Summer 2020

Judaism, Pluralism & Public Reason

Jonathan A. Jacobs

Central values of Judaism and the historical experience of Jews are sources of strong Jewish support for democracy, especially in the United States, where Jews did not have to wait for citizenship and rights to be conferred on them–and possibly withdrawn. Judaism is strongly committed to the political order in the United States and to the pluralistic, dynamic civil society it helps make possible. Jews have the freedoms that others have, and those freedoms resonate with fundamental Jewish values in ways that matter even to nonpracticing Jews. Moreover, there are reasons to regard the Constitution’s nonestablishment neutrality as comparing very favorably with a notion of public reason as a political approach to the question of state and church relations. Neutrality does not impose upon or require bracketing of individuals’ constitutive commitments and their conceptions of what matters most integrally to them. Public reason is vulnerable to that troubling possibility.

Jonathan A. Jacobs is Professor, Presidential Scholar, Chair of Philosophy, and Director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Ethics at John Jay College at the City University of New York. He is the author of The Liberal State and Criminal Sanction: Seeking Justice and Civility (2020), Law, Reason, and Morality in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (2010), Ethics AZ, (2005), and Dimensions of Moral Theory: An Introduction to Metaethics and Moral Psychology (2002).

Jews’ commitment to democracy is strong, especially in the United States. From a Jewish perspective, the state neutrality toward religion expressed in the U.S. Constitution compares favorably to conceptions of public reason in addressing questions about religion in liberal democracy. One of the chief reasons for this has to do with the ways Jewish identity is important to both religious and nonreligious Jews and how public reason can be problematic for that identity. Because of how state neutrality relates to civil society, it enables people to acquire habits and attitudes of toleration and noninterference with others in ways that are perhaps more efficacious than (widespread sociopolitical) employment of a standard of public reason.

Notions of citizens of a democracy as “free and equal” and meriting respect on the basis of the worth and dignity of all human beings come quite naturally to Judaism. In some key respects, such notions have their origin in Judaism. Biblical conceptions of the fellowship of humankind, the worth of the individual, the political imperative of “justice, justice you shall pursue,” and the moral obligation to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor are anchored in Jewish sources. In addition, much of the early modern theorizing about the liberal state, especially the arguments of numerous English and Dutch theorists, was shaped in large part by the ways they regarded the Hebrew Bible as a source of political ideas.

Milton, Harrington, Selden, Grotius, Cunaeus, and other English and Dutch Protestant thinkers–some of them monarchists, some republicans–regarded reading the Hebrew Bible as a way of connecting directly with the word of God without corrupting intermediaries. They looked to the Hebrew Bible as an authoritative source concerning notions of the rule of law, of people being made a nation by the rule of law, of the critique of empire, and of a religious authority having control over political authority. In addition, many of the early modern Christian Hebraists regarded the Noahide Laws, with their textual basis in Genesis 9, as a model of natural law, and the rabbinic tradition has long regarded the Noahide Laws as applying universally to all human beings (the children of Noah), not only the Jewish people. Those laws are as follows: It is forbidden to deny God. It is forbidden to blaspheme God. Murder, incest, adultery, homosexual relationships, and stealing are prohibited. Eating a part of a live animal is prohibited. Finally, courts and a legal system must be established. Actually, there is little explicit tradition of natural law theorizing in Judaism, and from antiquity until Joseph Albo (1380–1444), there was no discussion of it by Jewish thinkers. In recent decades, numerous scholars have argued that natural law is implicit in Judaism or that Jewish law contains resonances of natural law. Whatever our interpretation of the natural law issue, it is clear that scripture commands each Jew to love the stranger as oneself, that there is to be one law for the stranger and the Israelite alike, and that charity in the form of food and clothing should be offered to those in need. Moral notions such as these shaped some of the early modern thinking about universal rights and obligations to all people.

The period of fascination with Hebraic sources was impactful but short, lasting roughly from 1500 to 1650. Enlightenment views of Jewish sources generally were much less generous and much less interested in Judaism, often regarding it as a form of primitive religion. Religious conceptions had a much smaller role in eighteenth-century political thought, and in some parts of Europe, such as France, there was fierce anti-clericalism. Still, several among the American founders were familiar with many of the Hebraists’ works and were influenced by them.

In more recent history, the United States has not had the legacy of virulent anti-­Semitism found in Europe, and the nonestablishment clause of the U.S. Constitution has, from the founding of the United States, protected against a state religion or religious favoritism. Throughout American history, Christianity in various forms (numerous Protestant denominations, Catholicism, and smaller numbers of Orthodox Christians) have constituted the majority religion of America. The overall culture of the United States has been shaped and influenced by Christianity in numerous ways, though the Constitution has been a bulwark against unchecked religious interests and influences shaping education and other aspects of civil society. While some state constitutions encouraged religion and morality, and some “required oaths of office that only Christians could honestly take,” the experiences of Jews in the United States, right from the founding of the nation, have differed from Jews’ experiences elsewhere. In many European countries, Jews were not even granted citizenship until the modern era, and then in the twentieth century, their rights were severely curtailed again.

In some respects, their experience in Europe helped to prepare Jews for the form of liberal democracy found in the United States. Prior to the Enlightenment and a key period of Jewish emancipation in Europe between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, there had been several centuries of Jewish self-rule: quasi-­democratic government under Christian or Muslim political authority. While lacking ruling political authority, Jews often had their own courts, and the most common form of Jewish political association was the kehilla, a council or group from the community exercising governing functions for the public good. As Yiddish literary scholar Ruth Wisse has argued, “unable to rely on coercive power, Jews had been forced to compete at a severe disadvantage. Like athletes that train with weights, Jews were more than ready for the competition once their handicaps were lifted.” This occurred in France, England, the Netherlands, Austria, and Hungary in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though full citizenship was not available to Jews in Germany until after World War I. Being a minority, and typically subject to various exclusions, Jews had lengthy practice with certain forms of self-government and with trying to protect their interests and promote their welfare without antagonizing non-Jewish majorities.

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