Law, Politics, and Morality in Judaism

By Michael Walzer | Go to book overview
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Autonomy and Modernity


THE RELATIONSHIP between state and civil society in the Jewish tradition is complicated by the factors that make Jewish history in many ways unique. Like Islam, the Jewish tradition is political in nature: its laws are intended to be the laws of the state. On the other hand, since Jews did not possess a state for most of their history, the political character of the tradition was necessarily circumscribed. As Noam Zohar argues in his excellent excursus, the semiautonomous communities in which Jews lived as early as the Greco-Roman Diaspora up until the nineteenth century combined many of the features of a quasi state with features of voluntary communities. The modern state of Israel, which represents an unprecedented development, is riven by tensions that derive from this twofold, contradictory character of Jewish political history.

There is, however, an inherent problem in trying to locate categories like “the state,” “citizenship,” and “civil society” in historically remote contexts. The very concept of a civil society—a realm of voluntary, noncoercive associations made up of individuals and distinct from the state—is the creation of modern political theory; put differently, it is the rise of the modern state that generated civil society. As Zohar notes, the regnant political concept in the Jewish tradition is not citizenship, but the covenant with God that constitutes the “community of Israel”(knesset yisrael). Although the sources at times seem to recognize the autonomous status of the individual, as in Zohar's example of when a person becomes a “townsman,” the individual is most commonly defined as a member of a collectivity that in turn is defined by its covenantal relationship to God. Thus, the premise of modern political theory that the state is created by a compact of individuals comprising civil society reverses the fundamental premise of the Jewish tradition according to which it is the collective that defines the individual. In this regard, the Jewish tradition does not dramatically differ from other premodern political theories. For all of these, the source of an individual's identity was his or her corporate, tribal, or familial affiliation, even if these affiliations were not described in the religious language of


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