New Book Explores Jewish Roots of Progressive Views

In 2008, 78 percent of American Jews voted for Barack Obama – a higher turnout than any other religious group. In 2016, 71 percent voted for Hillary Clinton.

In a collection of essays, the new book “Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice” makes the case that Jewish support for more liberal views on everything from guns to immigration to reproductive rights comes straight out of the tradition.

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The book starts with a question: Why does Judaism care so much about politics?

“Judaism, and all religions I believe, are about how we structure society best to take care of our neighbors,” said one of the book’s editors, Rabbi Seth Limmer, the senior rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation. “My Christian colleagues, my Muslim colleagues, speak about the primacy of love for other, and there is really no better way to show love for other than to set up the common good and to work to make sure that everyone feels that love and feels secure.

“Judaism certainly exercises that and from the very beginnings of our legal and cultural history, it’s been about how to structure society so it benefits all and so its good can be shared. And that’s what we call politics,” Limmer said.

Limmer joins us in conversation. 

Below, an excerpt from the book.

Judaism and the political World

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer, DHL

“Rabbi, why does Judaism care so much about politics?”

It’s a very good question. A question I’ve been asked countless times. And, as I’ve learned through the years, in order to address it fully we need to talk first about politics and then about Judaism.

“Politics” is famously the title of the Aristotle’s treatise concerning politica, literally, “the matters concerning the city.” Aristotle taught that humanity “is a political animal,” meaning that we by nature form relationships, connections, and alliances with our neighbors. To be political, according to Aristotle, who essentially coined the term, is to be social; that is, to be engaged with the human beings who form one’s surrounding society. Our need to connect, Aristotle posits, is not exclusively emotional, but also moral:

Why man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal is clear. For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech. The mere voice, it is true, can indicate pain and pleasure, and therefore is possessed by the other animals as well, but speech is designed to indicate the advantageous and the harmful, and therefore also the right and the wrong; for it is the special prop- erty of man in distinction from the other animals that he alone has perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities, and it is partnership in these things that makes a household and a city-state.1

Our sense of right and wrong leads us to connect with human beings and to form partnerships for moral ends: in a household, a city, a nation, or—in modern times—a state. We are social beings who understand ourselves as interwoven with others, as part of society. Politics is the path, the art, or at least the term for the art, of how we share our moral sensibilities with our neighbors, express our understanding of what is right, and participate in the process of shaping our society. Once we understand politics in this fashion, our original inquiry is better posited in the converse: “Rabbi, how could anyone think that Judaism does not care about the world in which we live?” After all, the preponderance of our rituals and ethics serve to connect us constructively to the human beings who surround us; most of our commandments instruct us on how to structure society. Through this essay, as we encounter texts from Torah through Talmud, we will see the intricate connections linking Judaism and the political world.

The commandments of our Torah direct us to construct a community and instruct us on how to live with our neighbors (including neighboring nations). The Torah sees Jews as a political entity named B’nei Yisrael, “the Children of Israel”: originally twelve sons, then a kinship circle, next a system of interconnected tribes, and ultimately a sovereign nation. How this political group relates to others becomes a theme from the moment Israel escapes Egypt and is commanded to be a nation that ministers, as a priest would to their congregation, to other nations: “You [all] shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

This chapter of Exodus explicitly acknowledges that we are one people among the many peoples of the world. The job of the Jewish people, we learn moments after our own liberation, is to help other nations develop and fulfill their own holy potential. The priests of Leviticus have many tasks: they mediate individuals’ attempts to draw near to God; maintain sacred objects, rituals, and texts; and see to the purity of each person (as well as to the purity of the people as a whole). Extending this analogy of the priests’ role in Israel and Israel’s role in the world, the biblical charge to the Children of Israel as a nation of priests is clearly political: we were called to aid other nations’ attempts to be holy, maintain an international standard of the sacred, and try to see to the purity of everyone in wider society.

This metaphorical understanding of the international commitment of the Jewish people to play a political role in the wider world appears early on in the legal sections of the Torah. The specific instructions regarding how we are to structure and maintain society, however, appear throughout the entire Torah. Perhaps our most ancient legal collection can be found in Exodus, in a portion known simply as Mishpatim, “Laws.” As we will see in a few paradigmatic examples, the laws of Mishpatim clearly govern societal relations. First, Torah teaches that we do not exist in a vacuum, but have responsibilities to our neighbors: “When a person opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit must make restitution—paying the price to the owner, but keeping the dead animal” (Exodus 21:33–34). Further governing our relationships with those who surround us are the commandments detailing our financial interactions: “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets” (Exodus 22:24–25). From early on in Exodus, Jewish law is concerned with the very political subjects of private property and the financial system.

The laws of Leviticus, whose chapters comprise the particulars of the priestly system, likewise speak to the structure of society. The Holiness Code, known in Hebrew as K’doshim, is famed for teaching, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The scope of this loyalty and affection for neighbors is extended even further, not just in terms of the objects of our love, but our overtly political connection to them as well:

When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God. (Leviticus 19:33–34)

Setting equal standards for stranger and citizen is clearly a concern of state. This commitment to social equity perhaps received its fullest treatment in Leviticus 25, which describes the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. These seven- and fifty-year cycles are intended for the physical restoration of the land as well as communal revitalization. All who had fallen into poverty and were separated from their land are restored to their family holdings, as liberty is proclaimed “throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10). The general mores of a political structure that seeks fairness and equality are put into place through a detailed series of rules affecting life and trade before, during, and after these sabbatical cycles.

The Torah continues to focus on the political. The end of the Book of Numbers speaks to political alliances among tribes, treaties in times of conquest, as well as systems of acceptable testimony (chapters 32 and 30, respectively). The Book of Deuteronomy perhaps most fully addresses notions of statehood, as its laws set standards for taxation, kings, and wars (chapters 14, 17, and 20, respectively). Most importantly, Deuteronomy establishes a formal judiciary: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). Even if we read this verse’s last clause more literally as “you shall judge the people with just judgments,” Deuteronomy is legislating governance—establishing a network of local magistrates in order to ensure the proper mediation of disputes in society. Laws governing politics and polity are a major focus of Mosaic legislation.

Our prophets are also keenly political; they lead by example in the age-old occupation of speaking moral truth to power, as they hold kings and queens accountable to considerations of right and wrong.

The early prophets Nathan and Elijah rely on rhetoric to chastise Kings David and Ahab for selfishly asserting their prerogative over their subjects, Uriah and Naboth, respectively.2 Later prophets are far more straightforward with their speech and direct their invective at the powerful. In the time of King Hezekiah, the prophet Micah promised political punishment for those who perverted the engine of state:

Hear this, you rulers of the House of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel,
Who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, Who build Zion with crime, Jerusalem with iniquity!
Her rulers judge for gifts, her priests give rulings for a fee, And her prophets divine for pay; yet they rely upon the Eternal, saying,
“The Eternal is in our midst; no calamity shall overtake us.” Assuredly, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the Temple Mount a shrine in the woods.

(Micah 3:9–12)

Micah sets the standard for prophetic politics. His engagement with the leaders of state was so well-known that nearly a century after his career, leaders of later days listened to the likes of Jeremiah because they revered the role of the prophet:

The officials and all the people said to the priests and prophets, “This man does not deserve the death penalty, for he spoke to us in the name of the Eternal our God.” And some of the elders of the land arose and said to the entire assemblage of the people, “Micah the Morashtite, who prophesied in the days of King Hezekiah of Judah, said to all the people of Judah: ‘Thus said Adonai of Hosts: Zion shall be plowed as a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the Temple Mount a shrine in the woods.’ Did King Hezekiah of Judah, and all Judah, put him to death? Did he not rather fear the Eternal and implore the Eternal, so that the Eternal renounced the punishment decreed against them? We are about to do great injury to ourselves!” (Jeremiah 26:16–19)

The prophets understand their role as political, and so do the leaders of their day. While it is the role of the official, the judge, or the king to administer society, Judaism has long understood social criticism—which finds its greatest fulfillment in prophecy—to be a necessary religious addition to the political system. This critique of state starts during the dawning of prophecy in Israel and continues through to the end and rebirth of Judea. Amos railed against an unfair system of taxation: “Assuredly, Because you impose a tax on the poor and exact from him a levy of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted delightful vineyards, but shall not drink their wine” (Amos 5:11). Isaiah is unafraid to challenge the elders and officers of God’s people (Isaiah 3:14); likewise he decries those who pervert their power: “Those who write out evil writs and compose iniquitous documents, to subvert the cause of the poor, to rob of their rights of the needy of My people” (Isaiah 10:1–2). Habakkuk’s protests even addressed foreign policy: “Because you plundered many nations, all surviving peoples shall plunder you—for crimes against men and wrongs against lands, against cities and all their inhabitants” (Habakkuk 2:8). The invective of Malachi, the last of the prophets, blends scorn for ritual misdeeds with outrage at societal injustice:

I will step forward to contend against you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger, said Adonai of Hosts. (Malachi 3:5)

Our Rabbis of antiquity pick up the political mantle passed down to them by the prophets. Much of our Mishnah and Talmuds speak to societal administration and define our obligations in the public domain. No single organizational “order” of Rabbinic teaching does this more than N’zikin, literally the corpus regarding how “damages” are accounted in civil law. A cursory overview of the subjects covered in N’zikin demonstrates how Jewish law summarily addresses the questions of legal structures that keep society together: damages and compensation; torts; property law; land ownership, entitlements and restrictions; criminal procedures (including capital punishment); collusive witnesses; cities of refuge; oaths and their consequences; legal disputations; interactions between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors; and reckoning for error in the rulings of the highest court, the Sanhedrin. We will examine a few excerpts from the pages of N’zikin in order to see how committed Rabbinic law is to shaping the standards of society.

Part of politics is settling disputes among neighbors. When human beings live in organized communities like cities and states, they wind up with shared property, from the walls of apartment buildings to public streets. The collection of supplemental discussions that parallels the Mishnah, the Tosefta, teaches that neighbors who live in close proximity can exercise certain rights on behalf of the majority, whether those neighbors share a courtyard or public water systems:

One who owns a house in another courtyard can be bound by the residents of that courtyard in making a door, a lock, and a key for the courtyard; regarding all other things, they cannot compel him. If he resides with them in the courtyard, they can bind him to everything. One who has a house in another town can be bound by the townspeople to participate with them in digging cisterns, hollows, and caverns and in fixing the ritual baths as well as the aqueduct. Regarding all other things, they cannot compel him. If he resides with them in the town, they can bind him to everything. (Tosefta, Bava M’tzia 11:17)

Part and parcel of living together with other people entails subjugating personal privileges for the common good. If the majority of the residents surrounding a courtyard want a door with a lock and a key, they can compel a minority of dissenters to pay their fair share even against their will; if the majority of the residents of a town want funds for public projects, they can tax their residents, and—in certain instances—even

those who merely own property within city limits. Balancing private interests with public needs is the subject matter of this passage; setting limits on individual rights while expanding public powers is precisely the negotiations of politics. This legislation of N’zikin is all about governance. In Aristotelian terms, the laws establish partnerships in city-states to make moral judgments that are enforceable on all: politics is the subject.

One might purport that while the Rabbis obviously create a legal system for a coherent Jewish society, they are silent on how Jews should act as residents (or citizens) of foreign nations. While many Rabbinic texts would contradict such a position, nowhere is the commitment of the Rabbis to participating in the (even non-Jewish) political world seen more clearly than in this Talmudic teaching, attributed to first-generation amoraic sage Sh’muel: Dina d’malchuta dina, “The law of the kingdom is the law.” This principle, cited in Sh’muel’s name in numerous Talmudic pages, proposes that Jewish statutes can be superseded by the laws of secular society.3 We encounter this dictum in addressing the issue of how dealing with non-Jews, whose standards of obtaining ownership differ from Jews, might affect Jewish practices surrounding property acquisition:

Rav Y’hudah says that Sh’muel says: With regard to the property of a gentile that was sold to a Jew for money, it is ownerless like a desert until the purchaser performs an act of acquisition; anyone who takes possession of it in the interim has acquired it. What is the reason for this? The gentile relinquishes ownership of it from the moment when the money reaches his hand, while the Jew who purchased it does not acquire it until the deed reaches his hand. Therefore, in the period of time between the giving of the money and the receiving of the deed, the property is like a desert, and anyone who takes possession of it has acquired it.

Abayei said to Rav Yoseif: Did Sh’muel actually say this? But doesn’t Sh’muel say that the law of the kingdom is the law, that is, the law obligates Jews to observe the laws of the locale in which they reside, and the king said that land may not be acquired without a document? Therefore, taking possession should not be effective for acquisition. Rav Yoseif said to him: I do not know how to reconcile this contradiction, but there was an incident in the village of Dura that was founded by shepherds, where there was a Jew who purchased land from a gentile by giving money, and in the interim another Jew came and plowed it a bit. The two Jews came before Rav Y’hudah for a ruling, and he established the property in the possession of the second individual. This accords with the ruling of Sh’muel that the property is ownerless until a Jew performs an act of acquisition. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 54b; emphasis added)4

The above passage offers multiple solutions to the problem of how to reconcile Jewish systems of acquisition with those of the non-Jewish sovereign nations in which Jews live. However, the very existence of the debate demonstrates that the Rabbis understood the intricate difficulties of Jewish engagement with the wider political world: we had to determine the extent to which we would willingly conform with society’s rules and under what circumstances we would place ourselves outside the law. These negotiations over the risks and rewards of societal engagement show that simple solutions are scarcely found. However, the existence of the debate of how we engage with non-Jewish political powers clearly demonstrates that, for the Rabbis of antiquity, political engagement was certainly an option, and political estrangement was not the preferable path.

Beyond discussions of how to negotiate life under foreign rule, the Rabbis also teach that our obligations to our immediate neighbors should be expanded and applied to the wider world. An evaluation of our obligations to the widest social spheres might not be what we expect from a legal discussion of the Sages’ disapproval of a cow walking about with a strap between its horns, which is a potential signal that the cow is doing some kind of work for its owner on Shabbat. In a stunning literary leap, Talmudic logic takes us from the case of a Sabbath-breaking cow and brings us to an understanding of individual responsibility for the entirety of human society. We will walk through a remarkable progression of three paragraphs and see how this connection from one cow to the whole world is forged:

The Mishnah relates that the cow of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah would go out on Shabbat with a strap between its horns, contrary to the will of the Sages. The Gemara asks: Did Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah have only one cow? Didn’t Rav say, and some say that Rav Y’hudah said that Rav said: Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah would tithe from his herds 12,000 calves each and every year? There were 120,000 calves born in his herds annually. There is no way, then, to speak of the cow of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah. The Gemara answers: It was taught in the Tosefta: The cow was not his; rather, it was his neighbor’s. And because he did not protest her conduct and tell her that doing so is prohibited the cow was called by his name to his discredit, as if it were his. (BT Shabbat 54b)

Our first teaching, specifically about Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah and the cow, teaches that each of us is responsible for the behaviors of our neighbors. In keeping with the principle of Leviticus that we reprove our neighbors and thereby not incur sin on their behalf (Leviticus 19:17), Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah is held responsible for the Sabbath violation of his neighbor, because he did not intervene and correct her conduct. Specifically, the Sages describe his sin: he did not protest. For failing to speak up when his neighbors violated the law in his presence, his lofty reputation was discredited. This is the first premise of the Talmudic logic that leads to a more global sense of responsibility:

It was related that Rav, and Rabbi Chanina, and Rabbi Yochanan, and Rav Chaviva taught the statement cited below. The Gemara comments: . . . In any event, they said: Anyone who had the capability effectively to protest the sinful conduct of the members of his household and did not protest, he himself is apprehended for the sins of the members of his household and punished. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the people of his town, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the people of his town. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the whole world. (BT Shabbat 54b)

From the injunction making us responsible to protest the actions of our near neighbors, the Talmud’s editors expand the understanding of social responsibility ever wider. Rav, Rabbi Chanina, Rabbi Yochanan, and Rav Chaviva outline concentric circles of our political responsibility: each of us is responsible first for our household, next for our neighbors, then for our townsfolk, and ultimately for every person in the world. They teach that we are as responsible for strangers on the far side of our planet as we are for the livestock of the elderly people who live next door. This expansive principle is next illustrated by an important real-life example:

Rav Pappa said: And the members of the household of the exilarch [the Babylonian Jewish community’s political leader] were apprehended and punished for the sins of the whole world. Because their authority extends across the entire Jewish world, it is in their hands to ensure that nobody commit a transgression. As indicated by that which Rabbi Chanina said: What is the meaning of that which is written: Adonai will enter into judgment with the Elders of the people and its princes, saying [Isaiah 3:14]: It is you who have eaten up the vineyard; the robbery of the poor is in your houses? The question arises: If the princes sinned by committing robbery, what did the Elders, that is, the Sages of that generation, do that was considered a sin? Rather, say: God will enter into judgment with the Elders because they did not protest the sinful conduct of the princes. (BT Shabbat 54b–55a)

Here we see that the exilarch, leader of the Jewish community throughout the Persian Empire, was punished for the misdeeds of the many; furthermore, we see that Rabbi Chanina taught that the Sages themselves should be held to account for failing to protest the sins of the princes, namely the non-Jewish governors and rulers who established the law of the land. Failure to eradicate the sins of society is itself a sin. Speaking truth, whether it be to our neighbors or to people with political power, is our inheritance from the prophets who maintained a formidable position in the Rabbinic era as well. In sum, these three paragraphs are a vivid and powerful affirmation of the responsibility of Jewish leaders to engage in the political world.

From the Torah through the Talmud we see that Judaism has a consistent vision of how a family, a neighborhood, a city, and a nation should behave; Jewish tradition expects us to make that vision a reality. Our English word for this society-regulating activity, courtesy of the Greeks, is “politics.” Why does Judaism care about politics? Because the Torah teaches us that holiness is meant to enter the world through our interactions with others. Because the prophets protested injustice, whether sins in the sanctuary or abuse of power in the political realm. Because the Talmud sets forth an intricate system of law that binds us to our neighbors, whether we seek that societal connection or not. Because, for over three thousand years, our tradition has taught us that every human being is personally responsible for the moral standing of the entire world.


  1. Aristotle, Politics 1.1253a.
  2. Nathan’s chastisement of David is found at II Samuel 12; Elijah’s admonishment of Ahab is detailed in I Kings 21.
  3. Babylonian Talmud, N’darim 28a; Gittin 10b; Bava Kama 113a (three times), 113b (twice); Bava Batra 54b, 55a.
  4. Talmudic translations are from the Koren Talmud Bavli Noé Edition, which prints the literal translation of the Talmud together with the expository illustrations of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz to make fuller sense of its passages.

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice
© 2019 by Reform Jewish Publishing, a division of Central Conference of American Rabbis.
All rights reserved. Used by permission of Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Not to be distributed, sold or copied without express written permission.

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