On Jewish Political Thought

August 7, 2007

A few summers ago I interned at The Shalem Center, a think tank and research center in Jerusalem.  Specifically, I worked for their publication Hebraic Political Studies, mostly doing the normal intern type stuff, working over footnotes, doing market research, and occasionally getting to do some interesting research, building a bibliography of primary sources for possible translation and/or publication.  Hebraic Political Studies is a peer reviewed journal, which publishes articles that “explore the political concepts of the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature, the significance of reflections on the Hebrew Bible and Judaic sources in the history of ideas, and the role of these sources in the history of the West.”  

In a letter from the editors printed in the first issue, they describe this project as compensatory.  The political thought of the Jews has been largely ignored over the years, for a variety of reasons, and it is the goal of this journal to illuminate the way in which the western political tradition has been influenced by Jewish sources. For the most part the focus on three sources of Jewish influence on the West’s political though.  The Bible, medieval philosophical though, exemplified by Maimonides, and the 16th century interest in Hebraism are the main foci of Hebraic Political Studies interest. 

All of this came to my mind the other day when I came across an essay by Ismar Schorsch called “On the History of the Political Judgment of the Jew,” from his collection From Text to Context: The Turn to History in Modern Judaism (Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 1994), in which he articulates what was always my major critique of Hebraic Political Studies.  In his essay, Schorsch notes that, at least in Europe, the Jews were almost always an autonomous group, “a state within a state.”  This status “gave rise to major institutions of self-government whose responsibility it was to administer the internal and external or, if you please, the domestic and foreign affairs of the community.”  That is, the history of the ways in which Jews organized their communities, and their debates and discussions about how they should do so, is the history of Jewish political thought.  This is an intensely powerful argument, brought to bear against those who argue that Jews do not have political though, but were politically impotent in the face of Christian oppression.

Shalem and Hebraic Political Studies are largely responding to the same issue, though implicitly, where Schorsch is explicit.  However, they ignore the massive body of Jewish literature not intended for non-Jewish consumption, and which failed to influence the west in any way, but which is explicitly political, in that it described the ways in which Jewish communities were organized, and how they should relate to their non-Jewish rulers.  It is instructive, I think, that of the various sources that the Hebraic Political Studies editors list on their website that they intend to investigate, the responsa literature, and the various Jewish court records, the primary depositories of information about the ways in which Jewish communities were organized, are not mentioned.  When I brought it up with the associate editor while I was working there, she dismissed such sources as not being proper political thought.  It simply seemed to be something they were not interested in exploring.  To be fair, it is not a subject which is on the agenda of many scholars.  The only person who I’ve seen do work that approaches these issues is Bernard Cooperman, from the University of Maryland.  He has published two papers, Political Discourse in a Kabbalistic Register: Isaac De Lattes’ Plea for Stronger Communal Government,” in Be’erot Yitzhak, Isadore Twersky Memorial Volume (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004) and “Theorizing Jewish Self-Government in Early Modern Italy” in Una Manna Buona per Mantova. Man Tov le-Man Tovah. Studi in onore di Vittore Colorni per il suo 92° compleanno (Florence: Olschki, 2004), both of which take close looks at particular cases in Early modern Italy which deal with the larger issues of how self-governing Jewish Communities should be organized.  More of this sort of work needs to be done, and I hope that when it is Shalem and Hebraic Political Studies will support and publish it.