Law, Politics, and Morality in Judaism

Law, Politics, and Morality in Judaism

Law, Politics, and Morality in Judaism

Law, Politics, and Morality in Judaism


Jewish legal and political thought developed in conditions of exile, where Jews had neither a state of their own nor citizenship in any other. What use, then, can this body of thought be today to Jews living in Israel or as emancipated citizens in secular democratic states? Can a culture of exile be adapted to help Jews find ways of being at home politically today? These questions are central inLaw, Politics, and Morality in Judaism, a collection of essays by contemporary political theorists, philosophers, and lawyers. How does Jewish law accommodate--or fail to accommodate--the practice of democratic citizenship? What range of religious toleration and pluralism is compatible with traditional Judaism? What forms of coexistence between Jews and non-Jews are required by shared citizenship? How should Jews operating within halakha (Jewish law) and Jewish history judge the use of force by modern states? The authors assembled here by prominent political theorist Michael Walzer come from different points on the religious-secular spectrum, and they differ greatly in their answers to such questions. But they all enact the relationship at issue since their answers, while based on critical Jewish texts, also reflect their commitments as democratic citizens. The contributors are Michael Walzer, David Biale, the late Robert M. Cover, Menachem Fisch, Geoffrey B. Levey, David Novak, Aviezer Ravitzky, Adam B. Seligman, Suzanne Last Stone, and Noam J. Zohar.


There are two modern answers to what used to be called “the Jewish question.” I mean, two humane answers; we won't be talking in this volume about the other kind. the question itself might be phrased as follows: What political space is there for Jews in the modern world? the first answer points toward citizenship in inclusive democratic states; the second answer points toward sovereignty in “the land of Israel.”

Both of these answers have now been realized; the process of emancipation brought Jews into the democratic state as equal members; a vote at the United Nations and a war for independence brought Jews a state of their own. These two achievements now require the revision and renewal of Judaism generally and of Jewish legal and moral discourse (halakah) in particular. For Judaism and its halakah are essentially the products of exile and exclusion. They reflect the experience of being ruled by the “others.” They are shaped by a long and difficult adaptation to the harsh realities of homelessness. Now they must be reshaped to accommodate two different ways of being “at home” in the political world.

It is the normative system, the halakic order, that most requires revision and renewal. the resources available for this work are manifold: first of all, the long tradition of legal interpretation and controversy, and then the history of the Jews, the practice of ethical storytelling (aggadah), theological reflection, and, finally, secular philosophy. Interpretation has always been the dominant strategy of Jewish legal innovation, and many of our authors explore its uses here, but it is important to insist on the other possibilities also. in this volume, David Novak argues for the importance of theology, and Menachem Fisch for secular philosophy. As Maimonides appropriated Aristotle, so Fisch appropriates Karl Popper, it is a useful model.

The stress in all these essays is more on making the tradition usable (though some of our authors insist on the difficulties of doing that) than on learning from the tradition. There is, indeed, a lot to learn from the Jewish experience of sustaining a national identity and a common law without territory, sovereignty, citizenship, or, most of the time, coercive power. Some of that learning is visible here, but what is mostly on display in these essays is the effort to find features of Jewish experience . . .

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