Is There a Jewish Political Tradition?

There is, and one strain of it needs to be reclaimed—especially in the aftermath of Gaza.
The Peaceable Kingdom by the American painter Edward Hicks. Courtesy Wikipedia.
The Peaceable Kingdom by the American painter Edward Hicks. Courtesy Wikipedia.

During the recent Gaza campaign, and into its aftermath, some of the most vocal critics of Israel have been Jews, and some of these have grounded their criticism in appeals to Jewish values. There’s nothing new in that: in 1988, as the first intifada raged, the New York Review published an open letter by Arthur Hertzberg, a well-known rabbi and historian, denouncing Israel for its allegedly brutal response to Palestinian rioters and chastising its Jewish supporters—in particular, Elie Wiesel—for their blindness to what the Jewish tradition “commands”:

Morally, the Jewish tradition commands us to act justly, especially when [doing so] seem[s] imprudent and embarrassing, and never to be silent, even to protect Jewish unity. . . . Even in bad times, when Jews were under fierce attack, their moral teachers gave no exceptions. The prophets knew that Assyria and Babylonia were far more wicked than Judea, but they held Judea to account.

This statement, taken on its own, bespeaks a limited and quite doctrinaire view of the Jewish moral and political tradition, a considerably more variegated body of thought than is suggested by such categorical pronouncements—“never to be silent, even to protect Jewish unity,” “no exceptions,” and so forth. Even assuming that Hertzberg is right about the uncompromising nature of the “prophetic” message itself, that message is one among others that are equally representative of traditional Jewish reflections on power and politics. Sweeping claims about the “Jewish tradition” always and everywhere dictating one or another absolute course of action almost always oversimplify a multifaceted story.

That the Jewish tradition always values ethical perfection over prudence, for example, is simply not the case. Sometimes, indeed, the Jewish tradition explicitly prefers prudence to ethical perfection, and even sees the former as necessary to the latter. The biblical prophets, as Abraham Joshua Heschel stressed, may have demanded absolute justice and perfect morality, but they were never the only legitimate players in Jewish leadership. Kings, too, had their roles; and (as Heschel again noted) had the prophets become kings and wielded political power, they, too, would have discovered the just claims of prudence.

Broadly speaking, one can identify three major modes of thinking about power and politics in the Jewish tradition: the idealist, the utopian, and the realist. To ignore the creative tension among them, and especially between the idealist/utopian and the realist, is to fall into an all too common error. Indeed, over thousands of years of thinking about politics, Jewish sources have not renounced the necessity of political realism and have very often placed it front and center. These days, especially, that strain needs renewed attention.


By realism, I do not mean the cynical or Machiavellian suggestion that all political morality ultimately boils down to interest. Even as politics is inevitably both at least partially corrupt and incapable of solving all social problems, governance is necessary for a good society. But what is wanted in governance is the sober-minded awareness that moral goods compete with each other—and so, often, do the dictates of moral good with the needs of good government. Many Jewish sources would see wisdom in Bismarck’s quip that politics remains not the art of the ideal, but the art of the possible.

Thanks perhaps to the accidents of Jewish history, two of the most astute political thinkers in the history of the Diaspora hailed from medieval Spain, where a relatively wealthy and well-connected Jewish community enjoyed a significant measure of self-government before finding itself subjected to increasing persecution. One was the great 14th-century rabbi and talmudist Nissim Gerondi. In his collection of sermons, Gerondi states forthrightly that certain aspects of Jewish criminal law, particularly the strict regulations governing testimony and evidence, are not likely to be effective in deterring criminals. Indeed, he writes, “some of the laws and statutes of the Gentile nations may be more effective in governing the political order than some of the laws of the Torah.”

This is an odd admission to come out of the mouth of a medieval rabbi. “The Torah of the Lord is perfect,” declares Psalms (19:8). As such, the laws of the Torah should suffice not only to direct individual and collective morality and the service of God but also to maintain political and social order. But apparently they do not, or at least not always. As Gerondi explains it, Torah law offers “pure justice in itself,” the highest ethical standard to which public life can strive. That is why its judicial system is rightly so sensitive to the overuse and abuse of coercive power, so obsessively concerned with the rights of the defendant, and so unwilling to punish any criminal who is not fully deserving of harsh retribution.

But, Gerondi recognizes, too much idealism can leave a society vulnerable to its worst elements. Society, including Jewish society, must be governed by a political system that will protect public safety, even if that means violating the Torah’s own ethical standards. Following earlier talmudic precedents, Gerondi grants a hypothetical Jewish king the broad authority to abrogate Jewish civil law and replace it, when need be, with less pure but more effective tools of governance.

Of similar mind was another Spanish rabbi, Don Isaac Abrabanel (1437-1508), one of Judaism’s most daring political thinkers and a man of considerable experience as minister of finance in several European governments.

Writing around the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain at the end of the 15th century, Abrabanel insists that his readers harbor no illusions about the possibility of a fully moral public life. Political ideas in general, he stresses, must be measured not by their lofty aims or theoretical coherence but by their practical efficacy. As he observes at one point in his commentary on the biblical book of Deuteronomy, “I should not bring purely intellectual arguments, since experience overcomes theory.”

Abrabanel’s own experience no doubt influenced his thoughts about the best form of government. More alarmed than Gerondi (and perhaps than any other thinker in the history of rabbinic literature) at the abuse of power by centralized authority, he rejects the biblical notion of monarchy, instead favoring, in common with some other Renaissance thinkers, a separation of powers, limited terms of office, and constitutionally limited government. Although even such measures will not solve the problem of political corruption and overreach, it is the best we can do, he writes, to mitigate their effects.

Nor do Gerondi and Abrabanel exhaust the fund of Jewish reflections on the numerous factors that inhibit a society’s potential for righteousness: from the inevitability of human selfishness, moral blindness, and cruelty to the sheer complexity of public life and the unpredictability of events—not to mention the inscrutability and inflexibility of the biblical commandments themselves and God’s at times hidden face. Biblical and rabbinic sources alike remind us that leadership can and will fail; that war, disease, and disaster may occur at any time; that communities will undoubtedly face inequality and unfairness; and that too much reliance on abstract moral principles without concern for their worldly consequences can do more harm than good.


Examples are easy to multiply. In the economic realm, the “heter iska,” a legal loophole developed by rabbinic judges, allowed and still allows Jews to participate in a modern economy by effectively circumventing the Bible’s moral opposition to loans with interest. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 19a-b) would welcome a judiciary that could bring a king to trial for misdeeds—but, it concludes, the resulting potential for anarchy and violence might be too great a risk. In the view of Maimonides (1138-1204), governments and religions must at times indulge in “noble lies” that conduce to social stability even if they are not strictly speaking true (Guide of the Perplexed 3:28). The Mishnah (Negaim 12:6) declares “woe unto the evildoer and woe unto his neighbor,” suggesting ruefully that in punishing the guilty, God Himself may cause collateral damage to the innocent.

Or take some of the Bible’s own reflections on government. Among several models of political leadership, we encounter Moses, who speaks directly to God, supreme Ruler and Lawgiver; the judges, charismatic leaders who intermittently appear on the scene to unify the Israelites and save them from military threats; a long-standing monarchy; and prophets who find themselves either allied with or in opposition to leaders wielding actual power. Every one of these models is flawed, and the Bible—a text that is nothing if not wholly realistic when it comes to what Kant would refer to as the “crooked timber of humanity”—offers implicit critiques of each.

Under Moses’ leadership, the people sin time and again, to the point where God threatens to destroy the Israelites and start over from scratch. The book of Judges recounts a ceaseless cycle in which sin opens the gates to conquest by a foreign power, followed in turn by salvation through acts of repentance and the charismatic powers of the Judge—but all without any apparent sign of progress. At book’s end, a Hobbesian tale of rape, moral apathy, and civil war gives way to a final, caustic pronouncement: “In those days there was no king in Israel; each did what was right in his eyes.”

As for the kings, some are better than others, but even David—the standard by which the Bible measures other biblical monarchs—comes in for his share of serious criticism. He gallivants with a married woman in Jerusalem while his army fights in the distance; he spoils his sons, who rebel against him and rape his daughter; he is forbidden to build the Temple on account of the blood he has spilled (in, be it noted, wars that God ordered him to fight). Finally, there are the essentially powerless prophets, who virtually without exception fail dismally in their mission of transforming society in the spirit of piety and goodness.


By now we have seen enough to understand why realism is not only one of the most consistent themes in the biblical and rabbinic conversation about government but also not the only one, and indeed why there is no single or homogenous Jewish political theory. Realist themes are tempered, for instance, by sources infused with the spirit of idealism. Judaism calls upon its adherents to do what they can to improve society and bring about fairness, righteousness, piety, and justice. In this register, the moral use of political power—what Maimonides calls “welfare of the body” (Guide 3:27)—can result in a community pushing toward “welfare of the soul,” that is, spiritual perfection for the individual. And then, along with and sometimes in contradiction to both realism and idealism, there come those Jewish sources that speak in utopian-messianic tones, articulating not only the prophetic demand for perfection but perfection’s actual realization.

The three registers are tautly connected. Without the idealism, politics would remain nothing but a scrimmage of nations and groups vying for power. The failings of human politics oblige people of God to help the suffering and the weak. Social policy and even a degree of social engineering have their place precisely because the problems of human society are innate and perennial. But the effort would be Sisyphean and pointless without the prospect of eventual success. Idealism competes with and bridges the gap between sober realism and messianic utopianism.

In the contemporary context, some have been intent on severing these connections. The tendency on the part of some Jewish activists and theorists is to neglect or deny the realist and idealist traditions and replace them with starry-eyed utopianism as the Jewish approach to the exercise of power. Compare, for example, the way in which the resonant term tikkun olam is used in today’s discourse with the way it was invoked by the rabbis of the Talmud. For them, it meant plugging existing legal loopholes in order to avoid divisive economic or social outcomes. By contrast, for many of today’s Jews, it denotes wholesale social-engineering projects of wide scope and dubious workability. Tikkun magazine’s “core vision” enthusiastically looks forward to complete global disarmament and the elimination of nation-states and national borders. “Tikun Olam,” an American blog, publicizes classified Israeli security information, privileging its self-proclaimed moral high ground over the safety of Israeli citizens.

Indeed, the most flagrant examples of abandonment of Jewish political realism stem from various Jewish opponents of the state of Israel. On the Right, we hear of Israel’s “hilltop youth” and other elements on the borders of religious Zionism who turn against the Jewish state for its failure to live up to their own version of messianic expectations. On the more vocal Left, especially in the Diaspora, post-Zionist and “post-colonial” academics and opinion makers reject Zionism altogether in favor of some imagined supra-national or post-political utopia. For figures like the philosopher Judith Butler and the scholar Daniel Boyarin, for example, a true Jewish politics would embody what Butler calls the superior “ethical substance of Diasporic Jewishness”—i.e., political weakness—thereby saving Jews and Judaism from the inevitable moral imperfections that come from wielding sovereign power. Musing on the supposed anachronism of the modern nation-state, Jewish advocates of a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict work to create a political arrangement on the ground that would, certainly, deteriorate rapidly into a bloodbath.  

Such are the rewards of embracing the imagined perfect at the expense of the good, and of ignoring the many voices within the Jewish tradition that warn against doing so. That larger and more encompassing tradition not only exists; it is robust, urgently in need of reclamation, and firmly grounded in the authoritative teachings of Judaism. In those same teachings, messianic utopianism is most often relegated to the end of days: a time when God Himself will bring about a transformation in culture and human nature. The lion may then lie down with the lamb, but not because humans have been so deluded as to place them in the same pasture.


Yoel Finkelman, a lecturer in the interdisciplinary graduate program in contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, is the author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy (2011).

More about: Arthur Hertzberg, Jewish history, Jewish law, Politics, Tikkun Olam, Torah