The Jewish Social Contract

The Jewish Social Contract: An Essay in Political Theology

David Novak
Series: New Forum Books
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 284
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7s5vb
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Jewish Social Contract
    Book Description:

    The Jewish Social Contractbegins by asking how a traditional Jew can participate politically and socially and in good faith in a modern democratic society, and ends by proposing a broad, inclusive notion of secularity.

    David Novak takes issue with the view--held by the late philosopher John Rawls and his followers--that citizens of a liberal state must, in effect, check their religion at the door when discussing politics in a public forum. Novak argues that in a "liberal democratic state, members of faith-based communities--such as tradition-minded Jews and Christians--ought to be able to adhere to the broad political framework wholly in terms of their own religious tradition and convictions, and without setting their religion aside in the public sphere.

    Novak shows how social contracts emerged, rooted in biblical notions of covenant, and how they developed in the rabbinic, medieval, and "modern periods. He offers suggestions as to how Jews today can best negotiate the modern social contract while calling upon non-Jewish allies to aid them in the process.The Jewish Social Contractwill prove an enlightening and innovative contribution to the ongoing debate about the role of religion in liberal democracies.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2439-7
    Subjects: Religion, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xxiv)
  5. Chapter One Formulating the Jewish Social Contract
    (pp. 1-29)

    To argue intelligently for the idea of the Jewish social contract today, one must situate the argument within current discussion of social contract theory in general. One must then take a stand on what an authentic social contract is and how sources for it can be activated from out of the Jewish tradition.

    The original justification of a society as an agreement between its equal members has long been known as the idea of the social contract. It is a highly attractive idea as evidenced by the amount of discussion it has evoked for at least the past four hundred...

  6. Chapter Two The Covenant
    (pp. 30-64)

    It is quite easy to surmise that covenant (berit), which plays such a central role in scriptural revelation, is a form of the social contract so frequently discussed by modern thinkers. When first glancing at biblical covenants from a modern perspective, one could very well take the institution of covenant to be a precursor of modern ideas of social contract formulated in the political theories of philosophers from Hobbes to Rawls (and, perhaps, even earlier). Even now there are those who still use the two terms “contract” and “covenant” interchangeably.¹ But this is a serious mistake if one takes the...

  7. Chapter Three The Covenant Reaffirmed
    (pp. 65-90)

    The Torah as the content of God’s covenant with Israel appears to have been forced upon the people, at least during the prophetic career of Moses. The very first words of the Decalogue are: “I am the Lord your God who has brought you out [hots’etikha] of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2). God chooses Israel in the covenant, and that choice is totally free—from God’s side, that is. God no morehadto choose Israel than Godhadto create the world.¹ But did Israelhaveany real choice in responding to that covenantal election? Could Israel have...

  8. Chapter Four The Law of the State
    (pp. 91-123)

    In chapter 1, we saw how the Jews had to subordinate themselves to their non-Jewish rulers during the Babylonian exile, and that this political arrangement is termed a “covenant” (berit).¹ There is an agreement here, some degree of mutuality between the parties to the covenant, yet there is still no equality between the government and the governed; this will have to wait for the emergence of a social contract. Despite this lack of equality, though, this relationship between the Jews and the king of Babylon is also quite different from what obtains in a relationship of domination between master and...

  9. Chapter Five Kingship and Secularity
    (pp. 124-156)

    In medieval Jewish speculation about the reason for the principle “the law of the state is law,” we see the most explicit presentation of the idea of the Jewish social contract. This comes out most clearly and effectively in the justification supplied for Samuel’s principle by the twelfth-century French exegete R. Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam). In his comment on the most detailed discussion of Samuel’s principle in the Talmud, Rashbam writes with precise theoretical insight:

    All real estate and produce taxes, all royal judicial procedures [mishpatei melakhim] that they [the kings] regularly [regeelim] employ [le-hanhig] in their kingdoms, they are...

  10. Chapter Six Modern Secularity
    (pp. 157-187)

    Abravanel’s enthusiasm for republican government, within his overall treatment of Jewish ideas of polity, added another important dimension to Jewish social contract theory that had been developing within Jewish communal existence in Christian Spain from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. To be sure, the Jewish political relationship with a Christian polity in Spain, which was the historical context of Sephardic political theology from Nahmanides to Abravanel, ended with the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. (With the expulsion of the last Muslims in Spain along with the Jews, the type of multicultural society in which a social contract can...

  11. Chapter Seven The Social Contract and Jewish-Christian Relations
    (pp. 188-217)

    From a fuller perspective in the Jewish tradition, we have seen the theological inadequacies of Mendelssohn’s formulation of the idea of social contract, especially in its relation to the whole Jewish tradition. As for its philosophical inadequacies, we must also understand that the political situation of both the Jews and his own society at that time did not encourage the development of a richer social contract theory, certainly not by Jews. As for the political situation of the Jews at that time, they were still at a decided disadvantage when compared to their Christian countrymen. The Jews were still trying...

  12. Chapter Eight The Jewish Social Contract in Secular Public Policy
    (pp. 218-238)

    The idea of the Jewish social contract, as it has been formulated from within the Jewish tradition, has important public policy implications, especially for North American Jews living in the United States or Canada, countries in which the idea of a social contract in general has played an important role in political discourse. Hence the idea of the Jewish social contract can be readily intelligible here.

    Before proposing a Jewish public policy stand on any specific issue like religion-state relations (often called “church-state” relations), one should have some clear understanding of why Jews as Jews should propose any public policy...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 239-250)
  14. Index
    (pp. 251-258)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 259-260)