Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shelah 5763/ June 21, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Shelah 5763/ June 21, 2003
Politics and Religion, Then and Now

Prof. Jose Faur
Department of Talmud

The Torah is a two-dimensional system, one dimension being theological and including the body of religious faith, ritual and obligations,[1] the other political, including economic and ethical institutions, a legal system and political regime.[2] The latter dimension Rabbi Judah Halevi described as the "political and intellectual Teaching,"[3] (or, in ibn Tibbon's translation, "the social and intellectual constitution"). Rabbi Jacob Ibn Danah, who translated the Kuzari into Spanish, explained that this refers to that "political legislation which is essential for preserving the republic."[4]

Rabbi Judah Halevi explained that the laws in the political realm precede "divine Law in nature and time." The logic is clear: without this foundation, "there could be no [political] leadership in any human society" (Kuzari, loc. sit.). Special attention should be paid to the fact that according to Spinoza the Jews are special precisely because of their political system. The Jews "were chosen by G-d for no other reason than their socio-political organization". It is this dimension that gives Jews an advantage over non-Jews: "Because a Jew, by himself, outside of his social and political organization, has no advantage from G-d over other human beings, and there is no difference between Jew and gentile."[5] It has been noted by R. Elijah ben Amozag (1823-1900), that Judaism is different from other monotheistic faiths in that it has a theological-political system. Whereas Christianity adopted the theological dimension alone and ignored everything belonging to the political realm ("give Caesar what is Caesar's"), and Islam made the political dimension paramount (the Islamic nation, with the Khalif, the political leader, at its head, parallel to the Pope in Christianity), Judaism, and Judaism alone, has a theological-political system.[6]

Each dimension has its system of transgressions and rights, distinct and different from the other. "Religious" transgressions are requited primarily in the next world: the transgressor is "cut off" from the World to Come, whereas in contrast, the person who repents is rewarded with life in the World to Come (see Mishneh Torah, Teshuva, ch. 8). The punishment for social-political transgressions, on the other hand, is meted out primarily in this life, the Jewish people being uprooted from their land and subjugated to foreign rule, i.e., exile in the full political meaning of the word. Just as religious repentance leads to redemption of the individual's soul in the World to Come, so too repentance from political transgressions has the objective of redemption of all Israel and granting them the right to the Messianic era (hence the notion that the Messianic era and the World to Come are two different spheres; see Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah, ch. 9). It is therefore clear that repentance of the individual in the religious realm is different from repentance of the group in the political realm, and vice-versa. Political transgressions have a mechanics of their own which work themselves out in this world, in the realm of history.

Rabbi Solomon Ibn Verga calls the historical chain of events that results from following a stupid policy "the natural cause." In Shevet Yehudah he puts forward the thesis that the exile of Israel is not a punishment for the religious transgressions we have committed, in the sense of super-natural theological punishment. Proof lies in our "having seen and heard of many nations who sinned and transgressed far more than them" in the religious realm, "and were not punished."[7] In his opinion, one cannot understand the state of decline of the Jewish people only in the light of a theological system. The troubles that afflicted and still afflict Israel stem from a system of natural causes and effects that grow out of inept political leadership - what he calls the "natural cause." As he puts it, the Jewish people in exile "declined not by reason of punishment, but from a natural cause."[8] Shevet Yehudah is a work devoted entirely, from beginning to end, to proving the thesis that the reason for the hardship of the Jews is not to be sought on the super-natural level, but in those embarrassing decisions of incapable and corrupt leadership:

For their rise to heaven [the success of the Jews] is the reason for their fall; for they became haughty one over the other until their hearts were greatly divided, ... and from haughtiness derived hatred among them, and from the hatred, fragmentation. Each of them [in the political leadership] would say that he deserved to have lordship and dominion, and in order to seize power one over the other they put gentiles between them. When they [the gentiles] came to know their secrets and their divisiveness, they no longer feared them nor thought highly of them, but came and brought them down... From this the controversies among the Jews continued in accordance with their bad nature.[9]

In a story which belongs more to literature than to history it is told that one of the enemies of Israel advised the king that when he should wish to avenge himself on the Jews he should "order them all to assemble in a single city, and have no outsider among them; and then they should appoint someone head over them. You will see that they will never agree on a single person, and thereby they will come to kill each other" (loc. sit., p. 42). To prove this, he cites a series of events (loc. sit., pp. 41-45) which eminently show that the Jews have no more cruel enemy than the Jews themselves. It is interesting that in the end the Christian king understood that when the time came for the Jews to be exiled from their land, "as necessarily followed from the nature of their sin (=the natural cause)," G-d decided to destroy the Temple because He "did not want the Temple to remain in gentile hands" (loc. sit., p. 45).

Exile is a political concept. It means that despite the fact that the people of Israel have been uprooted from their land, their political rights still exist and they will some day return to their land. The status of exile stipulates that Judaism is not simply a "religious" community. Here one should note that the Spanish Jews did not identify themselves as a religious community but as a people (who also have a religion). The first Jews to come to the American continent in 1665 sought a haven in the name of the "Jewish nation" and not simply as a religious group. Understanding this, it becomes clear why these Jews did not perceive of emancipation and citizenship in a state not their own as an achievement to be proud of, but as plain denial of the political dimension of the Jewish people: by becoming a German or French citizen the individual is no longer in exile, and thereby has given up his political right to the land of Israel.[10]

This week's reading describes the first political sin among the people of Israel. This is not the place to discuss all the details of this event and its repercussions on Jewish history. Suffice it to note two characteristics which have become mainstays of Jewish political thought.

  1. The entire responsibility for a political failing is placed on the leader. Indeed, the request to send spies came from the people (Deut. 1:22-23), and G-d confirmed this request. But, as the Sages interpreted, "Send thou - according to your own judgment" (see Rashi); in other words, on your own responsibility. Note that G-d commanded to send "one man from each of their ancestral tribes," but did not say whom to send. Again we must observe: among all the "princes" chosen there is not soul from among the "princes" who brought offerings for the dedication of the altar. There is a note of irony in the Sages' commentary, reading "all of them were men [Heb. anashim]" as "all were righteous" (see Rashi's commentary on this verse). But, in addition to this, were they all qualified for carrying out this mission? It is well-known what a dismal failure the mission was and how disastrous its outcome for the people of Israel. From this failure we can better understand what is said in the beginning of Deuteronomy: "Because of you the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said: You shall not enter it [the land] either. Joshua son of Nun, who attends you, he shall enter it. Imbue him with strength, for he shall allot it to Israel" (Deut. 1:37-38; cf. Sanhedrin 8.1). Like Saul and David in their days, the removal of the previous ruler and appointment of the next follow one after the other.
  2. The punishment applied also to the political entity - the entire people - and not only to isolated individuals in their time, but for subsequent generations. It has been noted by the Sages, "That day was the ninth of Ab. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: They wept for nought; I shall give them cause for weeping for generations" (Sotah 35a).

An important consequence following from the idea of political transgression is political repentance. Four fast days were established with this idea in mind, first and foremost of them being the ninth of Ab, the day established as a day of mourning for all generations. Perhaps this is what Maimonides had in mind when he wrote (Mishneh Torah, Ta'aniyot 5.1):

There are days on which all of Israel fast because of the misfortunes that happened on them, in order to arouse the hearts to turn to repentance. This shall be a remembrance of our bad deeds and the deeds of our ancestors, which were like our deeds today, until it caused (=the natural cause) them and us the same hardships. For in remembering these things, we shall return to the good.

We may surmise that the same sins that characterized our ancestors then and our own deeds now are not necessarily in the religious realm, but primarily in the political realm, in the full sense of this dimension.


[1] Compare the categories "commandments between human beings and G-d" in the works of the Sages, or "commandments of obedience [mitzvot shim'iyot - with no explanation why they have to be kept] in the works of medieval Jewish thinkers.
[2] Compare "commandments between one's fellow human beings" in the works of the Sages and "commandments of the intellect" in the works of medieval Jewish thinkers.
[3] The Kuzari, 2.48; the Arabic original: Kitab al-Rad ve-al-Dalil, ed. D. Banit, p. 69, l. 3. Cf., ibid., p. 68, lines 15, 18.
[4] Cuzari, Madrid 1910, p. 416.
[5] Tractatus Theological-Politici, III, [50]. Author's translation; the translation by Wirshubsky is not precise.
[6] From this angle one can well understand the title of Spinoza's famous work, Tractatus Theologico-Politici. See my article, "One-Dimensional Jew, Zero-Dimensional Judaism," Annual of Rabbinic Judaism, II, 1999, pp. 31-50.
[7] Shevet Yehudah, ed. Azriel Shohat, VII, p. 26.
[8] Ibid., p. 27; cf. p. 39, or "by way of nature," loc. sit., pp. 26, 28, 29.
[9] Ibid., p. 40. On this subject, see my book, In the Shadow of History, pp. 204-207.
[10] On this central idea, see my article, "Early Zionist Ideals Among Sephardim in the Nineteenth Century," Judaism 25, (1976), 54-64.