Should we be saying Kaddish for the Jewish Left?

Michael Walzer’s book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible makes a slightly controversial though eminently plausible argument. The book is an interesting analysis of the politics of the Bible by a political scientist, who is not a biblical scholar, but has written an important book on the uses of the Exodus story by liberation movements (Exodus and Revolution). After all the caveats, Walzer’s central claim is that the Bible writes in the tension between being born into the covenant, and affirming the covenant or taking it on of one’s own free will. This is the central theme of the Bible, and not any specific manner of governance. There is no room, according to Walzer for politics in the Bible, since all authority ultimately rests with God. There is also no call for communal action. The Bible, according to Walzer has an anti-politics. Isaiah, for example, rails against those who would ignore the widows and the poor on their way to the Temple, yet he does not try to organize the poor or lobby the priesthood. Or when Ezekiel castigates Judah for rehearsing the sins of Sodom—the sins of hoarding their riches and not sharing them with poor—he is not looking for a legislative or political remedy—he is channeling God’s rage at injustice.

It is an interesting book, and Walzer recognizes and notes all the difficulties in making specific claims about a text whose interpretation has been contested for centuries. He notes the usefulness of the scholarly and traditional interpretive literature for understanding certain questions, but not others.

Walzer apparently reprised the gist of his argument at a YIVO conference on the demise of the historical partnership between Jews and the left. Some on the right trumpeted Walzer’s presence as a final sign that there is no basis in traditional Judaism for a politics of the left. Walzer, after all, is the long-time editor of Dissent and a social-democrat—and he is claiming that the left-Jewish alliance is as a castle on sand. Check-mate. There is no, nor has there ever been a basis for leftist politics, for social justice advocacy grounded in any traditional Jewish textual framework. The Tablet’s Adam Kirsch and Jewish Ideas Daily‘s Alex Joffe could barely contain themselves.

Something, however, is seriously off here.

(read the rest at Justice in the City then come back here to discuss)

4 Responses to “Should we be saying Kaddish for the Jewish Left?”

  1. Thank you for this excellent post. I was not able to attend the YIVO conference on the Jewish left, though from a few promotional emails they sent me, I was concerned it was being pitched as some quaint relic of the past. From your post, it seems this was an accurate reading.

    The concept of the ‘traditional’ has been very deliberately misappropriated by certain groups to political ends, much in the way the notion of ‘authenticity’ is similarly abused to religious ends.

    Also, to ignore current efforts on the Jewish left is, of course, as you say, a power move which forces a false teleology.


    Raysh Weiss · June 14th, 2012 at 4:50 pm
  2. I was sad about how clearly the conference was pitched at academics, as opposed to ‘practicing Jewish leftists.’ The two are not quite the same despite some overlap….
    That, and talking about leftists ‘mis-use’of texts skips over the fact that our entire tradition is built on layers of innovations that lack basis in the text. I mean…. rabbinic Judaism was invented from the ashes of ‘real’ Temple cult worship.


    Jew Guevara · June 15th, 2012 at 8:37 am
  3. Before the Enlightenment, there was no such thing as politics whatsoever. People were not expected to be involved in statecraft or policy creation. Why should the Bible have had anything to say on a modern invention?


    Charles · June 15th, 2012 at 4:02 pm
  4. Charles, the political in the Aristotelean sense has been around for a long time (even before Aristotle). Plato as you know even talked (pejoratively) about democracy. It is in this sense—the discussion of the good of the polis, and the advocating for that good—that the Bible does not have a political space according to Walzer (and he is right) but, as I argue, the mishnah (and on) does.


    Aryeh Cohen · June 15th, 2012 at 4:43 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik