Torah, Avodah, Gemilut Hasadim, and International Politics: Then and Now

By Richard Claman


Judah Goldin,1 when he set about to translate Pirkei Avot, asked the following question of that famous verse (1:3) usually translated ‘The world rests on three things.’ Assume that Shimon Hatzadik, to whom that saying is attributed, is the same as Simon the High Priest who lived in the year 200 b.c.e. And assume that our verse was indeed stated by someone at around 200 b.c.e. Given the vocabulary and conceptual framework of that time, how would our verse have then been understood?

Goldin argued that:

  1. Olam in those years referred to the dimension of time, not space;
  2. Ha-Torah, with the definite article, referred to just the written canon, and not to what came later to be known as the Oral Law;
  3. Avodah referred to Temple sacrifice; and
  4. Hesed meant covenant-loyalty.

Hence, our verse, in 200 b.c.e., meant something like: ‘The Future Age is sustained by faithfulness to the written text, to the sacrificial order, and to the mitzvot.’

Pushing Goldin’s inquiry one step further: Suppose that our verse was taught specifically by Shimon Hatzadik, a.k.a. Simon the High Priest. Is there anything that we know about him that would put this teaching into some context?

The apocryphal book of Ben Sirach (50:4) praises Simon as a man who ‘took thought for his people to keep them from calamity.’2 What thought, and what calamity, was Ben Sirach referring to?

Some quick history (based on Goldstein 3):

  1. From around 300 b.c.e. until around 200 b.c.e., Palestine was under the control of the Hellenistic dynasty in Egypt. And overall, those were good years for the Jews: this was the era of the Septuagint.
  2. In around 220 b.c.e., the Hellenistic ruler in Syria, Antiochus III, a.k.a. Antiochus the Great’father of the Antiochus of our Hanukkah story’marched against Egypt, but was defeated soundly near Gaza.
  3. In around 200 b.c.e., Antiochus III tried again. The Egyptians marched north to head him off at the springs of the Jordan (at Banias). All the little kingdoms in the Palestine area stayed loyal to Egypt’except for Judea, which switched sides to support Antiochus.

  4. Antiochus won. And in gratitude for the Judeans’ loyalty, Judea was granted various privileges, and designated a semi-autonomous ethnos.
  5. In short, it seems 4 that Simon the High Priest, with national survival in the balance, pulled off one of the really neat political maneuvers in Jewish history.

I suggest, accordingly, that assuming Simon himself articulated our saying, what he meant was something like ‘won’t the future age be nice, when all we have to worry about is Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasidim, and not power politics and national security?’

But what about the short term?


And we remain in the short term, although today we once again have a Jewish State. Israel again faces political decisions, such as to how to deal with other peoples and/or nations that critically affect their national security. Consider, for example, the following question: Is Israel obligated to construct the security fence, and/or otherwise to pursue policies, so as not to foreclose the possibility that a viable (and peaceful) Palestinian state can emerge in the West Bank? And, whether or not international law, or general moral principles applicable to Israel as a state, would so require, is there some, or any, particularly Jewish value that bears on this question?

On what basis did Simon the High Priest reach his political decision to switch sides? Goldstein has argued 5 that Simon (and/or his contemporaries) may have believed that certain prophecies of Ezekiel (in particular 30:20’26), which were understood as having not previously been fulfilled, spoke to the crisis of 200 b.c.e.

Today, however, we believe that God no longer speaks to us through prophecy’whether as guidance for national conduct or as guidance for individual or communal halakhic behavior. 6

Concerning the latter, we are used to the notion that we live in an age of interpretation, in which our obligations flow from the values and fundamental principles that emerge through our study of the tradition. But, are there any such values that apply, analogously, to guide the conduct of a Jewish state? And if so, where should we look to find such values?

One place to look is in Jewish history subsequent to Simon the High Priest.

I skip over the Maccabean uprising, simply because the events of ca. 167 b.c.e. leading up to that uprising, the purpose of that uprising, and its aftermath, are so in dispute. 7

We then face a gap’from around 63 b.c.e., when the Romans conquered Judea, until shortly before 1948c.e.

I do not mean to suggest that Jews stopped engaging in ‘politics”in certain senses of that term’during those two millennia. Certainly Jewish communities created structures to govern themselves. 8 And a theoretical literature developed to provide justifications for that structure. 9 But, to oversimplify, those justifications were not premised on any particularly Jewish values. To the contrary, halakha viewed the realm of politics as separate from the realm of halakha. Halakha viewed the governing structure as outside the bounds of halakha, so that, for example, the community leadership, i.e., the kahal, was deemed empowered to punish, and even to execute, persons, even where a halakhic court could not so punish. 10

Likewise, Jewish communities negotiated with the sovereign powers of their respective lands, in efforts to achieve and/or preserve Jewish rights. But’with perhaps just one (failed) exception’such negotiations were more in the nature of efforts at asking favors in exchange for economic accommodations than attempts to exercise political power. 11

(It seems that just once, one Jewish community sought to use the tactic of economic boycott for the benefit of a second Jewish community, to exert pressure against the secular ruler thereof; but dissension within the first community led to the failure of that effort. See Roth’s description of the attempted boycott of Ancona in 1556, organized by Do’a Gracia Nasi, in reaction to the spread of the Inquisition to Ancona. 12)

Those efforts provide, I suggest, little by way of helpful precedent for a Jewish State, looking for Jewish political values.

In searching for values applicable to international politics, let alone for specifically Jewish values, I am perhaps searching for something that just does not exist. We have a general understanding of what domestic political values might be’e.g., equality before the law and one-person-one-vote. And we can debate whether or not Judaism also includes these values. Cf. the Israel Supreme Court’s 2001 decision in the Katsir case. 13 We also have a sense of the distinction between what might be called first-order values (i.e., directly applicable values like one-person-one-vote), and second-order values, which provide an underlying institutional justification for the first-order values (such as the values of respect and reciprocity that undergird Rawls, A Theory of Justice). 14

In contrast to the domestic case, there are those who question if there is ever any moral constraint or duty applicable to the conduct of one state vis-‘-vis other states, nations, or peoples. I believe that there are moral values that impose obligations upon states, within the framework of an international order, for reasons recently articulated by, e.g., Rawls 15 and Buchanan. 16 At the basis of their arguments for such obligations is an assumption (or second-order value) of moral pluralism: viz., that there are a variety of legitimate ways to organize and administer a state so as (a) to respect the fundamental rights of all the citizens thereof; and (b) to merit its inclusion within an international order aimed at achieving peace and justice. And yet it is reasonable for persons in one state to believe that theirs is the best way to implement the values of the majority of the citizens thereof, even while recognizing that they cannot convince everyone else, i.e., both the minorities within said state, and citizens of other states, of such superiority. 17 (This sense of ‘pluralism’ is very different from our usual talk of cultural pluralism. It was best explicated, in my view, by Isaiah Berlin. 18 Moral pluralism is not relativism: there are certainly many states that, from a moral viewpoint, are not even minimally decent, and so do not deserve recognition.) 19

Certainly, the State of Israel claims an entitlement to have organized itself, and to administer itself, so as to favor and promote a particular vision of what constitutes a worthwhile life, i.e., Judaism. Such favoritism is in contravention of the neutrality as between such visions of the ‘good’ that, per Rawls, A Theory of Justice and others, a just, liberal state should pursue, and certainly raises difficult questions as to the rights of dissenters within the State’e.g., Israeli Arabs and secular Jewish Israelis.

But Israel’s claim is not that it itself is a just, liberal state. Rather, Israel’s claim is that a state fostering Judaism (but still protecting the basic rights of all citizens) is legitimate within the context of a pluralistic international order that includes both other states dedicated to pure neutral-liberalism, and other states dedicated to ‘decent’ particularist visions, e.g., to Islam, or to Christianity. (What ‘Judaism’ means for that purpose, and the need, I believe, to define such ‘Judaism’ in a pluralistic fashion, is a topic for another time.)

Such a pluralistic vision of the place and role of Israel vis-‘-vis other nations has, I submit, very deep Biblical roots. Thus the vision of the end of days at the conclusion of Isaiah Chapter 19 is not a vision of an end to all nationalisms, nor a vision of Israel dominating other nations, but rather a picture of Israel co-existing with Egypt and Assyria: 20

In that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on earth. For the Lord of Hosts will bless them, saying, ‘Blessed be my people Egypt, my handiwork Assyria, and my very own Israel.’

See also Gerson Cohen’s speculation: 21

Perhaps we might even begin to consider the possibility that all the different religions in the world are part of God’s plan to provide for diversity. I propose that God reveals Himself to each age and to different peoples in different ways.

(The key problem for Jewish philosophy with such an acknowledgement of diversity is that it seems to surrender the concept of the chosen-ness and election of Israel. Again, however, per the definition of pluralism discussed herein, I can believe that my way of life and value code are superior, even while recognizing that there are some alternative positions with sufficient legitimacy and valuableness of their own that I could not convince an adherent thereof of the superiority of my system.)

I suggest that Israel’s claim of a right to organize Israel as a state favoring Judaism, accordingly, comes, reciprocally, with a duty on Israel’s part (consistent with its own security) to refrain from conduct that would preclude other peoples from achieving viable legitimate (peaceful) states of their own, favoring their own ways of life, within a framework of international institutions, just as Israel seeks to achieve such a state for itself and for Jews generally. And I suggest that this is a Jewish duty, in addition to one imposed by the general moral principles applicable to states.

I submit that while our tradition does not offer first-order values directly relevant to Israel’s conduct as a modern state, our tradition does proclaim certain underlying, second-order values, which, when developed systematically, yield a vision of an international order in which there are various moral constraints and duties, including the duty to provide opportunity for others, consistent with Israel’s own security.

While the bedrock assumption of moral pluralism, which yields the systematic international visions of, e.g., Rawls and Buchanan, is not uniquely Jewish’Rawls for example was not Jewish, although Isaiah Berlin was’that assumption is certainly, I suggest, a very Jewish view.

Thus we return to the beginning: in seeking to construct our State so as to provide a structure within which Jews are free to pursue our own visions of a good life, and in particular, lives dedicated to Torah, avodah and gemilut hasadim (however we may today define’pluralistically’those concepts), we are also led to principles (second-order values), and to (first-order) moral obligations, applicable to Israel’s national politics, with respect to recognizing that other nations may have their own foundational visions of what constitutes a good life. The resulting obligations can properly be considered as Jewish. 22 Moreover, the resulting moral position will, I submit, assist Israel in explaining why, for example, the recent International Court of Justice decision condemning the security fence is not well-supported as a matter of morality, in contrast to the Israel Supreme Court’s own decision, which, while not citing any Jewish principles, reaches a result consistent with what a Jewish moral position would require. 23

Israel does, I believe, stand as a moral light to the nations in how, overall, it has conducted itself’and, as necessary, criticized itself. In the face of a world that cynically misuses moral and legal concepts to condemn Israel, 24 I suggest that we need, however, to articulate our own Jewish moral vision and values as applied to the political sphere.

1 Judah Goldin, ‘The Three Pillars of Simeon the Righteous.’ In Studies in Midrash and Related Literature, edited by Barry Eichler and Jeffrey Tigay. Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1988. First published in Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research vol. 27 (1958), 43-58. Goldin’s translation of Pirkei Avot with commentary was first published as The Living Talmud: The Wisdom of the Fathers and its Classical Commentators. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1955.

2 JEdgar Goodspeed, trans., The Apocrypha. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1938.

3 Jonathan Goldstein, Peoples of an Almighty God. New York, Doubleday, Anchor Bible Reference Library, 2002, 411’423.

4 Ibid., 423.

5 Ibid., 414’415.

6 See, e.g., Benjamin Sommer, ‘Did Prophecy Cease? Evaluating a Reevaluation,’ Journal of Biblical Literature 115/1 (1996): 31’47.

7 The debate continues, for example, as to whether the uprising was more in the nature of a civil war, or was primarily a rebellion against foreign oppression. See, e.g., Joann Scurlock, ‘167 b.c.e.: Hellenism or Reform,’ Journal for the Study of Judaism XXX1 (2000):133. My own view is that (a) beginning 189 b.c.e., when the Romans defeated Antiochus III at Magnesia, many apocalyptic Jews saw the Romans as the stone that shattered the clay feet of the divided 4th empire, the Greeks, per the vision in Daniel chapter 2; (b) when the (false) rumor of the death of Antiochus IV spread to Jerusalem (see II Maccabees 5:5), those folks rose up, believing that the end had come; (c) Antiochus IV was, to say the least, annoyed, and sought to suppress the apocalyptic element within Judaism; (d) Judah Maccabee himself may have held some apocalyptic beliefs, but when the apocalypse did not come, the story of his rebellion was in effect retold’in the version known as First Maccabees, portraying Judah as a classical hero, motivated by the desire to act rightly and bravely for the sake of rightness and bravery, rather like George Washington.

8 See, e.g., David Biale, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History. New York, Schocken Books, 1986), 47’57 and 77’83.

9 Michael Walzer, et al., eds., The Jewish Political Tradition: Vol. I’Authority. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000, esp. Ch. 3, pp. 156-161 and Ch. 8, pp. 381’386, 391’418.

10 See, e.g., Biale, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, 52’53, 80’82. See also Menachem Lorberbaum, ‘Commentary: The Price of Politics,’ in Walzer, The Jewish Political Tradition: Vol. I’Authority, 161’165.

11 See, e.g., Biale, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, 69’77. See also Ruth Wisse, ‘The Brilliant Failure of Jewish Foreign Policy,’ Azure vol. 10: Winter 2001. (Available on line at (describing and criticizing the Diaspora’s ‘foreign policy’ of accommodation.)

12 Cecil Roth, Do’a Gracia of the House of Nasi. Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1977, Ch. 7.

13 Kaadan v. Israel Lands Administration, excerpts translated in Walzer, et al., The Jewish Political Tradition: Vol. II’Membership. New Haven, Yale, 2003, 545’554. (That case held that an Israeli Arab was entitled to an equal opportunity for housing in a new ‘Jewish’ development in the Galilee.)

14 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1971. Cf., e.g., H.L.A. Hart’s distinction between primary and secondary rules in The Concept of Law. Oxford, Clarendon, 1961.

15 John Rawls, The Law of Peoples. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1999.

16 Allen Buchanan, Justice, Legitimacy and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations of International Law. New York, Oxford University Press, 2004.

17 Rawls, Law of Peoples, 16, fn. 8; Buchanan, Justice, Legitimacy and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations of International Law, 175’176.

18 Richard Claman, ‘A Philosophic Basis for Halakhic Pluralism,’ Conservative Judaism 54(1) 60’80 (2001), and citations there. Most recently, see George Crowder, Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism. Malden, MA, Polity Press, 2004, esp. 112-114, 182-187.

19 It should be noted that the relatively minimalist/pluralist vision of Rawls is vehemently opposed by those who press a ‘cosmopolitan’ theory of justice, viz., that all persons everywhere are entitled to full liberal and democratic rights within an international community. Contrast, e.g., the articles by Stephen Macedo (defending Rawls) and Thomas Pogge (attacking Rawls from a cosmopolitan stance) in the recent symposium volume, Rawls and the Law, LXXII Fordham L. Rev. (April 2004), 1721’1738 and 1739’1760.

Various of the U.N. declarations of rights reflect a cosmopolitan view’which viewpoint is then conveniently ignored, however, by the majority of the members. For various reasons, I believe that a minimalist theory’as clarified in Buchanan, supra, at 159’176’is both better supported philosophically, and more likely to succeed in moving the world community closer to peace and respect for basic human rights.

20 JPS trans.

21 Gerson Cohen, ‘Modern Jewish Scholarship and the Continuity of Jewish Faith,’ in Jewish History and Jewish Destiny. New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, 1997, p. 240.

22 Perhaps paradoxically, I suggest that once Israel recognizes such an ‘international’ duty, it is easier to justify the favoritism towards specifically Jewish developments that was criticized by the court in the Katsir case.

23 The ICJ’s decision is available at The Israel Supreme Court decision may be reached via, linking to full text of the Decision, and then searching for decision dated June 30, 2004. The ICJ decision warrants a full and careful analysis and condemnation. For present purposes, I note that in par. 139, the ICJ asserts that it cannot consider Israel’s right of self-defense as a basis for the fence, because, according to the ICJ, that right applies only the ‘the case of armed attack by one State against another State.’ In other words, by analogy, the U.S. has no right of self-defense against Al-Qaeda. Such a result is absurd, both legally and morally. See also the dissent by the U.S. judge to the ICJ majority decision. By contrast, the Israel Supreme Court properly explained that a self-defense justification applies, but must still be subject to a ‘proportionality’ review, balancing the self-defense interest with the resultant injury to the Palestinians.

24 According to the New York Times, July 21, 2004, p. A 10, the General Assembly voted to condemn Israel, based on the ICJ opinion, but only after amending the resolution to provide that indeed states have a right of self-defense against terrorism. In other words, much of the world voted to condemn Israel as recommended by the ICJ, but at the same time rejected a key premise of the ICJ’s decision. In short, the General Assembly majority does not appear to care about moral and legal consistency, so long as the conclusion is to condemn Israel. I suggest that in response we need to point out such inconsistencies, while at the same time articulating an affirmative Jewish moral vision.