Is There a Jewish Political Tradition?

By Cooper, Julie E. | Tikkun, July/August 2001 | Go to article overview

Is There a Jewish Political Tradition?


Cooper, Julie E., Tikkun


* The Jewish Political Tradition, Volume 1: Authority, eds. Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum, Noam J. Zohar, and Yair Lorberbaum. Yale University Press, 2000.

The claim that post-biblical Jewish thought is devoid of reflection on political questions has a formidable, if unorthodox, pedigree. Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise features a devastating and influential formulation of the view that, deprived of a state, Jews have been indifferent to the questions of authority, power, and obligation that concern Western political theorists. While Spinoza extols Moses' astuteness as a theorist of mass political behavior and celebrates the contribution of Jewish ritual to the flourishing of the ancient Hebrew theocracy, he also derides the perceived passivity and impotence of his traditional peers. According to Spinoza, the loss of sovereignty marks the exit of the Jews from the arena of political practice and, significantly, political thought

This account, which limits the possibilities for political organization to sovereignty and the lack thereof, entails a correspondingly narrow understanding of the endeavor that is political theory. The assumption that 11 stateless" thinkers are necessarily indifferent to political questions reflects the mainstream understanding of political theory as a discourse devoted to and defined by the state. Contemporary scholars who challenge Spinoza's indictment of rabbinic Judaism not only debunk dominant myths of Jewish history, they also implicitly critique prevailing Western approaches to the study of politics.

The Jewish Political Tradition mounts an audacious, erudite, and important challenge to dominant interpretations of Jewish political history. The project's four volumes (forthcoming volumes explore issues surrounding membership, community, and politics in history) aim to make a distinctly Jewish tradition of political thought available for study, debate, and engagement. Edited jointly by Michael Walter, a prominent American political theorist, and Israeli scholars of Jewish thought associated with the Shalom Hartman Institute, the volume pairs primary texts from various periods with commentaries written by contemporary scholars-a format that consciously echoes Jewish traditions of exegesis. In volume one, individual chapters explore the various guises-- monarchic, prophetic, priestly, communal, and rabbinical-that authority has assumed within Jewish thought and practice, as well as the grounds-- consensual or coerced-of religious and political authority.

In their eclecticism, the volume's sources flout generic expectations and thus tacitly rebuke the conventional definition of political theory as a discourse that legitimates sovereign authority. While genres like the treatise, the philosophical essay, and the pamphlet populate the Western political theory canon, the editors of this volume discover incisive reflections on authority in the responsa literature, aggadah, biblical exegesis, and midrash, as well as in more familiar tracts and polemics. Foregrounding the political significance of texts previously ghettoized as literary, legal, or theological, The Jewish Political Tradition subtly intimates a more expansive conception of the genres-as well as the questions-that count as political theory.

The Jewish Political Tradition also intervenes provocatively in contemporary debates about the significance of the modifier "Jewish" in Israel's self-- definition as a "Jewish State." As an anthology of sources paired with commentary, the volume never explicitly advances a political argument or endorses an ideology. Nevertheless, the editors imply that the Jewish political tradition contains resources amenable to the expansion of democracy and pluralism in Israel. Against advocates of a state ruled by Halachah, the volume's commentators argue that Jewish traditions of political thought recognize an autonomous realm of secular authority, identifying biblical monarchs and community leaders in the medieval kahal (a semi-autonomous governing unit) as secular rulers.

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