Further Thoughts on Michael Walzer's In God's Shadow

The bizarre disappearance of the Hebrew Bible from political philosophy and ethics

One of the more bizarre, intellectual occurrences in the Wissenschaften of the Occident has been the disappearance of the Hebrew Bible from politics, political philosophy, and ethics. There are several reasons for this disappearance: the destruction of the Jewish state by the imperial Romans, made complete by the so-called “Bar Kokhba war” of 132-35 CE, that forced the Jews into communal existence; the hermeneutic approach, already manifest by the mid-second century in the work of Justin Martyr, to the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament, the deplorable, philosophical consequences of which find expression in Kant’s and Hegel’s dismissive caricatures of both the Old Testament and Judaism; and a conceptually crude, but nonetheless fashionable, contrast between reason (of the university) and revelation (of the Church), between Athens and Jerusalem—a contrast that leaves one incapable of understanding not only the Hebrew Bible and the traditions of Jerusalem, but also religion in general (and reason, too). For criticism of this contrast, see the symposium “Jerusalem and Athens Revisited” in Hebraic Political Studies 3/3 (Summer 2008). Although Michael Walzer does not explicitly take on the marked deficiencies of this contrast between reason and revelation in In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, perhaps because he to some degree accepts it, he nonetheless implicitly criticizes it when he rightly observes that “[a] distinctive features of Israel’s codes [is that] many of the laws that they include are laws-with-reasons, justified laws” (my emphasis, p. 26). My review of Walzer’s book was recently posted at Law and Liberty.

The narratives, laws, and prophecies of the Hebrew Bible are wrongly understood when they are simplistically subsumed under the rubric of revelation, as if the latter were some kind of supposedly irrational eruption, for example, miracles; rather, they are by and large formulations intended to address a problem. One admittedly waggish but nonetheless revealing example—if its significance is pondered—ought to make obvious this orientation of the Hebrew Bible to the problems of this world, where to build a latrine.

There shall be an area for you outside the camp, where you may relieve yourself. With   your gear you shall have a spike, and when you have squatted you shall dig a hole with it    and cover up your excrement (Deuteronomy 23: 13-14).

It is precisely the concerns of the this-worldly orientation of the Hebrew Bible—to take a more elevated example, how to understand the defeat of one’s country in war, as dealt with by Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah—that should force one to consider its unavoidably attendant corollary: the implication of this orientation for politics.

This disappearance, even with these reasons, is all the more bizarre when one considers the turn to the Old Testament in early modern Europe, when and where many Christian writers, including those known today as political philosophers and jurists, substantially engaged the Old Testament and its ideas—an engagement that sometimes earned an author the opprobrium of being a “Judaizer.” Often this engagement entailed a re-evaluation of the significance of law for Christendom in the service of liberty, in particular, the rule of law; sometimes the engagement was overtly political, as with the anti-monarchical literature of the Republica Hebraeorum of, but by no means only, Carlo Sigonio and Petrus Cunaeus. (Sigonio’s and Cunaeus’ books have been recently translated into English and published by the Shalem Press.)

This substantial engagement does not consist merely in an author’s numerous quotations opportunistically marshaled from the Old Testament; rather, it involves the critical reception of the past in an attempt to understand better, and navigate among, the problems of the present, an example of which is the paradoxical, conceptual combination of the Old Testament of Israelite nationality and universal monotheism as a pattern to justify both the liberty of national self-government in opposition to empire, and, based upon the rabbinic Noahide laws, toleration within the national state and among national states. The works of some of these authors, for example, Althusius, Grotius, Harrington, Hooker, Hotman, are already found in Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty. Some of the important writers of this period, for example but not only John Selden, who were important for the development of our conception of liberty and its relation to law (for example, Selden’s opposition to Roman Law’s absolutist Rex Legia; see his 1647 Ad Fletam Dissertatio), engaged the Old Testament on its own terms, that is, as the Hebrew Bible; and when they did they often turned for elucidation to rabbinic commentary, specifically the Talmud. (Shalem Press is currently translating into English for publication Selden’s De iure naturali et gentium, iuxta disciplinam Ebraeorum. On Selden, see Jason Rosenblatt, Renaissance England’s Chief Rabbi: John Selden (2006) and G.J. Toomer, John Selden: A Life in Scholarship (2009)).

In recent scholarly discussion, this turn to the Old Testament has been characterized as “Hebraism” (as distinct from Judaism). Two earlier works of intellectual history, Jerome Friedman’s The Most Ancient Testimony: Sixteenth-Century Christian-Hebraism in the Age of Renaissance Nostalgia (1983) and Frank Manuel’s The Broken Staff: Judaism through Christian Eyes (1992), provide a framework for this historiographical and cultural category of “Hebraism”, although they were anticipated by Matthew Arnold’s contrast between Hebraism and Hellenism in his Culture and Anarchy (1869).

Despite this turn to the Old Testament and its evident contribution to the politics and political philosophy of our time, until recently both the Hebrew Bible and Judaism have continued to be ignored by political philosophers; but change there has been, including among biblical scholars, for example, there is now a section of the Society of Biblical Literature, “The Hebrew Bible and Political Theory.” (For this contribution, see, for example, the regrettably short-lived journal Hebraic Political Studies; Gordon Schochet, Fania Oz-Salzberger, and Meirav Jones, eds., Political Hebraism: Judaic Sources in Early Modern Political Thought (2008); Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (2010); and Anthony Smith’s “Elie Kedourie Memorial Lecture,” “Nation and Covenant: The Contribution of Ancient Israel to Modern Nationalism,” Proceedings of the British Academy 151(2007): 213-55.)

The return to the Old Testament among political theorists began a generation ago in works of political philosophy by Dan Elazar (on covenant, federalism, and the Jewish polity) and Aaron Wildavsky (on Moses as a political leader); although certainly Max Weber’s earlier Ancient Judaism contained numerous, richly suggestive observations on the political and cultural implications of the Hebrew Bible, and the works of the German Old Testament scholars Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth deserve careful study by political philosophers, especially Alt’s 1930 essay, “The Formation of the Israelite State” with its characterization of the Davidic monarchy as “Personalunion” (an essay surprisingly ignored in Walzer’s In God’s Shadow). However, during the last ten or so years, numerous books on the politics and even philosophy of the Hebrew Bible and the Jews have appeared, only a few of which are in English are Yoram Hazony’s The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther, Joshua Berman’s Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, Norman Gottwald’s The Politics of Ancient Israel, Jonathan Jacobs’ edited book Judaic Sources and Western Thought: Jerusalem’s Enduring Presence (see Hazony’s contribution to Jacobs’ Judaic Sources, “The Political Thought of the Biblical History, Genesis-Kings” and Hazony’s forthcoming The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture), and, perhaps the most important of these and other works, the two-volume The Jewish Political Tradition, edited by Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum, and Noam Zohar. The latest of these growing number of books on the politics of the Hebrew Bible is Michael Walzer’s In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible.