Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rabbi Isaac M. Wise on Moses, Judaism and Democracy


At Kline books we have a large inventory of nineteenth century American Reform Jewish apologetics. (See "From the Hirschian Community in Frankfurt a. M. to American Reform.) What I find interesting about these, having grown up with Orthodox apologetics from Artscroll, is a vision of self-assured Reform movement that stood for something and was willing to go on the offensive with those beliefs, confident that the future of Judaism lay with them. This is not a Reform movement trapped by doubts over intermarriage and assimilation, a sitting target for Orthodox polemics. Of course like the present day Orthodox apologetics of Artscroll, nineteenth century Reform apologetics were perfectly capable of going overboard into farce.

I hope to present more examples in the future, but for starters here is Rabbi Isaac M. Wise's preface to his History of the Israelitish Nation (1854) where he beats the drum of the compatibility of Judaism and American Democracy with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm:

Traversing the pathless desert, Moses, the grandest character of antiquity, not only taught the purest doctrines of religion and morals in the midst of an age of idolatry, superstition, and general corruption of morals; but he also promulgated the unsophisticated principles of democratic liberty and of stern justice in an age of general despotism and arbitrary rule; thus becoming the progenitor of entirely new theories which revolutionized the ancient world, and lay at the foundation of modern civilization. Moses formed one pole and the American revolution the other, of an axis around which revolved the political history of thirty-three centuries. Trained in these principles, the Israelites took possession of their land, where they were obliged to contend with as many enemies as there nations around them. Still, after four centuries, we see them triumph over all their enemies, and David and Solomon the lords of the land from the Euphrates to the Red Sea and to the Mediterranean. Industry, commerce, art and science, flourish, and the nation was opulent, enlightened and free. (pg. iv-v.)

7 comments:

Rosten said...

I think he probably means John Locke and his predecessors.
But John Locke himself thought he was basing himself on Moses. (At least it looked that way in the little of his stuff that I read myself.) He goes on about his model of government is the ancient Israel model. (which sort of makes sense if you think about it. I means basically you do see in the rambam and tenach the main job of the king was to protect the border and as a sort of counter force against the Sanhedrin--for when they would get out of hand and extend their authority beyond halacha--like rabbis today..)

Izgad said...

I do not deny a connection. My problem is when one so casually tries to draw a straight line between the two.

Adam Zur said...

OK. I agree Locke was building on concepts of his predecessors also besides Moshe rabaeinu and there certainly is no straight line between him and Moshe.
But i think you can agree with me that Locke and his buddies were right that a pure model of a theocracy and a king would not be so great. Is not this the very problem that people were dealing with after the middle ages. people had been seeing the rule of religion for centuries and the practice just did not come out as advertised. I am not claiming the the two solution (Locke and Rousseau )are so much better but i can definitely agree that i have seen many many Jewish religious communities that are supposedly based on halacha and the results have been devastating for all involved. The only beacons of light I ever saw were a few Lithuanian type yeshivot in New York.
The Israeli (even American type of Litvak) places are just as corrupt as chasidic places with their joker actor rosh yeshiva.
I can't tell what the problem is.
But I suspect that a yeshiva can really only function properly in a free society.
There is something about the socialism that eats at root of Torah--even in Israel.

Izgad said...

We got the Enlightenment because of a religious, political and intellectual crisis hitting Europe. The Enlightenment may have led to secularism, but it was not caused by it. On the contrary the Enlightment was brought about by people trying to save Christianity from the Wars of Religion.

Adam Zur said...

I don't understand how you can defend that? Even if some enlightenment philosophers were clearly trying to defend Christianity --but some were not. And i don't mean the anti enlightenment philosophers like Rousseau. Rather I mean Hobbes and Hume. and is is not clear that the reduced power and prestige of the church after its incapability to stop the black plague played an important part in the awakening of the Renaissance.So at best you could say that because of the weakening of the church some enlightenment philosopher were trying to find a middle path that would produce the just type of society would exemplify the values of the church but not be ruled by any church.
(And i don't mean that the weakening of the church was the only factor in the Renaissance just one factor. The immigration of Greek scholars was important also I think.)

Izgad said...

Look at Jonathan Israel's work on the Enlightenment. Much of what he does is put the focus of the Enlightenment back a century to the 17th century and move the scene from France to Amsterdam. A major part of his narrative is that most the Enlightenment in practice was quite moderate. It is only later, in the later part of the 18th century, that we begin to see a more radical Enlightenment.

The idea that the Black Plague weakened Church power is a nice theory and I have seen it quite a few times in popular histories. I have not seen any actual evidence for it. One of the important ironies in the history of religions is that disasters and failures, in practice, tend to strengthen religious power. Take a look at Leon Festinger's When Prophecy Fails.

S. said...

I don't know if this is directly relevant or not, but perhaps a parallel is modern bible scholarship using realia, philology, archaelogy - which is not generally seen as vindicative of traditional faith and scholarship, yet which arose through the work of confident, faithful scholars who did not dream that learning the Bible languages and poking around in old books and the ground would wind up undermining the authority of Scripture, rather than strengthen it. Similarly, the first archaeologists in Palestine dug with a Bible at hand, and expected to find everything as the Bible said, but that didn't work out as planned.