Jewish Journal

How the Torah Can Provide a Philosophic Base for an Israeli Constitution

by Orit Arfa

October 19, 2012 | 9:40 am

A country's domestic and foreign policies are often shaped by the philosophical foundations of its system of government. America is a free and prosperous country because the Declaration of Independence holds dear life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness subsumes the freedoms guarded in the Bill of Rights. On the other hand, Islamic states whose ideas are rooted in obedience to Allah and the strict laws of the Koran are often rife with chauvinism and lack of individual rights. The Jewish state has no constitution and no bill of rights, and perhaps this is one reason why the Israeli system of government is, if anything, mixed: part secular, part religious; part capitalistic, part socialist; part individualistic, part collectivist.

Some argue that the Founding Fathers of the United States were influenced by Hebrew Scriptures, although academia often attributes the flowering of Western Civilization to the Greek philosophic tradition. The apparent dichotomy between “Athens” (reason) and Jerusalem (revelation) is one that is explored and debunked in scholar Yoram Hazony’s incredible new book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, which I had the privilege of reading before it was published by Cambridge University Press this year. Hazony, who is also Provost of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, will be talking about his new book in Los Angeles on Monday, October 22, 7:30 pm at Stephen S. Wise Temple. (DVR the presidential debate or listen to it on the radio. This is a talk not to be missed.)

Hazony successfully makes the case for reading the Hebrew Bible as a book of reason, not revelation. “If we want to understand the ideas the Hebrew Scriptures were written to advance,” he writes in the first chapter, “we should read the texts much as we read the writings of Plato or Hobbes – as works of reasons or philosophy composed to assist individuals and nations looking to discover the true and the good in accordance with man’s natural abilities.”

This book is a watershed for academia, which has largely rejected the Hebrew Bible from inclusion into the pantheon of great philosophical documents, but the book also has the potential to transform our understanding of the role that Hebrew Scriptures, or Torah, should and could have in shaping the philosophical and hence political foundations of the Jewish State.

The Torah is dismissed all too often by secular Jews as an antiquated relic containing little value to the development of the Jewish state. Orthodox Jews often elevate the ritual aspects of law contained therein over the broad philosophic principles. Indeed, the secular founders adopted much of Britain’s parliamentary system and codes of law. Some Orthodox Jews seek to impose laws relating to halachic observance upon the citizens of Israel. This is what causes secular Jews to believe that any invocation of the Bible to guide the governance of the state smacks of theocracy.

In reading the Torah as a book of reason, Hazony argues, we find that a major theme and even virtue of the Torah is non-conformity and rebellion against unjust authority, whether it be family, government, and even God himself. Abel, Abraham, and Moses were all free thinkers, seeking to live the best lives they could according to ethics flowing from rational observation, finding better ways of living and being, and heeding the call to perfect the world according to the values they ultimately deemed best for advancing humanity.

Hazony re-introduces Jeremiah as the Bible's champion of reason, with Jeremiah telling the Israelites: “Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, and see, if you can, and know, and search its broad places: If you can find a man, if there is one who does justice and seeks truth, and I will forgive her.”

Hazony sets up the archetype of the shepherd (the wandering free thinker) against that of the farmer (the toiler bound to the land). To understand these archetypes in modern terms, I’d like to think of the shepherd as the hi-tech entrepreneur who could wander anywhere with his brain power and create prosperity. In that sense Israel, with its economy indebted to the hi-tech industry, is the land of shepherds. The farmers are those dependent on their immediate natural resources for subsistence. In that sense, the oil rich nations of the Middle East are the lands of farmers. And it is an immediate dependency on natural resources, or colloquially “making a living,” that often compel individuals and nations such as Israel to sacrifice their long-term rational and ethical self-interest for immediate practical concerns. (Watch the video trailer below!)

It is precisely Hazony’s reading of the Torah that can guide Israel toward writing a constitution that ensures the Jewish State remains democratic, rational and free because, ultimately, the founding document of the Jewish people is about reason and an ethical system flowing from reason. And it is the call toward independent thought and anti-authoritarianism—the qualities of the shepherd--that Israel must embrace to defy world opinion and do what is ultimately just and true for her survival.


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Orit Arfa’s ZOA blog

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