Conference 2008

Political Hebraism: Jewish Sources in the History of Political Thought

Co-sponsored by Princeton University

Conference at Princeton University, September 7–9, 2008

Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinkers—philosophers, scholars, statesmen, theologians, and rabbis—have historically drawn ideas with political import from the Hebrew Bible and from talmudic and later rabbinic writings. The derivation of political thought from the Hebrew Bible and later Hebrew sources coexisted and continues to coexist with better-known Greek, Roman, European, and Anglo-American traditions. As such, the Hebraic political tradition, broadly defined, constitutes an integral if understudied component of the history and legacy of Western political thought. The 2008 conference on political Hebraism invites proposals that examine various aspects of this Hebraic political tradition, including analyses and appropriations of elements of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish textual tradition in the history of political thought as well as constructive evaluations of some of their central ideas.

While other submissions will be considered, we especially invite proposals that address the following topics:

i. Origins and Ends of Political Society

Thinkers with widely ranging understandings of the origins and ends of the political order have drawn on Hebraic sources: Some have looked to contractual agreements, and others believed the political order was divinely ordained. Whether the ultimate goal of politics was conceived as concord or salvation, these understandings could be grounded in Hebraic sources.

Papers in this section will examine such questions within the Jewish tradition as: To what extent is politics a response to human nature? Does the polity have a divine or messianic end, or does it serve the ends of its members or human society? To what extent is political virtue valued, and of what does it consist? Papers should also consider whether questions such as these arise within the Jewish tradition or outside it. These questions may be addressed with direct reference to Jewish texts, or it may explore how the tradition has been pressed into service to deal with them.

ii. Monarchy and Republicanism

Questions surrounding political regimes—which is preferable? how do they evolve? what are the roles of the key players?—are issues central to Greek political philosophy; similarly, the question of which regime is preferable is often addressed within the Jewish tradition. To what extent is monarchy Judaism’s preferred regime? Is there an essential nature to biblical monarchy as it was discussed and established? Is the Jewish tradition concerned with actual regimes and the mechanics of politics, or do these discussions tend to be symbolic? What is the role of the scholar-king within the Judaic tradition? Is there a relationship between philosophy and government within this tradition?

Papers in this section may represent the authors’ own understandings and interpretations of the political thought of Hebrew sources as these address political regimes. Alternatively, papers may examine reliance on Hebrew sources by political thinkers throughout history.

iii. Nationhood

Since the modern nation-state began dominating European politics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, appeals to the Hebraic tradition and allusions to the people of Israel have become increasingly commonplace in political thought. Questions of nations and nationhood have recently regained prominence in political discourse, and there is now frequent talk of a “post-national world.” Can Hebraic sources contribute to this debate? If so, is their contribution comparable to their place in the early-modern analyses and defense of the emergent modern state and new conceptions of the nation?

Papers may address the nation in Jewish thought or the Hebrew nation as it was taken to be a model for other nations in history; they may also develop or propose theories of the nation rooted in Hebraic sources.

iv. Law and Constitutionalism

It has been widely asserted—at least since the New Testament missionary writings of St. Paul—that the Jewish tradition is distinctly identifiable by its focus on the law. Those who valued as well as those who derogated the Jewish tradition often characterized it in this manner. To what extent is Jewish law political law? How within this tradition do the laws of the political system relate to religious laws? Is consent a necessary attribute of Judaic constitutionalism? Is there a relationship between contemporary jurisprudence and Hebraic—biblical as well as rabbinic—understandings of the “rule of law”? Does the Judaic legal tradition permit or even invite an interplay between positive and divine law? To what extent do theorists and jurisprudential scholars—ranging from Grotius, Selden, and the authors of The Federalist to Robert Cover and perhaps even H.L.A. Hart and Ronald Dworkin—who have incorporated Hebraic legal notions into their analyses of Western legal systems, succeed in transplanting Hebraic conceptions into new contexts? Where might Jewish conceptions of law provide alternative perspectives in discussions of legal issues today?

v. Theories of Justice

Greek political thought arguably begins with a search for justice rather than with the concern for order that may be said to characterize Hebraic political thought in the biblical period. How and how much is the Jewish political tradition concerned with justice? Is there a recapturable conception of justice that is peculiar to political Hebraism? In periods when Jewish rather than Greek and Roman texts served as sources for political thought, what if any alternatives to the classical notions of justice were found in the Jewish tradition?

Papers may address biblical ideas or ideals of justice broadly conceived, the idea of justice propounded by any rabbi or group of rabbis, or theories of justice that purport to draw from the Jewish textual tradition. Alternatively, papers may propose distinctively Hebraic theories of justice or compare Jewish and Greek and/or Roman, Christian, Muslim, Eastern, and Western thought on these and related matters.

vi. The Individual and the Collective

The relationship between the individual and the collective is among the most evident concerns that distinguish modern political regimes and ideologies from one another and from pre-modern forms of governance. How does the Hebraic tradition conceive of this relationship? Is there a single, unifying understanding of the individual-collective relationship in the various forms of Jewish political organization—kahalkehilla, and goy, for instance?

vii. Methodology

The Jewish textual tradition can be studied as a body of texts, coherent or not, just as the Bible may be conceived as a single book, but none of this can be taken as self-evident. By the same token, neither can readings of the Bible and of the Jewish textual tradition be offered as parts of the same field without encountering and contravening disciplinary conventions.

Papers in this section will pose and address methodological obstacles to the study of political Hebraism, proposing solutions and ideas that will assist scholars in the field.