Posted by Aryeh Cohen
Michael Walzer’s book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible makes a slightly controversial though eminently plausible argument. The book is an interesting analysis of the politics of the Bible by a political scientist, who is not a biblical scholar, but has written an important book on the uses of the Exodus story by liberation movements (Exodus and Revolution). After all the caveats, Walzer’s central claim is that the Bible writes in the tension between being born into the covenant, and affirming the covenant or taking it on of one’s own free will. This is the central theme of the Bible, and not any specific manner of governance. There is no room, according to Walzer for politics in the Bible, since all authority ultimately rests with God. There is also no call for communal action. The Bible, according to Walzer has an anti-politics. Isaiah, for example, rails against those who would ignore the widows and the poor on their way to the Temple, yet he does not try to organize the poor or lobby the priesthood. Or when Ezekiel castigates Judah for rehearsing the sins of Sodom—the sins of hoarding their riches and not sharing them with poor—he is not looking for a legislative or political remedy—he is channeling God’s rage at injustice.
It is an interesting book, and Walzer recognizes and notes all the difficulties in making specific claims about a text whose interpretation has been contested for centuries. He notes the usefulness of the scholarly and traditional interpretive literature for understanding certain questions, but not others.
Walzer apparently reprised the gist of his argument at a YIVO conference on the demise of the historical partnership between Jews and the left. Some on the right trumpeted Walzer’s presence as a final sign that there is no basis in traditional Judaism for a politics of the left. Walzer, after all, is the long-time editor of Dissent and a social-democrat—and he is claiming that the left-Jewish alliance is as a castle on sand. Check-mate. There is no, nor has there ever been a basis for leftist politics, for social justice advocacy grounded in any traditional Jewish textual framework. The Tablet’s Adam Kirsch and Jewish Ideas Daily‘s Alex Joffe could barely contain themselves.
Something, however, is seriously off here. It is true that the hard-line Yiddishist/Bundist/secularist/anti-religious/communist left is dead or breathing its last. (The Yiddishist wing was recently given an entertaining eulogy by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle.) However, this left never made any claims at all on the tradition. It laid claim to the folk and culture and opposed the tradition. Over the past thirty years or so, a different Jewish left has formed. Inspired by the civil rights movement, by the way that Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke prophetically, this movement embraces the textual tradition (even if, at times, in a non-traditional way).
Here is where the punditocracy of the right has missed the point. The Bible is not “the tradition.” The Bible becomes traditional only with the advent of Rabbinic Judaism and textuality—Mishnah, the Talmuds, and following. This is where the tradition also becomes political. It is in Rabbinic literature that the courts demand that employers follow the path of the righteous; the city assesses its residents to support the poor and to create a wide ranging social safety net; the king is imagined as having to stand trial by the court; that there is an obligation to dissent and protest against wrongdoing, and on and on. Walzer of course knows this. He edited the multi-volume The Jewish Political Tradition after all, and in In God’s Shadow he consistently distinguishes between the Biblical and the Rabbinic.
The contemporary Jewish social-justice movement is in this sense a rabbinic movement. The texts that inform the actions of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, Jewish World Watch, American Jewish World Service, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, and Uri L’tzedek (among others) are rabbinic texts or texts that are understood within a rabbinic framework. From the rote and often meaningless use of the phrase “tikkun olam” to the thoughtful volumes produced by Jill Jacobs, Eliot Dorff, Shmuley Yanklowitz, or my own book (in which the phrase tikkun olam does not appear), the Jewish social justice movement is grounded in Rabbinic texts and concepts. The authors in the previous sentence span the denominations as do the people involved in the movements in the sentence before that. It is telling that in the cheerleading for the demise of the Jewish left no ink was spent on the current Jewish left. The progressive movements in the United States and Israel working for social justice are neither dead nor dying, nor are these movements single-mindedly focussed on Israel/Palestine. Jewish Social justice organizations are currently engaged in campaigns around domestic workers rights, hotel workers rights, living wage and ethical consumerism, criminal justice (death penalty and solitary confinement), housing and homelessness, and immigration among others.
If some of the folks in attendance at the YIVO conference had looked outside a bit they might have seen that what they hoped to present as a desert, is actually a garden in bloom.
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. . . (4)
10.30.12 at 9:23 pm | For argument's sake let us agree that we all. . . (3)
4.18.13 at 5:34 pm | (3)
May 23, 2012 | 6:16 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
Now that the election season is heating up, once again the question will be asked, what does the Jewish community want? How will they vote? What will they base their choice on? If you listen to the polls, the pundits and the politicians (and many of the putative spokespeople for the Jewish community) the answer is simple: Israel. However, the question needs to be asked: is this the right answer? What should Jews care about, as Jews?
If by being Jewish one means connecting oneself to the wisdom of the Jewish tradition one would find that Jews who put social and economic justice at the heart of their concerns are tapping a deep vein. When God informs Abraham that God is going to destroy Sodom, Abraham challenges God: “Will the judge of all the world not do justice?” Speaking of Sodom, the prophet Ezekiel understood their sin as “She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” Jeremiah channels God saying: “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight,” from which Maimonides, the great 12th century Spanish Jewish philosopher and jurist, understood that the true goal of the religious and philosophical path—beyond even knowing whatever it is that one can know about God—is to practice love and righteousness and justice in the world.
It is the Rabbis who move from the hortatory to the practical. In the third century mishnah, and the later Talmuds, the Rabbis move beyond the individual obligations of charity—whether demanding that the corner of the field be left over, or helping one’s fellow when she falls on hard times—and establish poverty relief as a political obligation to be fulfilled by cities and gathered by assessment. Every poor person who lives in, or even passes through a city must be supplied with two meals a day, a place and provisions for sleeping and shelter. As a matter of fact, residency in a town is itself described in terms of obligations towards others. When one lives in a town for certain period of time (3, 6, 9, 12 months) one must take on various levels of obligation towards other residents and the town itself.
The rabbis unpacked the Levitical verse: “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt.” They interpreted “they are My servants and not servants to servants.” The central act of Divine intervention in the world is seen by one of the greatest Talmudic Sages as a prooftext that workers cannot be forced to work against their will.
I could go on. Social and economic justice issues are the heart and soul of the Jewish tradition, from Isaiah to the Rabbis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (of all denominations) who spoke in favor of, and some who demanded, that workers be afforded the ability to organize and have the protections of collective bargaining.
So why is it that when a politician wants to reach out to the Jewish community she goes to AIPAC, or he goes on a trip to Israel? Most American Jews live in the very cities which were devastated by the economic collapse and are being victimized by the monetizing of our morals (in which the economic bottom line always trumps the ethical bottom line). Most American Jews feel the call of the tradition to create cities wherein justice lies. The thinking that the American Jewish vote should be swayed only by a candidate’s policies on Israel is made all the more absurd by the lack of any real daylight between the policies of Democrats and Republicans on Israel. As a community we should demand that when politicians speak about Jewish issues, they speak about the issues that really matter to us, issues of social and economic justice.
I will give Jeremiah the last word (channeling God, of course) : “And seek the well-being of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its peace you shall find peace.”
March 31, 2012 | 10:16 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
There is something of a surprising campaign which has taken hold on Facebook which has also garnered some attention in the press. Two Israelis, Roni Edry and Michal Tamir added a poster to their Facebook profile with this statement in bold colors: “Iranians, we will never bomb your country. We ♥ you.” Within days there were tens of thousands of “likes” on Facebook, messages from around the world, a new Facebook page and even hundreds of positive responses from Iran.
What to make of all this? All the messages seem rather sappy and simplistic. “We ♥ you” is not a foreign policy. It is not a negotiating position. It is not even an obvious claim on justice or morality. It is strange.
It does, however, have resonance in its simplicity. This counterpoint to the bombast of Iranian, Israeli and American leaders is stark in the very minimalism of its claims. There is a rather strong denial of what French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls the “ontology of war” in these statements. The ontology of war is the understanding that peace comes at the end of a narrative which includes victory over the enemy. Peace, then is one stage in an ongoing process of war. Inevitably, peace will also be followed by war, since the peace is only assured by victory. Peace which does not partake of this narrative, peace which is a response to the Other, makes one vulnerable.
The longer message from the Pushpin Mehina folks includes this: “For there to be a war between us, first we must be afraid of each other, we must hate. I’m not afraid of you, I don’t hate you. I don t even know you.” This revealing of vulnerability, I would like to believe, is what Levinas has in mind when he claims that the only possible way that one might engage with a stranger, with another person is to respond to them—since they are beyond our grasp.
The initial rhetoric of this simple statement veers towards the familiar language of violence and then reverses course and turns towards an entirely differently path. “I’m not afraid of you” can be said in a menacing or threatening manner. The following sentences (“I don’t hate you. I don’t even know you”) reframe this sentence as a Levinasian response. I approach you with my vulnerability. I do not know who you are. I cannot categorize you, define you, totalize you, name you “enemy.” I can only reach out to you with a declaration of my openness to you.
There has already been a demonstration of several hundred Israelis in Tel Aviv with signs similar to the ones posted on Facebook. In political terms, it becomes harder and harder for a leader to be belligerent when his people are saying they don’t war a war.
There might be larger implications here. Nobody knows if this movement will have legs. Nobody knows if a war can be avoided, or delayed. However, it is obvious that there are ways of trying to make peace which have not been tried. This movement should be a rebuke to those of us who doubted the power of democratic action. This campaign raises the possibility that peacemaking is not the sole province of professional peacemakers and diplomats, heads of state and generals. This movement raises the possibility that we should be training ourselves to be peacemakers in new and creative ways. Ways that we have not yet dreamed of. Ways that we should obligate ourselves to start dreaming up, and acting on.
March 4, 2012 | 12:59 am
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
What might it mean to be holy? One interesting definition is found in the thirteenth century commentary by the Spanish Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, often referred to as Nachmanides. In commenting on the verse from Leviticus 19: “You shall be holy, for I, God your God am holy,” Nachmanides says that this is a demand not to be a “scoundrel within the domain of the Torah.” That is, one should not abuse sacred law by justifying immoral acts which are technically legal. (One of his examples is that one should not be a glutton even if one eats only kosher foods.)
This commentary came to mind while listening to a debate on immigration recently. The advocate for a hard line on undocumented immigrants repeated over and over that “these people” had broken the law and therefore, despite their having been in the country for many years, and despite their having been productive members of society—holding jobs, raising a family, participating in their communities—they should not be allowed to acquire a driver’s license, they should not be allowed to get health insurance, they should not be allowed to work. Their lives should be made sufficiently intolerable that they leave the country. Eleven million people.
This seems to me to be the exact secular definition of a scoundrel within the domain of the Torah. Yes, undocumented workers broke the law in crossing the border into the country (as, for example, my grandfather did), and then, necessarily, broke the many laws which were created to reinforce that one law. At the same time, the fact that there are eleven million undocumented immigrants in this country points to the fact that they are doing productive work which we all depend upon. In fact, in many cases employers depend on their immigration status in order to exploit the workers and pay them less than minimum wage so that American citizens can buy cheaper products.
This scenario should force us to reflect on what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be a decent society. The latter term, a “decent society” is the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit’s term for a society that does not structurally discriminate against a sector of its members. In other words, a society in which some people are racist is not necessarily not a decent society unless that racism is institutionalized and codified in the society’s laws. In the United States, discrimination against undocumented immigrants in employment, health care and many other areas is written into law. This discrimination is so ingrained that there are those who argue that it is not discrimination but merely upholding the law. This is classically being a scoundrel within the domain of the law.
This also should cause us to reflect on what it means to be a citizen. The legal definition of citizenship is obvious. However, Princeton political philosopher Jeffrey Stout has suggested that the formal legal definition of citizenship is too narrow for the lived reality of many people’s lives. He suggests that “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.” (10)
The eleven million undocumented immigrants are, on the whole, integrated into the United States to the extent that many economists predict dire economic consequences if the new draconian immigration laws continue to be enforced. The State of California and the City of Los Angeles have apologized—sixty years after the fact—for the last time that a wholesale deportation was undertaken. That attempt was exposed as blatantly racist as an estimated sixty percent of those deported were American citizens of Mexican heritage. This is the abyss that we are looking into. The draconian immigration laws are not solving a problem, they are creating new problems—for law enforcement, for children of immigrants who grew up here, and for the undocumented immigrants themselves, most of whom work and contribute to the country.
Perhaps, above all, we are contributing to an image of ourselves which is not pretty. Institutionalizing discrimination against one group of citizens (in Jeffrey Stout’s usage) allows discrimination against other groups. Our bonds as citizens should be built on decency, justice and, yes, the possibility of holiness.
February 29, 2012 | 3:32 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
Purim is upon us. Remember Purim? For those not in the know, Purim is the next in the order of Jewish holidays which fit the meme: “they tried to kill us, they didn’t, lets eat,”—though Purim adds “and drink,”—a lot. Most Jews who celebrate Purim remember it as the story of the evil Haman who bribed the buffoonish King Ahaseurus to kill all the Jews in the Persian kingdom as a result of his rivalry with the Jewish courtier Mordecai. The story is situated in the second or third century BCE in Shushan the capital of Persia. According to most scholars the story is a myth. However, like all myths, the story seems to reflect a deep truth and it has resonated with Jews over the centuries since it reflected the fact that in many countries over time Jews had been threatened with extinction by a variety of satraps and princes and ministers and so on, and had survived against all odds.
The Purim story (told in the biblical Book of Esther) is also different insofar as the Jews not only survived but they fought back and killed those who would have killed them—and their wives and children. This fantasy of revenge must have resonated deeply for a Jewish community in the many stations of the diaspora in which they were powerless against the actual enemies who wished them actual harm.
There is however a different reading of the Book of Esther which offers the Purim narrative as a darker story which poses a different set of questions. The key to the story is a statement by a Rabbi who lived centuries after the story might have happened, in the place that it was supposed to have happened—Persia. Before we get to this statement I will summarize the story itself for those whose biblical knowledge is a bit rusty. (For those whose biblical knowledge is not at all rusty, feel free to skim or skip the next three paragraphs)
Ahaseurus, king of Persia and ruler of most of the world (one hundred twenty seven countries according to the Book of Esther), threw an amazing party for all of his subjects at the end of which he banished his queen Vashti since she had refused to appear before him. This brought about the world’s largest and most complicated beauty contest at the end of which a dark horse contestant, Esther, was chosen queen. Esther was a Jew, raised by her uncle Mordecai who was a courtier at the court of Ahasuerus, and she was sworn by said Mordecai to secrecy about her religious or ethnic origins.
Meanwhile (cue foreboding background music) the king elevated the evil Haman to the position of vice-roy, giving him the royal ring, making him second in power only to the king. Mordecai was miffed by this appointment and refused to bow down to Haman. Haman was miffed and swore revenge. Together with his wife and advisors he decided to kill not only Mordecai, but, once he found out that Mordecai was a Jew, all the Jews in the kingdom. Ahaseurus was convinced of the worthiness of this plan by the deposit of much coin in the treasury of the king. A legal notice of the coming genocide was written, notarized and distributed throughout the land.
Mordecai then set to work. He informed Esther of the great danger. She devised a scheme by which she revealed to Ahaseurus that Haman wanted to kill her (and, by the way, all her people). Ahaseurus had Haman killed and transferred his ring (and the power attendant upon it) to Esther and Mordecai who issued an edict in which the Jews could defend themselves and kill all those who rose against them (and their wives and children). The Jews did just this.
The holiday of Purim was then declared, and its observance was to be by way of feasting, exchanging gifts, supporting the poor and reading the story. All these observances are found in the Book of Esther itself. Here is where it gets interesting. The aforementioned fourth century Babylonian Rabbi, Rava, added one more observance: “A person is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between ‘blessed is Mordecai’ and ‘cursed is Haman’.” This is a very specific obligation. First, this is neither buzz nor ‘happy drunk.’ This is virtually unconscious, blotto drunk. This is not celebratory. Celebratory stops way before this level of incomprehension. There is a specific goal here.
Another statement of Rava’s clarifies the matter. On all holidays, a special collection of Psalms (referred to as Hallel or “the praise”) is recited during the daily service. Not so on Purim. Rava explains the reason as: “We are still slaves of Ahaseurus.” That is, when we recite the Hallel on Passover it is because Pharoah is dead and we are now servants of God. However, after Purim we are still slaves of Ahaseurus. This is the key.
The Book of Esther does not end on a note of definitive conclusion. The actual key to power rests with Ahaseurus and in the next chapter of the story (unwritten yet easily imagined) a new Haman will be given the ring which will be removed from Mordecai’s (dead?) finger and the Jews will once again be in mortal danger. In other words, as long as Ahaseurus is in power it does not ultimately make a difference who gets the ring this year. Thus the ritual of getting drunk is a way of performing what the world really looks like while Ahaseurus is still in power. There is no difference between Mordecai and Haman. It is all petty power games.
This is all by way of an overly long introduction to say the following.
If we do not change the system or structure of power, the short term victories of “good” over “evil” will not count for much in the long run. As long as the international power structure, and the relations between nations and people is based on who has and can deploy greater violence, nothing is ultimately changed. War, the deployment of uncontrollable violence, will never lead to peace, if by peace we mean the absence rather than the cessation of war.
It might seem bizarre, even immoral to some to speak of being against war, at the moment when the rhetoric around nuclear war and pre-emptive strikes is at a fever pitch. How can one talk peace with a nuclear warrior? Will the smoking gun of Iranian nuclear capability be a mushroom cloud?
All this is somewhat beside the point. As far as I can tell, there is no agreement even among the Israeli and American defense establishments about what the Iranian capabilities are and when they will or will not change for the worse. The same drumbeat of the horrors of weapons of mass destruction were heard before the unwarranted and unjustified invasion of Iraq. Still this is beside the point.
The standoff with Iran points to the fact that our diplomatic toolkit is severely limited. We are forced to the brink of warfare because of the lack of alternatives. It has been pointed out that for the price of one F-22, (a fighter aircraft that uses stealth technology) the United States “could — for 25 years — operate American libraries in each Chinese province, pay for more Chinese-American exchanges, and hire more diplomats prepared to appear on Chinese television and explain in fluent Chinese what American policy is.” These are the options that we know about and neglect to pursue. It boggles the mind to think of the possibilities that could come about if the Government actually spent even a very small percentage of the defense budget on a war-prevention budget, let alone a peace budget. That money could fund both research and scholarship on practical peace-making strategies, and also actual diplomatic and people-to-people interactions, while discovering which of the latter work. While it is definitely harder to make peace than to deploy massive uncontrolled violence, it is also less expensive.
The narrative of Ahaseurus is a narrative of unending war with with brief respites that we call peace. If we are to ever move beyond this cycle toward a more peaceful world, or even a world that lives in peace, we have to be rid of Ahaseurus. That we do not know how to get from here to there is not an argument against the project but rather a condemnation of the paucity of our imaginations. If we spent a small fraction of the time, effort, and resources on learning peace that we do on learning war, we may be able see our way to a brand new set of plowshares.
February 8, 2012 | 9:21 am
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
You can now download and read the introduction of the book here (just click on the cover image).
I hope that this will whet your appetite or stimulate your curiosity or at least disturb in a productive way, and hopefully you will buy the book and incorporate it in your discussions about how to make our part of the world a more just place.
January 25, 2012 | 6:09 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
This month, when a group of New York City police officers showed up for their required counter-terrorism training, they got to watch a movie. … The film is called The Third Jihad. It is 72 minutes of gruesome footage of bombing carnage, frenzied crowds, burning American flags, flaming churches, and seething mullahs. All of this is sandwiched between a collection of somber talking heads informing us that, while we were sleeping, the international Islamist Jihad that wrought these horrors has set up shop here and is quietly going about its deadly business. This is the final drive in a 1,400-year-old bid for Muslim world domination, we’re informed. And while we may think there are some perfectly reasonable Muslim leaders and organizations here in the U.S., that is just more sucker bait sent our way. (Tom Robbins, Village Voice, January 19, 2011)
The New York City police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, through a top aide, acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that he personally cooperated with the filmmakers of “The Third Jihad” — a decision the commissioner now describes as a mistake. (Michael Powell, New York Times, January 24, 2012)
The book of Exodus famously starts with a new Pharaoh, “who did not know Joseph,” falling into a paranoid fantasy that the Israelites would constitute a fifth column, collude with the Egyptians’ enemies and, finally, leave the land, and leave Egypt in a shambles. Most of this comes true, you might say, so why call it a paranoid fantasy? The Israelites did leave the land of Egypt, and when they left, the country that formerly ruled the world was a destroyed shell of a nation—its people killed, its army drowned, its agriculture and livestock wiped out, and its personal wealth stolen. Was Pharaoh paranoid or prescient?
The answer depends on clearly seeing cause and effect. Prior to Pharaoh’s identifying the Israelites as a potential fifth column, they were not. Joseph had made the house of the Pharaoh wealthy to a degree unheard of, and he brought all of Egypt under Pharaoh’s direct ownership. However, the new Pharaoh, in a moment of paranoid delusion—or, perhaps, cynical political manipulation in order to direct the ire of the landless people away from the ruler and towards the aliens in their midst—created his own worst nightmare. Does anyone believe that had the Pharaoh not cast the Israelites as the enemy of the State—and driven them into bondage and oppression—that they would have finally embraced Moses’ vision of revolution and redemption? Had they had anything left to lose but their chains, would they really have followed God’s shepherd like sheep into the desert? As it was, after suffering bondage and oppression for centuries, when they finally tasted freedom, they asked to return to the “fleshpots” of Egypt!
Paranoid fantasies are not, however, solely the property of ancient Pharoahs. The medieval witch hunts and the Spanish inquisitors all rested upon their own paranoid delusions—“supported” by the testimony of the tortured—to construct an image of the “enemy of the State” or the enemy of God. As a result many people died. Many women and Jews, respectively, found themselves on the rack, reciting “confessions” as answers to leading questions in order to stop the pain. Then they were killed.
Which all leads to our contemporary inquisitors and their paranoid delusions. As The New York Times has reported, the folks who brought you the film “Obsession” have produced a new film called “The Third Jihad.” According to the Times, the premise of the film is that the goal of “much of Muslim leadership here in America” is to “infiltrate and dominate” the United States. As if this was not enough, the film was screened for more than 1,400 New York City Police Department officers during training in 2010—with the cooperation of the Police Commissioner. One is left speechless. Almost.
Domestic policy that is produced by the paranoid delusions of those whose economic livelihood depends on creating a widespread domestic enemy will lead to alienating and criminalizing the very folks whose actual loyalty to this country is the best defense against the few criminals in their midst who would do us harm. Caricaturing an entire community Hannity/Beck style with grainy photographs, ominous soundtracks and slanderous talking heads does not make our homeland any more secure. It definitely does not bring us any closer to the more perfect union which the NYPD is supposed to protect and serve.
It is our hope that this was an example of one awful judgement call rather than proof that policing policies have given ear to the profiling of the paranoids.
January 2, 2012 | 3:16 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
There was once a healthy and interesting conversation in this country about the relationship between religion and democracy. Not the specious bombast of the Rick Perryesque “America is a Christian country so we should be able to hate anybody we want and celebrate Christmas” kind of conversation. Rather a conversation about the roots of democracy and the relationship of democracy to the authoritarian reigns—political or religious, monarchic or ecclesiastic, and usually an admixture of the two—which preceded democracy. The move to democratic politics, according to many thinkers, retained the theological structures, if not the faith of their predecessors. In a way, democracy is a kind of secular mysticism. It is grounded in the belief that, according to the ancient maxim, vox populi vox dei, “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” That is, authority is grounded in the decisions of the people as a whole, which carries an authority beyond that of any individual, and does not rest in any token, singular, individual whether king or cleric.
This idea was articulated by one of the more interesting Jewish intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, Jacob Taubes. A Jewish intellectual, ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi, he was born in Vienna in 1923 and died in Berlin in 1987 but spent a good deal of the fifties, and sixties in the United States. He was in conversation with the so-called New York intellectuals and taught talmud and discoursed upon everything from Paul to contemporary philosophy with the likes of Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell and Susan Sontag. In his 1953 essay, “On the Symbolic Order of Modern Democracy,” he wrote the following:
For the real source of the democratic belief lies … in the religious and political experience of the medieval and modern sects. There the image of God is not seen in the colors of power nor the image of society in the colors of arbitrary sovereignty. Religion is not authority, but participation in the community; the deity not the sanction of power, but of love. The principle of association that came to the fore in the sects is still a legacy to the future and the question is still open whether a community so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.
Taubes’ allusion to the “Gettysburg Address” in the last sentence and his affirmation of the power of love bring to mind Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial of a decade later. Taubes’ argument is that religion (as my colleague Rabbi Elliot Dorff often says) is the ligament that ties a community together. However, his argument goes far beyond that. Authority is no longer vested in a mortal symbol—neither symbol of God nor symbol of the State sanctioned by God, neither cleric nor king. Rather, authority is vested in the individual voices that come together in association which reflects the God of love not power. It is the combination of all of these individual voices into something greater which is the source of authority of the democratic state. It is this democratic community which, according to Taubes (in the words of Lincoln), is still in its experimental stage.
This mysticism, both secular and sacred, is grounded in the idea of the ultimate worth of every individual person—an idea that is articulated religiously as the image of God/tzelem elohim/imago Dei in which each person was created. A related idea is articulated in an ancient Rabbinic comment on the revelation at Sinai. The midrash collection Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael says that the Torah was revealed to each person according to each person’s ability. It is only in the collective understandings of the hundreds of thousands of individual perceptions that Torah is revealed.
Democracy is the belief that every person’s voice, opinion and therefore vote matters.
I have been thinking of this recently in the light of the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. The decision, in granting first amendment rights of free speech to corporations, establishes an idea of corporate personhood. The majority opinion of the Court writes against distinguishing between “natural persons” and corporate “persons”. (“The Court has thus rejected the argument that political speech of corporations or other associations should be treated differently under the First Amendment simply because such associations are not ‘natural persons.’”) The decision speaks of “an association that has taken on the corporate form,” and writes of corporations that don’t have first amendment rights as “disadvantaged persons”.
I do not wish here to discuss the awful legal ramifications of this decision. This has been done by many who are more learned than I—beginning with the dissent by Justice Stephens (“The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case.”) (I would mention as an aside that 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.)
I do want to talk about the religious ramifications within the parameters drawn above. Corporate personhood is a throwback to pre-democratic notions of authority. The aggregation of power in the “person” of a corporation, essentially the claim that the aggregate capital of many stakeholders and therefore their voices are incarnated as the voice of the CEO of a corporation, sits on the other end of the spectrum from the idea of vox populi vox Dei. Giving an association of investors an individual identity harks back to the royal belief that the reigning monarch was the state. It is exactly this point which is challenged by the inclusive discourse which undergirds the secular mysticism of our democratic culture. When individual voices are drowned out by the aggregate voices of corporate “persons,” it is no longer an image drawn as a mosaic, but rather a claim to omniscience by an oracle.
There is one more relevant Talmudic tale. It is told in both the earlier, fifth century Palestinian Talmud and in a more robust form in the later Babylonian Talmud. It is the story of the confrontation between the Patriarch Rabban Gamliel, an aristocrat who (in the Talmud’s telling) stood as the spiritual and political head of the Jewish community in Palestine, and Rabbi Joshua, a Sage of a less exalted rank, one among many in the study hall. The confrontations between the two were numerous and finally came to a head when Rabban Gamliel humiliated Rabbi Joshua in public. This caused a backlash and Rabban Gamliel was deposed and replaced as Patriarch by a different Sage. The story itself is long and wonderfully told. However, for our purposes, the important point comes toward at the end of the narrative.
As background, one needs to remember the biblical story of Korah and Moses. Korah was the Levite who challenged Moses’ leadership by quoting God’s words that “for all the congregation is holy, every one of them.” Korah demand complete egalitarianism whilst Moses stood apart and above. In the Torah, Moses wins and Korah is swallowed up by the earth.
In the face-off between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Joshua, it is Rabbi Joshua who is in the Korah role, claiming that position is no guarantee of being right.Rabban Gamliel’s response is the aristocratic and authoritarian response of humiliating his opponent. However, in this story Korah, that is Rabbi Joshua, wins. The community of scholars would not stand for the silencing and humiliation of Rabbi Joshua’s voice. At the end of the story, Rabban Gamliel goes to Rabbi Joshua to ask his forgiveness. He finds Rabbi Joshua at home and is shocked to discover that Rabbi Joshua is a poor blacksmith who lives in a blackened hovel. When Rabban Gamliel expresses his shock, Rabbi Joshua’s response is: “Woe to the generation whose leader you are, for you do not know the suffering of the Sages and how they must support themselves.”
I think that we might say a similar thing to today’s leaders. The corporate leaders, the 1% who assume the mantel of “leadership” by way of access to inordinate resources, do not know the suffering of the people. The CEOs of the banks do not know the suffering of those that they are displacing. More disturbing than that, however, is that the Citizens United decision articulates a vision of a political culture which puts into question whether we are moving forward to form a more perfect union. A “union” in which the voice of aggregated wealth reigns will not long endure. It is rather the beloved community of many and disparate voices being heard and hearing each other which reflects the deity of love and enacts the mysticism which is democracy.
My deepest gratitude to Martin Kavka for sharing his unpublished work and the Taubes essay with me.