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Judaism and politics

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Judaism and politics

The relationship between Judaism and politics is a historically complex subject and a frequent source of disagreement among Jews.

Biblical Models

There are many models for political leadership 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 judgment that the monarch "did evil in the sight of the Lord."


Rabbinic political models

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's 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).[3]

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.[3]

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.[4][5]

Medieval political models

The autonomous Jewish government in the Middle Ages was known as the Qahal (more often spelled Kahal), a form of government which many Jews saw as exemplifying 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.[6][7] The kahal even had sufficient authority that it could arrange for individuals to be expelled from synagogues, excommunicating them.[6][8]

Some medieval political theorists such as Maimonides and Rabbeinu Nissim saw kingship as ideal. 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’….”[9] 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 [3]

Modern Jewish political models

With Jewish Emancipation, the institution of the Qahal as an autonomous entity had been 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, many Jews favored various forms of [12]

In the United States

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 very 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.[13]

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.[14] 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 launched initiatives to woo American Jews 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," which illustrates the diversity of Jewish political thought and of the roles Jews have played in American politics.)

Rabbinic leaders who have advanced a more 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:

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.[15] 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.[16]


  1. ^ Stuart Cohen, The Three Crowns
  2. ^ a b Daniel Elazar, “Covenant as the Basis of the Jewish Political Tradition”
  3. ^ a b c
  4. ^ Jewish Virtual LibraryDina de-Malkhutah dina
  5. ^ Senior Lecturer in Jewish Law. Hebrew University of Jerusalem Shmuel Shilo The Jewish Law Annual 1978 p 146 Maimonedes on Din de-Malkhuta dina (The Law of the State is Law)
  6. ^ a b Louis Finkelstein, Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages
  7. ^ Joseph Caro, Shulkhan 'Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat chapter 2
  8. ^ Encyclopedia of Ukraine, (1989) volume 2, entry for Kahal
  9. ^ Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "The Laws of Kings and their Wars" 1:1)
  10. ^ Huge majority of British Jews will vote Tory, JC poll reveals The, 7 April 2015
  11. ^ How Ed Miliband Lost Britain's Jewish Voters The Jewish Daily Forward, 8 April 2015
  12. ^ French Jews Mostly Side With Sarkozy The jewish Daily Forward, 22 february 2012
  13. ^ Jews Mostly Supported Slavery — Or Kept Silent — During Civil War The Jewish Daily Forward, 5 July 2013
  14. ^ Hasia Diner, The Jews of the United States. 1654 to 2000 (2004), ch 5
  15. ^ 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."
  16. ^
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