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.


The Limits of The Limits of Orthodox Theology

July 12, 2007

Marc Shapiro responds to a recent review of his book The Limits of Orthodox Theology in Jewish Action at Seforim Blog. This has ignited quite the controversy in the comments over there. While it’s been a couple years since I read the book, I confess that at the time it did not strike me as that big a deal. The thesis is that Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith have not been universally accepted, and even where they have, they were not always considered to be essential dogma. While I was impressed with the incredibly broad bikius that Prof. Shapiro brought to the issue, I was not surprised by his conclusion, which really was fairly limited. Yeshaya Leibowitz discusses it in a few places, though nowhere near as thoroughly as Prof. Shapiro. While it was certainly interesting to be exposed to Prof. Shapiro’s erudition, it was hardly shocking to see the extent of the sources he cited. That being said, I understand why it might come as a surprise to people who are used to thinking of Jewish theology as a continuous train of theology from Moses up to the present. At the very least, The Limits of Orthodox Theology will provide some kiruv rav with a lot of material to harmonize.

None of this is what I want to address here, however. One of the main points of debate in the comments thread focuses around a review of Prof. Shapiro’s book by Rabbi Yosef Blau. R. Blau does not seem to be disturbed by the information Prof. Shapiro presents, he praises that aspect of the book. His major critique is that The Limits of Orthodox Theology does not present a viable alternative to the dogmatic structure it questions. In the comments at Seforim the question arose as to whether R. Blau’s critique is a valid one. Should a Jewish Studies professor, writing a book on historical reactions to the RaMBaM be compelled to respond to the theological concerns of Orthodox Jews? Conversely, is that what Prof. Shapiro was doing? Or was the book directed to the modern Orthodox world as an attempt to combat a dogmatic rightwing perspective? If that is the case, then is it Prof. Shapiro’s responsibility to present some sort of alternative to that perspective?

Frankly, I’m not sure that either of these two readings correctly pegs The Limits of Orthodox Theology. One of my undergraduate professors (also a YU musmach) once criticized David Berger’s The Rebbe, The Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference by saying that, “He wrote it wearing his rabbi hat, when he should have been wearing his professor hat.” I think the issue with understanding Prof. Shapiro’s book is that he isn’t sure which hat he’s wearing. On the one hand, the bulk of the book is a scholarly treatment of historical reactions to the principles. It was published by Littman, an academic press. It certainly counted towards tenure. On the other, as R. Blau notes, he specifically puts the work in the context of increased dogmatism in Orthodox Judaism. The tone of the book certainly makes it seem as if he wants to combat that dogmatism. He also makes the point that he believes that Judaism does have some central beliefs. All of this leaves the reader feeling somewhat confused. Is the book an anti-Charaidi polemic, or is it a measured scholarly work? Is it intended to be taken as both?

Prof. Shapiro’s research interests correspond with his personal and religious interests. This is perfectly normal and unsurprising, and I don’t think it taints his work at all. However, this coincidence of the two sometimes leaves us with a somewhat muddled picture of exactly what it is that he is trying to do with a given work. (The same is true, to an extent, of Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox. Is that book a measured evaluation of the relationship between R. Lieberman and Orthodoxy, or is it a polemic directed at the Orthodox rabbinate to admit R. Lieberman into the canons of rabbinic thought? Well, it’s a little of both.) So long as we can recognize this for what it is, he has a lot that is tremendously valuable to offer, but because he does not fully commit either way, he may also fall short of some people’s hopes.

No Clever Titles Here

July 4, 2007

Mississippi Fred refers to a comment thread at Hirhurim, which raises an interesting problem for orthodox Jews with a critical bent. (The thread is long, the relevant part starts at timestamp The debate is over R. Akiva Eiger’s attitude towards Mendelsohn and his Biur, but the problem runs deeper than that.

There is an inherent tension between critical historical thinking and orthodox Jewish thought. There are all sorts of ways to negotiate that tension, those don’t interest me just now. I want to explore the tension a bit. The fundamental problem is epistemological. How do we know what we know? Based on our sense data mediated by reason? Or do we trust to revelation, mediated by tradition? Those of us who live within religious traditions take revelation seriously, but what part of that tradition is revealed? How do these questions relate back to R. Eiger’s relationship to Moses Mendelsohn?

For those who take a maximalist position vis-à-vis the question of tradition’s relationship to revelation, it becomes impossible that a pious historical personage could disagree with contemporary theological ideas, because all of theology was revealed. When I was in Yeshiva, at a nominally Religious Zionist institution, I would ask one of the rebbeim questions about questions about statements of Chazal that seemed heterodox by contemporary standards. He would always preface his answers (which were rarely satisfying) with, “Well, you have to understand, you can’t take these things at face value,” which drove me batty. The point of all of this is just to say that the tension is very real, and to argue about particular details, though important, ignores the larger issue. For example, this Shabbat I mentioned in passing to a young friend of mine who attends the local Charaidi yeshiva high school that the Septuagint was an early Translation of the Bible written for a Jewish audience. He took exception to this, as it contradicts Chazal’s claim that it was commissioned by Ptolemy. We couldn’t even argue about it, because we were coming from different epistemological positions. He was unwilling to entertain the possibility that Chazal might have been wrong in this case, that some aggadic material might be historically inaccurate. He was very concerned that I was claiming it might be.

At the end of the day we have to draw lines for ourselves. What part of tradition is revealed, and what isn’t? This is a longstanding debate in the Jewish tradition which maximalists want to ignore, or interpret out of existence. I don’t have any answers to these questions, but it is useful to at least articulate them.

Critical Nationalist Historiography

July 1, 2007

Daniel Larison’s recent posts at the new American Scene (which should be read by everybody, though how anybody can keep up with the frenetic pace at which its crack staff of writers updates is a mystery to me) in response to this Bill Bennett article, along with a conversation I had in shul this morning, have got me thinking hard on the subject of secondary school history education. Why do we teach history to kids?


Bennett suggests that we teach history in order to instill a love of our country in our children, what Larison derisively calls “progressive nationalist historiography in which the Chosen People move from strength to strength.” Larison’s ideal history curriculum provides “students with a fundamental understanding of how to think about past events, how to analyse evidence and respond to interpretations of that evidence, and how to organise knowledge about the past into some coherent framework.” Given a choice between these two extremes, my sympathies lie with Larison. It seems self-evident to me that the primary goal of history education should be to teach our children to think intelligently about history, and to engage critically with historical material.

Even so, he misses a sense in which Bennett’s larger point is correct, as silly as some of his supporting points may be. It is not an accident that critical historical scholarship rose in Europe at the same time as Nationalism. There is a reason that American history is a central part of the curriculum in American high schools, whereas the respective histories of Korea, Malaysia and Denmark are ignored. The fact that we teach our history to our students is part of a deeply rooted nationalist element in American society. Yes, Bennett does advocate excessive Jingoism in the classroom. That is not a reason to pretend that part of the motive for teaching American history in our schools is to show students what it means to be American, to illustrate the various principles on which our constitution was based, and how those principles were followed, transformed or ignored in subsequent years. I don’t see why the two cannot be combined. Teaching our students to deal with the mess that is historical evidence and to piece it together into a coherent framework can be done in a way which leaves students feeling respect for the country where they live. As Larison says, Bennett is an easy target, as his particular complaints are overblown. That does not change the fact that we teach our students their country’s history at least partially because we want them to understand the narrative of which they are the most recent chapter, and to have respect for it.