Civil Society and Government
NOAM J. ZOHAR
DOES THE Jewish tradition have anything to say about civil society? The answer depends as much upon how civil society is defined as upon any investigation into Judaic sources. According to one rather strict conception, the entire notion of civil society—and the ideals, problems, and solutions attributed to it—is situated within the framework of modern ideologies of individualism and liberty. Insofar as traditional Judaism does not adopt this democratic stance, with its emphasis on individualism and liberty, it must regard the project and problematics of “civil society” as inherently alien.1
Now in fact I believe that the distance between traditional Judaism and democratic thought is smaller than is often suggested; the notion of individual rights, for example, finds expression in classical halakic discussions, as will be illustrated below. But my exposition in this chapter will not be built upon this contested ground. Instead, I will seek to apply Judaic sources and insights to the issues of civil society, arguing by extension and analogy. In so doing, I will adopt a broad notion of “civil society,” covering the entire set of institutions and associations that stand between the individual and the overarching state.
In discussing these matters from the perspective of the Jewish tradition, it is essential to distinguish between three main periods. First, there is the biblical period, when Israel existed as a sovereign kingdom (or rather, mostly, two parallel kingdoms). Then, there is the long period of exile, when disparate Jewish communities lived within gentile states or empires, often exercising some degree of autonomy. And finally, there is the modern state of Israel, proclaiming itself a “Jewish and democratic state.”
This division into periods is meant as no more than a rough sketch. For in the biblical narrative Israel begins its history, as it were, in a state of exile, from the Patriarchs' residence in Canaan to the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt. Then too, during the last centuries of the period of the Hebrew Bible, most of the people lived again in exile, with only a small segment returning to found the Second Commonwealth.2 And even though the Jewish population in the land of Israel later grew larger,