Jewish Political Thought Can’t Be Separated from the Messiness of Jewish Political History

January 2, 2020 | Elisheva Carlebach
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In their series The Jewish Political Tradition—the third of a projected four volumes has recently appeared—Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum, and Noam Zohar present primary sources as well as original essays covering the entirety of Jewish history from the Bible to the present day. Elisheva Carlebach, in her review, points to some problems with the project:

The imposing volumes of The Jewish Political Tradition confront the reader with an almost seamless new scripture on Jewish politics. Texts that were originally contingent, dialectical, interpretive, or narrative appear alongside apodictic and authoritative pronouncements, joined together in one comprehensive tradition. Yet such a presentation inevitably violates the true meaning of the texts, which were written in wholly different historical contexts and distinct literary genres. Rather than being presented as part of conversations that took place in response to specific challenges in other times, places, and political configurations, they appear here only as snippets in intertextual dialogue with one another.

Moreover, no attempt is made to differentiate between ideas expressed in biblical and Second Temple texts when Jews had at least some measure of sovereignty and those that developed during a period of extensive communal autonomy within another state such as [existed in Babylonia during the final centuries of the first millennium], or, finally, those that arose in vulnerable Jewish communities, some of them living on the verge of expulsion. It is hard to see how a usable tradition can be retrieved with such methods. It is here that the perspective of historians could have come in handy, but no historians of the Jewish political experience itself appear in the pages of this volume.

In a project whose stated goal is to provide inspiration and guidelines for a thriving state, the absence of lived historical context is particularly puzzling. The book contains, for instance, no echo of the world documented by the Cairo Genizah, with its multiple competing Jewish communities and its (sometimes polygamous) family structures, deeply embedded in the caliphal framework. The emphasis on text over experience produces a far more idyllic image of Jewish politics past than history itself actually reflects.

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