A condensed version of this post appeared in The Jewish World section of Haaretz
With former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert taking up residence in prison for corruption and a number of other officials currently under investigation, we have to ask ourselves what went wrong. Is the problem a lack of Jewish values in the public sphere? In fact, the answer lies not in the lack of religious values, but in the peculiar nature of Jewish politics developed over millennia.
Rule from the bottom up
Jewish political culture is built on a firm foundation of statelessness: as far back as biblical times, Jewish institutions were designed to be run from the bottom up. Although the first type of government explicitly provided for in the Torah is the monarchy, the power and authority of the king came from below: “You shall appoint over you a king from among your brethren” (Deuteronomy 17:15). Likewise, judges and other authorities were to be appointed by the people and answerable to them; just as their authority was granted by the people, so too could they be deposed if they abused that authority.
In Mishnaic times, the tension between governor and governed was evident. “If the eyes are weak, there’s no need to examine the rest of the body for illness.” (Taanit 24a) This acerbic critique of the government (the “eyes of the community”) was delivered by one Oshaiah the Younger during the rule of the grandson of Yehuda HaNasi in the 3rd Century CE. Misconduct at the top weakens the entire social organism.
The relationship with authority became even more adversarial as Jewish communities came under the rule of a series of empires. After all, when your government is in the hands of foreign occupiers or satraps in the pay of foreign rulers, your best defense is to disconnect local governance from the higher levels.
In Talmudic times, rabbis even condoned tax evasion when tax collection was handled by local ruffians on behalf of a foreign government. It was a serious crime to hand over a Jewish criminal to the Babylonian, Persian, or Roman government; we can handle our own miscreants, thank you very much!
The shtetl as state within a state
This adversarial relationship continued into more modern times, when Jewish communities were self-governing entities within the larger fiefdoms and kingdoms of Europe. There was no love lost between the semi-autonomous Jewish communities and their overlords.
Jews attained true citizenship in European countries only within the last two centuries, and that meant giving up their own local governments and being absorbed into the new nation-states of Europe. In most places, while individual Jews made this transition with relative ease, the Jewish organizational culture did not.
And so we find ourselves in a strange situation. We have our own state again after living for nearly 3,000 years in a state of statelessness. The government, which we are habituated to see as, at best, a hindrance in our maintenance of a well-run society, and, at worst, an outright enemy — that government is now us.
Where before, Jewish authorities owed their formal allegiance to God and their functional allegiance to a foreign overlord, they now have no overlord (and in some cases no allegiance to a higher moral power, either).
In Western democracies, the authorities are, at least theoretically, accountable to the people who elected them. In the classical Jewish government, the accountability goes both ways; accountability to a higher moral power is meant to reinforce the sense of accountability to the public. Corruption, abuse of the weak, and injustice are crimes not only against society, but against God as well.
The problem is that we haven’t really grasped that. Israel’s current leaders are ambivalent at best regarding who they are accountable to; and the Israeli public is no less ambivalent about whether their government really represents them. The old shtetl attitudes die hard; we still see our government as representing someone other than ourselves.
How Jewish is the knesset?
Part of the problem is that not all of us accept a secular, democratic government as legitimately “us.” The question isn’t whether a democratic government is “Jewish,” but whether a secular government is still Jewish. The answer matters; Jewish radicals of a certain bent base their militancy on the view that the government of the State of Israel has no authority under Jewish law. The ultra-Orthodox sector as a whole sees the Israeli government as just another foreign ruler, a necessary evil for the sake of law and order but not a proper Jewish authority — not “us.”
However, this conclusion is by no means implied by Jewish law. No less an authority than the Rambam (Maimonides) extended the limitations and conditions of the kingship to any other type of political office, meaning that the Jewish authorities of every age are to be seen as legitimate leaders (Yad, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 4:13). More recently, Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, ruled that the government of Israel is halakhically equivalent to the biblical king (Mishpat Kohen, Jerusalem, 1966, p.337). Thus, the current secular government of Israel is owed — at least — as much loyalty as King David was in his time.
The current Israeli political system is not the equivalent of a foreign oppressor lording it over a helpless Jewish community; the government is not “them” but “us.” Like the original Sanhedrin back in the days of the First Temple, our modern political system builds on the forms of government that we learned while in exile. It incorporates norms and institutions of the lands in which we’ve lived, but it is emphatically ours.
To refuse to “own” our political leaders, warts and all, is to miss the historical opportunity to refine politics and leadership into an art, the same as we’ve refined farming, innovation, and entrepreneurship. If our leaders fail to be worthy of our trust, then we have every right — in fact, we have the obligation — to be disappointed. We have the obligation to demand better of them. Just as the ancient prophets called their kings to account for tolerating social ills and economic injustices, Israeli citizens must hold their elected officials to high standards. Expectations matter. Our expectations become the norm. If corruption at high levels is not to become our “new normal,” we must preserve our sense of outrage and never come to accept it as “business as usual.” We’ve had nearly 3000 years to learn the lessons of exile, but we’re going to have to unlearn this one in a hurry.