Thursday, February 12, 2009

How Torah Revolutionized Political Theory

By Rabbi David Wolpe (Jewish Journal)

Why do we read the Bible? For religion to be sure, but also for politics. After all, unlike the New Testament, which was written in the era of Roman rules and did not have to offer prescriptions for governance (the Romans handled all that), the Bible was a manual not only for individual piety, but also for setting up a society. What does it teach that the surrounding worlds did not know?

First, the Torah teaches a fundamental lesson in freedom. The rabbis explain the rationale for freeing the Israelites from Egypt, despite the general acceptance of slavery in the ancient world. Human beings should be, the rabbis imagine God declaring, servants to me, and not servants to servants.

Such a characteristic rabbinic observation might serve as a recurrent motif for Joshua Berman’s study, “Created Equal: How the Bible Broke With Ancient Political Thought.” Berman combs through biblical tradition to distinguish it from the political organizations of surrounding cultures.

He sums up:
Berman concludes his book by tossing a conceptual bridge across the ages: “If there was one truth the ancients held to be self-evident it was that all men were not created equal. If we maintain today that, in fact, they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, then it is because we have inherited as part of our cultural heritage notions of equality that were deeply entrenched in the ancient passages of the Pentateuch.”

The Torah was not only revolutionary in its time, but also remains revolutionary. Why did Bibles have to be smuggled into the former Soviet Union? Because the Kremlin knew that the principles shining through the Scripture could bring down tyrannies. The Torah changed the assumptions of the ancient world and helped forge the modern one. By reminding us of its ideals, Berman’s book reminds us how far we still have to go to reach them.
Interesting perspective, one that I think makes a valid point but perhaps also over-reads the biblical text. I shouldn't say much more without reading the book rather than just a review of it, but I did have reservations about this:
3. Secrecy. The book of Leviticus is often thought, well, somewhat dull. But in all the directions for the priests there is a powerful statement: the priestly class is not in possession of secret knowledge. That which they do can be known by anyone. As Berman notes, there is egalitarianism at the heart of the biblical world that is powerful, pervasive and revolutionary.
I think Leviticus presupposes a considerable amount of secret knowledge alongside the public knowledge it presents. It would not be possible to run a complete priestly cult based solely on the information in Leviticus. And the prophet Ezekiel was a Zadokite priest and he presumably got his strange visionary ideas from somewhere. It wasn't Leviticus.

UPDATE (22 February): Rabbi Wolpe e-mails:
As I am a devout reader of your blog, I was delighted to see my review posted. I want to immunize the author - I think the Leviticus point may have been more mine than his, and I accept your strictures, at least in part. The book may presuppose some secret knowledge but the gestalt of it (can I use that term?) is that secrecy is not at the heart of the sacrificial or indeed the entire spiritual system. I'll rest with that, with thanks.
Thanks for that. This is the mainstream view. My own suspicion is that Ezekiel gives us a better indication of what the pre-exilic Temple cult was like and Leviticus gives the expurgated post-exilic version, which cut out the visionary esoteric elements. I can't prove this yet and don't have time to do any serious work on it, but I believe Seth Sanders has a similar view to mine and is working on the question at present.

In any case, I think Rabbi Wolpe and I largely agree on the ideology of Leviticus.