Medieval and Renaissance Political Thought
- LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0107
- LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0107
While nobody would question the existence of general European, and even Muslim political thought, the question of whether there is a distinct Jewish political thought, and if so, how this field of study should be defined, was debated until quite recently. Only since Leo Strauss took up the study of medieval Jewish philosophy as political philosophy in the 1930s, scholars begun to explore Jewish political thought specifically. Jewish political thought is a branch of Jewish philosophy. It is widely accepted that there is indeed a Jewish philosophy that can be distinguished from general philosophy, although its definitions vary. As far as Jewish political thought is concerned, however, until quite recently there was no consensus among scholars concerning the very existence of this field of study, all the more so its definition. While some claimed that there can be no such thing as Jewish political thought, others hold that all Jewish philosophy, at least all medieval Jewish philosophy, is nothing but political philosophy. The fact that opinions fall between such extremes sheds light on the difficulties presented to scholars who worked in this field in the last generation. There are two arguments that reject the very existence of this field of study. One argues that although political discussions are abundant in the Jewish textual tradition, there is nothing specifically Jewish about them; such questions are universal. The other argument, voiced by scholars of political thought who were not experts in Jewish thought, is that, unlike the Greek tradition, there are practically no political discussions in the Jewish sources. Other scholars did agree that such discussions do exist, but considered them to be marginal in comparison with other branches of Jewish philosophy, or with the visibility of this subject in general philosophy. Without going here into a specific response to these contentions, we posit that the problem with them all is that scholars viewed Jewish political thought from the vantage point of European Greco-Roman, and later Christian, political thought. They looked for the kinds of texts that evolved in the European tradition and the kinds of political questions asked by these texts. Since they could not find both, they concluded that Jewish political thought does not exist, or at least is marginal. Only since scholars started to view Jewish political thought from its own vantage point and identified the particular texts that were produced by this tradition and the specific political questions it asked, could the richness of the political discussions in Jewish texts throughout history be discovered and analyzed. This bibliographical essay concentrates on the medieval period, which was the formative stage in the development of Jewish political philosophy. Renaissance political thought is included, since it is essentially a continuation of the medieval outlook. Modern Jewish political thought is initiated in the mid-17th century by Spinoza’s revolutionary outlook, which dismantled the medieval view.
Introductory Overviews of Jewish Political Thought
Taking into consideration the fact that this field of study is relatively recent, the general overviews produced until recently are rather few. These overviews are essential for understanding the background of medieval Jewish political thought, and most contain significant discussions of this period. One of the pioneers of the study of the Jewish political tradition as a distinct field is Daniel Elazar. In the 1970s he established the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and edited the seminal first collection of papers that charted the field (Elazar 1981, cited under Anthologies). During the 1980s Elazar led a workshop at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, on the history of the Jewish political tradition; this workshop produced a series of papers on various issues concerned with this tradition, some which deal with political thought. He also established in 1989 and edited the Jewish Political Studies Review (Melamed 1993), the first ever periodical devoted to the study of the Jewish political tradition. After Elazar’s death in 1999, this periodical shifted its focus to contemporary Jewish politics, and the discussion of Jewish political thought became marginal. Another, short-lived periodical (2005–2009) is the Hebraic Political Studies (Melamed 2005), which was devoted to the history of Jewish political thought and its influences on the European political tradition. Belfer 1991 is an investigation of the political aspects of the Jewish tradition. Bleich 1988 investigates the notion of the law of nature in Jewish thought. Melamed 2005 reconsiders the very existence of a specific Jewish political thought. Melamed 2014 explores the notion of dat in the history of Jewish culture: from law to religion. Mittleman 2000, Novak 2000, Novak 2005, and Sicker 1994 discuss various aspects of the Jewish political tradition, while Weiler 1976 rejects the very existence of such tradition.
Belfer, Ella. “Malkhut Shamayim” and the State of Israel: Studies in the Political Aspects of Jewish Thought. Ramat Gan, Israel: Bar Ilan University Press, 1991.
An investigation of the political aspects of the Jewish tradition. The author claims that there is an inherent connection between theology and politics in the Jewish tradition, and endeavors to analyze the Zionist revolution and the tension embedded in the political reality of modern Israel, between the vision of a Jewish state and a western liberal state. In Hebrew.
Bleich, David. “Judaism and Natural Law.” The Jewish Law Annual 7 (1988): 5–42.
A detailed investigation of the question whether there is a notion of natural law in Jewish thought, before the term appeared for the first time in Albo’s Book of Roots in the 15th century (Albo 1929, cited under Primary Texts: English Translations). After investigating the main texts related to this issue, from the Talmud to Maimonides, the author concludes that there is a natural-law theory in Jewish thought, but of a very limited kind. This issue raised a lot of scholarly debate.
Melamed, Abraham. “Is There a Jewish Political Thought? The Medieval Case Reconsidered.” Hebraic Political Studies 1 (2005): 24–56.
A reconsideration of the basic questions concerning the very existence of Jewish political thought, its definition and scope, through the lenses of the medieval case. Reprinted in Melamed 2012 (pp. 16–49), cited under Political Thought in the Middle Ages: Anthologies.
Melamed, Abraham. Dat: From Law to Religion; A History of a Formative Term. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2014.
A detailed discussion of the changes that the meanings of the Hebrew term dat underwent throughout the ages—from late biblical literature until today, their causes and ramifications. These changes illustrate the shift that the concept of Judaism went through in modern times—from law to religion. In Hebrew.
Mittleman, Alan. The Scepter Shall Not Depart from Judah: Perspectives on the Persistence of the Political in Judaism. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2000.
Discusses some of the central issues of political philosophy, such as fundamental rights and the common good, from the vantage point of Jewish sources from rabbinic literature until modernity. Conceptual issues in Judaism, such as covenant and tradition, are analyzed through the perspective of political philosophy.
Novak, David. Covenantal Rights: A Study in Jewish Political Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Studies Judaism as a full system of rights and correlative duties, an everlasting covenant between God and the people of Israel. The author also attempts to enter some insights from the Jewish political tradition into current political discourse in general, which has been primarily concerned with rights.
Novak, David. The Jewish Social Contract: An Essay in Political Theology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Identifies the covenant as a Jewish social contract and analyzes the manner by which Jews in the Diaspora throughout the ages dealt with the tension between their adherence to the Jewish social contract and their obedience to the secular social contract in the various countries they dwelt in.
Sicker, Martin. What Judaism Says about Politics: The Political Theology of the Torah. Northvale, NJ, and London: Jason Aronson, 1994.
A very general early survey of the basic political percepts of Judaism, organized according to main themes, such as the idea of the Torah, moral autonomy, human political nature, law, and justice.
Weiler, Gershom. Jewish Theocracy. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1976.
Argues in this provocative book that the Jewish tradition is inherently apolitical and thus cannot be relevant for the modern state. Most scholars do not agree. In Hebrew
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