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.

A Content Free Link

July 29, 2007

That’s a bit of a lie.  The link (to a comment at The Valve), in fact, is chock full of content.  The post, however, lacks any content aside from the link.  Which I found interesting.

A Lost Blog and the Future of Academic Blogging

July 17, 2007

Today for the first time I came across a short lived and unfortunately defunct blog called Giluy Milta B’alma. The idea was that it would be a forum to publish and discuss new and interesting findings in Hebrew manuscripts. The five posts that exist are somewhat uneven, but valuable for all that. It is a shame that the project did not work out, and here, presented in a roundabout, but hopefully useful way, is why.

There has been a great deal of discussion over the last few years about what academic blogging is, can be, should be, will be, etc…, from the UC Davis panel on “Historical Blogging and the New Media,” to the various ruminations at The Valve. (The link is to John Holbo’s, who has thought about these ideas as much, if not more, than anybody, long post introducing The Valve, what it is and what he wants it to be. It is pretty close to a programmatic statement on his vision of what academic blogging should be. Not all of his co-bloggers agree, and it’s worthwhile to poke around the place, read the comment threads and trackbacks and piece together some of the debates that surround Holbo’s vision of the future of blogging in academia. These issues are also addressed by a number of the bloggers on my blogroll.) I don’t want to rehash all of that, others have said it better than I could. The two links I posted above barely scratch the surface of what is a very interesting and productive conversation which has been going on for several years. But in all the time I’ve been following that debate, I never saw anybody suggest something quite like Giluy Milta.

The idea is to present either preliminary findings that are not yet ready for publication, or that are too short to merit a full length article. The blog format perfectly fits this project for two reasons. First of all, it is suited for shorter length pieces, such as “I was poking around in the archives today, this is what I found…:” The sort of things that you always want to put in papers, but don’t really belong there. The second reason is that blogs have built in space for discussion. “That fragment that you found? I think it might actually be…” A blog like Giluy Milta is, or would be, a fantastic forum for just those sorts of discussions.

In a certain sense this sort of project is a mirror image of John Holbo’s book events at The Valve, Crooked Timber and other sites. He and his colleagues bring their expertise to bear on scholarship which has already been produced. Book events stimulate discussion of what’s going on in a field, and contribute to the next phase of scholarship to an extent, but at the end of the day they are not actually part of the process of producing original scholarship. I think Giluy Milta points to a way that blogging can contribute to that production.

Unfortunately, right now two crucial components are missing. There is no audience, and consequently no group of contributors. To be successful, this sort of project needs a large number of contributors who are willing to take the time to post their archival findings online. It also requires people to read their contributions and comment on them, to create the lively sort of forum we see at the Valve. Without contributors, there will never be an audience. Somebody with some clout and some connections needs to get behind a project like this, and get others excited. If that were to happen, I think that it would open up a new opportunity for online scholarship.