Thoughts on Political Philosophy based on a review of Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.

This essay started as a Dvar Torah for October 3, 2012—the night of the first Presidential Debate between Mitt Romney and Barak Obama, and has only been lightly edited.

My talk this evening has little to do with the Torah readings for Sukkot or for that matter, with the Parashat Hashavuah. Those were my first thoughts for a subject to be sure, but I recently received a review copy of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, by Yoram Hazony, a political philosopher whose volume The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul created quite a stir with its analysis and critique of (inter alia) the orientation of the academic world in Israel. Hazony argues that the Tanakh must be part of the discourse of philosophy in the academic world, a “work of reason”—of philosophy–as much as those based on Greek philosophers. Given tonight’s Presidential debates, I turned to Hazony’s chapter with a subtitle “A Political Philosophy.”

Commenting on a verse from I Samuel, Hazony concludes that “the Hebrew Bible can be seen as going farther in the direction of endorsing democratic rule than any of the classic texts of Greek philosophy.” Perhaps American democratic ideals reflect 18th century European thought more than the ancient Greeks, but that is not particularly important for us: his comments are based on his reasoning from Hebrew Bible and are relevant to our own democratic process.

The verse records words God is said to have spoken to Samuel (I Sam 8:7)
 שְׁמַע בְּקוֹל הָעָם, לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יֹאמְרוּ אֵלֶיךָ  “Accept the voice of the people in everything they say to you.”
But this is only part of the story: He sees this as Divine acquiescence in what is practical and indeed necessary—and contrary to the prophet’s judgment—yet still problematic: in this verse, Samuel is told that they are rejecting God himself: Ki Oti maasu—“they have rejected Me.” In a note, Hazony compares this to God telling Abraham to listen to Sarah to do what is practical and necessary, although against his better judgment, and expel Hagar and Ishmael.

Yet Hazony adduces a second source of political legitimacy from Samuel’s speech when the people suggest that maybe they had sinned when they asked for a king. (1 Sam chap. 12), noting that “The legitimacy of the state cannot derive from the consent of the people alone.” (151) as Samuel says he will instruct them

 בְּדֶרֶךְ הַטּוֹבָה וְהַיְשָׁרָה. “in the good and the right path.”

Thus the Hebrew Bible argues for a political system of dual legitimacy: the interests of the people, and the demand for the Good and Right. In Hazony’s words: “the people and their representatives… [make] demands on the king in defense of their own interests,” while the government is also urged towards the good and right by the Prophets. 

Thus, according to Hazony, we have a reasoned argument for a doctrine of limited government, differing from the imperialism of Egypt which enslaved the Israelites and the expansionism of Assyria and Babylonia, but also differing from the anarchy of the period of Judges which caused civil war and disunity. The Laws of Kings from Deuteronomy call for the King to refrain from amassing horses, wives and gold.  These rules are designed to preclude the king from waging constant warfare, from complicated international alliances, (cemented by marriage), and excessive taxation and plunder. The ideal political system is a limited state governed by law, not by arbitrary whimsy of the government and by self- aggrandizement. This is why the King is to write a copy of the Torah and keep it with him.

Solomon shows the difficulty of maintaining this balance. Solomon impresses all with his wisdom achieves peace and builds the Temple. But he exacts heavy taxes, has entangling alliances through his wives, and gathered many chariots and horses. (1 K 10:14-11:4). The law of the King, says Hazony, is not only to keep the King oriented towards God, but loyal to his people and sympathetic to them “so that his thoughts be not lifted above his brothers” (Deut. 17:20). Could Solomon possibly have met this criterion if he only drank from silver vessels, and taxed the people to build himself a palace larger than the Temple itself, and sumptuous palaces for foreign wives? Doesn’t the forced labor imposed on Israel remind us of the forced labor endured in Egypt?

Hazony argues that the Bible wrestles with two types of government options: an imperial state, leading to bondage, and anarchy, leading to dissolution and civil war, and argues that the State must steer a clear course between the two extremes, seeking “the good and the right.” Government must understand that virtue comes from limitations – on borders, on armies, on foreign entanglements, on income, on the raising of the government above the people. The Political mission of man is to steer clear of both extremes, of the twin threats, “thereby assuring the sympathies of both man and God and the political longevity of the kingdom.” (160).

I do not know how exactly Hazony would apply these principles to modern Israel or modern America. For readers of his book who, like him, come from a modern Orthodox or similar background, the content of his reconstruction will not be all that surprising. But the book is more exactly an argument aimed at academic scholars and departments, arguing that the Hebrew Bible is a crucial component in the development of Western thinking and those who ignore it or relegate it to “revelation” rather than reason are misguided. In other words, he is not necessarily arguing that readers should accept the political philosophy as correct, just as a philosopher explaining Plato or Aristotle might emphasize interpreting their ideas and understanding their significance.

I will leave it to you to interpret the ideas about good government Hazony asserts derive from a study of the Bible as a work of reasoned argument and their significance, including their application to large states, such as the USA, or to the contemporary State of Israel, and how these ideas about legitimacy, power, and ”the good and the Right”  relate not only to an actual or ideal Israelite sovereign, but to general goals of government, and the pitfalls that befall politicians.

Seth Ward

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