Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jews and Politics

[The following is my article for this week's Toronto Torah; note the ubiquitous Canadian 'u' and the gratuitous injection of French!]

The sage Shemayah was a leading scholar of the first century BCE, and mentor of the great Hillel, but his words in Pirkei Avot have gained little traction with Jews over the centuries. Shemayah advised (Avot 1:10), "Love labour, hate positions of authority and do not make yourself known to the government." Ignoring this judicious counsel, we strive for early retirement, we clamour for authority, and we have a long, colourful history of cultivating relationships with the government du jour.

Shemayah's own flouting of his first two pearls of wisdom is fascinating; he held the sinecure of President of the Sanhedrin, so that his advice amounts to, "Do as I say, not as I do." But to focus on his third recommendation, that we not make ourselves known to government, why did so many giants of our past – Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, Mar Shemuel, Shemuel haNagid, Don Isaac Abarbanel, Sir Moses Montefiore, to name a few – cultivate relationships with the governments of their day?

On one level, our government alliances are simply a product of Pragmatism. We would like certain things from society: the right to practice our religion without being harrassed, the option of sending our children to Jewish schools, the freedom to take Shabbat and Yom Tov off of work without penalty. We would like certain ideals reflected in municipal and federal policy. A pragmatist says that if we want to achieve, we must involve ourselves, express our opinions, and contribute to the public good.

We find this point of view expressed by Rabbi Yissachar Techtel, author of the Em haBanim Smeichah, regarding Israel and the involvement of Torah-observant Jews in birthing the nascent state. Writing in 1942, Rav Techtel berated those who complained about the secular character of the Zionist leadership. He asked, “Were you involved when they started? Did you build their towns with them? Did you move to the land and help build it up?” We must be willing to be involved.

A second reason for investment is Gratitude. We receive food through society's system of highways, profit from its stable commercial environment, and live safely thanks to its police and courts. We enjoy parks in which to play, and roads on which to drive. Our taxes fund these services, but society provides the oversight, design and maintainenance of this grand system. Gratitude dictates that we pay for this service, and playing a role in government is part of that payment.

Gratitude is the model taken by Rav Moshe Feinstein, in a letter encouraging voter registration. He wrote: "A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakaras hatov – recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which affords us the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent upon each individual is to register to vote."

Beyond pragmatism and gratitude, though, we have a tradition of flouting Shemayah's advice because we are taught to invest in Community. We are a Jewish community, but we are also part of a larger community, and we are responsible to that larger community.

As the gemara (Shabbat 33b) explains, Yaakov pioneered this community approach. When Yaakov moved his family to Shechem, he contributed to the infrastructure of the land; Rav said that Yaakov established a currency, Shemuel said that Yaakov founded a marketplace, and R’ Yochanan said that he constructed bathhouses for the population. Rashi explains that Yaakov did this when he purchased land in the area; upon becoming landed, he made an investment in the public good.

The same message may be seen in our ancestor Avraham's plea on behalf of the hypothetical righteous population of Sodom. Avraham contended, “Perhaps there are righteous people b'toch ha'ir, in the midst of the city,” emphasizing that the individuals who could forestall catastrophe would be people who functioned as part of the citizenry, not as an isolated enclave. The work Panim laTorah cites the Vilna Gaon as highlighting this language, and both Ibn Ezra and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch did likewise in their commentaries to the Torah. The worth of the righteous stems from their involvement with the greater populace.

Given these three elements – Pragmatism, Gratitude and Community – why did Shemayah take a stand against making ourselves known to the government? Perhaps Shemayah's words were formed in response to the Sanhedrin he personally led, a group of sages who cowered before the murderous King Herod (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 14:9; see a variant edition in Sanhedrin 19a). Shemayah was justly concerned that a nation which consorted closely with corrupt kings could be intimidated or bought. Nonetheless, the weight of Jewish tradition is with the Abarbanels and Montefiores; for reasons both selfish and selfless, we seek the good of the land we inhabit – investing, building, and governing as well.


  1. "Shemayah's own flouting of his first two pearls of wisdom is fascinating... so that his advice amounts to, 'Do as I say, not as I do.'"

    Unless his advice was more like "Don't repeat my mistakes."

  2. r'ybs on ger vtoshav anochi imachem and lovda ulshomra-this is a religious obligation!
    Joel Rich

  3. When you are in a country that is built on natural law then it is your obligation to support it. But in a country that goes against natural law it is your oligation to oppose it. America was originally founded on the ideas of natural law. This is where the idea of God given rights comes from. But for about fifty years the government and judicial branches of governmet upold legal positism. That is --that people only have the rights the goverment gives them. The constitution of the USA is in fact ignored because it can't be interpreted according to the modern idea of legal positvisism. so the goverment of the USA is now against natural law.
    The idea of natural law as far I know began with saadia geon but was developed later by the rambam. I can imagine it has it roots in Plato but the more modern idea of natural law began with Saadia Geon.

  4. Flouting his own words???? He didn't say don't take on positions of authority. The right people have to. He just said you should see it for what it is- on overwhelming responsibility, not a special honor.

  5. R' Micha-
    Possible, certainly.

    Indeed; I think that fits into #3?

    I'm no legal scholar, but I think the Greeks did have a natural law concept. No time to start researching, though.

    I think "Hate positions of authority" is pretty unequivocal.

  6. My point was not who started natural law. My point is that the Rambam developed natural law way beyond what had been done before him and this lead eventually to that wonder of the world, the United States of America. People should realize that the roots of the USA come from an idea that was developed by Saadia and Rambam. Besides this I also don't want to spend the time looking it up right now but I don't remember anywhere in Plato or Aristotle that developed the ideas of natural law as much or as well as the Rambam.