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Politics and Jewish Law: An Interview with Rabbi Sol Roth
Politics and Jewish Law: An Interview with Rabbi Sol Roth

Volume 2 , Issue 4

rothphotoSol Roth is the spiritual leader of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue Synagogue and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and the Samuel Raphael Hirsch Professor of Torah and Derek!? Eretz at Yeshiva University. His most recent hook, Halakha and Politics: The Jewish Idea of a State, was published by Ktav Publishing House in conjunction with the Yeshiva University Press in 1988.

Jewish Review: You explain in the preface to your book Halakha and Politics that your work is an application of the ideal of Torah im Derekh Eretz to political theory. Some of our readers may not be familiar with this concept. Could you explain what it is and how this ideal can be applied in a political context?

Rabbi Roth: The concept of Torah im Derekh Eretz was formulated in the 19th century by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Derekh Eretz has several meanings, but Hirsch identified it with ?culture.? The philosophy of Torah im Derekh Eretz primarily deals with the encounter of Judaism with contemporary conceptions of science, knowledge and freedom. When the walls of the ghetto were shattered, two problems emerged for the Jewish community: one, the enlightenment, compelled Judaism to confront the fruits of western civilization: the second, the emancipation, granted the Jew freedom and made him, at least in principle, the equal of every member of the society in which he lived. Each of these presented problems for Jewish life, and the philosophy of Torah im Derekh Eretz is an attempt to clarify the relationship of Judaism to general culture and the political concepts which have informed the societies in which the Jew has lived. It is concepts associated with the Emancipation which are effective in democratic societies that I deal with primarily in my book.

Now, when we apply Torah im Derekh Eretz in the political arena, the question becomes one of how halakhic Judaism responds to the ideas which are at the foundation, for example, of American democracy. In my book, I deal with such concepts as freedom, equality, individualism, inalienable rights, the notion of the consent of the governed as implied by the social contract, the question of dissent, civil disobedience, and of revolution. I show that one cannot simply assume that because Judaism endorses many of the very ideas that democracy is founded upon, the interpretation which Judaism gives to these ideas is identical to that which they receive in the democratic context. A certain amount of confusion exists in the mind of many Jews who live in a democratic society, because the Jewish interpretation of these fundamental ideas differs from their American democratic counterparts.

For this reason, Judaism has suffered. In my book I have attempted to accomplish two tasks; the first is to clarify the differences between Judaism and democracy with respect to these various conceptions; and the second is to indicate as much as possible, that notwithstanding these differences, there really is no conflict between the two and that, in effect, one can really live in both worlds.

Jewish Review: Your book points to a number of tensions that exist between the Torah and the American ethic. For example, Torah places an emphasis on the obligation to God and community, Americanism emphasizes the rights of the individual; whereas Torah emphasizes humility, Americanism emphasizes power; whereas Torah emphasizes conformity to God's will, Americanism emphasizes individual self-expression. How can these apparent antitheses coexist in the same individual without causing him to break down both socially and psychologically?

Rabbi Roth: One of thepoints I made in a prior book, The Jewish Idea of Community, is that there really is no contradiction between Jewish and democratic ideals. In the last chapter of that book, where I deal with the idea of synthesis, I explain that such a contradiction could either be logical or psychological. From a logical point of view, we find that on the one hand, that American democracy says we have the right to do as we wish, while on the other, Judaism says we have an obligation to abide by Jewish law. Now, it seems as if there is a contradiction because it appears as though we have both a right and an obligation with respect to the same thing; for example, observing the Sabbath. As Americans, we have a right to observe or not to observe the Sabbath, while as Jews we have an obligation to observe it. While one might regard this as a contradiction, it really is not. Just as in the physical world it is possible to simultaneously be both in motion and at rest (for example, I'm sitting here and presumably I'm at rest, nonetheless. I share in the motion of the earth around the sun) in the social world, it is possible to be simultaneously free and obligated with respect to a given law. It all depends on one's frame of reference, and we can have more than one frame of reference in the social as well as in the physical world. So there's no more contradiction in having both a right and an obligation to do something like observe the Sabbath than there is in being at rest and in motion at the same time.

Jewish Review: Yes, but this is in the logical frame only. What about a psychological contradiction between Torah values and democracy?

Rabbi Roth: From a psychological standpoint, all one need do is to point to so many individuals in the Jewish community who have indeed adopted both. Ifthere were a psychological incompatibility, then no one would be able to do it. The fact that people do live in both frameworks demonstrates that the two frameworks are psychologically mutually consistent. Now to live in ?both worlds? requires a degree of rationality, but rationality is one of the characteristics of the Jewish psyche.

Jewish Review: There are certain elements of the Torah ethic which are particularly difficult for modern Jews to accept. You hint at one of these in your chapter on equality. I am referring to the inequalities which the Torah seems to mandate between man and woman, and particularly between Jew and Gentile. How can we assimilate our democratic ideals to the view that a Jewish soul somehow has higher sanctity than the soul of a non-Jew, or that men are somehow in a dominant or superior position to women?

Rabbi Roth: With respect to equality and inequality, one of the points I am trying to make in my book is that there are standards by which people are equal and standards by which they are unequal. Icannot accept the view, even in the framework of American democracy, that everyone in the United States is equal by moral or by intellectual criteria: some have a higher I.Q.; some have a lower I.Q.; some are more successful; some less; some are more moral than others, etc. I think everyone will grant that. I generally regard equality more as a prescriptive principle than a descriptive one. From a prescriptive point of view, the Jewish concept of equality flows mainly out of the principle of humility: Act in such a way that everyone is your equal whether he is your equal or not.

Jewish Review: So even if it is, for example, the Jewish view that a Jew somehow has more sanctity than a gentile, the principle of humility forbids us from flaunting it?

Rabbi Roth: No. it's not a question of flaunting anything because it is not even a question of superiority. It's simply a question of recognizing that a Jew has a certain degree of sanctity, and recognizing that sanctity means that we have more obligations than the non-Jew. The non-Jew has the seven Noachide obligations, and we have 613 commandments: and for that reason, more is demanded of us in all of our relationships and in all contexts than we can demand of the gentile.

Remember, we as Jews, are part of an obligation-oriented rather than a rights-oriented society. In American society, if one claims superiority or special sanctity, he has to do so in terms of insisting that he had special privileges or more numerous rights, but in a Jewish context, if you are in a special category, then you have more obligations rather than rights.

Jewish Review: Then it is not for Jewish men, for example, to say ?We are superior to women? and so have more rights?

Rabbi Roth: No, we are not superior to women. We have more obligations than women have. Again, when we talk about superiority, we must ask by what standard we are supposed to be superior. We are not superior to women intellectually. I'm not even sure we are even superior physically; maybe, in some ways, we are, and perhaps in some ways, we are not. There are certainly differences between men and women ? biological and functional differences ? but all men can really say is that they have more obligations than women have; for the Torah relieves women of most obligations that are time-dependent. I try to avoid using the word ?superiority? altogether because it is not very significant in a Jewish context.

Jewish Review: One very interesting distinction you make is between what you call ?the city of man? and the ?city of God.? You state (p. 47) ?In the city of God, the human posture must be that of responsibility and unselfishness; in the city of man, one may pursue the fulfillment of his own needs and assign priority to that which gives him satisfaction.? You imply that as Jews we can live in both cities simultaneously, and that there is, therefore, a realm of Jewish life in which every person may do as he wishes. Could you explain this, especially as over/against those (Schneur Zalman of Lyadi comes to mind) who argue that as Jews, we should strive to live in the city of God in all that we do?

Rabbi Roth: You're asking an excellent question and quite clearly there are differences of opinion on this. It is certainly desirable that in all our ways (including our discourse with both the wider culture and the natural world) we should know the Almighty. What I really meant to say in my book is that there are certain contexts in which halakha (Jewish law) does not dictate what we must or must not do, and in these contexts, we have the freedom to live in the city of man and choose our own priorities. This is a sticky issue because it is not altogether clear how much freedom one has in these ?optional? pursuits. Ideally, one could agree with Moses Hayyim Luzatto who, in his classic work Mesillat Yesharim, The Path of the Just, speaks of the enormous potential for sanctity in everyday life. For example, normally when you sit down to eat and enjoy a meal which conforms to dietary laws, there is nothing (if you have said a blessing) which goes contrary to God's will. However, Luzatto states that if you are able to regard your table as an altar, and your meal as if it were a sacrifice to God, then you have reached a very high level of sanctity, indeed. The only question is whether there is a violation of Torah law when one is not focusing at a given moment on the will of God and does not come into conflict with one of His precepts. The answer to this question is ?No?. This is particularly important in the political arena. Judaism recognizes two sources of social authority in Jewish life. The first is the monarch, who is a political sovereign, and the second is the judge. The function of the judge, or the rabbinic personality, is to transmit the divine quality to the human life; while the purpose of the sovereign, the political personality, is simply to create conditions in which Jews can respond to God's will.The latter's concern is essentially with the survival of the community, that it be properly defended, etc. When a sovereign creates an army and organizes the life of society in such a way as to make it viable and give the community strength for its own defense, he need not constantly have in his mind ?I am doing this in the name of God.? If he does, all the better, but even if he doesn't, it is not a violation of Torah. There is a distinction even in The Bible between the shofet, the judge, and the melekh, the king, the latter being equivalent to a kind of secular authority. It is this distinction which enables the contemporary Orthodox Jew to support the secular government in both America and Israel.

Jewish Review: Meir Kahane has said that those Jews who attempt to mix Torah and democratic ideals are ?Hellenizers? who should be excluded from the Torah community. What is your response?

Rabbi Roth: This is the point of view of a large segment of the Orthodox community which rejects the ideal of Torah im Derekh Eretz. You don't have to quote Kahane; there are Torah personalities, Torah Jews who believe that it is desirable to disassociate ourselves as much as possible from culture and to devote ourselves entirely to Torah, and there are also those who even believe that it is dangerous to live in a free society, because the result of exposing oneself to an open society is assimilation, mixed marriage, the erosion of Jewish commitment, and ultimately the destruction of the Jewish community.

Jewish Review: What is your response to this point of view?

Rabbi Roth: I disagree with it. I recognize that in the course of history there have been Jewish communities that have been guided by this conception. My conception, however, is that it is desirable for a Torah Jew to involve himself both in Torah and in culture, and to either (like Samson Raphael Hirsch) regard culture as something which has to be absorbed into the boundaries of Torah, or, as Rabbi Soloveitchik maintains, that there is an independent Biblical mandate to live the life of culture.

Jewish Review: Is there precedent for this view prior to Samson Raphael Hirsch?

Rabbi Roth: Certainly. Maimonides. Saadiah Gaon. many great rabbinic personalities.

Jewish Review: Personalities whom even the ?Torah only? community now regards as great rabbinic authorities?

Rabbi Roth: Oh, sure. Maimonides was very much involved in general culture. He wrote a book on philosophy and was a master of Aristotle, and incorporated many of Aristotle's precepts into his own thinking, even and included them in his Mishnah Torah, which is an exposition of Torah law.

Jewish Review: What about those who question whether we can give halakhic sanction to Israel as a secular state?

Rabbi Roth: Israel is a democracy, and Israel's democracy is not founded on Torah. I once had aconversation with a leading Israeli personality, a very Orthodox man, who made the statement that even when Israel's law coincides with the laws of halakha, there is a very fundamental difference between the two, since the reason Israel has accepted that law is not that it recognizes it as the will of God, but for secular reasons. So there is no doubt that Israel is a secular society. The question is not whether we can, from a halakhic standpoint, give sanction to everything that Israel does. The question is, notwithstanding the fact that Israel is not a halakhically oriented political entity, whether we can give it areligious endorsement, whether we can recognize its status as something which has religious significance; and we must answer these questions affirmatively. Even though the political conceptions of halakha do not always coincide with that which prevails in Israel, and even though Israel's norms and social patterns do not conform to Torah requirements in all instances, it is still possible to recognize the religious significance of the contemporary Jewish state. One can compare this to a similar situation in ancient days. We read in the books of the propehts, that many of the kings of ancient Israel were themselves idolaters (which was much worse than what we see in Israel today), yet the state over which these monarchs presided had religious status and religious significance. So the mere fact that the state does not reflect Torah requirements does not prevent it from having religious value. Jewish Review: What about Israel's democratic character? Given the fact that there are so many secular Jews in Israel and all over the world who do not consider themselves to be bound by halakha but who do have a tremendous attachment to Israel, one wonders if Israel can and should at this point be anything but a democratic society.

Rabbi Roth: We are not ready to change Israel's democracy, but we must remember that Israel is a Jewish state, that its Jewish character may sometimes come into conflict with its democratic character, and as between the two, to my mind at least, the Jewish character of Israel must take priority. Now this is not, by the way, a very extraordinary point of view. It is notso radically different from what prevails in the United States. The political philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville once pointed out that even in the context of American democracy, freedom and equality represent [potentially] contradictory notions. If you push equality to the extreme, you must necessarily deny freedom. This is the problem with communist societies. They push equality with respect to material possessions to such a point that they must deny many individual freedoms. So Toqueville made the important observation that in America we have two ideals; we are strongly committed to each, and yet they contradict each other. So some kind of accommodation must be found. Israel is a democracy. Israel is also a Jewish society. It is important that Israel retain its Jewish character even if the state must undertake measures which are not necessarily democratic. For example, Israel will never allow the Arab population to grow so large that it will vote the Jewish state of existence, but in doing this, it would be violating the principles of democracy.

Jewish Review: From your point of view, should Israel be committed to democracy as an ideal, or is democracy just a temporary expedient (prior to the advent of the Messianic Age)?

Rabbi Roth: As I explain in my book, there is, from a Jewish point of view, nothing intrinsically wrong with democracy. If we examine the content of democracy, we find that it involves essentially two principles: that the government reflects the will of the people, and that we follow the principle of the majority. This is what democracy means. Even in the Middle Ages, democracy thus defined was practiced in the Jewish community. Jews living in a community elected certain people to represent them [in communal affairs], and the decisions of these people by majority vote were authoritative. So the principle of democracy is not, in itself, objectionable to Jewish life; on the contrary, it is essential to it.

Jewish Review: Even for the Jewish state?

Rabbi Roth: Yes. Abraham Isaac Kook makes a statement in a book called Mishpar Kohen, that in ancient days, the sovereign was designated by a prophet with the approval of the Sanhedrin. But there is no prophet today, so the authority to designate a leader reverts back to the people of Israel. This is a democratic procedure. They do so by vote. In other words, in principle there is no contradiction between democracy and Torah. The problem arises in the application of democracy in the context of Israeli society, where Arabs, for example, are given the opportunity to vote.

Jewish Review: You make the fascinating point that while Israeli Jews can voice op?position to their government from the point of view of both policy and covenant (Torah), American Jews can only voice their opposition from the point of view of covenant. Could you, perhaps, apply this analysis to a concrete issue, for example, the recent controversy over the law of return, or the question of negotiations with the Palestinians?

Rabbi Roth: What are the questions that arise, for example, with respect to the P.L.O.? Most of the questions that arise have to do with facts rather than ideals or principles. Is the P.L.O. sincere? Has it really given up its determination to annihilate the Jewish State, God forbid? Has it renounced the Palestinian covenant? My view is that Jews who live in the United States should not get involved in giving their own solutions to questions of this kind because they are not [directly] exposed to the consequences of the answers and the decisions that will be based upon them. If one lives in Israel, one shares directly in the fate of Israel, and as a member of a democratic society, one ought to get involved and offer an opinion. The opinion may be wrong, but one has a right, even an obligation, to offer his opinion. When we are dealing with religious and moral issues, then we, who reside outside of Israel, also have an obligation to respond because such ?covenantal? issues do not recognize geographic and political boundaries. But when we are dealing with practical issues, with questions of policy, which means that we have to offer an assessment of the likely consequences of an action we are about to recommend, then, to the extent that we are not citizens of the Jewish state, we ought not to press our own views.

Jewish Review: So if one is coming from a Torah-considered point of view, one might state only in principle that one should or should not attempt to forge a peace with the Palestinians?

Rabbi Roth: Yes. For example, I could say that if the life of the state of Israel were threatened; and if Israel were to surrender a portion of land, then, God forbid, something terrible might happen; then as a matter of Torah principle, negotiation and giving away some land might be in order, but the determination as to whether this is the case cannot be made by us. It has to be made by people in Israel, particularly by those who are best qualified to form and offer opinions on this question.

Jewish Review: So the question of who, when, and under what circumstances to negotiate is a policy issue and is not ours to answer?

Rabbi Roth: Exactly. It is not ours to answer.



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