I’ve recently finished reading the great political theorist Michael Walzer’s book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible. Walzer’s thesis is that the Biblical writers were “not very interested in politics” in contrast to the ancient Greeks. In fact, “there is a strong anti-political tendency in the biblical texts.” There is no suggestion that the good life involves politics and no claim political participation is a good. The Biblical writers believed strongly in law and created and sustained one of the most complex and subtle legal cultures in history. But kings and leaders were rarely political legislators. Instead, God was the legislator and anonymous rabbis issued various, competing interpretations and extensions of that law. Law was interpreted and extended by men, but it was not their creation.

Walzer has convinced me that the ancient Israelites were radical anti-statists, but in a very different sense than many libertarians. The ancient Israelites did not support the abolition of the nation-state (though many did believe that a move to the monarchy was a rejection of God; see 1 Samuel 8). Instead, they were radical anti-statists because they didn’t care about politics.* Libertarians are anti-statists in virtue of our politics, whereas the Israelites were anti-statists because they didn’t have a politics at all. For them, there were things far more important than getting rid of the state or even limiting it.

In this post, I shall argue that the ancient Israelites pose a challenge for libertarians. It is this: if you hate politics so much, why do you like talking and arguing about it? If you really want the state to go away, why do you tie your ups and downs, your joys and sorrows, to what it does? The ancient Israelites, on Walzer’s view, teach us that the best way to beat the state may be to learn to ignore it.

Now many libertarians have argued in favor of our right to ignore the state (Herbie Spencer!). In that sense, ancient Israelite anti-statism is not completely alien to modern libertarianism. But it still challenges us not merely to oppose the state philosophically but to live in a way that gives the state little heed or concern. We can be ruled by the state in two ways: not merely by obeying its laws, but letting its doings consume us. The ancient Israelites challenge us to focus on other matters (in particular, on our relationship with God).

Let me review the book a bit to show the sense in which the Israelites were anti-statists and then I’ll return to this point. I think you’ll find Walzer’s arguments of great interest.

I. The Nature of Israelite Law

Again, as I said, the Israelites were (supposedly) given their law by God. Their kings were not legislators. In fact, in a certain sense they had no legislators. They merely had judge-made law based on extending and applying divine law. Walzer:

Here is what gives Israel’s legal culture its distinctive—and, I might add, its enduring—character. It seems that from fairly early on, a significant number of people, virtually the whole of the nation’s intelligentsia, such as it was, were engaged in arguing about the law (32).

Libertarians have a similar view. They want a legal culture without a political culture.

Another important affinity with contemporary libertarians: they saw no need to eliminate all inconsistencies or imposed a single interpretation of the law on all. Instead, they chose to live “with multiplicity and inconsistency. The result of their choice was a written law that made possible those strange open-ended legal conversations that constitute the oral law of later Judaism.” (33) This is akin to the radical libertarian openness to overlapping jurisdictions and legal traditions.

II. Israelite Theories of Monarchy

The Israelites were never supposed to have a human king. Moses was not a king (contrary to Hobbes’s claim), as he mostly communicated God’s decrees to the people. And when Israel reached the Promised Land, God was King. In Judges,

Political rule is radically decentralized and intermittent even in its local manifestations. God is the only center. When there were no kings in Israel, God was king (53).

Israelite culture is also unique in the ancient world because they have a discussion as to whether to have a king at all! Of course, many nations have debated what form of government to have, but they have seldom debated whether to have a human government in the first place!

And what’s more, given that the Israelites lived in God’s shadow (as Walzer puts it), their king cannot be the sort of absolute kings found in neighboring nations. Walzer: “The fact that the people imagine a king being made at their instance means that he can’t be a king like the kings of all the other nations.” (54)

Especially fascinating is that, almost alone in the ancient world, the Israelite kingship had a complete “absence of cosmological significance. The king is a human artifact, made by the people for their own purposes: that’s why awe and reverence are absent from First Samuel.”

What was God’s rule like prior to the kings? Walzer:

In practice, God’s rule made for decentralized government; according to the kings and their scribes, it made for anarchy: ‘every man did that which was right in his own eyes.’ … it was no doubt intended as an indictment. And yet the picture presented in the book of Judges is not, until the end at least, wholly unattractive.

And this from an egalitarian liberal (of sorts)! But according to Walzer, the initial hostility to monarchy is hard to miss in the Biblical text: “the transition from judges to kings is remembered as a rejection of God.” (60)

Now, Walzer admits that some parts of the Old Testament illustrate a theory of absolute monarchy (such as Psalm 89). Walzer speculates that Solomon’s court intellectuals were responsible. But his other points still stand.

III. Quietistic Foreign Policy

One of the most important features of the “prophet” model of moral and religious reform (where a prophet corrects the behavior of the Israelite leadership, priestly, kingly or both, or the people as a whole) is that many of the prophets appear to be dangerously pacifistic when it comes to foreign policy. Walzer:

Do nothing: this is the prophetic idea of a religiously sanctioned foreign policy, and it constitutes the prophetic challenge to Israel and Judah (100).

Here’s Isaiah: “In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15). Isaiah is here recommending a radical withdrawal from politics because God will take the lead. Isaiah again “For through the voice of the Lord shall the Assyrian be beaten down.” (30:31). God will fight for you. Walzer puts prophetic foreign policy this way:

This is the prophetic message with regard to the world of nations: the only good foreign policy is a good domestic policy. Act justly at home, and your home will be secure (107).

Sound familiar, libertarians? Of course, the massive difference is that most libertarians are secular. But modern libertarians and ancient Israelites agree that in many cases not fighting is the best defense.

IV. Israelite Debate on the Importance of Sovereignty

In part due to the experience of the exile, Walzer argues that the Israelites were constantly faced with the question of whether to be political or not. In the exile, the Israelites had to spontaneously adapt to powerlessness. And they were pretty successful relatively speaking. But that powerlessness poses what Walzer calls the central question of Jewish political thought:

Just how important is sovereignty, independence, and authoritative direction? How important is it to have, like other nations, kings of one’s own, who appoint judges and fight wars? (124)

The Israelites did not attach great value to politics as a way of life, unlike the Greeks. Instead, the prophets teach “that God along will bring deliverance, God alone is the norm for biblical messianism.” (176) The point is that whether politics matters is a serious concern, one today raised by libertarians alone.

V. Israelite Contractualism – Divine and Voluntary

Another element of Israelite apolitical culture is its understanding of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, which has three features relating to covenant, law and prophecy.

(a) God’s covenant requires everyone’s adherence. However, individuals are not bound by God’s will alone, but only through their own agreement.

(b) God’s law, in principle delivered to everyone and accepted by everyone, seems in fact to have been both widely known and remarkably open to interpretation and revision. … But the kings of Israel and Judah were not involved either in making or interpreting the law. They were subject to it, just as, in principle, every Israelite and every ‘stranger in the gates’ was subject.

(c) The prophets, who were, along with priests, judges, scribes, and elders, the interpreters of divine law, spoke in public places to ordinary men and women, who listened to and presumably understood what they were saying (partial Walzer quote, partial paraphrase).

So, while sometimes the Israelite covenant is described in terms of circumcision, at other times it is explicitly based on agreement. The Israelites presumably had the authority to say no. Some probably did so. God dealt with them in some other, unknown, and probably not uniform manner. Whatever the case, God’s will does not by definition bind each person by creating obligations in them to do more than what the much more pared-down moral law requires.

Second, the law is available to everyone and is subject to polycentric interpretations. No one insists on offering the sole interpretation. Instead, nearly everything is open to dispute. Israel in a certain sense had no Supreme Court. And again, the kings of Israel and Judah were again not legislators nor were they above the law. Their power was restricted.

Finally, the legal and moral reformers, the prophets, did not speak only to kings but to everyone. They were prepared to demand that anyone, royal or peasant, repent.

The Israelite political community was based on voluntary agreement, the uniform application of law to all persons, and lacked a single legislative authority or final legal interpretation. Quite extraordinary.

VI. The Political Indifference of Israelite Religion

As Walzer says, “the biblical writers never attach great value to politics as a way of life.” And it is interesting to speculate on why. Here’s what Walzer thinks:

The reason for this largely missing politics probably lies in the religious culture itself, in the powerful idea of divine sovereignty. In a sense, every political regime was potentially in competition with the rule of God. There can’t be fully sovereign states, or a worked-out theory of popular (or any other) sovereignty, so long as God is an active sovereign. The people consent, but they do not rule. Only when God is conceived to withdraw, to stand at some distance from the world of nations, to give up his political interventions, is there room for human politics (202).

When you put God in the center of your life, there is no room for the state. For the Israelites, as opposed to many other cultures, true religious devotion crowds out political devotion. The state is a creature of God and man for quite limited purposes. And the point is always to follow God’s law and to let God lead. Only when God withdraws is modern politics, and its intense statism, possible.

Walzer insists then that “the Bible has no political teaching” in the sense that it has religious and moral teachings. In politics, “there is only a negative teaching; the one proposition that most of the writers would probably endorse is that the relation of rulers and ruled matters little compared to the relation of God and Israel.” (204)

For the Israelites, then, no regime “is presumptively best.” As a result, Israelite religion “can be pressed into the service of many different regimes” but that is only because at its core, Israelite religion is politically indifferent.

Walzer remarks that “The central concerns of political philosophy as the Greeks understood it—ruling and being ruled, the best regime, the meaning of citizenship, the deliberative process, civic virtue, political obligation—were never central in Israelite thought.” Even libertarian political philosophers can forget that it is possible to dramatically deemphasize the importance of such questions.

VII. The Moral Philosophy of the Biblical Writers

Now, just because you don’t have a politics doesn’t mean you don’t have a morality. Israel has a consistent moral teaching, Walzer thinks, and it is this: “We are responsible for our fellows—all of us for all of us: this is the social ethic of the biblical writers.” (210)

Walzer isn’t just imputing his social democratic emphasis on the downtrodden into the text. When it comes to moral teachings, outside of obeying God, helping the weak and not oppressing them is perhaps the most emphasized moral requirement. But notice: political life is not the primary way or even a reliable way in which care is achieved. God commands the Israelites to help wanderers, to care for the widow and the orphan, to leave part of their fields untilled so that the unemployed can work to eat, and so on. But little in Israelite society suggests a welfare state.

VIII. The Israelite Challenge to Libertarians

The modern day libertarian and the ancient Israelite could not be more different. But we are both hostile to the idea of placing political activity at the heart of the good life, in sharp contrast to many on the contemporary left. The libertarian (qua libertarian) would replace political obsession with nothing (anything?), while the ancient Israelites would replace it with personal righteousness, social care and absolute, total devotion to a just and loving God. But the negative point is the same.

The ancient Israelites remind libertarians that the state can dominate us in two ways: it can become our God or our Devil. We are in the state’s power both when we see it as the source of all good and when we see it as the source of all evil.

To fight the state, I think, we must transcend our obsession with the state. We must fill our lives with non-political loves, joys, projects and excellences. When the state is wicked, we must pay it little heed. Yes, we must do justice. Yes, we must seek limited government, if not the abolition of the state. But our lives must be a witness to freedom: we must live if the state were nothing, or at best, an annoyance.

——————–

* Perhaps the term should be a-statist, but that locution is unacceptable.

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  • Cap’n Facetious

    You may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.

  • Daniel Shapiro

    This may be the most interesting BHL post ever!

  • j r

    Libertarians have a similar view. They want a legal culture without a political culture.

    This might be the thing that I find most frustrating about libertarianism.

    That aside, this is a fascinating post. It leaves me with a couple of questions:

    1. How much do we know about Israelite political culture aside from what is in the bible? If anything, does it corroborate?

    2. If theology took the place of politics at the national (or whatever the right word for that is) level, what took the place of politics at the local administrative level? More theology? Commerce? Clan dynamics?

  • http://profiles.google.com/daviddfriedman David Friedman

    Some comments on the specific subject of Jewish law:

    1. During the diaspora, it was effectively polylegal. Earlier than that, the theory was that disagreements among legal authorities could be settled by a majority vote of the Sanhedrin. This was justified by a passage in Torah.

    2. In theory, law was made by God and interpreted by humans. But if you look a little more closely, some of the interpretations are inconsistent with the text of Torah and many cannot be derived from it–consider the prohibition on eating meat and milk at the same meal, whose only basis is the prohibition of eating a kid stewed in its mother’s milk.

    3. There’s a fascinating Talmudic story, the Oven of Akhnai, which implies pretty clearly that if the legal authorities disagree with God about the content of the law, it is their view, not His, that prevails. Part of the story is the sage whose position was supported by God–three miracles followed by a voice from heaven–being excommunicated by the majority.

    4. The legal scholars of the diaspora took the position that the king of Israel had been entitled to enforce legal rules outside of, and inconsistent with, the rules of rabbinic law. That was one of the justifications for allowing communal authorities to do the same—limited, in the view of some, to matters of mammon (relations among humans) not issur (relations between humans and God).

    Those interested may want to look at two chapters in the book on legal systems very different from ours I’m currently working on–one on Jewish law, one on legal systems based on God. The book draft is webbed for comments at:

    http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Course_Pages/legal_systems_very_different_12/LegalSystemsDraft.html

    • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

      David,

      Forgive me if you already know this, but in your #2, it would be clearer to say something like “in the opinion of many” or “in my opinion” or “…the interpretations are [apparently] inconsistent with the text of Torah and many cannot be derived from it.” What you say is certainly not true for Orthodox Jews themselves because in their view the interpretations set forth in the Talmud and other sources of Jewish law (called the Oral Law) also come directly from God; given to Moses at the time he received the 10 Commandments and passed down from generation to generation thereafter, and eventually recorded in the Talmud. So, by definition there can be no inconsistency between the written Torah and the interpretations given in the Oral Law.

    • Sean II

      David,

      You are obviously (and rather embarrassingly) unaware that the prohibition on eating meat and milk together was recently upheld as a tax. A 100% tax, it is true, but a tax nevertheless.

      You might remember there was some unseemly gloating about the decision when it was first handed down. One happy scholar from the winning side caused a minor scandal when he tweeted “It’s mitzvah-tutional, bitches!”

    • Kevin Vallier

      David, thanks so much for your thoughts.

  • http://twitter.com/RadicalLib Stephen W. Carson

    Response to Kevin Vallier

    I am in strong agreement with Kevin's line of thinking. I'd go so far as to say that he speaks for me in this post. Detailed, random comments…

    I wrote an article some years ago on one aspect of this: I Samuel 8. I continue to think that this is a stunning passage that fully deserves the emphasis given to it here.

    “most libertarians are secular”- Just curious how you know this. That most
    libertarians were secular I agree. But that they are mostly secular now? Probably true, but I'd like to see the evidence, (especially for the USA post-Ron Paul presidential bids.)

    Correction: Instead, the prophets teach “that God along[alone] will bring deliverance, God alone is the norm for biblical messianism.”

    I have experienced libertarianism as having phases (like stages of grief): Anger at first, then sadness, finally resignation. The anger comes from finally seeing, with those clear lenses that only libertarianism seems to fully give, just how horribly unjust the regular operations of the state are. The sadness comes next as there is simply grief that all the “noble sacrifices” for the state have been just a senseless waste. But it didn't take too long for me to reach a state of resignation. By which I mean that I view the state the way I view bullies, robbers, lions, and tornadoes. Any of these may come along and mess up or even end my life. But I wouldn't take it personally. And there is only so much preventative preparation you can do. In the end you just have to live your life until such a time as one of these disasters strikes. Living in fear of these things, or of the state, is to pre-enslave yourself. The net result of all this is that instead of confusion and misplaced anger, libertarianism has (eventually) given me understanding (e.g., I basically predicted 9/11) and peace.

    I find Rothbard and Mencken's interest in electoral politics baffling (this mild criticism of Rothbard is not to diminish his immense importance. If you are a libertarian and you haven't absorbed Rothbard then you're wasting everyone's time.) In this area of political engagement, I incline more towards C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They each in their own way were opposed to the modern, total state and expressed that opposition in their writings. But they do not seem to have been preoccupied with the state. Their passions were religious, cultural, linguistic. I'd be tempted to call them Christian humanists, though I'm not sure that term captures precisely their approach.

    Personally I find the day to day details of electoral politics, gov't bureaucracy, the military machine, etc. to be boring, distasteful and, as much as I can manage it, irrelevant to my life. Would that all could ignore the state.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Thanks for the comments, Stephen. Just some short replies:

      (1) Maybe most self-identifying libertarians have some of what we could call “religious beliefs.” Since I’m surrounded by academics, I think I have a tendency to think of “libertarians” as mostly the more academic subset of libertarians. So perhaps it’s better to say that most libertarians who, say, read this blog are secular.

      (2) In general, I agree with your remarks, save one. I’m increasingly of the mind to not see the state as something that simply happens to non-statists. The people who comprise the state are members of our families, friends and sometimes strangers who mean us no harm. Instead, I see it as a kind of failure of collective responsibility and even a kind of sin of the people.

      This is not to say that we must become political to stop the state and so discharge our collective responsibility, but rather that we live and act in ways that allow people to see the violence of the state as morally permitted and sometimes even morally required.

      Here’s what I mean: we act on our natural drives to control each other, we use coercion and manipulation to get our way, we suppress the thoughts of other people when they upset us, we let ourselves become so addicted to other people so much that our love for them becomes a distorted form of hatred and domination, and so on. All these actions, in my view, make the state a kind of national extension of our own personal darkness.

      Even libertarians who officially and intellectually disavow the state act in ways that are consistent with the activity of state power. One way to be a witness to freedom and to look beyond the state is to try not to engage in those activities and encourage others to do the same.

  • Irfan Khawaja

    Any thoughts on the ancient Israelites’ theory of original appropriation?

    • Irfan Khawaja

      Or their theory of just war? I guess I’m not really insisting that they had a theory per se. Or that the wars they fought were just. But then, I wasn’t insisting they had a theory of appropriation–or that their appropriations of “the Promised Land” were original. As Joshua Katz, lukas, and martinbrock have suggested, at some point, a credible discussion of the ancient Israelites has to say something about the Israelites’ (and God’s) attitudes re genocide, expropriation, and theocracy. Neither of the two were memorably libertarian on those issues. Or even social democratic. Or sane.

      In the 1980s, Michael Walzer was memorably upbraided for minimizing those issues in his book, “Exodus and Revolution” (cf. Edward Said’s unfair but not-completely-unfair “Canaanite reading” of that text). I’d be curious to hear how Walzer handles things this time around (I haven’t read it, but his new book seems to have a chapter on the subject).

      Curiously, Walzer has now made common cause with Yoram Hazony, a former Kahaneist and advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu who’s defended the genocide of the Amakelites in print (Hazony has, not Walzer). Surely Zionism is relevant to ancient Israelite politics, and vice versa? That’s how the two have been read for thousands of years, and Zionism is not a notably anti-state politics. So is Vallier reading the ancient Israelites as anti-Zionists? Or as irrelevant to Zionism? Or is he reading the Zionists as proto-libertarian anarchists? On the face of it, it’s a bit of a mystery how the ancient Israelites can both satisfy the role Vallier holds out for them and serve as the inspiration for Zionism, whether ancient or modern. But they more obviously do the latter than the former.

      On Walzer and Hazony:
      http://www.njjewishnews.com/njjn.com/091108/pmbPrincetonIsraeliInstitute.html

      Hazony defending the genocide of the Amakelites, roughly pp. 90-100:
      http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Dawn.html?id=jP3EJ-fryf0C

      Said’s Canaanite reading:
      http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/25006845?uid=3739808&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101959976921

  • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

    Kevin,
    Your analysis is brilliant, but perhaps exhibits an unintentional irony. Apart, of course, from the founding of the modern state of Israel, for the last 1900 years or so the Jewish people have lived in the diaspora. During this period we were persecuted, often to the point of mass murder, by numerous states for the crime of bring, well, Jewish. I would love to ignore the state, but history shows this to be a dangerous prescription.

    • Sean II

      I have to agree, although Cap’n Facetious beat me to it with a classic Russian reversal (see above).

      I can’t help but think of the well-intentioned but clueless mother who tells her child that “just ignore them” and “don’t sink to their level” are valid strategies for coping with bullies on the playground.

      If your goal is to remain morally pristine while your lunch money is confiscated and a pair of elastic briefs get pulled halfway up your ass, those are very sound strategies indeed. Personally, I recommend a retaliatory throat chop followed quickly by a palm to the chin.

      For larger bullies on larger playgrounds, I recommend Operation Focus.

      • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

        I confess that for a moment your reference to the “Russian reversal” went over my head. and then (given the context) I independently began thinking about Yakov Smirnoff’s joke about how “in my country the Party comes to you,” and then a little research showed that we were thinking about the same line.

        • Sean II

          I just thought of a new one:

          In Libertopia you pursue subjective values freely in the marketplace.

          In Statelantis you are free of the marketplace and values subject you!

  • les kyle Nearhood

    First you must reduce the state to a level of minor inconvenience, Then you can afford to ignore politics.

  • martinbrock

    I have trouble distinguishing God’s law from the law of men only claiming to speak for God.

  • Joshua Katz

    Hmmm. Did the ancient Israelites, then, not go to war with 7 nations, ordering them to leave the land they had owned for centuries or be wiped out? Did the prophet Samuel not strip Saul of the crown for failing to fully commit genocide in the case of the Amalekites?

  • lukas

    Again, as I said, the Israelites were (supposedly) given their law by
    God. Their kings were not legislators. In fact, in a certain sense they
    had no legislators. They merely had judge-made law based on extending
    and applying divine law.

    The same ideal forms the basis of shari’a law, such as it had existed until the end of the caliphate and the rise of “modern” political institutions across the Islamic world. Reinstating this ideal is one of the main goals of the Islamist movement.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1366091178 John Fast

    1. The idea that libertarians should be a-political rather than anti-political has a distinguished libertarian pedigree. In particular, Samuel Edward Konkin III (_riboyny Shel-Olam!_) believed this; he believed (if I understood him) we should concentrate on building alternative non-state institutions such as private schools, private arbitrators, and “grey markets” (i.e. un-registered, un-taxed markets in otherwise-lawful goods). David Friedman’s essay “Counterattack” (and Mencius Moldbug’s suggestion that we build an “alternative to the Cathedral”) follow the same logic.

    2. Personally, I agree with Cap’n Facetious (and with those who agree with him, including MARK_D_FRIEDMAN, Sean II, and les kyle Nearhood.

    3. I Samuel 8 makes it pretty clear that it’s a bad idea to have a monarch, i.e. a State. I’d say that when a prophet of G-d states that He tells us not to do X, because if we do X we will suffer, that’s pretty much a commandment not to do X or else suffer the punishment.

    4. I understand that many people — perhaps most — see Judges 1:21 (“In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”) as “no doubt intended as an indictment.” However, as a hard-core libertarian (as well as a hard-core Judeo-Christian believer) I do *not* see it as an indictment. Matthew 13, etc.

  • Nathan000000

    Fantastic article! Question: The author said, “The Israelite political community was based on voluntary agreement, the uniform application of law to all persons, and lacked a single legislative authority or final legal interpretation.”

    That middle item doesn’t make sense to me, in light of the other two items. How can the law be applied universally if not everyone voluntarily submits to it, and there’s no final interpretation? You also said that there were overlapping jurisdictions, so there wasn’t even a geographical boundary to determine universality.

    It seems to me that uniformity is the opposite of what this article is describing. Did you mean to put a “not” somewhere in that sentence?

  • Guest

    Well, Freud would say that saying the *exact* opposite of what is true is progress of a sort…

    There is a deep Jewish influence on libertarianism. But precisely for that reason, I think it’s a mistake to say that the contrast Walzer is trying to make gives us an alternative to the attitude Walzer is unhappy with. Ancient Judaism is thoroughly influenced by political failure (getting conquered and oppressed), and I think Nietzsche is basically right in saying that Judaism’s incredibly creative but problematic response to this was a kind of “loser wins” strategy whereby all these successful conquerers are transformed into criminals under the law of a higher, invisible king. And whether this is articulated in the form of a religious or natural right, I think that’s pretty much what characterizes modern libertarianism of the form Vallier is criticizing: I stand in judgment over the state which has conquered me, the absolute right is on my side. No, the way out of the alienation Vallier is opposing is classical, not judaic: take ownership of this state, assume responsibility for it, recognize your participation in it, and then work to push it toward a more just and more noble environment for us to share. But that means giving up the psychology of “loser wins” and who would want to do that and run the risk of just being “loser loses”? The problem for *Americans* is that overcoming alienation from your political community means embracing a tradition that is deeply Hellenic and deeply Jewish simultaneously. Which is fine: interesting, complicated, tricky. But that’s life: interesting, complicated, tricky. A proper American by my lights must be able to feel a noble Roman indignation when a president arrogates too much power to himself from the other branches and makes himself out to be a king, not getting appointments confirmed, launching undeclared wars, setting up his own internal tribunals for his own special kind of trials, etc. A noble finds putting up with such infringement of his aristocratic prerogatives *dishonorable*. But a proper American by my lights must also feel on some level a deeply Jewish sense of Exoduslike deliverance in contemplating the Civil War and Emancipation, and something “prophetic” about the Civil Rights era. And then a proper American will notice that there is something awfully tricky here, since that war made our president a little closer to a king as a result, and that movement, for all the good it did, also ushered in new, subtle forms of oppression too. What I want to say is that we have no choice but to work *through* these historical experiences and grapple with them, as they are the experiences that have made us what we are.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1278491802 R. Kevin Hill

    There is a deep Jewish influence on libertarianism. But precisely for that reason, I think it’s a mistake to say that the contrast Walzer is trying to make gives us an alternative to the attitude Vallier is unhappy with. Ancient Judaism is thoroughly influenced by political failure (getting conquered and oppressed), and I think Nietzsche is basically right in saying that Judaism’s incredibly creative but problematic response to this was a kind of “loser wins” strategy whereby all these successful conquerers are transformed into criminals under the law of a higher, invisible king. And whether this is articulated in the form of a religious or natural right, I think that’s pretty much what characterizes modern libertarianism of the form Vallier is criticizing: I stand in judgment over the state which has conquered me, the absolute right is on my side. No, the way out of the alienation Vallier is opposing is classical, not judaic: take ownership of this state, assume responsibility for it, recognize your participation in it, and then work to push it toward a more just and more noble environment for us to share. But that means giving up the psychology of “loser wins” and who would want to do that and run the risk of just being “loser loses”?

    The problem for *Americans* is that overcoming alienation from your political community means embracing a tradition that is deeply Hellenic and deeply Jewish simultaneously. Which is fine: interesting, complicated, tricky. But that’s life: interesting, complicated, tricky. A proper American by my lights must be able to feel a noble Roman indignation when a president arrogates too much power to himself from the other branches and makes himself out to be a king, not getting appointments confirmed, launching undeclared wars, setting up his own internal tribunals for his own special kind of trials, etc. A noble finds putting up with such infringement of his aristocratic prerogatives *dishonorable*. But a proper American by my lights must also feel on some level a deeply Jewish sense of Exoduslike deliverance in contemplating the Civil War and Emancipation, and something “prophetic” about the Civil Rights era. And then a proper American will notice that there is something awfully tricky here, since that war made our president a little closer to a king as a result, and that movement, for all the good it did, also ushered in new, subtle forms of oppression too. What I want to say is that we have no choice but to work *through* these historical experiences and grapple with them, as they are the experiences that have made us what we are.

    • Irfan Khawaja

      That’s very perceptive, and I agree with a lot of it. But it overlooks the fact that the African American slaves’ deliverance from slavery didn’t require the dispossession of non-slaves. (I know some people think differently, but sorry–it didn’t.) Meanwhile, the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt *required* the dispossession of the Canaanites et al. That is just the meaning of the “promise” involved in the so-called “Promised Land.” The promise in question is a promise of divine assistance in a sustained campaign of dispossession and genocide. It is impossible to make it through the Hebrew Bible in a state of minimally alert wakefulness and somehow miss this fact.

      So it’s an overstatement to reduce ancient Israelite history to a “loser wins” strategy influenced by nothing but oppression and conquest *of* the Jews–just as it’s an overstatement to treat modern Zionism as merely a response to the Holocaust. Both strategies have their proponents, but both are historically bankrupt. You might as well treat the Axis’s behavior in World War II as nothing but an aggrieved response to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Alas, the Treaty of Versailles doesn’t really explain the Holocaust. But the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt doesn’t really explain God’s command to wipe the Amakelites from the earth, either. There’s more going on in the Hebrew Bible than a “loser wins” strategy–hell, there’s more going on in the Book of Esther than that–and a reading of the Bible that fails to deal with any of the “yesterday’s loser becomes today’s predator” texts deserves summary dismissal on those grounds alone.

      • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

        Hi Irfan.
        You are certainly correct that “There is more going on in the Hebrew Bible… than that,” and “that” can be anything you choose to specify. This is why, as I am sure you know, for the last 3000 years Jewish sages, rabbis and scholars have written millions of pages trying to make sense of the Torah’s text. But, if they agree on anything, is that human reason cannot penetrate to the heart of God’s purpose; ultimately you either hava faith or you don’t. This is the very essence of the religious experience. Which is why I find your comment slightly puzzling. You’re not really expecting to puzzle it all out, are you?

        • Irfan Khawaja

          Actually, I think the only real puzzle left for me is why I bother commenting here. And even that’s not all that puzzling, because as a purely practical problem, it’s easily resolved.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I sure hope that I am wrong, but this comment sounds like an insult, and it seems to be directed my way. If so, I’ll just say that I don’t think I deserve it, and leave it at that.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            Mark–

            Ask yourself how pertinent your comment is to what I wrote. I am pointing out that the text in question recommends genocide, and your response is that in fact the claims of the text are an insuperable mystery. The only response I can give is the obvious one: its genocidal/expropriative/theocratic prescriptions are not at all a mystery.They stare the reader in the face for hundreds and hundreds of tedious pages (and possibly hundreds of thousands of pages of commentary).

            You say that God’s purposes are a mystery, but since I think the text is of human origin, I’m not interested in God’s purposes. If “ultimately you either have faith or you don’t,” and I don’t, how does anything you say intersect with anything I’ve said? You can’t be expecting me to acquire faith in God any time soon, so how exactly are you expecting to respond? “Well, yeah, I have to admit that I don’t really know how to read this totally mysterious text, because God could be saying p but really mean ~p, and even though I don’t believe in God, I have to admit that it’s possible that the Hebrew Bible was written by some mysterious ghost in the sky; so yes, Mark, you have a point, I could be wrong, I take it all back, when God tells the Israelites to wipe the Amakelites out and dispossess the Canaanites, maybe he really means: ‘give peace a chance’! Or maybe he’s actually talking about Fermat’s Last Theorem. How would I know?”

            Even if the text was of divine origin, its meaning on the points in question shouldn’t strike anyone as particularly inscrutable. If a person flouts the realities in front of their face, further argument is futile. My aim was to discuss the meaning of a text, not to engage in mutual hierophantics.

            Having said that, as for the insulting nature of my earlier comment, it turns out that you really do have the direction wrong. I’m going to leave it at that.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1278491802 R. Kevin Hill

        Hi Irfan:
        However that may all be, I’m not sure it has a *lot* to do with what I said. I’m not saying whether the Civil War *should* have happened. It *did* happen, and it has shaped American culture in certain ways, and one of those ways is an aspect of Jewish experience (and there are, as you say, other aspects) has been transmitted to us and incorporated. It is now a part of who we are. But it is not all of who we are either, and these influences are complicated and in tension with each other. So I think that much of what you have to say probably should be given to Vallier, or Walzer, or someone, but not to me (I’m not saying it was or wasn’t, I just can’t quite tell). I think I’m using the concept of “Jewish” in a much less specific way than you are, so it may help if I say that I think Islam is awfully Jewish in its way too. *That’s* how vague and general I was pitching my point. I sense that in the backdrop of your comments is concern with American endorsement of Zionism, but I’m not really going there. If “Jewish” was being used here to mean “remembering that you were a slave in Egypt” then I often wish that Israel was a whole lot more Jewish than it often seems to be. If you are saying that they are *exactly* Jewish and that that is the problem, well, I guess I’d agree with Mark below that Jewish inevitably means lots of things, and does not constitute a coherent set, like all significant cultural formations.

        I think our real disagreements are probably elsewhere. I don’t think we can *simply* choose what parts of our history to embrace or reject, though we can *try* and sometimes should (I don’t think Germans should embrace the Holocaust just because it happened, but I don’t think they get to ignore it either just because a particular German is not individually implicated). So we may after all disagree about the Civil War: I think it is *inevitable* that we will orient ourselves in relation to it. Someone who says “not for me it isn’t” is an outlier. But I also think that we more get our principles from historical experience and than the other way around, so to better understand that repudiation, I’d need to know more about who you think you are, who you think your people are, what you think your history is. You *might* think that is irrelevant, but I will tend to doubt that, for both philosophical and empirical reasons. Though the Civil War began and ended before either of us were born, I think of it as “our” catastrophe. Perhaps you think of it as “their” catastrophe. That may be the real difference here.

  • Drew

    Very interesting post. I am new to BHL but can already tell its going to be a great blog to have on my feed.

    I wonder how a libertarian would respond to the ancient Israelite practices of Sabbath and Jubilee? These seem to be a pretty shocking challenge to the property rights of individuals in Israelite society. Land effectively could not be sold but only leased for up to 50 years at which point it would return to the original owner (or to “God” as it were). Slaves were automatically freed in the 7th year (the Sabbath year). Debts were automatically cleared in the year of Jubilee. A man who become poor and could not buy his property back from those to whom he sold it automatically got his property back in the year of Jubilee. All of these practices seem to have been in place as a check against the variety of things that could happen over fifty years that caused the wealth and capital of society to move around in ways God did not approve. How do we reconcile this kind of forced redistribution with libertarian position that one ought be completely free from any entity taking your property and giving it to someone else (obviously there’s no rule that says anyone has to reconcile themselves to ancient Israelite practices, I’m just curious for peoples responses).

  • LJohnson

    excellent post, thank you

  • pandeter

    There is quite a difference between politics and political philosophy. The former I can’t stand while the latter is interesting and relevant in anyone’s life.

  • Alan Orsborn

    “The state is a creature of God and man for quite limited purposes.” Can we really speak of the state as a creature of God? I think the first Biblical reference to a state is Genesis 11, the Tower of Babel. Isn’t Babylon as well as the modern state a creature of man set up in opposition to God? How are we to ignore the state when all the saints eagerly await God’s eschatological demolition of Babylon in Revelation 18?

    Maybe the answer lies in rendering unto Caesar, then ignoring Caesar. Spend most of your time rendering unto God.

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