Give Me Liberty or the Tanakh

Michael Walzer Ponders the Meaning of Politics in God's World

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By Jerome A. Chanes

Published September 18, 2012, issue of September 21, 2012.
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In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible.
By Michael Walzer
Yale University Press, 256 pages, $28.00

In the early 1980s, the late Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin was slugged by many American Jews for what some on the American Jewish center-left perceived as an unsavory embrace of Fundamentalist Christians, who had expressed warm support of Israel at a time when Israel was friendless. “Their messianist-apocalyptic theology is unfriendly toward us,” many American Jews asserted in effect. “They are conversionist, and they are bad news for Jews.”

Begin countered, “At the end of time, when the Messiah comes, we will ask him, ‘Have you been here before?’ And he will tell us. Until then, I can live with the evangelicals.”

American public intellectuals have been chewing on this story for decades, in their varied efforts aimed at understanding the tangled relationships between politics, power, history, religion, Scripture, community and — lest we forget — God.

Did I say “public intellectuals”? Michael Walzer, for half a century, has been a public intellectual nonpareil. In his latest book — and a stellar book it is indeed — Walzer asks the most basic of basic questions facing a polity and its body politic: “How much room for politics can there be when God is the ultimate ruler?”

Multiple answers to this simple yet profound question are offered by Walzer in “In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible.” Walzer, a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, is the guru of the center-left of political philosophy. The vehicles for Walzer’s thought have included the influential journal Dissent, of which he is a co-editor, and 27 books on ethnicity, economic justice, just and unjust war, nationalism (his article “What Does It Mean To Be an American?” taught many how to talk about pluralism), religious fundamentalism and just about everything else!

In this book Michael Walzer does not disappoint his acolytes. Walzer explores the normative tradition, political philosophy, the doing of history, the sources of authority, and the prophecy and “wisdom literature” in ancient Israel. He uses as vehicles for his examinations the central institutions of Israel: the kingship, the prophets and their audiences, the priesthood (the “Priestly Kingdom” of the Torah), the Elders of Israel, conquest and holy war, and, not least, the Torah itself as legal code.

“Revelation” underlies much of “In God’s Shadow”; 11 chapters — each a revelation of its own — plumbs the revelatory experience of the Hebrew Bible. The book begins with the question of “covenant” (today, some of us would use the term “federalism” to denote a system in which there is a contractual political agreement binding both parties) and moves naturally to the codification of a legal system, then to the core of the book, essays devoted to the central institutions of Israel as outlined in biblical text.

Is there much that is new in Walzer’s book? No. Indeed, Moshe Weinfeld, Jacob Milgrom and others have explored some of Walzer’s analysis of law giving, kingship, priests and prophets. But is the discussion fresh and cogent? Decidedly. One of the pleasures of reading Walzer is that his writing is always exceptionally concentrated but never recondite; his prose is straightforward and beautifully nuanced at the same time. But there is more to this book than just good writing. Walzer’s agenda, beautifully articulated, is basic: to derive the principles of political theory that were operative in the biblical period from the text of the Bible, period. Don’t give me archaeology, don’t give me the rabbinic interpretations in the Talmud, the author says; just give me the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scripture.

To the “politics-with-God-as-ultimate-ruler” question, Walzer offers two propositions: First, Israel had an “almost-democracy,” characterized by covenant: Everyone’s adherence was required. People of every rank were part of the polity, and all stood as equals before the law. The prophets, who came from all classes, spoke to everyone and denounced everyone, including kings and priests.

Second, and crucial, was the fact that God’s law was from the beginning open to interpretation and indeed revision. Walzer’s insight is that interpretation was more than just a function of the rabbinic tradition, in which interpretation was raised to the level of authority. Early on, in the Torah itself, Walzer argues, the normative system was interpretive rather than legislative, with large numbers of people involved in arriving at the formulation of the law. Walzer notes as well — a crucial insight — that the kings had no role in either making or interpreting the law.

But Walzer always has his eyes open, and he understands well that political regimes are relativized by religions. In this Israelite system, God is the ultimate ruler. In the political protocol of the Bible, “when kings obey God, things go well for Israel; when they disobey, things go badly.” And indeed the agenda of all the Books of Kings (to take one important example) is purely theological: Forget the fact that the “worst” of the kings — for example, Manasseh — ruled over decades of peace and prosperity. Kings were deemed failures because they “sinned in the eyes of God.” And thus it is with the various regimes described in the Bible — priests, prophets, judges, elders, kings, scribes — or combinations of these, as suggested in Deuteronomy 16–18, where the protocols governing the roles and activities of these leaders are laid out. The fact is that the biblical narrative records a series of adjustments to changing circumstances, with “Israelite religion pressed into the service of many different regimes,” but the religion is ultimately politically indifferent.

Walzer’s political-science dance is from the pre-minuet era: He never quite touches his dance partners. Two of the more important dancers are democracy (as we have seen) and pluralism. It is on these notions, especially that of pluralism, that Walzer walks on ice, and that ice is slippery.

Was there pluralism in ancient Israel? Was there democracy? These are highly nuanced questions.

On the democracy question, the answer is a forthright “Maybe; possibly yes,” at least (as Walzer cogently discusses) in the singular way it plays out in the biblical narrative. But Walzer’s suggestion that there is a “pluralism” in biblical tradition, even though pluralism is not defended in the Bible, is questionable. It is true that a striking political feature of the Tanakh, especially the Chumash, is that classical Judaism sought to harmonize various traditions. Because there are many biblical writers with differing views, Walzer avers, pluralism is a central feature of biblical politics.

Perhaps what Walzer is describing is accurate, but the co-existence of differing traditions ain’t pluralism. Pluralism, a uniquely American phenomenon, is the calibrating and balancing of the needs of majorities, minorities, individuals and the state. Pluralism is not a “melting pot,” it’s a cholent — and it certainly did not characterize biblical Israel. What we have here is a historical anachronism: looking at characteristics of a particular age, appropriate for that time and place, through the eyes of a different era. Be that as it may, this one question of pluralism takes little away from Walzer’s overall analysis.

So how does “In God’s Shadow” play out in the contemporary Jewish experience, especially in the “culture wars” of sectarian/Haredi Orthodoxy versus everybody else? Walzer does not connect the dots from ancient Israel to the contemporary dilemma, nor ought he — that’s a different book. Indeed, the secular left has never been able to parse religious revivals, millennialists, frum Muslims and Orthodox Jews. “In God’s Shadow” is a notable contribution, even as it does not satisfy our every need on the contemporary religious agenda.

Menachem Begin may have answered well the “Politics and God” question of his time, but 30 years later, Michael Walzer says it best.

Jerome A. Chanes, a Forward contributing editor, is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and is the author or editor of four books on Jewish public affairs, history and sociology.


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