious rituals and beliefs and not as becoming part of a people, which defeats at least half the purpose of conversion. Thus, sharpening a sense of ezrahut among Jews and conveying that sense to non-Jews who seek to share the fate of the Jewish people in some way is extremely important.

Also important are the efforts now being made to change and adopt the defining criteria of Jewish citizenship. Here, too, the recognition of the principle of ezrahut should be a great help. In earlier ages halakhic authorities implicitly if not explicitly recognized that conversion was adopting ezrahut. That is one of the reasons that they did not require converts to necessarily adopt the most intensive forms of Jewish religious behavior at the time of conversion but only that the convert be sincerely committed to joining the Jewish people. There are many sources that document this. It is a spirit that desperately needs to be restored to Jewish life today.

Every one of the foregoing concepts is theopolitical. By increasing the emphasis on their political components we stand a much better chance of restoring the moderates to dominant positions in Jewish life as opposed to the extremists. Accepting the Neeman compromises, for example, would be a victory in that direction. Moderates from all sides will have a better chance to talk with one another and to reach effective agreements on concrete issues than extremists would even want to.

In this lies the key to the survival of a unified Jewish people, but this requires statesmanship. If the truth be told, statesmanship is a problem in Jewish political history. Jews have always excelled at self-organization. Wherever they have found themselves we have been able to organize for Jewish purposes. The recent example of the rapid emergence and spread of Jewish self-organization in the former Soviet Union is a dramatic case in point. Unfortunately, however, Jews have been far less successful in showing statesmanship. We become wrapped up in our ideas and ideological commitments and often in our internal problems and do not show the same prudent good sense in recognizing and coping with our external ones. Statesmanship involves prudent good sense, and that is not always easy for Jews, but we must be conscious of that problem so that we may work hard to overcome it.

In this we may be able to begin by looking outside the Jewish political tradition to the covenants of peace proposed by the non-Jewish political philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century.

They are:

  1. To seek peace, and follow it.
  2. By all means we can, to defend ourselves.
  3. That men perform their covenants made.
  4. That a man which receiveth benefit from another of mere grace, endeavor that he which giveth it have no reasonable cause to repent him of his good will.
  5. That every man strive to accommodate himself to the rest.
  6. That upon caution of the future time, a man ought to pardon the offences past of them that repenting, desire it.
  7. That in revenges, men look not at the greatness of the evil past, but the greatness of the good to follow.
  8. That no man by deed, work, countenance, or gesture, declare hatred or contempt of another.
  9. That every man acknowledge another for his equal by nature.
  10. That at the entrances into conditions of peace, no man require to reserve to himself any right which he is not content should be reserved to every one of the rest.
  11. If a man be trusted to judge between man and man, that he deal equally between them.
  12. That such things as cannot be divided, be enjoyed in common, if it can be; and if the quality of the thing permit, without stint; otherwise proportionably to the number of them that have right.
  13. That the entire right; or else, making the use alternate, the first possession be determined by lot.
  14. That all men that mediate peace, be allowed safe conduct.
  15. That they that are at controversy, submit their right to the judgment of an arbitrator.
Hobbes, himself an Englishman in the age of Puritanism, was much influenced by the Hebrew Bible as even a casual look at the foregoing principles reveals. Hence, by looking to them it may be possible to begin to restore a traditional Judaism as the vital center of the Jewish people, that is to say, one which is mimetic and not simply bound by the book, that offers a more comprehensive understanding of Judaism, the Jewish people, and the world. This is to be devoutly hoped.

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