Theocracy and Perfectionism in Modern Jewish Philosophy

Some of the most important Jewish philosophers of the modern period advocate theocracy as a political ideal. This is surprising. In an age when advancing the premier liberal value of freedom appears to demand separating politics from religious power, why would Jewish thinkers committed to freedom imagine a divine model for political governance? This two-part project explores the surprising centrality of theocracy in modern Jewish political philosophy, and it clarifies the significance of theocracy as a political ideal by analyzing it in the light of the contemporary philosophical debate over political perfectionism. In fact, among the modern Jewish thinkers who adhere to this theocratic tradition, ‘theocracy’ signifies neither the rule of religious elites nor the investing of God-like power into the hands of the sovereign. Rather, theocracy signifies direct divine rule, a form of governance that eschews the coercion that typifies human governance. For these modern Jewish thinkers, pointing to a theocratic model is thus a way to claim that human freedom is best secured in a community unified and oriented by a shared relationship to the divine. The first part of this project investigates accounts of direct divine rule envisioned by modern Jewish philosophers beginning with Spinoza, and extending to such German-Jewish thinkers as M. Mendelssohn, S. Maimon, H. Cohen, and M. Buber, in their respective interpretations of the Biblical account of premonarchic Israelite politics.

The project lays out the range of political positions such thinkers identify with theocracy (e.g., democracy, socialism, anarchy), and the metaphysical views that undergird these political positions. The project’s second part offers an analysis of divine rule as political ideal by bringing the modern Jewish theocratic tradition into conversation with the contemporary debate in political philosophy over perfectionism. It has long been maintained among liberal theorists that the state must remain neutral with regard to what was once the central question of political philosophy – i.e., the question of the good – in order to ensure the freedom of individual citizens. Contemporary perfectionists argue, to the contrary, that the state invariably does make decisions based on conceptions of the good. More importantly, they argue that it both should advocate such valuable conceptions of the good as will aid its citizens in living worthwhile lives, and that it can do so without infringing improperly on the freedom of individual citizens to chart their own paths. The presupposition of this project is that the contemporary debate over perfectionism can shed significant light on the theocratic ideal held up by modern Jewish philosophers, who likewise propose that freedom is not only reconcilable with a comprehensive vision of the good, but that it is best fostered under the auspices of this ideal. How the model of direct divine rule differs from standard perfectionist positions, and what we can learn from such differences, also demands careful investigation. This project offers the first comprehensive account of a vastly understudied tradition of modern Jewish political philosophy. It analyzes that tradition using the tools and categories of contemporary political philosophy in original fashion. Moreover, it offers new models for understanding the relationships between religious discourse and freedom, on the one hand, and between the actual and the ideal in political life, on the other.