Posted by Aryeh Cohen
The practice of democracy, the practice by which we may form a more perfect union, is not that different from the practice by which we try to move in deliberate but halting steps toward a more just world that embraces the presence of God. The practice of democracy does not begin at the ballot box, though the ballot is a necessary part of the practice. The actual democratic practice begins in the face to face conversation of two residents. The growth of this conversation outwards, in concentric circles, is the growth of a democratic movement. The essential moment is a moment of respect and response. It is a moment in which I hear your word as someone who is not me, someone who is outside me and not subject to my whims and wishes, yet someone who can and does challenge me to move toward the right and the just. By listening and responding, by arguing and parrying, by sharing essential concerns of community, we create a bond that can only be called political. The move beyond the dyadic conversation toward a third person and then on, is a move that differs in degree but not in kind. There is a challenge, as we move outward, to retain the essential core gesture of response, of recognizing the individuality of the voice as, in the move from one concentric circle to the next, the conversation grows to form a community and then a constituency. However, if grounded in that initial moment of face to face response, the constituency and even, ultimately, the country retains the aura of persons in a polity rather than the faceless mass of a "crowd" or a "mob". This is what is threatened when the political conversation is controlled by Super Pacs and their mega-donors—the space and the ability to practice democracy.
The power of that initial engagement between citizens reflects the belief that every person is created in the image of the Divine, as a reflection of the Holy. The Holiness is the power of speech. The world, as the Rabbis teach us, was created with speech. It is in this power of speech that the Divine resides in every person.
In one of the most intriguing stories of the Torah, Moses' father-in-law Jethro, a Midianite priest, rebukes Moses for taking on the role of sole legislator, of being the channel of oracular Justice. Jethro tells Moses that both he and the Israelites will be worn out if he takes this role upon himself as sole arbiter and medium of the Divine word. Jethro convinces Moses to appoint others, qualified, respected others to also sit in judgment and deliver justice. God apparently supports this suggestion, which Moses immediately follows. In the next chapter, at the time of Moses' ascent to the top of Mount Sinai, God declares that Israel as a whole is "a nation of priests and a holy people." It is not necessary for there to be one single person who acts as a conduit for the word of God. There are many, many people who can fulfill that function.
Revelation itself, according to one prominent strain of Rabbinic tradition, was not a monolithic imposition of one divine voice upon a multitude. Rather, the sixth century collection Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael (BaHodesh 9) commenting on Exodus 20:16 pictures the revelation as multiform and plural: "And all the people heard the thunderings and the lightnings": "But how many thunderings were there and how many lightnings were there? It is simply this: They were heard by each man according to his capacity, as it is said: 'The voice of The Lord was heard according to the strength.' Rabbis say: This is to proclaim the excellence of the Israelites. For when they all stood before mount Sinai to receive the Torah they interpreted the divine word as soon as they heard it."
There are two vitally important ideas here. Each person heard the revelation in a unique way, and upon hearing the revelation each person immediately interpreted it in a unique way. In other words, six hundred thousand Torahs were received at Sinai. Without any one of them the Torah would be deficient. Each voice and each interpretation is a unique contribution to God's revelation. According to a Hassidic tradition, the revelation was intentionally mediated and obscured so that there would be room for interpretation and midrash.
In Deuteronomy, God commands Moses to appoint "judges" and "overseers" in all of Israel's gates. They will judge the people justly. It is not a system with one high point from which justice flows, rather it is a horizontal system that disperses the word through many words that brings everybody closer to justice. The command to appoint justices is followed immediately by the prohibition against bribery, and the command to pursue justice.
When the Rabbis imagined the Great Sanhedrin, the high court and the great judicial deliberative body, they regulated the court’s deliberation such that the most junior members are given the right to speak first so that they would not be intimidated by the more senior members.
The rabbinic study hall itself, the place of the give and take that is of the essence of Torah study—and is itself Torah—is grounded in and dependent upon individual and unique voices clashing and cooperating to close in on some multivocal truth of Torah. When Rabban Gamliel, one of the great Sages of Israel attempted to short-circuit the free flowing conversation by embarrassing another Sage, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabban Gamliel himself was deposed. His autocratic style did not serve Torah well. After he was removed from the patriarchal seat, the guards were removed from the doors to the study hall, and the benches—previously empty—were filled. Torah study, the primary act of worship and of imitating God, was rooted in a nascent democratic practice.
This is not to argue that Rabbinic Judaism foreshadowed or envisioned a democratic polity. The opposite might actually be the truth—in their minds the ideal society would have king and high priest, and yet the authority, by some force of will, would rest in the hands of the Sages. Women were to a large extent (with fascinating exceptions) excluded from this picture. However, I would suggest that with the move from the medieval world to the modern world, a move that was ultimately bound up in the move toward democracy, Rabbinic culture had enough proto-democratic tools in its theological and practical pouch that the embrace of democracy was not necessarily a stretch.
In the fifteenth century Don Isaac Abravanel, philosopher, Bible exegete, and treasurer to Queen Isabella of Spain, was a harsh critic of monarchy. He understood all monarchy (both the ancient Jewish monarchy of David and Solomon, and the contemporary monarchy of the “nations”) as ultimately interested only in its own power. Abravanel argued that the more limited the power of a ruler the better. If a ruler only had a short tenure, he could only cause so much harm. If a ruler had to fear the courts like any other man he would proceed with caution, and not rule capriciously.
Abravanel saw a glimpse of the ideal in the republican government of medieval Venice, which he described as the exemplar of a rule based on the actions of deliberative bodies. Abravanel interpreted the command to appoint judges and overseers of Exodus 24 with the help of Deuteronomy 1:13: “Get you wise and understanding and knowing men according to your tribes, and I shall set them at your head.” “Get you,” he explained, is the result of an electoral process, such that the wise and understanding and knowing men are chosen by the people and then set at their head. He also argues that the scope of their deliberations is not limited to civil or criminal disputes, but, rather, they were tasked with deciding affairs of state, of war and peace.
Don Isaac’s younger contemporary, Niccolò Machiavelli, (in the Discourses on Livy) came to a position similar to Abravanel’s concerning democracy. He argues “that the republic governed by words and persuasion—in sum, ruled by public speech—is almost sure to realize the common good of its citizens; and even should it err, recourse is always open to further discourse. Non-republican regimes, because they exclude or limit discursive practices, ultimately rest upon coercive domination and can only be corrected by violent means.”
Abravanel and Machiavelli, both raise up the power of deliberation, discourse and dialogue amongst people as the preferable form of rule. These ingredients of democratic practice are given a theological frame with the idea, quoted by Machiavelli and inherent in the Rabbinic understanding of revelation cited above, that vox populi vox Dei, the voice of the people is the voice of God. This represents a radical move in which the locus of authority shifts from the authority of the one monarch, or even from the one representative of the Divine, to the words, the voice of the people—that in people which is, at core, Divine. Jacob Taubes, a mid-twentieth century Jewish intellectual, ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi, who was born in Vienna and died in Berlin (but spent a good deal of the fifties, and sixties in the United States) articulated this idea very well.
[T]he fundamental difference between the symbolic structure of a democratic order and the royal symbolism of theistic liturgy concerns the sanction of authority. In the symbolic structure of the democratic order, the consent of the people establishes law and order: democracy implies that the people are the only sovereign, the ultimate authority. The will of the people is always right—or at least more often right than any individual will—and represents the highest law of the state. The government functions in the name of the people and has no authority of its own. In Lincoln's statement on "government of the people, by the people, for the people" the anti-hierarchical symbolic structure of the democratic order finds powerful expression. The authority of the government is not derived or ordained from "above" but guaranteed in a mystical equation of the vox populi with the vox Dei. (emphasis added) (Jacob Taubes, “On the Symbolic Order of Democracy,” in Confluence: An International Forum, 1953.)
It is then, the free exchange of ideas between people on which the whole democratic project, the project of creating a more perfect union, rests. Rabbi Chayim Hirschensohn (a prominent Palestinian-born scholar who moved to the United States in early twentieth century and served as the Rabbi of Hoboken, New Jersey) stresses the fact that immediately following the commandment to set up “judges” and “overseers” is the commandment: “You shall not skew judgement. You shall recognize no face and no bribe shall you take, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the innocent.” (Deut. 16:19)
The “you” in this verse, as Hirschensohn understands it, is not limited to specific judges dealing with matters of civil or criminal law. The object of this command is, rather, the people as a whole who must deliberate and then choose their representatives who will then further deliberate in order to legislate, to rule. This interaction that is grounded in the exchange of ideas between citizens face to face is the guarantor of democratic process and outcome.
Injecting unlimited amounts of money and the distorting power of media into the mix deliberately undermines this deliberative process. The decision reached by the United State Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, attacks the fundamentals of a democratic practice. Attaching personhood to a faceless corporation does nothing to increase speech. The opposite is true. By dint of unlimited donations, anonymous donors to political action groups (which have to pose as social welfare groups) stymie the possibility of dialogue.
The effect of massive infusions of cash into the democratic process, transforms citizens from practitioners to spectators, from participants to observers. The public discourse moves off the issues themselves, the give and take of ideas and values, and rests upon the impact and the power of the few mega-donors and their SuperPacs. It is to the detriment of democracy when we are all conversant with the “horse race” side of electoral politics but not fluent in the language of policy, nor knowledgeable of the outcomes of the race itself.
These massive infusions of cash (in the form of various types of media) work to intimidate opposition to any issue. Even the threat of that type of massive deployment of money is itself a threat, which can stop deliberation in its tracks.
Finally, the atmosphere that is created by a politics of the plutocracy, is one in which citizens are left in cynical silence believing that an individual opinion or even an individual vote does not matter. The Court’s argument that “The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy,” seems on its face absurd when one looks at levels of participation in elections. It is perhaps this, which is most dangerous of all. If ultimately the SuperPacs and the mega-donors succeed in convincing the citizenry that elections are bought and paid for, it is the practice of democracy that will suffer and be irreparably damaged. A community and a polity so damaged will not long endure.
This post was commissioned by Auburn Seminary as part of a set of theological white papers on the topic of Money in Politics that will be published in March 2013.
6.12.13 at 4:21 pm | In the wake of the Lebanon War (which started 31. . .
6.2.13 at 5:59 pm | For some reason I don’t think that any of the. . .
5.29.13 at 6:09 am | These are the thoughts with which I find myself. . .
5.13.13 at 8:40 am | And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean. . .
5.7.13 at 7:16 pm | The Rabbinic tradition transvalued the warriors. . .
4.23.13 at 5:22 pm |
5.13.13 at 8:40 am | And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean. . . (6)
6.12.13 at 4:21 pm | In the wake of the Lebanon War (which started 31. . . (2)
9.30.12 at 12:33 pm | (1)
February 8, 2013 | 5:52 am
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
What is it that the Jewish community brings to the discussion of immigration? What learned wisdom do we have to share?
It is true that the Jewish people is a people born and nurtured in the Diaspora, as immigrants, as strangers and sojourners on the way to or from somewhere else, making temporary or permanent homes in foreign lands. As the French Jewish Bible scholar and thinker Andre Neher points out, beginning with Abraham, the Israelites spent more time wandering and living outside of Canaan and the Land of Israel than residing in it. As soon as Abraham follows the Divine directive and leaves Haran and arrives in the Land of Canaan, there is a famine and he and Sarah and the whole household hit the road again. This story repeats itself until three generations later the Israelites settle as sojourners in Egypt for four hundred years.
The Torah itself ends with the Israelites camped in the desert across from the Land of Israel, not having crossed over the Jordan yet. The Jewish canonical Bible ends just as Cyrus authorizes the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple and resettle the land, but before they actually return. This is an important point since the final book of the Jewish Bible (the TaNaKh—Torah, Nevi’im/Prophets, Ketuvim/Writings) is not historically the last book. Chronicles ends the canon, but the books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the walls and the rededication of the Temple. The canonical choice then is making a point—a point about the importance of the Diasporic experience.
Further, the vast majority of the Jewish textual tradition was produced in Babylonia, Kairouan, Fez, Toledo, Barcelona, Burgos, Troyes, Dampierre, Medzhybizh, Vilna, Warsaw and on. The library of Jewish knowledge is a Diasporic library written by a diglossic people, the second learned language was always the rabbinic Hebrew of the sacred tradition. (In truth, the Jews were usually triglossic, speaking also a Jewish language in addition to the language of the place they lived and the holy language in which they studied and composed.) And so, there are those who say that what we bring to the table is the memory and experience, the truth and the travails of having lived in many, many lands as foreigners, sojourners, immigrants and refugees, documented and undocumented. This is true, of course, but there is more.
It is true that the foundational tale of the Jewish people is the Biblical story of the Exodus, in which we are narrated as having toiled for four hundred years as slaves, and so, the Torah reminds us: “you know the soul of the stranger.” The wisdom gained from this servitude is that the lesson of oppression is compassion. We who understand slavery, being marginal laborers, are mandated to be compassionate to those who know toil at the margins and under the radar.
There is something to this narrative, however I think that what we bring to the table is neither the history of our sojourns and tribulations—though that too. Nor is it the story of slavery in Egypt. There is no one alive who remembers what it was like to be a slave. Vicarious suffering does not create empathy, nor is it, to my mind, a solid ground for good politics.
What we bring to the table is a different part of the story—the part where the Israelites stand on the other side of sea, the side of freedom and liberation, and exult. What we bring to the table is the possibility of being liberated, of knowing that the tables do turn and that political structures of hierarchy and oppression are not eternal. They change.
We bring this and one other thing. Leviticus 19:2.
“You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
Generations and centuries of scholars and scholarship have tried to understand how to fulfill the command: ‘You shall be holy.’ How is one to be holy? What is a practice of holiness? What is it that one does in order to become holy? In the twelfth century in Spain, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (known as Nachmanides) explained that this command is saying: Do not be “a scoundrel within the bounds of the Torah.” There are many things that are permitted and forbidden according to Jewish law. According to Nachmanides this extra prohibition comes to warn that one could follow the letter of the law and still be a scoundrel.
It is this frame which we can bring to the discussion of undocumented immigrants. We must warn against being a scoundrel within the bounds of the law. We can bring to the conversation the idea that citizenship is not only about a piece of paper. As Jeffrey stout writes:
An individual counts as a citizen in the formal sense only if he or she is recognized as such under law. The legal system confers the official status of a citizen on particular individuals. But when the legal category is applied in an arbitrarily narrow way, it can come into conflict with an informal process of mutual recognition among the people. In a broader sense, then, citizens are individuals who treat one another as bearers of the relevant kind of responsibility. To be a citizen, in this sense, is to be recognized by others as such, or more strongly, to be worthy of being recognized. (Blessed are the Organized, pp 10-11)
We must bring to the table the forceful idea that a large population of undocumented people have been working and contributing to this country, creating communities, raising families, more and more being involved in weighty political conversations that effect everybody in the country—in short have been behaving like citizens—for many years.
While not using the notion of holiness, the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit articulates a similar point.
Since a decent society involves respect for humans, and humiliating any human being is wrong, no distinction should be made in this regard between members of the society and people in its orbit who are not members. It is for this reason that I do not define the decent society as one that does not humiliate its members, but extend the concept to include anyone under its jurisdiction. (The Decent Society, p. 150)
What we must bring to the table is the idea that if we are to become a holy society, a more perfect union, we cannot systematically humiliate and discriminate against fourteen million people. We must finally recognize them as being, for the most part, the citizens that they already are, and make that official.
My book Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism is available here.