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Jewish Journal

How Torah Revolutionized Political Theory

by Rabbi David Wolpe

February 11, 2009 | 8:46 pm

Why do we read the Bible? For religion to be sure, but also for politics. After all, unlike the New Testament, which was written in the era of Roman rules and did not have to offer prescriptions for governance (the Romans handled all that), the Bible was a manual not only for individual piety, but also for setting up a society. What does it teach that the surrounding worlds did not know?

First, the Torah teaches a fundamental lesson in freedom. The rabbis explain the rationale for freeing the Israelites from Egypt, despite the general acceptance of slavery in the ancient world. Human beings should be, the rabbis imagine God declaring, servants to me, and not servants to servants.

Such a characteristic rabbinic observation might serve as a recurrent motif for Joshua Berman’s study, “Created Equal: How the Bible Broke With Ancient Political Thought.” Berman combs through biblical tradition to distinguish it from the political organizations of surrounding cultures.

Berman’s book is an academic study. It requires an attentive readership but rewards the attention. To extract a few ideas from the book will give a sense of how powerfully the Bible changed the prevailing pagan assumptions of political thought.

1. Hierarchy. In a polytheistic world, there were hierarchies of gods. Any reader of Homer remembers the pre-eminence of Zeus, the divine rivalries and jostling. So in the polytheistic political world, hierarchy was a natural emulation of the divine realm. For classes not only to exist but also to be permanently enshrined in the political order, both made sense and was an earthly reflection of a cosmic reality. But the Torah teaches equality before a single God.

2. Kingship. The Bible is famously ambivalent about kings. Samuel warns the people that kings will treat them badly. The kings in the Bible are often condemned for their unholy action. There is little of the reverence that characterizes pagan accounts of monarchs. As Berman elaborates, having a single Divine King makes the kind of pre-eminence that pagan societies gave their sovereigns impossible. You cannot worship a king of Israel; you cannot be blind to his faults because there is an overarching order to which he must submit.

3. Secrecy. The book of Leviticus is often thought, well, somewhat dull. But in all the directions for the priests there is a powerful statement: the priestly class is not in possession of secret knowledge. That which they do can be known by anyone. As Berman notes, there is egalitarianism at the heart of the biblical world that is powerful, pervasive and revolutionary.

Berman’s chapters are titled “Egalitarian Theology,” “Egalitarian Politics,” “Egalitarianism and Assets,” “Egalitarian Technology” and “Egalitarianism and the Evolution of Narrative.” A simple but powerful reminder of such egalitarianism is the much-studied issue of ancient literacy. Who could read in the ancient world, and who needed to read? After the Middle Ages, the spread of literacy in the form of the printing press helped, Berman notes: “Literacy in ancient Israel was probably always the purview of professional scribes. But passages in Deuteronomy, Exodus, and the prophetic writings of the eighth and seventh centuries suggest that such texts should be produced for the masses, read to them, remembered by them, and transmitted by them.” All this, more than two millennia before the Reformation.

This legacy of political egalitarianism was crucial in shaping America. The pilgrims were intimately familiar with the Hebrew Bible; as Michael Walzer has chronicled in his superb “Exodus and Revolution” it was the story of the Exodus that provided the impetus for generations of people seeking political liberation.

Berman concludes his book by tossing a conceptual bridge across the ages: “If there was one truth the ancients held to be self-evident it was that all men were not created equal. If we maintain today that, in fact, they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, then it is because we have inherited as part of our cultural heritage notions of equality that were deeply entrenched in the ancient passages of the Pentateuch.”

The Torah was not only revolutionary in its time, but also remains revolutionary. Why did Bibles have to be smuggled into the former Soviet Union? Because the Kremlin knew that the principles shining through the Scripture could bring down tyrannies. The Torah changed the assumptions of the ancient world and helped forge the modern one. By reminding us of its ideals, Berman’s book reminds us how far we still have to go to reach them.

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