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Theocracy & Cooperation through the Ages in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

June 9, 2006 - David Novak

(Watch the conference presentation on video: Theocracy and Pluralism in Judaism)


The word theocracy gets thrown around a great deal, more often than not by people who are convinced that it has a very insidious meaning. "Theocracy" is usually used as a scare word to remind people of the horrors of a society run by clergy. Those who fear a theocracy in Canada or a theocracy in the United States, usually fear somebody imposing his or her religion on everybody else, and claiming absolute political authority for their clergy. That is not what the word "theocracy" originally meant. Theocracy comes from two Greek words, theos and arche, and it means the "rule of God". The term was coined by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, writing around the time of the Jewish war against Rome and the destruction of the Temple, around 66 AD. He used it to characterize the type of polity that the Torah as the revealed Law of God was designed to govern, with God as the sovereign (and not just symbolically like the Queen is the sovereign of Canada) as the immediate source of law by which the society is governed, a law which is totally sufficient to govern all areas of human life and to direct the state nationally and internationally. But Josephus understood quite clearly that this was not the reality of his time certainly, when the Jews were for the most part living under the Roman Empire. He clearly understood, for the most part, that theocracy seems to be more of an ideal than an actual reality. In other words, the complete rule of a society, completely under the direction of revealed law received directly from God, never fully took place in ancient Israel even though it was very much a desdeiratum. But the question remained how theocracy could be implemented.

I mention this in the context of what we are talking about at this conference, because many think that the legitimacy of a secular realm is something that Jews and lots of Christians as well had to accept but really didn't want to accept. But surely, religious Jews and Christians should challenge that opinion. Now what I mean by a "secular" realm is not what many secularists think is a secular realm. For many self proclaimed secularists in our society, a secular realm is one in which the name of God cannot be uttered in public or even alluded to in public. Yet that is not my notion of secular realm. Indeed, if that is what a secular realm is, then I as a traditional Jew could not be part of such a realm in good faith, and I consider myself a part of the realm here in Canada and I consider it something that I do in good faith. So, I need to look for other definitions of what a secular realm is in order to affirm it and contribute to its welfare honestly.

I would define a secular realm to be a polity or system of government that is not directly dependent on any historically revealed law. Thus when one makes public arguments in this kind of society, when one advocates public positions, one cannot do so, or one cannot do so and expect to be listened to, if one says that one should accept this policy because it is written in the Bible or in the Koran, or because it is written in any revealed text. One can, however, argue that certain norms that these revealed texts present are universal. They apply to all people, not just the members of this particular religious community, and that is because the reasons for these laws are evident to rational people. We cannot say that these laws are valid because of divine revelation. The most we can say is that we first learned these laws from a tradition stemming from divine revelation in history. I think if one understands this notion of the secular, then one is not imposing his or her religion on anyone else, and one need not keep his or her commitment to a religious community/religious tradition based on revelation in the closet.

Now, in order to understand how this can be done by a Jew with seriousness and in good faith, with bona fides, one has to look at the fact that already in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the "Old Testament") there is a concession that secularity (as I have just defined it) is necessary, that a certain aspect of the realm, the governing aspect of the realm, is not going to be directly answerable to the specifics of divine law (not answerable to the "jot and tittle of the law", as the phrase goes). The government is going to be answerable to the overall foundations of the law, the basic norms of the law, but it is allowed considerable leeway in terms of directing the affairs of state.

When I refer to affairs of state, I refer to the institution of kingship in ancient Israel. The institution of kingship in ancient Israel comes about when the people say to the retiring leader Samuel, "Give us a king, to judge us [read: to lead us, to make public policies for us] like all the other nations" (1 Samuel 8:5). One sees in biblical discussions about kingship, that there is a certain ambivalence about this institution. On the one hand, it is considered to be something that is a challenge, or a threat, to theocracy, the direct rule of God through revealed law, because it seems to make Israel like all the other nations. But isn't Israel supposed to be different from all the other nations? That ambivalence comes out in the writings of the 15th century Jewish theologian and statesman Don Isaac Abravanel, (who was Minister of Finance to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492, which was the time when all Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain). Abravanel not only knew the Jewish sources extensively, he knew kingship first hand. He argued that the whole concession to kingship, going back to the Torah, where the people of Israel say collectively "I want a king over me like the other nations around me" (Deuteronomy 17:14) was a concession to the evil inclination. The people, at least ideally, should not have wanted this secular realm, they should not have wanted any king but God (see Judges 8:22-23), but it was something they would inevitably want because of their political need to be a part of a larger world, which obviously was not under the governance of their revealed law. This is a concession to human weakness, but nonetheless a necessary concession to human weakness, because the alternative would simply be political dissolution. Here politics had to come before theology. So, therefore, in ancient Israel there was already a notion that the king, and in fact the institution of the monarchy (called the maklhut), in effect, had a biblical warrant, somewhat ambivalently given, to be sure, but nonetheless a biblical warrant for the authority of a secular regime governing the realm. Yet there were checks and balances. The secular government had to balance its power with the institution of the Temple, and its priesthood and, especially, with the Law of God as reiterated by the prophets of Israel. We have a notion, therefore, of a secular realm, of secular leadership, which is under the ultimate authority of God, but not under the direct authority of God's revealed law.

That kind of secularity becomes an extremely important factor when the people of Israel, after the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC, are sent into exile. When the people are sent into exile, they are no longer under the rule of their own secular king, let alone under the rule of the civil and criminal law of the Torah. Have the people totally lost their national/cultural identity? And, indeed, the prophet Ezekiel talks about the exiled people coming to him and saying: "We will be like the nations, like the families, of all the other lands, to serve wood and stone" (Ezekiel 20:32). In other words, had not their political independence and identity been lost, but also their religious independence and identity? That is what the people are proposing. Could Judaism survive as the religious culture of the Jewish people in Babylonian exile? Seated by the waters of Babylon, the people ask: "How can we sing the Lord's song on strange ground?"(Psalms 137:4).

When we look at how the prophet Ezekiel and the prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 29:4-7) dealt with the people going into exile, an important distinction is made: there are some regimes Israel can live under in good faith, and there are some they cannot live under in good faith. They can live under political rule that does not claim to be divine, but they cannot live under the rule of a non-Jewish regime that demands their ultimate commitment to its gods or god. When one makes that type of a distinction, and later Jewish thinkers developed this notion, then living under the gentile kings whose authority was similar enough to the secular authority of the kings of Israel could be justified, provided that they met two conditions: (1) This non-Jewish regime must not require the religious loyalty of the Jewish people, that is, it ought not make ultimate demands upon the people of Israel. This is what we call today religious liberty today. (2) This non-Jewish regime clearly had to be a regime that was governed by what the Jews could recognize as due process of law, and be governed by norms that were considered to be not simply the invention of the regime, but somehow or other, the natural law or the more general law of God, something the Jews could recognize to be similar enough to what their own tradition regarded as universally binding. This notion of the importance of the binding of universal law becomes clear when the prophets of Israel, for example Amos (see Amos 1: 9-12), criticized some of the gentile nations for their treachery to one another and for their cruelty, clearly not following the law that they should have known. So one has these two kinds of conditions.

From the biblical material comes an important divide. The Jewish people can be loyal to the king of Babylon, but they cannot be loyal to the Egyptian Pharaoh in Egypt. Why? Because Pharaoh proclaims himself to be a god, proclaims himself to be the creator god (see Ezekiel 29: 1-6). Because Pharaoh proclaims himself to be the creator god, to be under his political rule is to be under his total theocratic (in the bad sense of the word) domination. This is something that simply cannot be done by Jews in good faith. On the other hand, if we fast-forward historically to around the time of the beginning of the common era, the time of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple, Jews were living under Roman rule in the land of Israel (then called "Palestine"), and they were living under the Persian or Parthian empire, in what is now the area of the land of Iran and Iraq. Interestingly enough, Jews had a much greater loyalty to the Parthian empire than they did to the Roman empire. Why? Because in the land of Israel, in Roman Palestine, they were living under military rule, rather than living under the due process of law. They were not being governed either by the civil law of Rome or the ius gentium, the law that the Romans used for other nations that had long been living under their rule. If you read the Gospel of John, the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, you can see that Pontius Pilate is clearly making up the rules as he goes along (see John 18:28-40). As such, there could be no loyalty to this regime because it was not governed by due process of law, plus it discriminated against the Jews. Furthermore, in the Talmud, the Roman empire is considered to be riddled with idolatry, undoubtedly because of the notions of apotheosis, the notion that the emperors became gods. In the Persian empire there were also idols and other gods, but the Persians were not requiring Jews to worship their gods. Indeed, the rabbis even suggested that the idolatry of the Persian empire was some kind of a cultural vestige, that they were monotheists who were simply hanging on to certain forms of worship that they really no longer believed in.

The authority of the Babylonian government could be respected because it was based on what the Jews considered to be universally binding law, not on human invention. So, in Babylonia in the 4th century AD, the great Jewish statesman and jurist, Mar Samuel of Nehardea, enunciated a principle called dina de-malkhuta dina, basically "the law of the state as a secular entity is binding on Jews in areas of civil and criminal jurisdiction". There is a long, long history of how this was worked out. The interesting thing was that in the Talmud, Mar Samuel did not give a reason for this very important principle. But later scholars attempted to find a reason. They argued that (and this is extremely important to remember), the principle said "the law of the kingdom or the law of the state is law". It is not the law of any individual king. It is the law of kingship or of the state, a legal system. In other words, if Jews are living under a realm where the law is made up as those in power go along, clearly it is not something which is morally binding upon Jews—or upon anyone else. But when Jews are living in a society where there is due process of law, where there is a system of law, and the system considers itself to be ultimately based upon what our Canadian Charter calls the sovereignty of God and the rule of Law (which I think are phrases in apposition: the sovereignty of God is the rule of God's law), then Jews are able to give their loyalty, and work for, and pray for, and be part of, in good faith, that secular regime. That is, a regime governed according to due process of law, which recognizes fundamental moral principles as being not of its own making and therefore cannot be unmade as it were; and this secular regime does not claim an ultimate commitment from any of its citizens, not just the Jews, but upon any of its citizens.

I think, therefore, that the notions of how a theocratic system can make room for the legitimacy of a secular realm, in which those who consider themselves under the rule of divinely revealed law can participate in good faith, is a very important contribution to the well-being of that secular realm. It is much more than mere separation of the institutions of church and state. That means two things: (1) Jews bring to the secular regime a morality already formulated and practiced, which they have been living according to and to which they can be held accountable. Therefore, their commitments are something that there is good reason to believe will be kept, and if they are not kept, then Jews are answerable not just to the secular realm but, even more importantly, they are answerable to their own law and their own God. (2) Jews and members of other religions of revelation owe their ultimate commitment elsewhere (see Esther 4:14). As such, they are able to limit the power of a secular regime when there is a temptation for the secular regime to claim ultimate or metaphysical authority for itself. That is one of the most important points we have to understand: we contribute to the realm, and we can contribute to it by limiting its pretensions if one understands a secular regime as being, optimally, a democratic polity, as we have here in Canada, then the greatest danger to that polity is not that religious groups are going to impose their particular morality on the society, but rather that those who have no higher address so to speak, are going to do what the ancient Roman emperors did, and that is to divine the state, and especially the persons of its highest authorities. When, for example, the American legal theorist Ronald Dworkin, whose work is extremely influential and for the most part quite helpful, when in his most important book, Law's Kingdom, he refers to judges as "princes of the law", I want to know if they are princes, who is the king, and in the true sense, who is the King. Therefore, what one sees when his or her ultimate loyalties lie elsewhere one is not just asking for separation, but the opportunity to truly contribute to the welfare of the state. Thus people like you and I are not a threat to the state, but we are actually great contributors to the state, both by bringing to it our well-formulated, well-honed morality, and also by limiting the pretensions of those who would turn a secular regime into, in affect, a substitute god. For me anyway that would be the most undemocratic possibility that one could possibly entertain. This I think is the contribution of the Jewish tradition, and I think that it is one that is totally made in good faith. It is one which is consistent with the teachings of the Jewish tradition and one that I would like to think will become better known, not only to those who are here, but to others in our society as well.

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Originally Published

date: June 9, 2006
publisher: Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal