Howard M. Weisband on Created Equal, How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought

, October 9, 2009

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:3-4 (Fall 2009)

Egalitarian notions and values are very much in fashion and even a bit “politically correct.” Human rights organizations appeal to the principle of equality in order to further their partisan agendas. In Jewish life today, the meaning of the term “egalitarian” has come more recently to include the idea that there should be ritual equality between men and women in religious and spiritual observance, for example the egalitarian synagogue and prayer service.

The modern use of the term “egalitarian” began in the 1880s, Originating from French égalitaire, derived from Latin aequalis, “equal,” it means “in accordance with the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.”[1]

Joshua Berman, an ordained Orthodox rabbi with a doctorate in biblical studies, Lecturer in Bible at Bar-Ilan University, and an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, has creatively used the contemporary emphases on egalitarian values to show that their foundations descend from the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Torah (the Pentateuch). The opening statement of his own website informs us that: ’throughout the ancient world the truth was self-evident: All men were not created equal. Joshua Berman’s Created Equal reveals a document of history’s first blueprint for a society where theology, politics, and economics embrace egalitarian ideals, by reconstituting ancient norms and institutions. That revolutionary document is the Hebrew Bible.[2]’

At the beginning of his book, Berman sets down his working definition: “I take an egalitarian society to be one in which the hierarchy of permanent and institutionalized stratification is dissipated”(5). Throughout 175 pages of text and 45 accompanying pages of detailed footnotes, Berman deals with the theme of egalitarianism in the Hebrew Bible. In addition to the Introduction and Conclusion, he drives his thesis home in five chapters, each specifically devoted to aspects of his biblical perspective: Egalitarian Theology, Egalitarian Politics, Egalitarianism and Assets, Egalitarian Technology, and Egalitarianism and the Evolution Narrative. Each chapter has a descriptive subtitle which provides the reader with a hint regarding to its contents.

Created Equal has a rich, extensive bibliography which shows that the author carried out considerable research. Unfortunately, this scholarly book lacks a detailed index. Instead, the index is comprised of only three pages and it omits a number of important entries, such as “Covenant,” “polity,” Moses, Joshua, Abarbanel, and many of the important subjects the author covers and to which the student or the researcher may wish to refer.

In reality, it is the subtitle of the book, “How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought,” that embodies Berman’s interpretation and most significant contribution to biblical understanding. He describes in extensive academic detail the early surrounding civilizations, for example the Mesopotamian, Ugarit, Egyptian, and Hittite cultures, which might have had an assimilatory impact upon the people of Israel and the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Torah. Frankly, for the reader without some background in the ancient Near East and in Bible, Berman’s detail may seem tedious and difficult to follow. However, should the reader be interested in strengthening his or her Jewish knowledge, identity, and pride within a deeper understanding of the core values at the foundation of the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), Created Equal is definitely helpful.

However, there is a caveat. Should human rights activists be looking for political ammunition in order to base a claim to biblical equality for all peoples, this is not a book that will answer their need. Likewise, should feminists or gender egalitarians be searching for biblical support, or even Berman’s sympathy, such efforts will not be rewarded. In his Introduction, he explains that ’the picture I paint of a biblical polity that rejects class distinction on the basis of control of political and economic power pertains primarily to Israelite men, and not necessarily to Israelite women…. The blueprint [which] the Pentateuch lays out takes for granted women’s subordination to men, excluding them from participation in many areas, including the judiciary, the cult, the military, and land ownership, to name just a few (13).’

Berman opens his Introduction by stating that “this book proposes to read the Bible in a novel way – as a document of political and social theory” (1). Thus he lays down a claim to the originality of his main thesis that “… the Pentateuch articulates a new social, political, and religious order, the first to be founded on egalitarian ideals and the notion of a society whose core is a single, uniformly empowered, homogeneous class” (6-7). While his research and detail on the subject are impressive, an educated reader certainly can find multiple other teachings of equality within the Bible throughout our literature from ancient through to modern times.

For instance, although Berman refers to the first century Jewish historian Josephus’ statement that constitutional thought has its roots in Deuteronomy (52), he does not use Josephus’ exposition, to be found in Against Apion, which argues that in the Torah Moses presents God’s teaching that there is “one law for all” (Against Apion, II: 151) and adds that: ’The cause of his [Moses’] success was that the very nature of his legislation made it [always] far more useful than any other; for he did not make religion a department of virtue, but the various virtues – I mean, justice, temperance, fortitude and mutual harmony in all things between the members of the community – departments [parts of the totality of] of religion….[3] (emphasis added)’

Furthermore, Professor Nehama Leibowitz provides the same interpretation regarding the text of Bereshit, Genesis 1:26, and the concept of ‘b’tzelem Elohim’ (in the image of God): “…every individual is equally significant before God, since every man was created in His image.” She refers to a text in Mishna Sanhedrin 37a: ’For this reason man was created alone, for the sake of peace between mankind, so that one man should not say to his fellow: My father was greater than yours.[4]’

In addition, there is a major lacuna in Berman’s scholarship. He did not give credit to the pioneering contributions of the late Professor Daniel J. Elazar. It is generally recognized that Elazar created and developed the field of Jewish political studies and made a unique contribution to Jewish thought.

Daniel Elazar was a brilliant and sophisticated thinker. Recognized worldwide in both the Jewish and political science communities for his scholarship, his analyses, and his prolific writings,[5] he clearly saw the Bible as a political text in addition to its historical and religious dimensions. From this set of assumptions, he developed ideas relating to the covenant as a political concept and as the constitutional framework of the Jewish people. With detailed mastery of biblical expression, he traced those concepts as they came to be utilized and adapted over the centuries and ultimately related them to the institutions of contemporary Jewish life. Elazar’s premature passing in December 1999 left a huge void both in the academy and in modern Jewish life.

On page 28 Berman makes one brief, ungenerous reference to Elazar, referring to his “anachronistic political theories” and dismissing his understanding of the biblical covenant. At best, it can be said that he misreads Elazar. Moreover, it is problematic and academically questionable that he would make such an assertion without citing a single specific example from Elazar’s works, or from the one book by Elazar that he cites in his bibliography, Covenant and Polity in biblical Israel. One would expect that he would base his argument on solid evidence.

Without such evidence or citation, Berman’s most misunderstood and outright incorrect portrayal of an Elazar concept is his contention that God, according to Elazar, does not have a place in the covenantal relationship: ’…Elazar – following Max Weber – investigated it [covenant] in terms of what it does as a bonding agent among members of the Israelite community; yet the covenant in the Bible is between God and Israel, and any definition that is not built around this relationship must necessarily miss the point (28-29).’

Did Berman simply forget to read the Introduction to Covenant and Polity in biblical Israel? Did he not understand Elazar’s terminology: “…a covenant involves…a morally binding pact supported by a transcendent power”; or “the covenants of the Bible are the founding covenants of Western civilization. Perforce, they have to do with God”; or “they have…clear and binding relationships between God and humans and among humans”?[6] How much more God centered could the biblical covenant be?

There is much more that can be compared between these two books, on topics relating to equality, Mesopotamia, Hittites, Egypt, Moses, Joshua, contemporary utilization, and even Machievelli, for example. While the author apparently overlooked them, the interested reader is encouraged to explore these two volumes, to learn from each of them, and to make an independent comparison.

It is a mystery why Joshua Berman did not relate in a more academically acceptable fashion to the earlier scholarship in the field. Had he done so, he might have produced a better, more enriched study.

 

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Notes

 

[1]. Compact Oxford English Dictionary, www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/egalitarian?view=uk

[2]. http://createdequalthebook.com/index.html.

[3]. Josephus, Against Apion, II, 170, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1966), 4th edition [Greek].

[4]. Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1972), 3, 5.

[5]. See, for example, the Daniel J. Elazar On-Line Library, http://www.jcpa.org/student/Local%20Settings/Temporary%20Internet%20Files/Content.IE5/1F2OS73V/www.jcpa.org/djeindex.htm

[6]. Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant and Polity in Israel, Biblical Foundations and Jewish Expressions (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995), 1.

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HOWARD M. WEISBAND is a Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served among other positions as Secretary General of the Jewish Agency.

Howard M. Weisband

Howard M. Weisband is a Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as Secretary General of the Jewish Agency. Mr.Weisband serves as Senior Advisor on Israel Affairs to the President of Yeshiva University and Adjunct Faculty at YU in Jewish Communal Studies. He is currently Israel President and Associate President of the World Council of Jewish Communal Service.He has held senior level positions at UIA Federations Canada, Bar-Ilan University, The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Memphis Jewish Federation. He earned an M.A. in Jewish Communal Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Education from Hebrew Union College and was awarded a Doctorate Honoris Causa in Jewish Communal Service by HUC.