A-Political (“In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible”) (Michael Walzer)

A neat little primer on the political, or rather apolitical, history of ancient Israel, this is a slight, sometimes uneven, sometimes meandering book with an enormous theoretical wallop. Michael Walzer cuts against the grain of a lot of left leaning contemporary critical theory as well as conservative religious thought regarding religion, “the political,” messianism, theopolitics, and so on and so on. Over and over, Walzer insists that the Bible is a religious book, not a political one. Its worldview is fundamentally theocentric and profoundly uninterested in practical questions regarding mundane politics and political order. This is the position arrived at by Yeshayahu Leibowitz, that the Bible itself is agnostic about political structure, which means that to go to the Bible for politics represents a basic category confusion.

By “politics,” what Walzer means, of course, is a humanist orientation around problems of individual and group coexistence (p.66). Walzer would seem to oppose the decisionism rampant in a lot of left leaning critical theory, as well as claims regarding the inseparablility religion and politics. Walzer’s conception is decidedly more liberal. Politics is a public form based on deliberation, negotiation, ratification, and alliance arrangements.

Walzer’s  argument is neatly summed up in the book’s conclusion. The biblical authors were, as Walzer sees them, basically indifferent to political phenomena that interest him as a political theorist and that, frankly, should interest the rest of us as well. “Who makes decisions and how decisions are made: these are questions in which the biblical writers take no sustained or critical interest. The central concerns of political philosophy as the Greek understood it –ruling and being ruled, best regime, the meaning of citizenship, the deliberative process, civic virtue political obligation –were never central in Israelite thought. We can maybe tease out perspectives and positions relevant to these concerns, but we can’t find arguments” (pp.205-6).

The argument as it runs throughout the text look something like this. God’s rule as revealed at Sinai is not “political” in that the covenant is a domestic one, not one negotiated in public. About this, I think Walzer is on to something as regards the profoundly intimate nature of the covenant binding Israel to God and God to Israel. The law is God’s law, not the king’s law, and that makes it non-political, and there is no way to adjudicate its contents. This would include the religious law of total holy warfare against the Canaanite enemy, which seems not to have been politically binding upon the secular leadership of the ancient Israelites. The laws re: holy war and genocide of peoples, Walzer speculates, was the trash talk of intellectuals, armchair warriors and other ancient chicken-hawks (p.46). Based on the work of Menachem Lorberbaum on Nissim Gerondi and the Spanish legal tradition of Jewish law, in which there is a distinction between secular Jewish law versus the religious law of Halakhah, Walzer argues that the kings of Israel constantly defended politics against “divine law.” The absolute law or justice demanded by prophets, messianists, and their modern imitators were too often “at odds with the requirements of normal human life” (p.69). As for prophets, their world was oracular, not political or deliberative. They never call on the people “to act politically, or to take responsibility for public policy” (p.82). International politics are controlled, not by historical actors, but by God, and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah is not a political agent. As for the notion of a priestly kingdom, Walzer suggests that the priest is sovereign only at the altar (p.133).

Here’s why I don’t think Walzer’s reading of the Bible is old fashioned and out of date as some might suggest. In God’s Shadow only appears to restore old ideas about [1] the spirituality of Israelite religion, especially prophetic religion, over mundane politics, and [2] notions of Jewish power and powerlessness in relation to sovereign power. But Walzer makes his claims in new climates and contexts in which the Bible and theo-politics are held up, uncritically, as political documents, as constitutional documents, or models of political action. Walzer reminds us, and we need reminding, that the biblical authors were in many respects less interested in the world per se, and much more interested in its interface with a numinous, if not, as Walzer claims throughout, an omnipotent God. What I get from Walzer is that the biblical authors were fantasists, illusionists, not political philosophers. We know, of course, after Maimonides, Hobbes, and Spinoza, that politics has always been the work of imagination, but I think it’s right to say that there is a difference between the political imaginary of kings and the religious imaginary of prophets, messianists, and apocalyptics.

Don’t count Walzer out. He’s tremendously subtle. The relation between politics and religion is an overlap. I think Walzer has it fundamentally right when, citing Scholem, he talks about “the apolitical politics” of the biblical authors (Scholem’s reference was to messianism).  This too makes sense, the claim that “Politics lies just beyond prophecy, but the biblical prophets, judging from their texts, did not go there” (p.88). In particular, Walzer understands that messianism, which is not political per se, produces “a kind of politics, even if we find no trace of this politics in the Bible itself.” But is this the politics we want, one that makes people either passive, waiting for God, or reckless, relying on unfulfilled or unfulfillable promises from God “cut loose from all the normal constraints on political action” that require calculation and restraint (p.184)?

Maybe I’m just stupid. But I’ll stick with Walzer when he writes about the “liberalism” of the Wisdom writers, for whom politics is “aimed at accommodating differences, reaching a compromise, negotiating alliances, and only, at the last resort, making war. The wise are wholly engaged in the world as it is” (p.151). One other thing that I like is this turn from all the drama of law and prophecy to the simple human virtues espoused in the book of Proverbs and other forms of ancient Wisdom literature. Hava Tirosh Samuelson makes a similar move from Torah and prophets to Wisdom in her magnificent book on the idea of human happiness in pre-modern Jewish intellectual history.

 If I were trying to cobble together contours of a new agenda for Jewish political philosophy, I think I’d set aside, with all due respect, the conservative thinkers and the leftwing theo-political messianics, the Straussians and the Levinasians. I’d start with Walzer, Lorberbaum, Tirosh Samuelson, and Leibowitz, and come back to Mendelsohn and Buber. But that’s just me. I don’t “do politics.” I’m an “aesthetics guy.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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3 Responses to A-Political (“In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible”) (Michael Walzer)

  1. efmooney says:

    Mazel tov, Zak !
    You’re absolutely right on target (if I may say so). What a relief to learn there’s sensible distinctions being made out there, that I’d likely miss apart from your report!
    I like this: ” . . . biblical authors were fantasists, illusionists, not political philosophers. We know, of course, after Maimonides, Hobbes, and Spinoza, that politics has always been the work of imagination, but I think it’s right to say that there is a difference between the political imaginary of kings and the religious imaginary of prophets, messianists, and apocalyptics.”
    I think — you’ll like this as “an aesthetics guy” — that “Religious Studies” (if I can generalize) has lost track of imagination-as-fantasy, -dream, etc, or in other terms, lost track of poetry (say) as an indispensable route (hold your breath) to essential realities. I think the field has capitulated to overblown abstract theory of power and institutions — and social science and ethnography (– but what do I know . . .). But I’ll just say, it’s neglected literature — say the Wisdom literature, but also any number of later writers. I often think Cervantes and Shakespeare and Montaigne — not to mention post-Kantian Romantics and Spinoza — know much more, and have much more to tell us, about ‘religion’ than the half-dozen most widely cited recent ‘theorists’ of the much touted ‘return to religion’.
    I also like this from your post: “Don’t count Walzer out. He’s tremendously subtle. The relation between politics and religion is an overlap.” (It takes a guy from Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study to say this? Why would anyone count him out? Because he’s not post-secular, or post-post-secular, or post-post-modern, or a New Materialist, or Marxian avant gardist ? — excuse the rant. )
    Why is it so hard to claim a difference between saying “religion IS politics” and saying “there are OVERLAPS (as well as discontinuities) between religion and politics” ?
    I had a very bright grad student instruct me, a few years ago, and in the context of a round table discussion at which any number of faculty were present, that I was just wrong to suggest putting phenomena like grieving the dead on the map of things to be studied in a religious studies program. He was dead certain that grief and it’s expression was just irrelevant to the study of religion, because the study of religion was the study of money and power.

  2. zjb says:

    Hi Ed. I guess for me the tricky part is how to find a place between the chairs of aesthetics-aesthesis and politics-power-money.

    • efmooney says:

      Yeah, that’s the rub. Today I had a wry negotiation with a cab driver who first wanted me pay double, then as I got into good arm-wrestling negotiation phase, out of respect for my artfulness and good cheer, played at refusing anything for the ride, as I refused his refusal. I didn’t know which way to sit with all that — was it a moment when both of us could admire the art, the aesthetics, of the dance of bargaining? — or was it moment that boiled down only to the raw push-pull of money and power.

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