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If you betray your unique destiny, if you worship the gods of the surrounding nations, then you will become like them. You will suffer the fate of all small nations in an age of superpowers. Don’t blame others or chance or ill fortune for your defeat. The choice is yours, the responsibility yours alone.
Second, we are collectively responsible. The phrase “All Israel are sureties for one another” is rabbinic but the idea is already present in the Torah. This too is radical. There is no “great man” theory of history in Judaism, nothing of what Carlyle called “heroes and hero-worship.” The fate of Israel depends on the response of Israel, all Israel, from “the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers” to your “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” This is the origin of the American phrase (which has no counterpart in the vocabulary of British politics), “We, the people.”
Unlike all other nations in the ancient world and most today, the people of the covenant did not believe that their destiny was determined by kings, emperors, a royal court or a governing elite. It is determined by each of us as moral agents, conjointly responsible for the common good. This is what Michael Walzer means when, in his book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, he calls biblical Israel an “almost democracy.”
Third, it is a God-centered politics. As there was no word for this in the ancient world, Josephus had to coin one. He called it “theocracy.” However, this word has been much abused and taken to mean what it does not, namely rule by clerics, priests. That is not what Israel was. Again an American phrase comes to mind. Israel was “one nation under God.” If any single word does justice to the vision of Deuteronomy it is not theocracy but nomocracy, “the rule of laws, not men.”
Biblical Israel is the first example in history of an attempt to create a free society. Not free in the modern sense of liberty of conscience. That concept was born in the seventeenth century in a Europe that had been scarred for a century by religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Liberty of conscience is the attempt to solve the problem of how people with markedly different religious beliefs (all of them Christians, as it happened) can live peaceably with one another. That is not the problem to which biblical Israel is an answer.
Instead it was an answer to this question: how can freedom and responsibility be shared equally by all? How can limits be placed on the power of rulers to turn the mass of people into slaves – not necessarily slaves in a literal sense but as a labor force to be used to build monumental buildings or engage in empire-building wars? It was the great nineteenth century historian Lord Acton who rightly saw that freedom in this sense was born in biblical Israel:
Acton’s words: “The government of the Israelites was a Federation, held together by no political authority, but by the unity of race and faith, and founded, not on physical force, but on a voluntary covenant … The throne was erected on a compact, and the king was deprived of the right of legislation among the people that recognized no lawgiver but God … The inspired men who rose in unfailing succession to prophesy against the usurper and the tyrant, constantly proclaimed that the laws, which were divine, were paramount over sinful rulers … Thus the example of the Hebrew nation laid down the parallel lines on which all freedom has been won.”
It is a beautiful, powerful, challenging idea. If God is our only sovereign, then all human power is delegated, limited, and subject to moral constraints. Jews were the first to believe that an entire nation could govern itself in freedom and equal dignity. This has nothing to do with political structures (monarchy, oligarchy, democracy; Jews have tried them all), and everything to do with collective moral responsibility.
Jews never quite achieved the vision, but never ceased to be inspired by it. Moses’s words still challenge us today. God has given us freedom. Let us use it to create a just, generous, gracious society. God does not do it for us but He has taught us how it is done. As Moses said: the choice is ours.
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”
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