Charles Lesch is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt. He has his PhD from Harvard. He recently published: Theopolitics Contra Political Theology: Martin Buber’s Biblical Critique of Carl Schmitt. He’s also published, Democratic Solidarity in a Secular Age? Habermas and the “Linguistification of the Sacred” and What Undermines Solidarity? Four Approaches and their Implications for Contemporary Political Theory and Against Politics: Walter Benjamin on Justice, Judaism, and the Possibility of Ethics.
Solidarity in a Secular Age: From Political Theology to Jewish Philosophy
Solidarity in a Secular Age joins two core areas of political theory, social solidarity and political theology, to tackle a fundamental problem of our time: What should unite us? In an age in which religious norms no longer predominate, how should we envision our social bond? Can we secure solidarity while upholding liberal values and avoiding racism, demagoguery, hyper-nationalism, and violence? Solidarity in a Secular Age responds by narrating an untold history of European political theology and spotlighting a neglected strand of modern Jewish philosophy to propose a new foundation for liberal-democratic solidarity.
In part one I describe the connection between liberal solidarity and political theology, uncovering religion’s underlying role in the evolution of European ideas since the Enlightenment. Whereas most historians stress the secular nature of modern political thought, I argue that some of political theory’s most central figures sought to theorize solidarity by appropriating concepts they inherited from religion: I show how Jean-Jacques Rousseau envisioned a democratic solidarity by transposing the theological concept of the “general will” to politics; how Immanuel Kant theorized an ethical solidarity by reimagining the core of our moral freedom in terms drawn from discussions of divine freedom; and how Jürgen Habermas proposed a discursive solidarity by secularizing our experience of the sacred into language.
In the second part of Solidarity in a Secular Age, I reimagine our social bond by looking to a different philosophical approach to political theology: the modern Jewish philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber. While neither Levinas nor Buber advocate for religion, they do learn from religion’s insights into social solidarity. They provide resources for how we might restore our fractured unity while staying true to core liberal values: critical reason, plural attachments, individual dignity, and ethical responsibility. From Levinas I develop solidarity as sacrifice, an original account of liberalism’s moral psychology and concept of the self. From Buber I develop solidarity as fate and destiny, a revised vision of liberalism’s theory of the “we” and collective obligation. In an uncanny way, the novelist George Eliot anticipated Levinas’ and Buber’s ideas in Daniel Deronda, and I conclude by using her novel as a case study for how individuals can practice solidarity in their own lives.
Solidarity in a Secular Age tackles complex philosophical systems, but its purpose is to rethink how we, as actually-existing members of liberal societies, should approach our relationships and responsibilities. It provides us with a new language for navigating the challenges of contemporary moral and political life.
Martin Buber did everything he could to sabotage an actual Jewish state that would save the lives of millions of actual Jews, but to intellectuals, his writing remains very fascinating.
Martin Buber was anti-halakhic and hence he is never taken seriously by serious Jews unless they’re playing games.
Buber’s ideas (as with those of Socrates and Plato) belong only in books and should never be practiced in reality where they suck.
Charles Lesch writes: “Political theology—the study of how theological ideas intersect with politics, law, ethics, and economics—has taken on new urgency. For centuries, it was expected that the Enlightenment’s secularizing processes would disenchant nature, rationalize society, and privatize the “sacred.” Yet “public religions” (Casanova 1994) continue to sway world affairs. The Western model of pluralism, toleration, and human rights faces growing pressure from movements with mythological and religious undercurrents (Galston 2018; Muller ¨ 2016). States and extremist groups justify heinous acts of violence by recourse to theological doctrines and apocalyptic expectations…”
Secular states, groups and individuals are just as ready to justify heinous acts of violence. As a rule, nobody cares about out-groups and nobody ever will.
“Buber does not merely impress his own agenda onto Biblical texts; he draws from them what he believes to be Judaism’s earliest and most authentic political theory…”
Buber had the magic decoder ring to understand what the true Torah (the one that existed only in his mind) is really saying. “Buber’s
approach, therefore, is to peel back the layers of the text, to find, concealed beneath strata of redaction, editorializing, and ideological sediment, the “spontaneous forms, not dependent upon instructions, of a popular preservation by word of mouth of ‘historical’ events”. Just as Buber was not a fan of an actual Jewish state that would save actual Jewish lives, so too the Biblical text as we have it is not what Buber reveres, rather he loves what he imagines a mythical Biblical text says, the one that accords perfectly with his own sensibility. In the final analysis, what Buber worshiped was not God, Torah and Israel, but Buber. Hence Jews who take Judaism seriously ignore Buber.
“By revealing the politics implicit in Buber’s scriptural hermeneutics, this article adds a new perspective to debates on political theology.”
We then learn to our shock that Buber’s scriptural hermeneutics reveal Buber’s point of view independent of the Bible. In other words, Buber shares with us his outlook on life and ascribes that to God. Just what we need in these confused times.
“Buber offers insights into a number of pressing issues at the intersection of religion and politics, including the use of theological ideas to justify political violence, dilemmas of territorial sovereignty, the invocation of political theology to criticize liberalism, and the possibility of reconciling individual non-domination and collective solidarity without an enemy “other.””
Count me skeptical. A man who does not seek to dominate is not a man. Life is war and we’ll all turn to whatever explanations are the most useful. There is no collective solidarity without an enemy. There is no politics without an enemy.
“Buber believes that theopolitics should speak to all people, at all times—and perhaps to liberal-democratic citizens most of all.” Many girls believe that unicorns should speak to all people at all times. And yet the world shuts its ears. Sad!
“Against all attempts to prioritize the “political,” he asserts the ethical-religious unity of all spheres of human action.” Wonderful. Very inspiring. Can’t wait to see how this works out against an enemy bent on genocide. How many concrete communities have been formed on this thinking? Oh, none? Sad.
“Buber holds that we should transform our existing societies by incorporating the spirit of theopolitics, as embodied by
ancient Israel’s prophets, into modern ethics, politics, and society.” Empty words if they are not backed up by a concrete commitment to law.
All of Buber’s words turn out to be empty. Best to give him a miss.
“Buber was not a systematic thinker.” Yes, but he had such exquisite feelings.
“Yet as Dan Avnon has observed, Biblical exegesis is the “heart of Buber’s philosophy”.” And yet this exegesis only reveals the loftiness of Buber’s own thought and yields us no insight into Biblical text.
“And as an aspiring Jewish academic in Weimar Germany, he witnessed firsthand the ascent of a Nazi movement that Schmitt enthusiastically endorsed.”
Schmitt endorsed it so enthusiastically that during the 1920s he repeatedly advocated for the banning of the Nazi party. Can’t get more enthusiastic than that.
“Theopolitics, Buber argues, arose as a way to transplant pre-state Israel’s “nomadic ethos”—its total rejection of human power—into settled life: When all people are mutually dependent on divine rule, none are dependent on merely human rule.” This world is as real as Star Wars. There has never been a society where people rejected human power and were instead totally dependent on divine rule. There is not even an intimation of this in the Torah. There is not one single Torah chapter wherein its protagonists exhibit total dependence on God and zero dependence on man. The Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob never showed zero dependence on man and neither did the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. A man who feels no dependence on his fellow man is a nut case. More important than getting him Torah from Mount Sinai is his acquisition of thorazine from Cedars-Sinai.
“By draining our social relations of domination, we come to act as if we live under divine rule in practice.” How does one make love, work out and build a business with this philosophy? I’ve never known a church, synagogue or yoga studio completely drained of social relations of domination. It’s not even possible. But I guess it would be cool, like unicorns.
Martin Buber suffered from maladaptive daydreaming.
“Schmitt’s (1922) Political Theology centers around an analogy between God and the human sovereign: Just as a voluntarist deity sustains the universe’s natural laws through miracles, so too a human sovereign sustains the state’s juridical laws through inscrutable acts of will.10 Thus against liberal theorists like John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and his German contemporary Hans Kelsen, Schmitt insists that liberal jurisprudence cannot be a closed system whose edicts have intrinsic normativity and correspond to a timeless reason ( 2005, 14).11 Moreover, as Schmitt would argue ten years later in The Concept of the Political, once any rational and normative grounds for legal order have been eliminated, a people’s unifying bond can be neither rational nor normative. It must be willed. Schmitt refers to this way of constructing in-group solidarity as “the political,” a way of relating to others that divides the world into “friends” and “enemies” ( 2007, 26). Thus in contrast to liberalism’s “art of separation” (Walzer 1984), in which different spheres of society—the religious, aesthetic, economic, legal, cultural, and scientific—retain a degree of autonomy, Schmitt’s “total state” subordinates all realms of human existence to politics ( 2007, 24–5, 38, 72). And in this way, “the political” provides him with what the sociologist David Martin has called a “secular metaphysic”: It reproduces for political solidarity the moral absolutism of religious faith.”
Where is Schmitt wrong? Asking for a friend.
“Buber neither rejects nor quarantines politics. Instead, he seeks out a new, morally defensible concept of the political, one bound upin an orientation toward the world that he calls “religious”.”
When your enemy is trying to rape your wife and enslave your children, it is very useful to have a morally defensible concept of the political. Nothing defeats rockets like a morally defensible concept of the political. Nothing will stop drag queen story hours like a morally defensible concept of the political. I wonder what Buber would have said about drag queen story hours. I’m sure it would have been exquisite.
“Buber takes Schmitt seriously not only as a philosophical but theological opponent, arguing that Schmitt’s “political” can only be understood in light of a religious institution: the “trial by combat” or “duel” ( 1957, 73).12 In a duel, the outcome—who lives or
dies—is understood to reflect divine will; in effect, the disputants make God into their judge. It is precisely this logic, Buber argues, that is at work in Schmitt. Though Schmitt uses the language of secular political theory, his secret intent is to scale up the “trial by combat” from interpersonal struggles to those of states. “Every classic duel is a masked ‘judgment of God,’” Buber writes. “That is what Schmitt, carrying it over to the relation of peoples to one another, calls the specifically political” (ibid., 74). Thus the political is not merely a vitalist celebration of violence. It is a whole theology of bloodshed. It lends war a divine sanction.”
Hmm. That’s an interesting interpretation, but is it useful? Does it apply to real life? Can you make money from it?
“Schmitt failed to recognize, Buber argues, is that each of these pairings actually implies yet another pair of concepts. Behind the beautiful–ugly distinction, for example, is a contrast between “form” and “formlessness.” So too with the political. Enemies and friends do not fight over nothing; their hostility takes place against a more fundamental juxtaposition between “order” and “absence of order.” 13 Thus it is only when a challenge arises to what political life should look like that an “enemy” emerges. And it is this“dynamic of order” that is the “real principle of the political” (Buber  1957, 75)”.”
There is no order in international relations. There is no higher authority in international relations. There’s nobody you can call on if your country is attacked. You are on your own. States are like drug dealers — operating outside the law (international law has no meaning). And we’re all locked together in an iron cage. (John J. Mearsheimer) Deadly conflict is inevitable as different groups have different interests, human desires are infinite and resources are limited.
“Gogarten, Buber argues, was correct to reject the religious individualism of thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard. Where he erred was by adopting the opposite, collectivist extreme: that “the ethical is valid as the ethical only by its connection to man’s political being”
(ibid., 76). For Buber, such a perspective abdicates individual moral responsibility. If our decisions receive their meaning solely from political interests, we cannot distinguish between the state’s good and the moral good in a broader sense. Thus although “Gogarten may speak in theological terms,”Buber contends, he gives free reign to a Machiavellian mentality (76). He lends religious imprimatur to Schmitt’s celebration of violence.”
All binding ethical systems that reference a transcendent authority are based upon a subjective leap of faith. It is silly to argue about subjective leaps of faith. Regarding Schmitt’s awful celebration of violence, how is it any worse than the Hebrew Bible’s celebration of violence? God repeatedly commands genocide. How does Schmitt celebrate violence more than Deuteronomy 7?
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— 2 and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally.[a] Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. 5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles[b] and burn their idols in the fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”
“Buber’s alternative to Schmitt’s political is a new but equally all-encompassing ethos: the “religious.” To begin with, the religious is not merely one Weberian sphere of value among many; it potentially interpenetrates all of them.”
Every theorist sees a sphere, which always just so happens to be their specialty, that interpenetrates all other spheres. My father the theologian, for example, thought of theology as the king of all studies. Economists believe that there is only social science and that economists are its practicioners.
Religion can no more replace the political than poetics can replace economics. They are different spheres. The religious sphere can only be arrived at by a subjective leap of faith. The political refers to an enemy who’s bent on destroying you.
“If communal life were parceled out into independent realms, one of which is ‘the spiritual life,’” Buber had written in I and Thou, this would “rob the spirit completely of reality”.”
You can claim any particular sphere lords it over other spheres when you rely upon a subjective leap of faith to create such a sphere. You could replace “the spiritual life” with “the unicorn life” and Buber’s arguments would work as well in making the case for faith in unicorns.
“A genuinely “religious” person, therefore, cannot live a double (or triple) life. She cannot be a caring mother in the evening, a back-stabbing politician in the morning, and an apathetic consumer in the afternoon.”
Well, is there any evidence for this? Are religious politicians any less likely to back-stab and to be apathetic consumers? Buber’s theories sound exquisite, it’s a shame there’s not much evidence for them corresponding to reality. For example, are religious Jews less likely to cheat in business or academia? Dennis Prager said that his fellow teachers at Brooklyn College believed that yeshiva students were more likely to cheat than the average student. When I ask rabbis if Orthodox Jews are more likely than the average person to be honest in business, their reactions range from ambivalent to sheepish to uncomfortable. From my experiences, Jews who become Orthodox do not become more ethical on average. Some do and some don’t. In my experience, Jews who keep strict kosher and daven three times a day are no more likely to be honest than other Jews and other Americans.
“While she can perform many roles, all of them must be informed by the same wellspring of value.”
Where does the “must” come from? You and whose army? Religion develops an in-group identity that simultaneously develops negative attitudes toward out-groups. The more religious the Jew, the more likely he has negative attitudes about out-groups. The more religious the Christian, the more likely he has negative attitudes about out-groups. The more religious the Muslim, the more likely he has negative attitudes about out-groups.
“Politics, Buber insists, should neither be rejected nor sequestered from other parts of human life; it should be morally transformed and redeemed.”
Should not every part of human life be transformed and redeemed? Lots of things should happen. Children should not get cancer. People should not starve to death. There should be no drag queen story hours in public libraries. Martin Buber has a dream. Big deal.
“Thus in a sense, what Buber articulates is a kind of inverted rendering of political theology: While Schmitt’s “total state” is one
that “no longer knows anything absolutely nonpolitical,” Buber’s ideal polity is one that no longer knows anything absolutely non-“religious.””
Buber’s “ideal polity” has as much relevance to reality as unicorns. Unless I’m wrong. Perhaps you know some real life examples of Buber’s “ideal polity”?
“If ethical problems receive their relevance from the political realm,” Buber writes, “they cannot also receive them from the religious, not even [as in the case of Gogarten] if the political has a religious basis”
All questions about universal morality depend upon a subjective leap of faith to a transcendent source.
“Yet by what means can political life be neither sequestered nor abandoned but still infused with a moral ethos? What does this “religious” orientation look like? In places, Buber seems to answer in a sociological key. “To the political sphere,” he writes in a later essay on
community, “there was always opposed the organic, functionally organized society as such, a great society built of various societies” ( 1958, 131).16 But at other times, he hints at a different and deeper strain: “There is no separate sphere of ethics in Judaism”
(1946, 9). Or as he puts it in his book Moses: “The tradition of the pyramid faces that of the campfire””
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
That there is no separate sphere of ethics in Judaism must be a great comfort to those who are harmed by Torah Jews. I don’t blame Torah Jews for being human. I am not castigating them. I recognize that different groups have different norms and different interests. So what’s my point? Buber’s theories belong in Buber’s books and nowhere else.
“In Moses, first published in 1946, Buber develops his “religious” politics by contrasting Israel’s nomadic ethos—an ardent hostility to dependence on the will of others—with the despotism of the Egyptian state.”
In a blog post first published December 10, 2019, Ford develops his “unicorn” politics by contrasting unicorn ethos with the despotism of [insert any real society].
We have zero evidence that Israel or any other society ever exhibited an ardent hostility to dependence on the will of others. We have zero evidence that such a society is possible. People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.
“The Book of Exodus teaches that “The Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel”.”
Great, because without that, we would not have known. Without divine proclamations, people won’t notice group differences.
“For Buber, this is not merely a difference in culture but a deep contrast in values and orientation. Egypt represents the summit of centralized and coercive civilization. Having subdued the Nile and its populace, the Egyptian state exhibited its total domination through monumental architecture: “As the pyramid culminates in its apex, so the Egyptian state culminates of almost mathematical necessity in the Crown, the ‘red flame’, which is addressed in the pyramid texts as living Godhead” The pyramid for Buber thus symbolizes a perfectly realized political theology, a Schmittian “total state.” All parts of the society are subordinated to its interest, embodied in the person of the pharaoh; and it is from this interest alone that they derive their value and meaning: “In the last resort everybody received from the King the function which made him a man” (21).
“Against Egypt’s domineering concept of the political, nomadic Israel offered an emancipated alternative. Historically, nomads represented a physical hazard to the state, persisting in the hinterlands beyond the reach of its laws. Yet as the political scientist James Scott (2009) has shown, their more profound threat was to its governing ideology. By refusing to accept any kind of structured hierarchy, and flourishing nonetheless, nomads were living refutations of the state’s Hobbesian insistence that freedom from violence requires total
domination. Thus for Egypt and other ancient civilizations, the nomad was a figure of both fear and desire. Buber quotes with fondness a Sumerian hymn that speaks of the one “who knows no submission…who has no house in his lifetime,” as well as an Egyptian source that refers to “the miserable stranger…He does not dwell in the same spot, his feet are always wandering. From the days of Horus [that is, from the most ancient past] he battles, he does not conquer, and is not conquered”.”
Different political structures suit different nations in different times and places. Context is king. If your state is fighting for its survival, you’ll want a total state. If your state is an island composed of Anglo-Saxons, you can afford more individual liberty. Egypt’s structure worked. At the time, it was the most powerful nation in the world. A nomadic structure that works for a tiny group of nomads is not going to work for a different nation in a different circumstance.
So what was the threat that Israel posed to Egypt circa 3200 years ago? Exodus 1:8: “Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9 “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
Was the new Egyptian king wrong? How so? What nation welcomes another nation booming inside of it? Would the modern state of Israel welcome a booming non-Jewish nation growing within it? The previous pharoah had given Joseph’s family the prime property of Goshen. Might ordinary Egyptians have grounds for resentment?
Israel’s threat to Egypt was not primarily ideological. It was a matter of demographics. If there were 1/100th as many Israelites in Egypt, they would have been seen as less of a threat. There has never been a modern state with a Jewish population of 5% or higher that was not racked by enormous anti-semitism. Percentages matter. There are no modern states with a Muslim population that is 5% or higher that does not pose enormous challenges to the stability of that state.
Contrary to what Buber argued, Israel offered no alternative to “Egypt’s domineering concept of the political.” Israel had a system that worked for them. It would not have worked for Egypt. China’s system will not work for Australia. Canada’s system will not work for Nigeria. Different peoples have different gifts and develop different norms. A legal system suited for one people won’t necessarily work for a different people.
“Historically, nomads represented a physical hazard to the state, persisting in the hinterlands beyond the reach of its laws.” It depends. Nomads in China did not represent a physical hazard to states way outside of China.
Out-groups have always represented a real or potential hazard to in-groups, being nomadic has nothing to do with it.
The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia is a book-length anthropological and historical study of the Zomia highlands of Southeast Asia written by James C. Scott and published in 2009. For two thousand years the disparate groups that now reside in Zomia (a mountainous region the size of Europe that consists of portions of seven Asian countries) have fled the projects of the nation state societies that surround them—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée, epidemics, and warfare. This book, essentially an “anarchist history,” is the first-ever examination of the huge literature on nation-building whose author evaluates why people would deliberately and reactively remain stateless.
Scott’s main argument is that these people are “barbaric by design”: their social organization, geographical location, subsistence practices and culture have been carved to discourage states to annex them to their territories. Likewise, states want to integrate Zomia to increase the amount of land, resources and people subject to taxation – in other words, to raise their revenue.
Zomia’s ethnic groups were formed mostly by people running away from states, seeking for refuge, each of them with their own ethnicity. Adding the isolation of the terrain, these characteristics encouraged a specialization of languages, dialects and cultural practices. Moreover, to remain stateless they have used this specialization along with agricultural practices that enhance mobility; devotion to prophetic, millenarian leaders; and maintenance of a largely oral culture to reinvent their histories and genealogies as they move between and around states.
“By refusing to accept any kind of structured hierarchy, and flourishing nonetheless, nomads were living refutations of the state’s Hobbesian insistence that freedom from violence requires total domination.”
Yeah, I am sure the Pharoah was upset about the nomads’ ideological challenges. Word got back to him that the nomads in Egypt used to say each other, “Why do they hate us? Because we value freedom.” That was such a profound insight for America’s war against terror. It worked really well.
Why did Osama Bin Laden attacked the USA on 9/11? He stated his reasons and none of them had anything to do with freedom.
“Thus for Egypt and other ancient civilizations, the nomad was a figure of both fear and desire.” Mark Twain said it better: “By his make and ways he is substantially a foreigner wherever he may be, and even the angels dislike a foreigner.”
“It is this intense nomadic antipathy to dependence on human will, Buber argues, that Abraham and his descendants inherited, linking life under arbitrary authority to the most profound unhappiness.”
On what basis does Buber claim that nomads hate dependence on human will? I suspect nomads like their own will as much as the next bloke. Buber provides no evidence for his assertions.
Abraham’s descendants may not have loved arbitrary authority, but they were willing to put up with it if the only alternative was starvation. Most people are like that. Who likes arbitrary authority? No one, unless such authority comes with things they value such as a pay check.
“Israel has acquired a visceral aversion to any political system rooted in domination.”
There is no way of organizing people that does not include domination. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had slaves who did not seem to speak back. Twelve-step groups probably come the closest to the non-domination ideal. What rules in the 12-step is the group conscience.
“How can the nomadic ethos be reproduced in civilization? By what means can its skepticism about human authority and its insistence on freedom from domination find a place in settled human societies, suffused as they are with economic exploitation, social hierarchy, and vast disparities of power? Buber offers his answer—“theopolitics”—in Kingship of God.”
Skepticism about human authority is just one value among many. It certain circumstances for certain peoples, it is more useful than in other circumstances and peoples. The only way you can eliminate “economic exploitation, social hierarchy, and vast disparities of power” is by eliminating excellence and when you do that, your group won’t be long for this earth.
“By subjecting themselves to God’s exclusive kingship, Buber argues, the nascent Jewish people uncovered a novel means of realizing non-domination: When all human beings are fully dependent on God’s will, no human being is dependent on merely human will.”
Did this ever occur in reality? We have no basis for believing it did. Buber’s thought is as grounded in reality as a girl dreaming about unicorns.
“This theopolitics, I will now show, is Buber’s “religious” alternative to Schmitt’s political. By inverting political theology, it extends the nomadic ethos into settled civilization.”
Just like belief in unicorns inverts physics.
“The “historical facts” behind Biblical happenings, he writes, are less important than the experience of participants—their “inner truth”.”
And how do we know their inner truth? We make it up and then implement it! What could go wrong?
“For only if ancient Israelites experienced themselves as actually living under divine rule—not as a metaphor or ideal, but in concrete cognitive and emotional fact—could something of this experience be conceptualized, recovered, and repurposed. Buber’s approach, therefore, is to peel back the layers of the text,to find, concealed beneath strata of redaction, editorializing, and ideological sediment, the “spontaneous forms, not dependent upon instructions, of a popular preservation by word of mouth of ‘historical’ events”.”
We make it up.
If X happened and we can discern X, then Y. If my grandma had wheels, she’d be a trolley cart. Brilliant! Here’s a whole new politics. What a rejoinder to Schmitt!
“His core finding is this: For a substantial period during their early history, the Israelites experienced God as their king.”
There’s no finding here. There’s only imagination. The written Torah contradicts this vision.
“Buber argues that divine rule in ancient Israel was understood to be exclusive and direct.”
That’s why the Tanach wastes no time attacking idolatry because it was not something relevant to the Israelites. That’s why the Israelites showed no desire for an intermediary between them and God. Exodus 20:18: “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
“No one was permitted to serve as God’s intermediary; none could share in God’s sovereignty.”
Was Buber able to read the Bible with the comprehension of an 8 year old girl? Evidently not.
“God’s kingship was not understood at all in a metaphorical sense.”
Right, because the Israelites were able to relate to an invisible God just as they could to an earthly king. In what universe? Was God coming down and having comfy chats with the Israelites over cucumber sandwiches every afternoon? From Exodus 20:18-19, it appears the children of Israel weren’t too keen on getting close to God. But the text that Buber bases his thought on is not the tawdry Torah that exists in reality, it is an imaginary Torah that exists only in Buber’s imagination. Scintillating! What a profound basis for theopolitics.
Buber: “[By] ‘king’ I mean precisely the ‘primitive’ melekh [king] which the elders of Israel mean when they (I Samuel 8:19ff) demand a king….For thus had they experienced it: God had dispensed justice for them, He had gone on before them and had fought their battle, the melekh of an original early period.”
I guess that’s why the Israelites never complained.
“God’s rule, he stresses, was experienced as a palpable part of Israelite psychology. But—and critically—this did not precipitate a quietist turn away from political life. On the contrary, precisely because God’s sovereignty was thought to extend into every human
domain, politics, too was understood to be a legitimate form of “religious” expression.”
Unicorn rule was experienced as a palpable part of Israelite psychology. But—and critically—this did not precipitate a quietist turn away from political life. On the contrary, precisely because unicorn sovereignty was thought to extend into every human domain, politics, too was understood to be a legitimate form of “unicorn” expression.
“There is in…[premonarchic] Israel no externality of ruler-ship,” Buber writes, adding “for there is no political sphere except the theo-political.”
Says who? On what basis?
“Buber is careful to preempt the tendency of Michael Walzer (2012) and others to read an anti-political message into Hebrew scripture. Ethics and politics are best understood not as opposing value spheres but as different manifestations of a unified effort to work
through the implications of divine rule…”
Wouldn’t it be nice to think so?
Buber: “We may characterize the domain, in which the individual as such seeks to deal seriously in vital fashion with the exclusiveness [of God’s sovereignty], as the ethical…. The same is valid for the people with respect to politics. The striving to have the entirety of its life constructed out of its relation to the divine can be actualized by a people.”
No community can grant God exclusive sovereignty. Even the people of God have bosses and spouses and other sources of authority.
“If politics refers to the collective affairs of a people, the premonarchial Israelites practiced politics. They conquered territory and built cities; they lived under laws and redistributed wealth. They embodied “a tendency toward actualization which can be no other than a
political one” (ibid., 118). That they did so under divine sovereignty in no way detracts from their political character. In this sense, Buber’s target is simultaneously Pauline Christianity and Weber’s division of value spheres. The God of Israel, he writes, “is not content to be ‘God’ in the religious sense. He does not want to surrender to a man that which is not ‘God’s’….He makes known His will first of all as constitution—not constitution of cult and custom only, also of economy and society.” Having made this veiled reference to Economy and Society, Weber’s magnum opus, Buber concludes his analysis with a final shot at his predecessor: “The separation of religion and politics which stretches through history is here overcome…””
In Buber’s mind, the separation is overcome. To those who live in fantasy, Buber may seem appealing. To the reality-based community, however, Buber has no place.
“Here we arrive at theopolitics’foremost contribution: transposing the nomadic ethos into settled life. For the nomad, there is no greater slavery than dependence on another’s arbitrary will.Andit is precisely freedom from dependence that theopolitics achieves. Human beings, by making themselves mutually and fully dependent on God, become mutually and fully independent of one another.”
Doesn’t work. Cannot work. Has never worked. Pure fantasy. But very profound and moving. Exquisite!
“Thus counterintuitively, it was precisely the Israelites’ extreme allergy to domination that led them to embrace absolute divine rule…”
And yet what we know about the Israelites reveals them to be human beings made of flesh and blood who bear no relation to Buber’s fantasies about them. The thought of Martin Buber is as realistic as that of a 16-year old stroking it to a lesbian gang bang. The only women who ever told me, “I love your cock” were porn stars. With the passing of time, I have concluded that they were only pretending to adore my appendage. As you can imagine, it’s been shattering for me to conclude that neither porn nor Buber have any connection to reality and that the imbibing of either type of fantasy distorts my ability to navigate through life and history. But wouldn’t it be pretty if this were not true?
“Under such an arrangement, power, reserved to the deity, cannot be exploited by men for their own aims.”
Right, because that never happens with the people of God. Whoever heard of priests or rabbis molesting boys? When was the last time a clergyman was caught with his hand in the till?
“For a people that has jointly and equally accepted the “yoke” of God’s kingship, divine law’s coercive force is not recognized as coercion.”
In fantasyland, sure. For flesh and blood Orthodox Jews, halacah (Jewish law) is regarded as a joy and a burden and a million things in between. But Buber was not halachic, so it was easier for him to live in fantasy. Nobody can build a Buberian community.
“Buber offers two examples of how theopolitics shaped Israel’s institutions: the Sabbatical year [Shmita] and the Jubilee [Yovel]. The Sabbatical extends the logic of the Sabbath [Shabbat] from communal to territorial life. Just as human beings rest one day out of
seven, the land of Israel itself is made to “rest” one year out of seven. Proactive cultivation of the soil is prohibited, and a special holiness—that is, kedushah, or the status of being “separated” or “reserved” for God—attaches to any produce that does grow. The
Jubilee, in turn, broadens the logic of the Sabbatical from years to decades: At the conclusion of seven Sabbaticals, the land not only rests but also is restored to its original holders.”
Secular scholars tell us there’s no historical evidence for Jews keeping shmita or Yovel.
“What both the Sabbatical and the
Jubilee offer, therefore, is not only a token reminder
of God’s kingship but a concrete expression of its
power: A return to a condition of non-domination
between man and man. People, these practices insist,
“ought not to thrust one another aside, they ought not
to impoverish one another permanently or enslave
one another.” They should be made “free and equal
again and again, as they were at the beginning” (181).
And so the Sabbatical cycles effectively furnish a
“renewal of the Covenant” both in symbol and
sociopolitical substance (179). Not only the agricultural produce but also the national community as a
whole becomes “reserved” for God—a “Holy People”.”
Wouldn’t that be great?