(Critique of Religion) Aharon Lichtenstein and Gerald Blidstein (Democracy and Halakhah)

The analysis below does not represent the view of an anti-religious and anti-clerical secularism. This critique of religion is internal to religion. By critique is meant demarcation: the limits of religion and the realm of values.

I am working off the views offered about halakhah and democracy by Aharon Lichtenstein and Gerald Blidstein, two important figures who, in their day, were stalwarts of centrist orthodoxy and moderate religious Zionism. What they both concede are the tensions, if not contradictions, between halakhah and democracy, particularism and universalism, orthodox Judaism and liberalism. As per Lichtenstein, the conflict boils down to authority: the authority of God and of Torah and the halakhic value of the sanctified hierarchies that define the religious nomos (as vested in the authority of the rabbis) over against the authority of the people (as vested in democratic institutions) and the value of human dignity and self-determination regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation. Supremacy and rule are at the heart of the matter.

I am commenting upon two reflections, one by each of the these two thinkers from 2005 and 1997. Back then, the argument was abstract. Religious parties were not in the position of political power that they enjoy today. Setting aside the difference between theory and practice, at issue once upon a time was whether or not orthodox religious actors can or cannot merely accommodate themselves as members of a more or less small minority to a more or less large secular and not-strictly-orthodox majority. The problem is exceptionally pronounced in a Jewish state. If political sovereignty inheres in the people, what happens when religious institutional actors and political parties assume a central if not dominant position in a governing majority and dominate the state politically?

The mainstream religious Zionism represented at Yeshivat Har Etzion where Lichtenstein was Rosh Yeshiva sought to “merge the best tradition of Judaism studies with a pragmatic grasp of the modern world.” Lichtenstein, however, was aware of the contradictions at the heart of this project. Instead of softening the conflict between halakhah and democracy, he understood that, ultimately, one value-set will give way to the other and accommodate itself to the other.  

Lichtenstein highlights the contradiction. Blidstein offers a solution which only underscores the depth of the conflict between orthodox religion and democracy. Lichtenstein and Blidstein both together suggest that the conflict is a basic feature of the operating code of orthodox Judaism.

The thoughts by Lichtenstein included here are from a student summary of a speech on democracy and halakhah delivered at a conference sponsored by the Zomet Institute in spring 2005. They refer back to thoughts on religion and state  from 1966 which are now included in the first volume of his collected essays, Leaves of Faith.

The opening gambit in the address is to include the world of Torah within the sphere of democracy and to say that democratic values are “close” to Judaism, especially the theme of human dignity, which he says is “basic and fundamental to our political and social thinking.”   This, however, begs the question. What does “close” mean? Also, while human dignity and democracy are basic to the “political” and “social” thinking represented by Lichtenstein, they are not basic to halakhic “religious” thinking. His determination is that halakhah and (by implication) the moderate religious Zionism that he represents are not democratic “in the broad, secular sense of the term” and not “really able to abide by total democracy, in which this value is supreme.” Democratic values give way to halakhic principles of kiddush and havdala, sanctification and differentiation. “Let us not delude ourselves or our opponents by claiming that there are no gaps, no differences.” The question boils down to intention. “[T]o the extent that we focus on the moral spirit, the human spirit, that should drive and characterize a society worthy of itself, a society that seeks to build a human world on a super-human foundation – here, the cloak of democracy certainly belongs to and suits the world of Torah.” 

These remarks on halakhah and democracy mirror the famous essay written by Lichtenstein about whether or not there is an ethic that is independent of halakhah. There he basically said that it depends on how narrowly or broadly one defines the term halakhah. Here as well, Lichtenstein assumes the existence of separate spheres or worlds, and sees the contradiction while being honest about supremacy. Here it is the commitment to democracy that is fungible. To “the extent” that religious Zionism does not “focus on moral spirit,” democracy will then not be a cloak that suits the world of Torah.

The fundamental contradiction not resolved in this address is structural. It is one thing to assert the supremacy of the halakhic system within the walls of a semi-private (?) institution dedicated to that system. It is another thing to extend that supremacy outside the narrow confines of those walls and into the workings of the state. The contradiction that Lichtenstein did not see was the contradiction in the notion that a society might attempt to build a human world upon “a superhuman foundation,” as if the only society worthy of the name had to have religion as its foundation. This is Yeshiva stuff. The notion of a superhuman foundation undergirds the compact form of a paideic community. It does not scale up. In a superhuman value scheme, democracy is just a cloak that may, or may not, fit the world of Torah. From his own analysis, there is reason to expect that the superhuman hierarchy of the halakhic structure will trump human dignity.

Not the head of a yeshiva, Gerald Blidstein was a professor of philosophy at Ben Gurion, the recipient of the Israel Prize, and a long-standing member of the editorial board of Tradition. While not identified with religious Zionism, he was an expert in philosophy and halakhah. I am tagging his essay on democracy here. It appeared in Tradition magazine

Blidstein makes the same point about the difference between halakhah and democracy as Lichtenstein, while seeking out a modus vivendi that that does not rely on superhuman values. Against the hard religious right that rejects universal human values, Blidstein subordinates tradition to modern values. “We are not creatures of Halakhah alone.” Reflects back on the Spanish legal tradition in Judaism to consider the function of Jewish lay and civil authority in Jewish society, Blidstein insists that that civil legislation lays outside the scope of halakhah. With religious authority giving way to secular authority in matters outside synagogue, Blidstein rejects the institution of rabbinic review of secular law. Rejecting coercion in favor of persuasion and education (like Moses Mendelssohn), Blidstein maintains that most Jewish content in Israel is not “halakhic” but communal-civil. Blidstein is aware that that most “religionists” align with communitarianism, which he  rejects as fascistic. Blidstein is a liberal pluralist for whom the principles of darkhei shalom (ways of peace) and tzelem elokim (the notion that all people are created in the image of God).

For Blidstein, the question of democracy and halakhah depend upon that thin thread that is the image of God This is the concluding question and last word of the essay:

The nature and terms of our relationship with other Jews and non-Jewish men and women is an acute problem for many. From where I sit—a place where the pressures are powerful and the problems are complex—it looks as though the halakhic tradition, as defined by its bearers, itself is on trial. We may be quite capable of persevering, of course, day-to-day, but the intellectual and indeed spiritual basis on which we believe a better society should be constructed, seems inadequate—inadequate educationally and inadequate socially. Too often, we have reaped the harvest of that inadequacy. In textual terms, the issue seems to be: can the ‘divine image in man’ become a more powerful halakhic concept than it seems to be at present or than it has been historically?” [p.33]

Blidstein holds out the value of compromise and assumes that “most people” support both values-sets and can live with inconsistency. But that does not seem to be the case about most people. The upshot is grim, especially today, now that orthodox Judaism and religious Zionism are occupying real seats of political power in Israel today. The first grim upsohot is that the conflict between halakhah and democracy is radical and that all previous solutions have been proven inadequate. Second, there would seem to be a lack of value or what Lichtenstein called focus on the human dignity in orthodox Judaism and religious Zionism. The conclusions are fairly simple. Religious actors exacerbate the conflict when they look at halakhah not as something narrow and therefore circumscribed, but as something more totalistic or foundational in scope (p.33). Religion is an asocial form of sociality. On its own, religion or the sacred asserts the hierarchy of its own privilege, in contradiction to the good of society if need be. That the divine image in all people has never been a halakhic concept underscores that Judaism needs more humanism and less halakhah.

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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