The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy


Theocracy Versus Judaism: How the Jews of Israel Have Been Deceived and Disempowered (II)

Filed under: Democratic MethodsJudaism — eidelberg @ 6:38 am

Part two of a series. View Part one.

A. Neither God Nor the People Rule Israel

If “theocracy” signifies a regime ruled by a church or by priests, Judaism is not theocratic. There is no church in Judaism, neither theologically, since there is no mediation between God and the individual Jew, nor institutionally, since there is no ecclesiastical hierarchy.

In Judaism no priesthood but only publicly tested scholarship can lay claim to any validity regarding the laws of the Torah. This means that the Torah belongs to every Jew, whether he is a Kohane, Levite, or Israelite. A word about this classification of Jews may be helpful.

Although the Kohanim, Levites, and Israelites comprise hereditary “classes,” they are not closed. The daughter of an Israelite or Levite may marry a Kohane and her children will be Kohanim, since “class” status is patrilineal.

Even though Kohanim have distinct duties and privileges, there is no separation of “classes.” Exodus 19:6 states: “you shall be a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation to Me,” which signifies that the exclusive distinction of Aaron’s descendants as Kohanim is not permanent. In the future, all of Israel will be raised to the level of Kohanim—a nation of educators and noblemen, a universal aristocracy. Israel, today, is far below that level of excellence.

Be this as it may, the Torah limits the authority of the Kohanim to the Temple. Apart from any personal merit they may have, the Kohanim have no power in society at large, none that sets them above other Jews. Let us elaborate on this matter with the help of Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh, one of Europe’s most learned nineteenth-century scholars.

Referring to the Kohanim, Rabbi Bernamozegh points out that “we should not lose sight of the fact that the priestly functions themselves were performed by a sort of delegation of authority from the firstborn of each family,” and that layman, chosen by roster to represent the entire people, participated in the regular or special Temple sacrifices. He then raises a basic question:

Was the instruction of laymen one of the priest’s duties, as a number of texts seem to suggest? Certain distinctions are necessary here. In the first place, we know that the study of the Law is incumbent upon every Israelite as one of his chief obligations, and the father is commanded to instruct his children, and the Bible reminds us on nearly every page. Moreover, there were always sages and scholars in Israel … The Prophets themselves were sages of the Law … What teaching function, then, was there for the priests to perform, and how should we understand those biblical passages which seem to attribute such official function to them?

It is not religious instruction in general which the priests were assigned but rather a particular branch, dealing with worship, religious rites, the distinction between pure and impure, between holy and profane, laws of diet … It is quite possible, to be sure, that the Levites were more able, indeed, were more inclined than Israelites of the other tribes, to study the Law. Free of the obligation to provide for their own subsistence, they had more leisure than the others. Care of the Torah was their special responsibility, and religious duties formed their regular occupation.…Yet their rank brought them no legal privilege … let alone any monopoly, even de facto, for such privileges would have been precluded by the categorical duty to study the Law to which every Israelite was subject. We have in fact numerous examples of ordinary individuals, and even entire tribes, who received notice for their thorough knowledge of the national literature and religion: the tribes of Judah, Manasseh, Zebulon, and Issachar. The only part of the Torah in which priests received special legal authority was the Levitical legislation, represented in the Pentateuch by a special book (Leviticus) and called from the earliest times Torat Kohanim, or Priestly Law.

What role did the priest play in exercising the supreme power of national public office? Deuteronomy 17:9 speaks of priests and judges in a general way and wholly confirms the rabbinical tradition on this subject. It describes the precise role the priesthood should play in the Sanhedrin, the highest political body, declaring that priests, Levites, and ordinary Israelites should all be represented…

In this sketch of the Jewish priest [Benamozegh concludes] we thus find nothing at all to justify the accusation that ancient Israel was a theocracy.[1]

(To be continued in Part Three, Section B.)

[1] Elijah Benamozegh, Israel and Humanity (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), pp. (283-285). All further references to this book in subsequent parts of this article will appear between parentheses in the text.