Judaism and Civil Society
SUZANNE LAST STONE
THERE IS NO term for, much less a theory of, civil society in classical Jewish texts.1 Rabbinic writers do not produce theories; they produce commentaries on a biblical or talmudic text, codes of law, and legal responsa. These sources, moreover, are extremely diverse, covering over two millenniums of history, and were for the most part generated in premodern exile, when Jews lacked a state of their own; lived in compact, internally autonomous, and religiously homogenous communities scattered across continents; and were segregated from general society legally, politically, and socially. Without a state of their own, and with little sense of belonging to the host states in which they live, rabbinic writers do not discuss the role of society in relation to the state. So, the Jewish tradition has little to contribute to the civil society/state debate. If one understands civil society, instead, as “an ethical vision of social life,”2 concerned with the conditions for establishing bonds of social solidarity between diverse members of society and shaping rights of association to promote such bonds, then Judaism has much to contribute to the discussion.
The topic of forging and maintaining overlapping bonds of social solidarity not only among the community of Jews but also in a pluralistic social world appears throughout Jewish literature, beginning with the biblical portrayal of the terms and conditions of Israelite associational life with other groups living in the biblical polity. This discussion is continued in rabbinic sources that reconstruct Israel's biblical past and messianic future, although without reference to any actually existing Jewish polity. The rabbinic tradition developed a theory of what constitutes not a “civil society” but, rather, a “civilized society.” The Jewish tradition thus offers its own ethical perspective on the criteria necessary to establish trust, bonds of social solidarity, and duties of association in a pluralistic world, which I shall describe in the first part of this chapter.
Whether this particular ethical vision of social life can be applied meaningfully today is a difficult and pertinent question. Although the traditional rabbinic division of time views all history between the destruction of the Temple in the first century and its hoped-for rebuilding