By Yedidya Schwartz
Jews and political power don’t mix, or so we are told. The Mishnah in Tractate Avoth exhorts us to “hate the regime” (Avoth, 1:5) without specifying who the regime is or what they’ve done to deserve such acrimony. It’s advice that we’ve taken to heart – even in the United States, one of the most benign governments Jews have encountered, we have been notorious for our involvement in protest movements that “speak truth to power” (the phrase comes from a pacifist pamphlet published in 1955 by Milton Mayer, an American Jew). I have a distant cousin who hated the regime so much that she was convicted of felony murder for participating in the anarchist Weather Underground. The chances are that if, a hundred years ago, you had asked almost any Jew in the United States or elsewhere for a Jewish perspective on political philosophy, they would have said something to this effect.
But with the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland and the establishment of the modern state of Israel, the field of Jewish political philosophy has sprung into vogue. Suddenly faced with the responsibility of self-governance, the Jews are beginning to ask: “what can Judaism tell us about politics?” Modern thinkers from Theodore Herzl to Joseph Soloveitchik to Bernard Avishai have posed this question, and each answer given thus far contradicts the next. All of them though, like deftly tailored secondhand clothing, emit a vague residual smell of the fashionable non-Jewish political culture to which their authors hold themselves answerable. If we, instead, want to discover an exclusively Jewish attitude toward politics, we ought to start with Jewish sources, even if it means temporarily suspending the cries of protest that may arise from our cosmopolitan sensibilities as we do so. Only after formulating what Judaism tells us about politics and society can we honestly decide whether or not such a message is worth defending.
So what does Judaism tell us? If we go back to the earliest sources of Judaism, and the development of the Jews in their communities throughout the Diaspora, we find that the Jews have from the first been an unyieldingly theocratic people, and that until modern times we always considered our theocracy to be our strength. Only after the Emancipation did Western Jews abandon the system of religious law meant to govern their societies, and this was the product of events beyond Judaism’s control – and a failure on our part to properly respond. In modern times, we face a unique opportunity to create a society based on authentic Jewish roots, with all of the advantages of the best-governed countries in the world. Jewish theocracy does not preclude these advantages, nor does it lead to any of the violence and abuses that our conventional wisdom ascribes to it. In fact, Jewish theocracy may provide the answers to problems and weaknesses that plague even the most successful of modern states.
It is not widely known that the first-century historian Josephus Flavius invented the term “theocracy” specifically to describe the Jews. As he presented the Judean theocracy, it offered an alternative to the archetypical Hellenistic systems of oligarchy, monarchy, and republican government. It relegated political power not to the hands of any limited earthly ruler, but to a God with an immutable interest in the good of the people and the world, and who upheld justice unconditionally, neither choosing favorites nor taking bribes. It is easy to see that Josephus’s description has its roots in the political passages of the Jewish Bible, passages that exhort governors to take recourse to the sublime character of God in their governance: as God is incorruptible so too shall you be; you shall not enslave your fellow, for you are all God’s slaves; you shall not expropriate and hoard land, nor abuse the earth, for the land is God’s (Deuteronomy 10, 16; Leviticus 25). Those few passages that speak of the institution of a flesh-and-blood king do so with wary reluctance; it is clear in the Bible that the institution of monarchy is a concession to the limited imagination of an ungrateful people. As the prophet Samuel pleads with the mob demanding a king, warning them of the arbitrary abuses that are the necessary consequence of mortal power – warnings that are all to be borne out in blood and tears – he shouts the essence of the divine law that Israel has despised: “But the Lord your God is your King!” (I Samuel, 8: 12).
This is the lesson that coalesced in the Jewish psyche during its tortuous introspection in the Babylonian exile. The outrages of the God-rejecting Israelite kings were still an open wound, as was the knowledge of the calamitous destruction which resulted. This lesson was hammered home again and again in the fire-and-brimstone prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. If ever in their national history the Jews knew this, they knew it now: that the rule of men cannot be trusted; that the rule of men brings disaster and weakness and arbitrariness; that it brings loss of purpose and faith in justice and the good and the right and the true. Only God could recoup these losses. Only in Him could they have faith and purpose, loving-kindness and true justice. Thus, when the Jews returned to their land, at the institution of the second commonwealth, their great national project sought to truly create the theocracy they saw commanded by God in His scriptures. But they were stymied by the most mundane question of all: how to actually realize such a kingdom of heaven on Earth?
This was (and, not surprisingly, remains today) the crucial question of theocracy. Early Jewish attempts were decisive failures. The heroic ascendance of the zealous Maccabeans crashed and burned in the corrupt despotism of the ensuing Hasmonean dynasty. Pious theocrats banded into utopian sects, intent on living isolated lives of unconditional servitude to divine decree, only to be crushed by their own denial of practical considerations or by Roman legionaries, whichever came first. By the end of the first century, as the Rabbis picked up the pieces of these two failures from the ruins of Jerusalem, two truths were clear to them: Firstly, that contrary to the beliefs of the Essenes, Masada zealots, and other pious separatists, theocracy must be a method for government of a real world – no fool’s paradise in the wilderness of the Judean desert, but rather for a world of thieves and empires and evil and base instincts: a world that truly needs government. Secondly however, the Hasmonean abuses proved that such real-world government is a dangerous game. It was clear that God himself was no longer in the business of enforcing His laws on this earth – could man arrogate to enforce the Law for Him? How can human beings, on a grand scale, appropriate the power of enforcement of divine law without the corruption of power? How can we avoid the failures of the utopian Jewish sects while at the same time eschewing the crimes of the Hasmoneans?
Rabbinic Judaism, as it developed in the Jewish Diaspora, became the answer to this dilemma. The newly re-exiled Jews created independent, self-sustaining communities governed by their own religious law, and supervised by its rabbinic arbiters. Though we tend to think of exilic Jewish communities as devoid of sovereignty, they nevertheless executed the majority of important communal functions, arbitrating monetary disputes, punishing criminals, collecting taxes, creating support systems for the poor and elderly, and organizing communal initiatives, capital projects, and events. The exact system of government of each community was never the same. Some relied upon a lay executive, elected councilmen and representatives, diplomats and community functionaries. But no matter what form the system took, everyone knew that the final authority was with God. The laws that governed the community were realistic laws for real people. They were interpreted, adjudicated, and enforced by men. But nevertheless, men were not the ultimate rulers. Under the Halakha – rabbinically expounded oral law – the human being was given the keys to power only as stewards of a higher will.
The rule of halakhic judges – rabbinic theocracy – allowed escape from the arbitrary tyranny to which Hasmonean theocracy had devolved. The law whence power was derived was not jealously guarded in the hands of one family or despot, but was a matter of public record, the subject of the oft-repeated Talmudic call to the entire congregation: “come and learn!” The ethic of Torah study that persists to this day within some Orthodox communities is a plea to the whole Jewish people to take responsibility for their own governance. The study and interpretation of the law is and was touted as the highest value for even the most common person, and anyone, through enough devotion, hard work, and wisdom, could gain the keys to the Halakha. The titanic effort, self-sacrifice, and experience that it took to become a trusted legal authority in a community was the assurance that leaders’ judgment was for the good of the collective and for the sake of God. Throughout two thousand years of exile, the Jewish communities of the Diaspora were beset with plagues and woes from countless directions. Yet they maintained at the hands of the Rabbis and pious town-elders what we might call “good governance,” not simply “good” in the weak utilitarian sense generally implied in the term, but good in a way that reflects religious notions of divine justice and mercy – a good with meaning.
And yet, where are we today? The overwhelming majority of thinking Western Jews reject divine law. We view theocracy as necessarily corrupt; we see rabbinic adjudicators as irrelevant, divorced from reality, caught up in abstract arcane legalism, and, in those instances where invested with power, autocratic, abusive, and set against all forms of Western freedom. Martin Buber said it best when he declared what exilic Judaism had become: “barren intellectuality … far removed from life … fed on bookish words, on interpretations of interpretations; poverty stricken, distorted and sickly…. increasingly directed against creativity itself, against all that was free, new, change promoting.” How did this move occur? Where did rabbinic theocracy lose its standing as the tried-and-true communal structure of Jews worldwide, and become the political pariah it is today in the West?
It happened because we do not live in a bubble. As is well known, Jewish theocracy was never the only game in town; there was another theocratic project occurring simultaneously on a larger scale, and with a good deal less success – the Catholic Church. In a way, the Church attempted to navigate the same set of issues as did the Rabbis – its authority constituted a centralized hierarchical structure responsible for the legislation of religious law. But in two significant ways it differed. Firstly, the Christian conquest of hordes of unaffiliated, uninterested barbarians did little to further a project of creating a community subject to the divine will. Jewish communities, from the first, operated in ethnically and religiously homogenous units. There were always differences of opinion, conflicts in leadership, and any other bickering that will occur in a healthy community, but no clash existed anywhere near as violent as Christianity’s imposition on the West-Germanic Saxon peoples in the Holy Roman Empire. As the conquering Christians quickly learned, it is easy to force a people to adopt a religion nominally, but it is difficult to infuse them with the unity of purpose held by a population that has grown, suffered, and survived together through millennia. (Islam, with its unconditional demand of subservience from the conquered, succeeded more in creating a religious empire.)
More importantly however, there was a unique ideological discrepancy between early Christianity and Judaism: the Church renounced divine Law as the regulating force of daily life. The Council of Jerusalem and Paul’s antinomian gospel paved the earliest foundation for a Christianity that demanded Orthodoxy over Orthopraxy – the rightness of belief over that of action. The Church moved further and further away from the type of holistic political system adopted by rabbinic Judaism, eventually restricting their legislation almost exclusively to points of dogma and ritual practice in the church. This move was calculated to ease maintenance of authority over an immense, diverse empire, but in the process it unknowingly lost all claim to real political power. By abandoning the Law, the Church sacrificed obedience in order to maintain the nominal loyalty of its subjects. But loyalty without obedience is a sham. Christendom was quickly filled to the brim with corrupt warlords squabbling to attain the official endorsement of the Church (usually offered to the favorite horse or the highest bidder). Priests openly flouted the standards of moral conduct set forth even by their own superiors. By the time Martin Luther posted his theses, the Church had descended to selling salvation to line the papal coffers. The Protestants demanded to know why on earth the Church should hold political power, if not to enforce good conduct? Isn’t such power simply a petty insistence of nominal fealty, a childish guardianship of weak points of dogma? The rest is history: an innovating, awakening Europe discovered that it had no need for a religious power whose sole reason for existence seemed to be its own self-indulgence.
This is what theocracy came to mean in the West, and continues to mean to this day – a weak, despotic clericocracy, clutching at the reins of power out of pure greed and contrariness. After all, what point is there in giving political power to so non-political a thing as religion? What engineer of a good society could be so foolish as to deliver the care of his populace into the hands of a dreamy club of theologians, concerned only with perpetuating itself?
So it came to be that the most powerful, prosperous civilization in the modern world mis-knew theocracy. And when it held out its hands, full of good will, riches, and opportunity, to the Jews, it also transmitted to them their suspicion of divine power. And we, faced with opportunities, commercial and social, that we had never before been offered by our gentile neighbors – how could we refuse? In our haste, we tore down the walls of our ghettos, flooding exultantly away from teachers and institutions that had seen us through the hardships of millennia, toward a new society brimming with liberty, equality, fraternity, and consumer goods. In our enthusiasm, we found it was not enough to mimic our new friends in matters of commercial enterprise, clothing, and customs; we felt the necessity to adopt their aversion to any kind of serious religion. We Jews needed our own reformation, and we were not hard-pressed to find our own, personal Catholic Church to rebel against: Halakhic Judaism.
The rabbis – alas – were only too happy to play the part scripted for them by the reformists. The tradition of the Law had been, up until that point, one of reasoned, wise judgment; the Rabbis had been specialists in applying divine commandments to changing circumstances. But now they panicked, reacting, as the Church had done, against thought, taking ill-advised stands on superficial points of dogma. Worst of all, many shut themselves off from the new reality, falling back into the trap of the pious sectarian utopians of the first century – these became the Ultra Orthodox. Those halakhic leaders that remained were forced to acknowledge the demise of their communities, and dutifully retreated to the enclosures delineated for them by the new society, the cages and pens of modern religion. Formerly communal leaders, today’s western rabbis are now merely religious leaders like the minister next door. They have despaired of a Law that can govern a people – the people no longer desire it. The Law is only now a personal, private matter, for the home, behind closed doors. Those who insist on heeding the divine call in every aspect of their lives are urged to have the decency to do so where no one civilized can see them. The Law of the Jews, the champions and stewards of true theocracy, has been abandoned.
We now have a Jewish state, and with it, the opportunity to recreate the Jewish religious political tradition that was wrenched away from us with the Emancipation. Should we take this opportunity? Should we reinstitute Jewish theocracy – halakhic Judaism – on the grand scale of the state? Could this be a way of regaining the communal unity, meaning, and purpose that the Jews have been striving for since 500 B.C.E.?
Because such a state has never existed, it is difficult to speculate as to what it would look like. Even the halakhically governed theocratic communities of the Diaspora differed considerably from one another in their exact systems of government, in line with the Talmudic assertion that “there are seventy faces to the Torah.” Divine law can take many forms, and it will constantly evolve, in reaction to changing circumstances, at the hands of the human beings who have earned the charge of implementing it. Surely any state it governs would have the diverse institutions of any well-governed country: regulatory agencies, public services, a military, police, tax collection, etc., all instituted and administered in accordance with the law of the land. As in any well-governed country, citizens would have the basic freedoms and responsibilities delineated under the law. And as in any well-governed country, those men and women who demonstrate the most wisdom and dedication would be appointed leaders of the community, stewards of the law. What makes theocracy unique however is this: instead of an earthly constitution of fading parchment, its law is the expression of divine will and higher purpose. Halakha is public policy from the font of divine authority, endowing the state with meaning and drive, and inoculating it against the corruption and self-interest that pervade the government of all secular societies – even those that do the best to mitigate them.
In our world of western democracy, of course, we respond to the suggestion of theocracy with ire. Isn’t the separation of church and state the most elemental of mankind’s inalienable freedoms? The minds of our generation know by heart the long list of infamies perpetrated by despotic empowered churches. They dwell on the travails of Galileo, on the Scopes monkey trial, or on infinitely worse horrors of religious persecution – of protestant sects in England, for example, or of the Jews everywhere.
But in truth, these episodes represent only weaknesses of a western theology devoid of the Law. With nothing useful to do, such theology comically turns the scriptures into the arbiters of science. Worse though, it demands unquestioning loyalty to religion while abnegating the responsibility of social control. Such religion slides inevitably into faction and sectarianism, just as the apolitical Judaism of the emancipated West splintered into bickering religious movements. It is easier to secede from the local sisterhood than from a sovereign state. Such crises are worst when a religion has arms but no tradition of responsible law delineating their appropriate use, as in the European wars of religion, the Inquisition, and other nightmarish events that inform the popular consciousness about theocracy.
True Jewish theocracy does none of this. It surely does not use ancient texts to deny logical inferences of scientific research: The great Rabbi Abraham, son of Maimonides, wrote explicitly in his “Letter concerning the aggadot of Chazal” that “we are not obliged, on account of the great superiority of the sages of the Talmud,” to “uphold their views in all of their sayings in medicine, in science and in astronomy.” To the contrary, Halakhic Judaism treasures the truth and the greater good, both of which the Jewish God unequivocally demands, and which can only arise with help from modern scientific advances. Nor can Jewish theocracy be liable to faction any more than a justly and wisely run secular government is prone to civil war. Just the opposite! Holding the reins of serious authority, it stands to reason that a government informed by the great care and caution of halakhic Judaism, by the Talmudic injunction to hear and respect every side of an issue, can only produce the most sensitive, just, and stable regime. With stewards carefully chosen and trained for just and wise arbitration of the divine law, it is perhaps the only government capable of delivering us from the contemporary ills of petty posturing, jealous power-grabbing, and political cruelty, all of which have ironically become our contemporary picture of theocracy.
Such theorizing may do little to convince us, especially while we remain in a world where theocracies are some of the least successful countries. Any skeptic of the utilitarian benefits of theocracy will demand that this essay address, for example, Iran – a theocracy that flouts international law, abuses basic human rights and freedoms, and threatens the annihilation of other states (the Jewish one, specifically!). Whole books could be devoted to the fascinating case of Iranian theocracy, and as I near the end of my allotted space, there is no way I can do the subject justice. However, I will challenge some of the unmitigated fury that we have for that country. I cannot apologize for the crimes and horrors perpetrated by the current Iranian regime, but I can point out that the preceding despotism of the Shah far outstripped it for cruelty and repression, and that the Islamic Revolution was a truly popular movement against the nihilistic corruption that characterized (and still characterizes) every secular regime in the Middle East. Even the furor over the 2009 election fraud, which platitudinous western media like Newsweek heralded as the death-knell of theocracy, involved democratic-minded protesters shouting “Allahu Akbar” – God is great! – in the streets, and the nation’s leading clerics supporting them. The Islamic Revolution, notwithstanding the mass executions of dissidents in its early years, has brought with it contested elections with progressive, reform-minded candidates and leaders, all speaking in the name of Islam. Theocracy is without a doubt a two-edged sword. It kindles a passion for the justice of one’s cause and the destiny of one’s country that can prove dangerous, but it can also bring great things to previously hopeless peoples. It can be the voice of unparalleled idealism.
I must finally insist that deficient as we are in understanding modern theocracy, we also hold inaccurate conceptions of democracy. We tend to think of democracy as the God of modern governmental systems, with the United States as its prophet. Though the United States is indeed one of the most successful countries in the world, we overestimate the role that its democracy plays in this. True (direct) democracy is primitive and unwieldy, and was famous in the ancient world for causing the collapse of its society or devolving into corrupt despotism – so much so that the framers of the United States Constitution needed to insist, to silence their critics, that the system that they proposed was not a democracy. The current successful model of American government is in fact a complicated fusion of democracy, oligarchy, aristocracy and technocracy, in which a party system, special interests, money-power, and a vast bureaucracy of unelected professional governors all converge to check the unreliable will of the populace. We learn in elementary school that the United States is built on a democracy per se, but it really rests on the dynamic, self-correcting multiplicity of governmental parts, constantly working in tandem with one another and in service of the common good.
Halakha too strives to distinguish realistically between multiple voices and concerns, but it provides something beyond checks and balances. As efficient and stable as the American leviathan is in providing for the utilitarian welfare of its citizens, it offers thin spiritual comfort. The American people have spent the duration of their country’s history seeking self-justification, trying to articulate a meaningful raison d’etat. Proposals have ranged from Manifest Destiny to industrial wealth, to social mobility, to multiculturalism to (most recently) the spread of democracy abroad, but in clutching at these straws we ignore the truth that none of these “higher” purposes is an unmixed good (the success of democracy in Gaza should be evidence enough to counteract such simplistic thinking in the final case; every surviving Native American is a living testament to the lunacy of the first). What kind of community satisfies the hunger for existential purpose without resorting to artificial, idealized political theories?
By obeying no mortal master, by subscribing to no fashionable ideology, by bending knee only to the highest Godly good, Jewish theocracy holds the key to the final layer of government, which must be superadded to a merely functional society. God does not seek to confiscate our socialized medicine, our elected representatives, our courts and political debates and freedom of thought, or our will to a better world. God, through His Law, enhances the human drive for the better, gives it meaning and purpose, and challenges man to hold himself and his society to a divine standard in the eternal quest for a perfect civilization.
The creation of the State of Israel has given the Jews our first opportunity to accomplish this task since 70 C.E., but thus far we have squandered it. Israeli society satisfies itself instead with weak imitations of various Western political systems. Though the Jewish State has worked wonders in creating an entire social and civic structure in less than a hundred years, the Israeli body politic is running further and further into a crisis of the soul. Today, the ghosts of the prophets cry out against the useless repetition of a cycle that began three thousand years ago. They cry out against the rise of the modern Jeroboams, the spiraling of the Jewish state into an orgy of meaningless atheism. They cry out against the reappearance of violent zealots, who forsake the responsibility that the law entails, and who would instead make God an arbitrary dictator. The words of the prophets are written in graffiti on the roadsides of Judean highways, they impose upon us from the slums of Bat Yam, from the slave-brothels and beachfront vice-holes of Tel-Aviv, from the soiled Jordan River, from depressed development towns, from abused strangers, and from countless widows and orphans. They cry out: “Man is a destitute king! The long sleep overtakes him, the void devours him, chaos overwhelms him – How long can he reign?
But the Supreme King judges in truth; his works are true, he does kindness and truth, abundant in charity and truth. His path is true, his seal is true – Forever may He reign!”
 Martin Buber, On Judasim, ed. Nahum Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1996), p.29-30
 From “The Supreme King,” High Holiday Liturgy