Judaism and politics

Last updated

The relationship between Judaism and politics is a historically complex subject, and has evolved over time concurrently with both changes within Jewish society and religious practice, and changes in the general society of places where Jewish people live. In particular, Jewish political thought can be split into four major eras: biblical (prior to Roman rule), rabbinic (from roughly the 100 BCE to 600 CE), medieval (from roughly 600 CE to 1800 CE), and modern (18th century to the present day).


Political leadership is a common topic in the Hebrew Bible, and several different political models are described across its canon, usually composed of some combination of tribal federation, monarchy, a priestly theocracy, and rule by prophets. Political organization during the Rabbinic and Medieval generally involved semi-autonomous rule by Jewish councils and courts (with council membership often composed purely of rabbis) that would govern the community and act as representatives to secular authorities outside the Jewish community. Beginning in the 19th century, and coinciding with the expansion of the political rights accorded to individual Jews in European society, Jews would affiliate with and contribute theory to a wide range of political movements and philosophies.

Biblical models

There are many models for political leadership described in the Hebrew Bible. Stuart Cohen has pointed out that there are three separate power centers depicted in the Hebrew Bible: the priesthood, the royal throne, and the prophets. [1]

One model of Biblical politics is the model of the tribal federation, where power is shared among different tribes and institutions. Another is the model of limited constitutional monarchy. [2]

The Bible appears to command appointing a king in the Book of Deuteronomy with the following command: "When you come into the land that the Lord your God is about to give you, and you take hold of it and dwell in it, and you say, 'Let me put a king over me like all the nations that are around me', you shall surely put over you a king whom the Lord your God chooses..." (Deut. 17:14–15).

The Hebrew Bible contains a complex chronicle of the Kings of Israel and Judah, written over the course of many generations by authors whose relationships and intimacy with the rulers of the several kingdoms fluctuated widely in both intimacy and respect. Some historical passages of the Hebrew Bible contain intimate portrayals of the inner workings of the royal households of Saul, David, and Solomon; the accounts of subsequent monarchs are frequently more distanced and less detailed, and frequently begin with the judgement that the monarch "did evil in the sight of the Lord".

Daniel Elazar has argued that the concept of covenant is the fundamental concept in the Biblical political tradition and in the later Jewish thought that emerges from the Bible. [2]

Rabbinic period

The Sanhedrin

In Roman Judea, Jewish communities were governed by rabbinical courts known as Sanhedrin. Lesser Sanhedrin composed of 23 judges were appointed to each city, while a Great Sanhedrin with 71 judges was the highest authority, taking cases appealed from the lower courts. The Sanhedrin served as the leadership of the Jewish community under Roman rule, and served as emissaries to the imperial authorities in addition to overseeing religious practice and collecting taxes. [3] The Sanhedrin was the highest Jewish governing body of the Second Temple period, and the codification of the Mishnah by the Tannaim during this period laid the foundations for later Rabbinic Judaism.

Talmudic sources on political philosophy

A statement by Rabbi Judah in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 20b) depicts kingship as the ideal form of Jewish governance, following the Book of Deuteronomy statement that, "When you come into the land that the Lord your God is about to give you, and you take hold of it and dwell in it, and you say, 'Let me put a king over me like all the nations that are around me', you shall surely put over you a king whom the Lord your God chooses..." (Deut. 17:14–15). [4]

But the Talmud also brings a different interpretation of this verse from Rabbi Nehorai, who is quoted as explaining that, "This section was spoken only in anticipation of their future murmurings, as it is written, and you say, Let me put a king over me..." (Sanhedrin 20b). In many interpretations, Rabbi Nehorai does not think of appointing a king as a strict obligation, but as a concession to later "murmurings" from Israel. [4]

In addition to imagining ideal forms of governance, the rabbis accept a principle to obey the government currently in power. The Talmud makes reference to the principle of dina de-malkhuta dina ("the law of the land is law"), a principle recognizing non-Jewish laws and non-Jewish legal jurisdiction as binding on Jewish citizens, provided that they are not contrary to any laws of Judaism. [5] [6]

Medieval period

The Qahal

During the Middle Ages, some Ashkenazi Jewish communities were governed by qahal, a form of government based on Jewish principles. The kahal had regulatory control over Jewish communities in a given region; they administered commerce, hygiene, sanitation, charity, Jewish education, kashrut , and relations between landlords and their tenants. It provided a number of community facilities, such as a rabbi, a ritual bath, and an interest-free loan facility for the Jewish community. [7] [8] The kahal even had sufficient authority that it could arrange for individuals to be expelled from synagogues, excommunicating them. [7] [9]

Medieval Jewish political philosophy

Some medieval political theorists such as Maimonides and Rabbeinu Nissim saw kingship as the ideal form of government. Maimonides' views the commandment in Deuteronomy to appoint a king as a clear positive ideal, following the Talmudic teaching that "three commandments were given to Israel when they entered the land: to appoint a king, as it says, 'You shall surely put over you a king'..." [10] A large section of Maimonides' legal code, the Mishneh Torah, titled "The Laws of Kings and their Wars", deals with the ideal model of kingship, especially in the messianic era, and also concerning ruling over non-Jewish subjects through the Noachide laws. Other sections of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (mostly also in Sefer Shofetim, the book of Judges, where the laws of kingship are also found) is dedicated to the laws relating to legislators and judges.

Whereas Maimonides' idealized kingship, other medieval political theorists, such as Abravanel, saw kingship as misguided. [4] Later on, other Jewish philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza would lay the groundwork for the Enlightenment, arguing for ideas such as the separation of church and state. Spinoza's writings caused him to be excommunicated [11] from the Jewish community of Amsterdam, although his work and legacy has been largely rehabilitated, especially among secular Jews in the 20th and 21st centuries [12] .

Modern period

With Jewish Emancipation, the institution of the Qahal as an autonomous entity was officially abolished. Jews increasingly became participants in the wider political and social sphere of larger nations. As Jews became citizens of states with various political systems, and argued about whether to found their own state, Jewish ideas of the relationship between Judaism and politics developed in many different directions.

In Europe

In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, when there was a large Jewish population in Europe, some Jews favored various forms of liberalism, and saw them as connected with Jewish principles. Some Jews allied themselves with a range of Jewish political movements. These included Socialist and labor movements favored by the Jewish left, Zionist movements, Jewish Autonomist movements, Territorialist movements, and Jewish Anarchism movements. Haredi Jews formed an organization known as World Agudath Israel which espoused Haredi Jewish political principles.

21st century

In the 21st century, shifts are occurring. The Jewish community in Great Britain, one of the largest in the diaspora, is leaning conservative, as a poll published by the Jewish Chronicle in early 2015 shows. Of British Jews polled, 69% would vote for the Conservative Party, while 22% would vote for the Labour Party. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the voter population, which, according to a BBC poll, had Conservatives and Labor almost tied at about a third each. Jews have typically been a part of the British middle class, traditional home of the Conservative Party, though the number of Jews in working-class communities of London is in decline. The main voting bloc of poorer Jews in Britain now, made up primarily of ultra-Orthodox, votes "en masse" for the Conservatives. Attitudes toward Israel influence the vote of three out of four of British Jews. [13] [14] A shift toward conservatism has also been exhibited in France, where about half of the Jewish population is Sephardic. Jérôme Fourquet, director of the IFOP, the French polling organization, notes that there is a "pronounced preference" for right-wing politics among French Jews. During the 2007 election, Jews (Orthodox or not) represent the strongest pillar of support for Sarkozy after observant Catholics. [15]

In the United States

19th century

American Civil War

During the American Civil War, Jews were divided in their views of slavery and abolition. Prior to 1861, there were virtually no rabbinical sermons on slavery. The silence on this issue was probably a result of fear that the controversy would create conflict within the Jewish community. Some Jews owned slaves or traded them, and the livelihoods of many in the Jewish community of both the North and South were tied to the slave system. Most southern Jews supported slavery, and some, like Judah P. Benjamin, advocated its expansion. The abolitionist Ben Wade, who knew Benjamin in the U.S. Senate, described him as "an Israelite with Egyptian principles". Northern Jews sympathized with the South, and few were abolitionists, seeking peace and remaining silent on the subject of slavery. America's largest Jewish community, New York's Jews, were "overwhelmingly pro-southern, pro-slavery, and anti-Lincoln in the early years of the war". However, eventually, they began to lean politically toward "Father Abraham", his Republican party, and emancipation. [16]

20th and 21st centuries

While earlier Jewish immigrants tended to be politically conservative, the wave of Eastern European Jews starting in the early 1880s, were generally more liberal or left-wing, and became the political majority. [17] For most of the 20th century since 1936, the vast majority of Jews in the United States have been aligned with the Democratic Party. Many religious supporters of the Jewish left have argued that left-wing values vis-à-vis social justice can be traced to Jewish religious texts, including the Tanakh and later texts, which include a strong endorsement of hospitality to "the stranger" and the principle of redistribution of wealth in the Biblical idea of Jubilee – as well as a tradition of challenging authority, as exemplified by the Biblical Prophets.

American rabbinic leaders who have advanced a progressive political agenda grounded in Jewish principles have included:

Other prominent Jews who have argued based on Jewish principles for a progressive political agenda have included:

Towards the end of the 20th century, and at the beginning of the 21st century, Republicans began a platform that sought to take the Jewish vote away from the Democratic Party. While a solid majority of American Jews continues to be aligned with the Democratic Party, many have argued that there is increased Jewish support for political conservatism. (The "List of Jewish American politicians" illustrates the diversity of Jewish political thought and of the roles Jews have played in American politics.)

Rabbinic leaders who have advanced a conservative political agenda grounded in Jewish principles have included:

Other prominent Jews who have argued based on Jewish principles for a conservative political agenda have included: [18]

Jewish political philosophy in North America

Significant Jewish political philosophers in North America have included:

In Israel

The development of a political system in Israel drew largely on European models of governance, rather than on models from the Jewish political tradition. [19] Some political figures in Israel, however, have seen their principles as based in Judaism. This is especially pronounced in political parties that see themselves as religious parties, such as Shas, United Torah Judaism, and The Jewish Home.

Recent interest in developing political theory grounded in Jewish sources has been spurred on by the activities of the neo-conservative Shalem Center. [20]

Related Research Articles

Jews as the chosen people Belief that Jews were chosen by God for a covenental relationship

In Judaism, "chosenness" is the belief that the Jews, via descent from the ancient Israelites, are the chosen people, i.e. chosen to be in a covenant with God. The idea of the Israelites being chosen by God is found most directly in the Book of Deuteronomy as the verb bahar, and is alluded to elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible using other terms such as "holy people". Much is written about these topics in rabbinic literature. The three largest Jewish denominations—Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism—maintain the belief that the Jews have been chosen by God for a purpose. Sometimes this choice is seen as charging the Jewish people with a specific mission—to be a light unto the nations, and to exemplify the covenant with God as described in the Torah.

Halakha is the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and Oral Torah. Halakha is based on biblical commandments (mitzvot), subsequent Talmudic and rabbinic law, and the customs and traditions compiled in the many books such as the Shulchan Aruch. Halakha is often translated as "Jewish Law", although a more literal translation might be "the way to behave" or "the way of walking". The word derives from the root that means "to behave". Halakha guides not only religious practices and beliefs, but also numerous aspects of day-to-day life.

Judaism The ethnic religion of the Jewish people

Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish people, comprising the collective religious, cultural and legal tradition and civilization of the Jewish people. Judaism is considered by religious Jews to be the expression of the covenant that God established with the Children of Israel. It encompasses a wide body of texts, practices, theological positions, and forms of organization. The Torah is part of the larger text known as the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible, and supplemental oral tradition represented by later texts such as the Midrash and the Talmud. With between 14.5 and 17.4 million adherents worldwide, Judaism is the tenth largest religion in the world.

Jewish eschatology Area of Jewish theology and philosophy concerned with events that will happen in the end of days and related concepts

Jewish eschatology is the area of Jewish philosophy and theology concerned with events that will happen in the end of days and related concepts. This includes the ingathering of the exiled diaspora, the coming of a Jewish Messiah, afterlife, and the revival of the dead Tzadikim. In Judaism, the end times are usually called the "end of days", a phrase that appears several times in the Tanakh.

Seven Laws of Noah set of 7 laws, said in Rabbinic Judaism to be binding upon all humanity; not directly enumerated in the Bible, but described in the Talmud

The Seven Laws of Noah, also referred to as the Noahide Laws or the Noachide Laws, are a set of imperatives which, according to the Talmud, were given by God as a binding set of laws for the "children of Noah" – that is, all of humanity.

In Judaism, a rabbi is a teacher of Torah. The basic form of the rabbi developed in the Pharisaic and Talmudic era, when learned teachers assembled to codify Judaism's written and oral laws. The first sage for whom the Mishnah uses the title of rabbi was Yohanan ben Zakkai, active in the early-to-mid first century CE. In more recent centuries, the duties of a rabbi became increasingly influenced by the duties of the Protestant Christian minister, hence the title "pulpit rabbis", and in 19th-century Germany and the United States rabbinic activities including sermons, pastoral counseling, and representing the community to the outside, all increased in importance.

Jewish principles of faith

There is no established formulation of principles of faith that are recognized by all branches of Judaism. Central authority in Judaism is not vested in any one person or group - although the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish religious court, would fulfill this role if it is re-established - but rather in Judaism's sacred writings, laws, and traditions.

Sanhedrin Ancient High Court and Legislature in the land of Israel

The Sanhedrin were assemblies of either twenty-three or seventy-one rabbis appointed to sit as a tribunal in every city in the ancient Land of Israel.

Jewish philosophy All philosophy carried out by Jews, or in relation to the religion of Judaism

Jewish philosophy includes all philosophy carried out by Jews, or in relation to the religion of Judaism. Until modern Haskalah and Jewish emancipation, Jewish philosophy was preoccupied with attempts to reconcile coherent new ideas into the tradition of Rabbinic Judaism, thus organizing emergent ideas that are not necessarily Jewish into a uniquely Jewish scholastic framework and world-view. With their acceptance into modern society, Jews with secular educations embraced or developed entirely new philosophies to meet the demands of the world in which they now found themselves.

Messiah in Judaism A savior and liberator of the Jewish people.

The Messiah in Judaism is a savior and liberator figure in Jewish eschatology, who is believed to be the future redeemer of the Jewish people. The concept of messianism originated in Judaism, and in the Hebrew Bible a messiah is a king or High Priest traditionally anointed with holy anointing oil. However, messiahs were not exclusively Jewish, as the Hebrew Bible refers to Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, as a messiah for his decree to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple.

Jewish religious movements, sometimes called "denominations" or "branches", include different groups which have developed among Jews from ancient times. Today, the main division is between the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements, with several smaller movements alongside them. This denominational structure is mainly present in the United States, while in Israel, the fault lines are between the Orthodox and the non-religious.

Among followers of Judaism, Jesus is viewed as having been the most influential and, consequently, the most damaging of all false messiahs. However, since the traditional Jewish belief is that the messiah has not yet come and the Messianic Age is not yet present, the total rejection of Jesus as either messiah or deity has never been a central issue for Judaism.

Karaite Judaism or Karaism is a Jewish religious movement characterized by the recognition of the written Torah alone as its supreme authority in halakha and theology. Karaites maintain that all of the divine commandments handed down to Moses by God were recorded in the written Torah without additional Oral Law or explanation. It is distinct from mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, which considers the Oral Torah, as codified in the Talmud and subsequent works, to be authoritative interpretations of the Torah. As a result, Karaite Jews do not accept as binding the written collections of the oral tradition in the Midrash or Talmud.

Jewish leadership has evolved over time. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, there has been no single body that has a leadership position over the entire Jewish diaspora. Various branches of Judaism, as well as Jewish religious or secular communities and political movements around the world elect or appoint their governing bodies, often subdivided by country or region.

Noahidism Monotheistic religious ideology based on the Seven Laws of Noah in Rabbinic Judaism

Noahidism or Noachidism is a monotheistic branch of Judaism based on the Seven Laws of Noah, and their traditional interpretations within Rabbinic Judaism. According to the Jewish law, non-Jews (Gentiles) are not obligated to convert to Judaism, but they are required to observe the Seven Laws of Noah to be assured of a place in the World to Come, the final reward of the righteous. The divinely ordained penalty for violating any of these Noahide Laws is discussed in the Talmud, but in practical terms it is subject to the working legal system which is established by the society at large. Those who subscribe to the observance of the Noahic Covenant are referred to as B'nei Noach or Noahides. Supporting organizations have been established around the world over the past decades by either Noahides or Orthodox Jews.

God in Judaism The concept of God in the Jewish faith

In Judaism, God has been conceived in a variety of ways. Traditionally, Judaism holds that Hashem, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the national god of the Israelites, delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and gave them the Law of Moses at biblical Mount Sinai as described in the Torah. According to the rationalist stream of Judaism articulated by Maimonides, which later came to dominate much of official traditional Jewish thought, God is understood as the absolute one, indivisible, and incomparable being who is the ultimate cause of all existence. Traditional interpretations of Judaism generally emphasize that God is personal yet also transcendent, while some modern interpretations of Judaism emphasize that God is a force or ideal.

In Judaism, views on abortion draw primarily upon the legal and ethical teachings of the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, the case-by-case decisions of responsa, and other rabbinic literature.

The 2004 attempt to re-establish the Sanhedrin was an attempt to set up a revived national rabbinical court of Jewish law in Israel which began in October 2004. The organization heading this attempt refers to itself as the nascent Sanhedrin or developing Sanhedrin, and regards itself as a provisional body awaiting integration into the Israeli government as both a supreme court and an upper house of the Knesset. The Israeli secular press regards it as an illegitimate fundamentalist organization of rabbis. The organization, which is composed of over 70 rabbis, claims to enjoy recognition and support from the entire religious Jewish community in Israel. However, it is totally ignored by the Haredi community, and has stirred debate in both religious and secularist circles.

Dina d'malkhuta dina, is a rabbinic dictum based on the halakhic rule that the law of the country is binding, and, in certain cases, is to be preferred to Jewish law. The concept of dina de-malkhuta dina is similar to the concept of conflict of laws in other legal systems. It appears in at least twenty-five places in the Shulkhan Arukh.


  1. Stuart Cohen, The Three Crowns
  2. 1 2 Daniel Elazar, "Covenant as the Basis of the Jewish Political Tradition"
  3. Jack N. Lightstone; Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion (13 May 2002). Mishnah and the social formation of the early Rabbinic Guild: a socio-rhetorical approach. Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press. p. 189. ISBN   978-0-88920-375-4. Retrieved 21 July 2011.
  4. 1 2 3 https://web.archive.org/web/20110821083739/http://www.schechter.org.il/iyounei_chabate.asp?id=238
  5. Dina de-Malkhutah dina Jewish Virtual Library
  6. The Jewish Law Annual 1978 p 146 Maimonedes on Din de-Malkhuta dina (The Law of the State is Law) Shmuel Shilo Senior Lecturer in Jewish Law. Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  7. 1 2 Louis Finkelstein, Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages
  8. Joseph Caro, Shulkhan 'Arukh , Hoshen Mishpat chapter 2
  9. Encyclopedia of Ukraine , (1989) volume 2, entry for Kahal
  10. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "The Laws of Kings and their Wars" 1:1)
  11. Nadler, Steven M. (2001). Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 120. ISBN   0-19-926887-8.
  12. "Einstein believes in "Spinoza's God"; Scientist Defines His Faith in Reply, to Cablegram From Rabbi Here. Sees a Divine Order, But Says Its Ruler Is Not Concerned "Wit [sic] Fates and Actions of Human Beings".". The New York Times. 25 April 1929. Retrieved 8 September 2009.
  13. Huge majority of British Jews will vote Tory, JC poll reveals The JC.com, 7 April 2015
  14. How Ed Miliband Lost Britain's Jewish Voters The Jewish Daily Forward, 8 April 2015
  15. French Jews Mostly Side With Sarkozy The jewish Daily Forward, 22 february 2012
  16. Jews Mostly Supported Slavery — Or Kept Silent — During Civil War The Jewish Daily Forward, 5 July 2013
  17. Hasia Diner, The Jews of the United States. 1654 to 2000 (2004), ch 5
  18. Friedman, Murray (2003). "The Changing Jewish Political Profile". American Jewish History. 91 (3/4): 423–438. JSTOR   23887289.
  19. Daniel Elazar, The Jews' Rediscovery of the Political and its Implications, sees a "strong inclination toward centralized control of every aspect of public life brought from their European experiences by the state's molders and shapers".
  20. http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/news/funded-by-u-s-neocons-think-tank-researchers-now-carving-israeli-policy-1.276236