The New New Jewish Left

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You can read here an interesting article on the New New Jewish Left that will be familiar to those of us who grew up in or close to the New Jewish Left in the late 1960s. The author of the article writes in a neutral to sympathetic voice, while raising critical questions about the amorphous quality of this “movement” at a moment of emergence, and about the relationship between mainstream and periphery. Understandably enough, the Jewish left remains completely dominated, completely beholden by Israel and Zionism, these days a tough chip on the shoulder, the hold of which on the larger Jewish community the New New Jewish Left seeks to rethink but is powerless to undo, a hold which is manifested in its own negative-critical attention to that very hold. About the relation between mainstream and periphery, without attention to which there is no such thing as politics, Irena Klepfisz wrote important words of sage counsel in Dreams of an Insomniac: Jewish Feminist Essays, Speeches, and Diatribes. My own skeptical thoughts concern the political socialism built upon a bourgeois social base.

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Isaac Nahman Steinberg’s My Socialist Ani Maamin “Mayne Socialistisher Ani Ma’amin.”

The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:

In 1917, Isaac Nahman Steinberg, a representative of the Socialist-Revolutionary party joined the coalition socialist government and was appointed by Lenin as the commissar of justice. Steinberg once derailed a council meeting of people’s commissars headed by Lenin by forcing a recess so he could daven mincha — putting him in direct conflict with the Bolsheviks and ultimately landed him in prison. Besides this vignette of his frumkeit, Steinberg penned a Yiddish work of his Socialist beliefs “My Socialist Ani Maamin” “Mayne Socialistisher Ani Ma’amin.”

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(A picture of the council meeting where Steinberg broke to daven mincha)

In this work, just translated from the Yiddish by Hayyim Rothman, Isaac Nachman Steinberg seeks to awaken the eternal voice of moral consciousness. For him, the economy is destroying relationships, feeling, and natural forms of life; we are subservient to production and technology. Instead, we have to envision an ideal world as it…

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(Job) Assistant Professor Contemporary Judaism (Syracuse)

syracuse

Assistant Professor- Contemporary Judaism

Institution:
Location:
Syracuse, NY
Category:
Faculty – Liberal Arts – Religious Studies and Theology
Posted:
08/14/2018
Application Due:
Open Until Filled
Type:
Full Time
Job #: 074022

Location: Syracuse, NY

Pay Range: Commensurate with experience

FLSA Status: Exempt

HoursAs determined by the department chair.

Job Type: Full-time

Rank: Assistant

Campus: Syracuse, NY

Job DescriptionThe Department of Religion and the Jewish Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University invite applications for the Phyllis Backer Professor of Jewish Studies, and assistant professor tenure-track position of Religion to begin August 2019. We seek a colleague with a specialization in modern and/or contemporary Jewish religion and culture with possible areas including, but not limited to America, Israel, and/or Europe.

Candidates should demonstrate Jewish Studies research and teaching interests at any variety of possible intersections such as the arts, science, history, ethnicity, race, gender, politics, and/or sexualities. We are seeking in particular a colleague trained in Religion and humanistic social sciences and/or cultural studies methodology, with demonstrated interest and competency in Theory and Method in the study of Religion.

The successful candidate would make significant contributions to both the undergraduate and graduate curriculum. At the undergraduate level, we are looking for a scholar with research focus in modern and/or contemporary Jewish Studies, and teaching competence across a broad range of Jewish Studies outside her or his direct area of specialization. At the graduate level, in addition to their area of specialization in “Judaism,” the successful candidate would contribute to the exploration of religion and spirituality in contemporary and/or modern societies, both local and global, through the lenses of anthropology of religion and history of religions. Areas of possible interest include globalization and religion, religious materialities, ritual and performance, space and place, and spirituality and community.

QualificationsPh.D. in directly relevant area of job description and in hand by beginning of appointment.

Job Specific QualificationsEligible candidate must be a scholar with a specialty in modern and/or contemporary Jewish religion and culture with possible areas including but not limited to America, Israel, and/or Europe. Candidates should be able to engage theories and issues in religious studies broadly conceived and should be prepared to teach a range of courses from the introductory undergraduate level through graduate seminars.

Syracuse University is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity employer.

ResponsibilitiesTeach at least 6 credit hours per semester and participate in graduate level dissertation committees and examinations; service through advising, committee works, etc.; research and publications in areas of expertise.

Application InstructionsAbout Syracuse University

Syracuse University is a private research university of extraordinary academics, distinctive offerings and an undeniable spirit. With a gorgeous campus in the heart of New York State, a global footprint and a history that dates to 1870, we embrace diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

Our student population includes nearly 15,000 undergraduates and 5,000 graduate students, representing all 50 U.S. states and 123 countries. Our proud commitment to veterans and their families is unrivaled in higher education. Home to 11 schools and colleges, Syracuse University blends the foundational power of the liberal arts with the intense focus of professional programs. We offer undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees in Architecture, Arts and Sciences, Education, Engineering and Computer Science, Sport and Human Dynamics, Information Studies, Law, Management, Citizenship and Public Affairs, Public Communications, and Visual and Performing Arts.

A medium-sized city situated in the geographic center of the state, Syracuse, N.Y., is approximately a four-hour drive from New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto and Montreal. With a metropolitan population of 700,000, Syracuse is a center for cultural, recreational and artistic events, including the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse Stage, Symphoria, Destiny Mall, multiple sporting events, and festivals including Jazz Fest and Winterfest. The outdoor enthusiast will enjoy having the Adirondack Mountains, the Finger Lakes, Lake Ontario, and the Thousands Islands Region within easy driving distance of the Syracuse campus.

EEOC

Syracuse University is an equal-opportunity, affirmative-action institution. The University prohibits discrimination and harassment based on race, color, creed, religion, sex, gender, national origin, citizenship, ethnicity, marital status, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, veteran status, or any other status protected by applicable law to the extent prohibited by law. This nondiscrimination policy covers admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in University programs, services, and activities.

Commitment to Supporting and Hiring Veterans

Syracuse University has a long history of engaging veterans and the military-connected community through its educational programs, community outreach, and employment programs. After World War II, Syracuse University welcomed more than 10,000 returning veterans to our campus, and those veterans literally transformed Syracuse University into the national research institution it is today. The University’s contemporary commitment to veterans builds on this historical legacy, and extends to both class-leading initiatives focused on making an SU degree accessible and affordable to the post-9/11 generation of veterans, and also programs designed to position Syracuse University as the employer of choice for military veterans, members of the Guard and Reserve, and military family members.

Commitment to a Diverse and Inclusive Campus Community

Syracuse University maintains an inclusive learning environment in which students, faculty, administrators, staff, curriculum, social activities, governance, and all other aspects of campus life reflect a diverse, multi-cultural, and international worldview. The University community recognizes and values the many similarities and differences among individuals and groups. At Syracuse, we are committed to preparing students to understand, live among, appreciate, and work in an inherently diverse country and world made up of people with different ethnic and racial backgrounds, military backgrounds, religious beliefs, socio-economic status, cultural traditions, abilities, sexual orientations and gender identities. To do so, we commit ourselves to promoting a community that celebrates and models the principles of diversity and inclusivity.

Job Posting Date: 08/13/2018

Open Until Filled: Yes

Job Category: Faculty

APPLICATION INFORMATION

Contact:
Syracuse University
Syracuse University is interested in candidates who have the communication skills and cross-cultural abilities to maximize their effectiveness with diverse groups of colleagues, students and community members. Women, military veterans, individuals with disabilities, and members of other traditionally underrepresented groups are encouraged to apply. Syracuse University is an equal opportunity employer, as well as a federal contractor required to take affirmative action on behalf of protected veterans.
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American Jewish Social-Racial Contract (Letter From The Jews of Rhode Island to George Washington) Not About Religious Tolerance

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What kind of people were the Sephardic Jews of colonial Rhode Island and the first decades of the American Republic? And what kind of social contract was it that they enacted in the famous exchange of letters with George Washington when he came to visit the new state in August 1790?

[1] From the look and read of it, the Jews of Newport understood themselves to be a nation with a profound classical past. They were not even “Jews.” At least that’s not how they called themselves. They were rather a “nation,” “tongue” and “language” belonging to “the stock of Abraham,” which, if I’m not wrong, is a quasi-racial designation. [2] What we call religion is expressed in biblical allusion and religious ideas like providence, was part of that identity. But religion and religious toleration were not, as is usually thought, at the precise forefront of their concern in the famous exchange of letters with George Washington, who himself explicitly rejected the idea of “tolerance” for the very good reasons that we recognize today. Matters of what we today call “private” religious conscience are only raised twice in the letter of the Jews to Washington and once by Washington in his letter to them. Instead, the substance of the exchange revolved around matters of “public” citizenship. [3] As a part of that citizenship, the Sephardic Jews of colonial America and the first decades of the Republic were bit contributors to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that indelible stain that marks the core history of this civic polity.

[1]

The Jews of Rhode Island are a classical people entering into a social contract with a powerful suzerain. That is the message conveyed by those distinctly neoclassical design features at the Touro Synagogue (Congregation Yeshuat Israel) and at the nearby community cemetery. Built in 1763, the building site for Congregation Yeshuat Israel) is well known as the oldest standing synagogue in the United States. The congregation itself dates back to 1658. Of interest here is the design element, which on the one hand is broadly common to the time as a late eighteenth century style, but which on the other hand says something distinctly in particular about this local community. The portico is a classical style with Ionic columns and a closed pediment. Ionic columns also decorate the sanctuary space inside. Consider too the nearby community cemetery. The gate to the cemetery was designed in the mid-nineteenth century in Egyptian revival style. But the original conception of the towering obelisks would not have been “oriental,” but neoclassical, reminiscent no doubt of ancient Rome.

[2]

In the August 1790 exchange of letters between Washington and Moses Seixas, the one by the President of the United States has assumed, obviously enough, the lion’s share of attention. But the one by Seixas is arguably more interesting, setting as it does the terms under which the Jewish community understood itself and wanted to present itself on the public stage. The scene of its exchange and the staging of the visit by Washington belong very much to the political genre of a secular social contract that includes the rights of religious conscience in the context of loyal participation in the larger polis. The document speaks to the state before it speaks to religious liberty, while religion decorates the contract in the opening and concluding paragraphs that construct, as it were, the borders of the letter.

Retrospectively couched in terms of “religious tolerance,” this was not actually the case about these two letters. In effect, the exchange of letters rejects the idea of “toleration” as anti-democratic. It is not religion and religious liberty that stand out first and foremost, but rather good government, civic participation and temporal felicity. The Jews of Newport are citizens first, not members of a religious confession. While religious liberty is a value, “religion” is not the main thing. The Jews of Newport belong to a proud racial group or “stock.”

Note the secular self-understanding expressed throughout the letter from Seixas, whose political vision is public-private:

–There is, first of all, the recollection of historical persecution, which is framed in terms of rights of citizenship, not religion and religious faith and worship.

–There is no mention of the word “Jew” in either of the two letters. In a theatrical vein, the Jews refer to themselves and are referred to by the democratic sovereign as “the stock of Abraham.” As noted above, the assumption is that this so-called stock is constituted as a nation and tongue. I do not know how strong the racial overtones to the word “stock” were meant to be at the time, but the word calls definite attention to itself.

–In the first sentence of the last paragraph of the letter by Sexias, the word “civil” (i.e. civil liberty”) precedes the word “religious” (i.e. religious liberty). Religious liberty is mentioned only once along with “liberty of conscience,” which makes for only two explicit references to religion and “religious freedom.”

–The rich biblical allusion and theological motifs are misleading. While the florid expression is undoubtedly genuine, I would argue that its function is decorative. The substance of the letter is civic and democratic, “deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.” Again, there is no mention in this key sentence in the letter regarding anything having to do with faith as private good or right.

–Although government enjoys the providence of the Great God, it is “established” by the “Majesty of the People.” In this, the religious vision, such as it is profoundly secular, subordinate to the political will of the demos.

Here’s the letter from Sexias to Washington in full. I have put in bold the key paragraph:

Sir,

Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits — and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.

With pleasure we reflect on those days — those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, — shielded Your head in the day of battle: — and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: — deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine: — This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men — beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised Land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: — And, when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island

Moses Seixas, Warden
August 17th 1790

Now consider in response Washington’s more famous letter, also in terms of a social contract. It has more to do with establishing the authority of a state sovereign and only then with the guarantee by recognized “inherent natural right” of religious liberty per se. Note too the sharp rejection of the concept “tolerance,” namely the rights by which the dominant class in power extends to an inferior and dependent social class. Between politics and religion, it is very clear what comes first as the foundation of which. Washington puts the entire onus of his letter on what good government “requires,” this being civic responsibility and “effectual” support for the government in return for its “protection.” This part of the letter is purely contractual. Politically far more important than religious liberty, a vexed question suggested but not addressed as such by Washington is this. Also interpreted here as a double entendre, without that effectual support from citizens is there any “protection” from government?

Here is the letter from Washington in full. Again, I have put in bold the key paragraph. For the purpose of my argument, the key sentence is the last one in that paragraph. 

To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island

[Newport, R.I., 18 August 1790]

Gentlemen.

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

Go: Washington

[3]

What goes unsaid in the community architecture and exchange of letters is that this social contract is also a racial contract. The “stock of Abraham,” committed to civil and religious liberty, is also part of a slave society, invested precisely in the “bigotry” and “persecution” rejected in Washington’s letter, and one in which the Jews of Newport and the other newly free colonies themselves benefited. Of particular note is the participation in that trade by Aaron Lopez, an important member of the community. About the much vexed question about the participation of Sephardic Jews, i.e. Jews from Iberia, including the Jews of Newport in that trade, Seymour Drescher is not alone in concluding that it was “ephemeral,” “localized,” and “limited” (Seymour Drescher, “Jews and New Christians in the Atlantic Slave Trade” in Sarna and Mendelsohn (eds.), Jews and the Civil War: A Reader, p.67).

But what does this mean? Of certain but only relative interest is the point about raw numbers, namely how much or little a part of the slave trade was constituted by Jewish shippers and traders and how much or little of that trade depended upon Jewish participation. Only a racial conspiracy theorist would argue that the Jews were the master class behind the African slave trade. The numbers show Jews were a tiny fraction of the European population in the Americas, and as such only bit players in a trade originally controlled by large European state monopolies (Portuguese, Dutch, and English), and that this trade was concentrated in Sephardic Jewish communities in the New World and perhaps Amsterdam.

Of much greater significance and interest is the social contract established very early on by the representatives of the small Jewish community in this very important American port city, that city being dominant in the African slave trade. This speaks to the structure of Jewish participation in democratic polity that straddled what Drescher calls a “threshold” between slavery and liberty under which Jews enjoyed citizen rights in the so-called New World.

To this larger matter, Drescher writes, “The most significant point, from this perspective, is not that a few Jewish slave dealers changed the course of Atlantic, history, but that Jews in general found their ‘threshold of liberation’ in regions newly dependent upon black slavery. In this scenario, Sephardic Jews and New Christians were pioneers of Jewish resettlement in the early modern world, blazing a path for the liberation of their co-religionists” (Ibid., p.70).

By and large American Jewish life today is dominated by descendants of the first big wave of German Jews in the middle of the nineteenth century and then by the larger immigration of East European Jews at the turn of the twentieth century. While not free from racial prejudice, Ashkenazi Jews were largely free from the stigma of slavery. But the terms and conditions of the social contract were already set in a contract in which one’s own liberty depends upon the enslavement of other people. In the early history of the United States, Jews originally descended from Iberia, a place with its own ideas about race and pure blood (here I am only inferring). They stand out self-conceived as a classical people, a proud racial stock invested in a society committed politically to the securing of prosperity and civic participation in a new nation. Unstated in the letters is the dependence of that nation and that social contract on the racial contract African slave labor. As such, it stamps the political and moral enigmas of Jewish life in the United States.

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Colonial & Antebellum Architecture and Historical Memory (Slavery in Newport, Rhode Island)

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At its height, some 60% of the American slave trade went out of Newport, Rhode Island, underscoring the argument that American freedom and American slavery are deeply imbricated. Once you know only that little much, that imbrication becomes physically palpable in places like Newport. In New York City, it is easy to forget and not to think. There the colonial past has been more or less blasted away by the grid and by new construction. Outside Greenwich Village and an odd site here and there, barely a trace of the colonial past remains. There is nothing to see at the site of the slave market at 75 Wall Street or of the homesteads destroyed to create Central Park, but you can visit the African Burial Ground National Monument. Seth Kamil can tell me otherwise, but I would suggest that in New York, the historical-architectural “genius” of the place (by which I mean for the purpose of this blogpost the oldest architectural strata preserved en masse) is late nineteenth and early twentieth century. That historical feel is anchored in place by the Brooklyn Bridge, the tenements on the Lower East Side, the elegant brownstones of Harlem and Brooklyn, and mansions of Fifth Avenue and Riverside Drive. In Newport, the colonial past and with it the memory of the slave trade are maintained by the very presence of the carefully preserved eighteenth and early nineteenth century architecture, which keeps the memory of that time gelled in place. The stain is even on the water. In conversation with the architecture on shore, even the ocean when so ascribed carries a trace of that memory.

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Wild Precarious Life (Cecilia Vicuña)

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This recent show of paintings, sculptural works, and installation by Cecilia Vicuña conjures together feminist cosmologies of raw and dyed wooliness, wild animal figures, and the drift of precarious forms. The painted figures are seers. Protective, they represent resistant political forces of animal-human hybrid nature. Vicuña work extends back to the 1970s. Not uncoincidentally, she shares her name with the vicuña (Vicugna vicugna),  described as one of the two wild South American camelids which live in the high alpine areas of the Andes. Her website is here.

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Incoherent Rabbinic Political Theory (Jacob Neusner)

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A brilliant hot mess of illuminating brilliance, Jacob Neusner’s Rabbinic Political Theory: Religion and Politics in the Mishnah is a must read for readers of Jewish philosophy interested in politics, even as it will inevitably disappoint anyone actually interested in either “the political” and politics writ large and in the Judaism of the Mishnah writ small.

About the political in the Mishnah, Neusner spoke only glancingly, but more coherently in his Judaism: Evidence of the Mishnah. Here in Rabbinic Political Theory, he enters into the thick of the material only to get confused. It is in that confusion that the brilliance lies. The incoherence is a telling one insofar as it highlights not so much the confusion of the author but about the confused place of politics and the political in relation to religion and in relation to Judaism.

The fundamental incoherence comes from these three points.

[1] None of what appears in Rabbinic Political Theory will be identifiable to anyone interested in politics and political theory. [2] This is because Neusner makes big claims about politics and the political in the Mishnah while he himself provides the ammunition that drops the bomb on those very claims. [3] This has to do with the most basic underlying confusion which is to confuse the “social” with the “political.”

This confusion can be found at the opening line of the first chapter devoted to “defining” a “politics and the politics of religion.” There he writes, “Religion comprises what people do together, not just what they believe in the privacy of their hearts. In other word, religion functions socially.” This is pretty much a given in Jewish Studies. Neusner then continues to conclude, “And since it operates within society, religion may therefore function politically” (p.1).

The language here is slippery. To say that religion “may” function politically doesn’t mean that it actually does or must do so always and necessarily. After all, there are many forms of religion and many forms of the political. My own assumption would be that there are social functions that are other than politics, even as, defining both terms narrowly, the social and the political overlap.

 And with that, we’re off.

For Neusner, the primary piece of evidence for the existence of politics, not in Judaism or Jewish life per se, but in the specific case of the Judaism of the Mishnah is the presence of laws relating to coercion and corporeal and capital punishment. Coming back again and again throughout the book to this theme, Neusner is working with Weber explicitly in mind, contending that legitimate violence is the sine qua non of politics (cf. 6, 173, passim). A second and also interesting interlocutor for Neusner is Aristotle who begins his analysis in The Politics with “the householder” as a basic economic unit of political life. For Neusner, the householder plays a similar role, except for one respect.

But then the analysis goes strange.

By the end of the book in part III, in the last chapters comparing the so-called politics of the Mishnah with The Politics of Aristotle Neusner notes this important difference. Aristotle integrates the economics of the household with the larger village and then polis. In contrast, the Mishnah splits apart the economics of the household from the political (chapters 9-12). The claim is that the household and village is not political in the Mishnah (p.206-8). Other points of contrast concern the relation between stasis and flux, both as ontological categories and as points of political difference. Aristotle is alert to the messiness of political life and constitutional change. The Mishnah could not care a less about these phenomena.

So what is the political in the Mishnah?

What are the driving passions that animate it? The first thing to mention is that the politics of the Mishnah is meant to maintain the routine, regular order of the world. This is a basic point made famous in Theories of Religion by scholars such as Clifford Geeretz, that the ethos of a people is meant to correspond with nomos, the order of the cosmos. The Mishnah as a “steady-state” system of law reflects the cosmic order of creation whose jurisdiction is caught between the will of God and the power of free, intentional, human action and ordering (cf. 153, 157).

The second animating “passion” is the one that Neusner identifies as such, which is the passion to be like God. This would a politics in the image of God. Beyond the merely secular and mere civil order, the passion of this politics is otherworldly and futuristic (cf. pp.112-115, 120, 168). Reading the final chapter of tractate Sanhedrin but reminding this reader of Franz Rosenzweig, Neusner evokes how the so-called politics of the Mishnah is meant to create and sustain a people outliving the grave. This includes those put to death by human courts. All Israel except for a clearly and carefully designated subset of Jewish heretics enjoy the world to come, no matter what they do in this world (p.122). Not the polis, which is what defines the political for Aristotle, it is the people of Israel, an image of a holy nation that stands out as the political entity, like God, above time and incapable of dying (pp.128, 132, 213). All of this is quite fantastical, as Neusner will himself note.

One could call this a theo-politics, but the politics of the Mishnah is not even political, much less theo-political.

Neusner will make or concede this point throughout the text, that the political, as represented by the authority of a human king is subordinate in the system of the Mishnah (pp.137, 146, 148). But even more to the point, it is a theo-politics, if that’s what you want to call a set of ideas under which God or the representation of God is a dominating sovereign that legitimates the political system. Unlike in Hebrew Scripture, there is no connection between politics and revelation. It is not revelation, not God’s direct word that motivates human action and legitimates legal coercion.  According to Neusner, there is no “myth of power” in the Mishnah (p.41, cf. pp.41-7). The whole point of the concluding chapter of part II of the volume is that “transcending power” means that the God of the Mishnah is no omnipotent sovereign, that God concedes political authority to human actors (chp.8, especially p.168). This represents a kind of theology that John (Jack) Caputo has called “weak,” the term appearing here in Neusner on the politics of the Mishnah already in this 1991 study.

Is the Mishnah even political?

The answer to that question would depend upon where and how the political is placed in the Mishnah. Is politics the animating passion of this formative document? According to Neusner, it turns out that politics is set to the side. It doesn’t even matter in the Mishnah. The “passion of the Mishnah” is animated not by politics but by passion for eternal life in the world to come. There is, in the Mishnah no interest in naked political power (p.130), and the main interest of the Mishnah is not in any divine or secular controlling sovereign authority. Politics only “facilitates from the sidelines” (chp.6; esp. pp.137, 146), and in the end, coercion, which for Neusner was his main piece of evidence for the politics of the Mishnah, is also set to the side. Again according to Neusner, what matters in the Mishnah is not the court of the king, but rather “the Temple and table, the field and family, the altar and hearth, time, space, transactions in the material world and in the world above as well” (p.147). Regarding coercion, the linchpin of the political: in the end, the law enjoys limited jurisdiction. It is the subject of “small claims about minor matters….a potpourri of cases of a distinctly trivial character, affecting at best only a handful of local residents.” Already in the Mishnah, the law turns out to be weak, operating on the basis of inner sanction on the part of those who choose to live according to its order. The behavior of those who do not do so is not subject to sanctions. Even if Neusner himself still insists that the law is “profoundly political,” the law remains, in his own estimation, descriptive, not prescriptive (pp.162-3).

Who dominates?

The sages, of course, are the one in control. But is this political rule?  The three-fold or four-fold jurisdiction marked by the Mishnah include Heaven, King, Temple, and Court. According to Neusner, these are distinct and cooperating realms. “The Heavenly court attends to deliberate defiance of Heaven, the Temple to inadvertent defiance of Heaven. The earthly court attends to matters subject to its jurisdiction by reason of sufficient evidence, proper witnesses, and the like, and these same matters will come under Heavenly jurisdiction when the earthly court finds itself unable to act” (p.53).

At the very same time, the Mishnah also ignores this careful arrangement. Under their own hegemony, the sages rule all three human zones (arguably Heaven as well). The courts are in their hand, the priests obey their instruction regarding ritual law, and the king only governs at the pleasure of the sage whose goodwill he must cultivate (p.59). Indeed, the Mishnah describes in great detail the working of Temple and court, its bureaucracy and value system, and with almost nothing to say about the King and his administration. There is no real institutional differentiation in the Mishnah.

I’m culling all of this from Neusner. Regarding cases of constitutional crisis, no details are given in the Mishnah about what happens when the king or priest ignore the sage. There is no sense in the Mishnah of real competing political powers outside the rabbinic class. They are there but not acknowledged as meriting serious attention. With no clear picture of how politics works, all we have is an inchoate consensus of how things are or are supposed to be. Neusner staked his entire political theory on coercion, but we have no sense as to how the rabbis preside over local government of village affairs or coerce. We have little by which to understand how the sages acted politically in institutions (controlling personnel, organizing, making decisions, effecting power, working out differences to come to consensus regarding public policy (chp.3, cf. chp.4). Neusner understands perfectly well that the Mishnah is not political in any real way except as imagined by the sages (p.84).

None of this is coherently political. It is puzzling to imagine how the Mishnah is supposed to constitute a political document or constitutes a politics of Judaism. Even if the stakes are high, Neusner concedes, “in this Judaism politics stands subordinate, its range of responsibility limited” (p.48). Or consider the following sentence which is a flat-out contradiction: “Politics becomes a statement not of worldly power but of ontological truth, and that accounts, in the case at hand, for the laconic and descriptive character of political discourse” (p.168). Given this laconic character, it is not easy to figure out why one would want to call it political in the first place, when, after all, the first order of a politics is to attend to the political, not to the ontological.

A fabrication of the imagination

About this total picture, conservative Jewish thinkers fantasize. But the so-called politics of the Mishnah as understood by Neusner as constituting a conception of the integrated life is one that is only imagined. To a utopian neverland belongs the image of an entire nation sorting out rules and order in every component of life, economic, political, philosophical, theological. Neusner knows that this kind of politics is utopian, fabricated. So why bother with the Mishnah if it is just a fabrication?  Neusner points to the power of imagination, of thought experiments to provide “data about the possibilities of invention –and also about the consequences” (pp.5-7). At one point he compares it to science fiction.

But a politics woven out of “gossamer threads of hopeful fantasy”  does not count as political (p.9). Whatever insight we might draw from the Mishnah and from Neusner’s study of political theory has not to do primarily with politics, but about religion. This too is an incoherent statement: “[P]olitical culture in the politics of Judaism, though prominent, is essentially peripheral to the systemic problematic” (p.9). Read it again. A phenomenon that is “prominent” cannot be “peripheral.”

Thoroughly engaged by Rabbinic Political Theory and the grist for thinking it provides, my takeaway about the data of possibilities is precisely the opposite of the one drawn by Neusner. No, the Judaism of the Mishnah is not political. Another conclusion is that one is better off not mixing religion and politics. Whatever model it is the rabbis made up in the Mishnah was and is in no way remotely a politics or political. Yes, they imagined a better world than a political world, a holy community not in control of a polis, the circle of an ordered world of men who want to maintain apart from flux a social world in a state of pure stasis, a social entity whose life is lived pointing to life beyond the grave. In this light, the Mishnah is the wrong tree to bark up for politics. Also the wrong tree are the systems of Judaism that grow out its matrix. Rule by rabbis can only collapse in on itself because these systems that they design contain little by way of political data.

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