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Arkush Theocracy, Liberalism, And Modern Judaism

Arkush Theocracy, Liberalism, And Modern Judaism

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Theocracy, Liberalism, and Modern Judaism
 Allan Arkush
The paper examines the efforts of several Jewish thinkers to cope withthe discrepancy between the inherently theocratic principles of their religion and themodern, liberal ideas with which they wished to bring Judaism into harmony.It focuses first on Moses Mendelssohn’s attempt at the end of the eighteenth centuryto provide a rationale for the dissolution of Judaism’s coercive, collectivistdimension and to render the Jewish religion fully compatible, in practice, withliberalism. The next major focus is the recent work of David Novak, who hassought in different ways to show how one can proceed from traditional Jewishpremises to the endorsement of nonliberal political arrangements that nonethelesspreserve the best of liberalisms achievements. The final focus is on the Israelireligious thinker Isaiah Leibowitzs widely celebrated but in principle merelyprovisional relinquishment of the theocratic idea.
Sometime in the late 1980s, the newscaster Mike Wallace interviewed RabbiMeir Kahane on
60 Minutes
. Kahane was then still well known in theUnited States for his leadership of the militant Jewish Defense League, butat the time this program was broadcast, he was living in Israel, where hehad launched a new, extremist political movement.
A central plank of hisKach Party was the call for the expulsion of all of Israel’s Arab citizens.He even wrote a book in defense of this idea, which bore the title
They Must Go!
When he interviewed Kahane, Mike Wallace challenged him to explain anddefend this position. Kahane did so unflinchingly. Wallace’s response to hisethnocentric arguments and proposals was to exclaim, “But Rabbi Kahane,that’s not democratic!” Kahane immediately retorted, his voice oozing withcondescension, “Mr. Wallace, Judaism is not Thomas Jefferson.”ThesewordsmusthaverungfalseintheearsofMikeWallaceandmostotherAmerican Jews who heard them, but Kahane was making a valid point.
Thevalues we most commonly associate with the name Thomas Jefferson are not
See Robert Friedman,
The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane—From FBI Informant toKnesset Member
(Brooklyn: Lawrence Hill Books, 1990).
Meir Kahane,
They Must Go!
(New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1981).
For an account of the origins of the outlook Kahane was rejecting, see JonathanD. Sarna, “The Cult of Synthesis in American Jewish Culture,”
Jewish Social Studies
5(Fall/Winter 1998): 52–79.The Review of Politics 71 (2009), 637–658.
University of Notre Damedoi:10.1017/S0034670509990726
inallrespectsthesameasthevaluesofbiblicalandrabbinicalJudaism.Toputitvery briefly, Thomas Jefferson stands for religious freedom; traditional Judaismdoes not. Jefferson was a proponent of the separation of church and state; tra-ditional Judaism gives rise to no such idea. This does not mean, of course, that Judaism is Meir Kahane. There is very little warrant in Jewish tradition for hisextreme xenophobia, and there are plenty of texts that militate against it. Still,Kahane’s general odiousness does not vitiate the accuracy of his insight.Thomas Jefferson and traditional Judaism are poles apart.Far from being in essential harmony with liberal democracy, traditional Judaism is inherently theocratic. Indeed, the term
itself stems fromthe pen of a Jewish writer, the historian Josephus, who used it to describethe regime prevailing in ancient Israel, where, in his words, “all sovereigntyand all authority were in the hands of God.”
From the days of Josephus tomodern times, the Jews lacked a state of their own, and their theocracywas, therefore, more theoretical than real. It existed mostly in blueprints—the most elaborate of which are found in Maimonides’ legal compilation,the
Mishneh Torah
Nevertheless, throughout the ages when the Jews didnot live in a polity governed in accordance with what they took to be God’slaws, they never ceased to pray for its reestablishment.Maimonides himself explained in his
Guide for the Perplexed
how these lawssurpassed all others and were uniquely suited to advance people along theroad to human perfection.
Less philosophically minded Jews attributedother virtues to them. But they were all united in their longing for historyto end with the restoration of Israel to its former condition. The first Jewishthinker to abandon any such hopes was Baruch or Benedict Spinoza, wholived in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. In his
 , he expressed qualified approval for the ancient Jewish theocracy asa regime appropriate for a rather low-level populace, but he also consideredit to be altogether defunct, along with the rest of Judaism. In the same book,he expressed strong support for the idea of religious freedom and set forthone of the earliest arguments in favor of liberal democracy.
See Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum, and Noam. J. Zohar, eds.,
The JewishPolitical Tradition
 , vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 190, for the textfrom “Against Apion.” See also Clifford Orwin’s commentary on this passage on thefollowing page: “The very term ‘theocracy’ (Greek
), which Josephus eitherdevised himself or borrowed from an unknown source (2:165), represents anattempt to subsume the Jewish tradition under a non-Jewish category.”
See Abraham Hershman, trans., “The Code of Maimonides,”
The Book of Judges
 , book 14, Yale Judaica Series, vol. 3, The Code of Maimonides, Book XIV, The Bookof Judges, trans. Abraham Hershman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949).
See Howard Kreisel,
Maimonides’ Political Thought: Studies in Ethics, Law, and theHuman Ideal
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).
See Steven B. Smith,
Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity
(NewHaven: Yale University Press, 1997).
The first Jewish thinker who consigned theocracy to the past and, likeSpinoza, endorsed the freedom of religion but without repudiating the Jewishreligion was a man who lived a century after Spinoza: Moses Mendelssohn.Inthisessay,IwouldliketotakeacloselookatMendelssohn’smethodofachiev-inghisgoalofreconcilingJudaismwithliberalism.Afterdoingso,IwillfocusonthewaysinwhichothermodernJewishthinkersintheDiasporafollowedmoreorlessinhisfootstepsandthencontinuedfurtheralongthesamepath,affirmingliberalism much more unequivocally than he had. I will also consider at somelength a contemporary Jewish thinker, David Novak, who is much moreambivalent toward liberalism than Mendelssohn was and who has struggledunsuccessfullytodeviseanalternativetoitonthebasisofJewishtheocraticpre-mises, one that would still preserve some of liberalism’s key virtues. I will thenconsider some other, more traditional Jews, living in Israel, for whom the theo-cratic ideal remains alive, if not necessarily a guide to immediate action. I hopethat myreviewof thesematterswillshedsomelight ontheimpactofliberalismon at least one religion.Since Moses Mendelssohn is a man who may need an introduction, I willsay a few words about him. The product of a traditional Jewish environmentand education, the teen-age Mendelssohn (a name he was only later to selectfor himself) left the smalltown of Dessau for Berlin inthe 1740s solely in orderto continue his Talmudic studies. He soon began to supplement them,however, with the study of ancient and modern European languages and lit-eratures, mathematics, and philosophy. By the 1750s, he was composing hisown philosophical works, and by the 1760s, his writings on metaphysicsand his
 , a Leibniz-Wolffian reworking of Plato’s dialogue on theimmortality of the soul, had garnered him a European-wide reputation as“the German Socrates.”
In his works in German during the earlier stages of his philosophical career,Mendelssohn sought to steer clear of issues directly related to Judaism,although he could not completely escape the task of defending his religionagainst Gentiles who wished to convert him. When challenged by the Swissscientist and theologian J. C. Lavater to explain publicly why he was not con-vinced of the truth of Christianity, Mendelssohn sought to evade the question by contrasting Judaism’s reasonable ecumenicism with Christianity’sirrational exclusivism. His response to Lavater ended with this statement:
I have the good fortune of having for a friend many an excellent man whois not of my faith. We sincerely love each other, though we suspect that inmatters of religion we hold totally different opinions. I enjoy the pleasureof their company, which benefits and delights me. Never did my heartsecretly whisper to me: What a pity that such a lovely soul is lost! One
On Mendelssohn’s life see Alexander Altmann,
Moses Mendelssohn: A BiographicalStudy
(University: University of Alabama Press, 1973).

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