Melancholy, “Machers,” and Money (The Unhappy Liberalism of Michael Walzer)

About Michael Walzer’s In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, I like what I like and don’t like what I don’t like. Regarding the former, I posted just below. Overall, I think it’s a fantastic book, perhaps the best liberal reading of the Hebrew Bible since I’m not sure when. It does its best to narrow its claims, to resist anachronism, to draw fine distinctions, all the way up until the end, where the liberalism loses its nerve and wallows in what seems to me to be a highly anachronistic conservativism. This makes me sad. I think Michael Walzer is an unhappy liberal, and it leads him into terrain that I myself would not want to follow. It’s where Michael Walzer breaks my heart.

I was riding along pretty smoothly until I bumped into what seems to me to be the first major false note. It’s deep in the book, after the very persuasive two chapters about the a-politics of prophecy, chapters that reflect this book at its critical best. The false note appears in the equally persuasive chapter on the politics of Wisdom. I like how savvy and worldly they appear in Walzer’s reading. They are the guys with whom you want to go before the king. But then we Walzer reads the crisis of contemporary liberalism into the crisis of biblical Wisdom. Reading Ecclesiastes, the great biblical skeptic, the analysis turns into treacle.  We are to suppose that Ecclesiastes suffers a crisis of “meaning” (pp.158-61). But “meaning” is too weak a word,” one that has been leached of its, well, “meaning” in contemporary discourse. Walzer should know that the crisis of meaning relates more to finitude and futility than to the caricature of liberalism presented here, one that has been painted by its rightwing, conservative critics, as if Ecclesiastes’ problem is that he embodies private life without responsibility, and so on and so on. In traditional Judaism, King Solmon was the author of Ecclesiastes. King Solomon was Ecclesiastes, “an enlightened oriental despot,” hardly the liberal individualist presented by Walzer.

It gets worse as Walzer turns to Job in the same chapter. Job is caricatured as an individual, an individualist, with no sense of the larger historical-collective narrative (p.162). There’s no sense here that Job is a promethean figure, a radical truth teller who speaks truth to his friends and demands justice from God. Walzer faults Buber who read in Job-the-individual the experience of Israel-the-people. I think I’m with Buber on this one. I tried Walzer’s line out on a friend who knows more than a thing or two about this kind of stuff but is not herself in the Jewish Studies business. She immediately shrugged it off, without a second thought. Everyone knows, as does she and as did Buber that Job is a parable, which is what the rabbis say about him in, I think, Baba Batra of the Babylonian Talmud. Again, the problem in Job is futility and suffering, not liberal individualism.

So here’s what makes me sad. I’m not sure I understand why Walzer cannot seem to understand  what Buber understood, especially in his great late essay “Dialogue between Heaven and Earth” (reprinted in On Judaism), that the crisis of wisdom is not about “meaning” but about the brute suffering before which no “meaning” can stand. It’s as if Walzer refused to let himself wallow in all the bitter expression that drive the long central dialogues that make up the majority of the text. Buber understood suffering in ways that Walzer who can only see in Job another caricature of liberal fecklessness. It would seem that, as a result, Walzer has abandoned Job and the suffering of Job and joined the friends of Job, who only want him to shut up.

It all comes down to authority, and a bad form of it to boot. I should not have been surprised when shutting down the problem of suffering gave way to patriarchy in the last chapter, right before the conclusion only confirming the bad feeling felt by this liberal reader. “Where were the elder?” is the title-question posed by Walzer, but the real question is “who are the elders.” The elders represent Walzer’s ideal political type in the Bible, submerged by the more religious forms of charismatic authority. But who are the elders? They are described by Walzer as local authorities, close to the people (p.192). In other words, these are the local rich guys, the money guys, the machers in the community, who wrap themselves up in the mantle of “peoplehood.” I’m not sure why Walzer wants to base political life on moneyed interests. Walzer himself is only a little ambivalent. He can’t decide if the elders represent a democratic form of political authority. First he admits, no (p.192). Then he avers, “as if they represent a certain modest democratic idea” (p.194), whereas I think the more straightforward reading would be to see here a very traditional form of patriarchal authority.

About In God’s Shadow I’ll have to be as ambivalent as the author is about liberalism.

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.
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1 Response to Melancholy, “Machers,” and Money (The Unhappy Liberalism of Michael Walzer)

  1. efmooney says:

    Very nice, Zak — as you see it — and substantiate — Walzer reverts to a stand he rejects overall — seeing Job (for instance) as an embodiment of something as foreign to the book as ‘liberal individualism’ — thus losing his insight that the Wisdom tradition is not in the first place political but apolitical. Job is, I agree (and really, who could deny this?!?) a profound book about suffering, inescapable and intractable suffering. Job was the first biblical book I took to heart, and wrote about, and it’s still there, alive and well and weeping fifty years later.

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