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Retrieving Arguments within the Jewish Political Tradition

By Michael Walzer Published 2010

“The Jewish Political Tradition” is now a twenty-year-old project. Together with colleagues from Israel, all of whom have spent time here at the Institute, I have been working on it since the late 1980s. Menachem Lorberbaum and Noam Zohar, from the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where the project originated, are my coeditors. Seven other people have worked with me in Princeton on particular topics; Yuval Jobani is the most recent of these. Let me describe the project and then, more briefly, the routines of study and writing that the Institute has made possible.

Two volumes of JPT (as we call it) have been published by Yale University Press; two more are to come. The books are readers with commentaries—collections of texts dealing with political issues, which are discussed by contemporary political theorists, philosophers, experts in Jewish studies, and legal scholars. The texts cover the whole course of Jewish history, starting with excerpts from the Bible and Talmud and ending with nineteenth- and twentieth-century debates about emancipation, Zionism, assimilation, and the politics and wars of the state of Israel. They are arranged topically into chapters, and chronologically within chapters.

Volume One, titled Authority, deals with questions of political legitimacy: Who should rule over the Jewish people? There are chapters on God, kings, priests, prophets, rabbis, lay leaders, and the elected leaders of Israel today. Volume Two, titled Membership, addresses the question, Who is a Jew?—but also, How were the boundaries of the community maintained in the centuries of statelessness? There are chapters on converts, heretics, apostates, and (since no boundary can be understood without knowing who is on the other side) Gentiles. Volume Three, now nearing completion, is called Community, and it is focused mostly on the communities of the Diaspora. How have they governed themselves, raised money, provided welfare and educational services, and sustained a legal system—without a territorial base and with limited coercive power? There are chapters on taxation, welfare, government, and the rabbinic courts. Volume Four, called Politics in History, for which we are now collecting and translating texts, will deal with the big worldhistorical issues: land, war, exile, and redemption.

We have tried to be inclusive in our choice of texts—JPT isn’t a collection only of the nicest political arguments. We present the tradition, as Oliver Cromwell told the state portraitist he wanted to be painted, warts and all. The texts are rationalist and mystical, monarchist and republican, authoritarian and liberal, chauvinist and universalist. We include writings from all the contemporary denominations, from ultraorthodox to reform—and from secular writers as well. The commentators we have chosen span both the religious/secular and right/left spectrums. These aren’t, however, books for everyone. We have told the commentators that we don’t want academic contextualizations or pious appreciations of the texts; we want critical engagements with them.

JPT isn’t a history of Jewish politics; nor is it a history of Jewish political thinking. It is an effort to retrieve the arguments that have gone on within the Jewish world and to make them available to modern readers—on the assumption that the arguments can still be joined and should be joined. When I read, say, Rousseau’s Social Contract, without having any special knowledge of eighteenth-century French history, I join the argument: is he right or wrong about popular sovereignty, the general will, his educational program? We aim to make it possible for contemporary students of politics to ask questions like that about these Jewish texts. Historians may have some quarrel with what we have done, for we juxtapose texts from different times and places as if the authors were in conversation with each other (sometimes they actually were). We can’t provide anything like a full account of the particular circumstances in which the different texts were written. We provide only brief introductory notes for each text and a biographical glossary of authors. The arguments of the authors stand pretty much by themselves. But they are remarkably engaging. JPT challenges the standard view (also the Zionist view) of Jewish history, which holds that without a state, there is no politics and certainly no political thought. The autonomous or semiautonomous communities of the exile, in this view, were engaged only in what Hannah Arendt once called “housekeeping.” It is true enough that a stateless people has no high politics, no politics of war and peace, no full-scale selfdetermination. But to sustain a common life, a legal system, and a strong sense of peoplehood without a state—that is an extraordinary political achievement, and it raised all the classic political issues: Who rules—the one, the few, or the many? How are the burdens of the common life distributed? Who counts as a member, entitled to welfare services? What services need to be provided?

I have sat for many hours in my IAS study with my colleagues and coeditors, all of whom have had much better Jewish educations than I had, trying to find the texts that best represent what Jewish writers had to say about these issues. Though my colleagues came initially as research assistants, they were more like my teachers. We would read texts together, they would provide sight translations, and then we would have our own arguments: Should this text be included? What part of it? Might this other text be better? Is this the best counterargument? We circulated lists of texts among scholars in the field—and invariably were told, No, no, you have missed the most important piece of writing on that question! This was sometimes true, but not always. Still, the selection process wasn’t finished until we made the last “last minute” addition and sent the manuscript to Yale.

Some of the selected texts existed in good English translations. Most didn’t, and so we set about translating or retranslating them. My colleagues did the translating, then I edited the versions they produced as if I were editing articles for Dissent magazine, aiming at an easy English style. Then they went over the translations again to make sure that I had not introduced any errors. I worried about this process, but the translations in volumes one and two have been praised by reviewers. I wrote the first drafts of all the chapter introductions, whose chief purpose is to show how these Jewish arguments resemble (or don’t) arguments in Western political theory. And then I rewrote them, again and again, to meet the criticisms and suggestions of my coeditors.

All this took a lot of time—and a lot of money. Some of the money came from the National Endowment for the Humanities, some of it from the Hartman Institute and from the Gladys Delmas Foundation, but most of it, the stipends of my research assistants and my own travel money, came from IAS. And the time—that is the most wonderful gift of this place. I couldn’t have done my part of this work anywhere else.

Michael Walzer, Professor Emeritus in the School of Social Science, is one of America’s foremost political thinkers. He has written about a wide variety of topics in political theory and moral philosophy, including political obligation, just and unjust war, nationalism and ethnicity, economic justice, and the welfare state. The Jewish Political Tradition has its origin in a conference on Jewish philosophy, religion, and politics, sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, that has been convened every year since 1983. The first, rough proposal for a book on Jewish political thought was circulated by Walzer in 1987.

Published in The Institute Letter Spring 2010