Religious Texts as Political Documents

Happy Rosh Hashanah. A couple of posts back, I suggested that professor Shalom Goldman’s interpretation of the Torah in a political sense “is more reflective of the modern flexibility in interpreting Jewish and Christian testaments that does not yet extend–for various and sundry reasons–to the Quran.” Yesterday, Jill Jacobs had a post making her own argument that “The Torah is political, rabbis can be too.”

The Torah is political because it lays out a vision for a just civil society. It is political because it forms the basis for a social contract. It is political because it concerns itself with relations among human beings as much as with relations between human beings and God. It is political because a liberation struggle stands at its core. It is political because it demands that those with more wealth take responsibility for those with less. It is political because it forbids those with more power from taking advantage of those with less. And it is political because it is a document meant to be lived….

Rabbis must bring the thousands of years of accumulated Jewish wisdom to bear on these issues. This is what it means to be a religious leader. A religious leader does not stick to “safe” topics like Jewish unity and ritual practice (though these have their place, too). A religious leader takes ethical stands on the hard issues of the moment — and does so with integrity, with a strong basis in his or her religious tradition, and out of love and a passion for creating a more just world.

I certainly will not deny that there are political accounts and political principles in the Torah, the Old Testament more generally, or even the New Testament. Moses wasn’t just codifying a religion, he was creating the laws for a new nation. Solomon’s proverbs of wisdom often suggested how a king ought to behave. Even Paul had advice about how believers were to regard the ruler and the legal system.

But the fact that these texts make political points does not mean that there is only one political position justifiable under their terms (and Jacobs certainly acknowledges this). Furthermore, while Jacobs is arguing that religious people ought to be able to explain their views to one another in terms of their religious sacred texts, this will not hold in a pluralistic society. If I make the argument that, say, traffic lights are bad and give my reason as “because the Bible tells me so,” this: a) gives you almost no information about what the Bible actually says; b) does not connect the Biblical text to my own view in a coherent way; c) does not explain why others who hold the Bible in the same esteem as myself do not feel the same way with regard to traffic lights; d) does not persuade those with different views of the Bible to advocate my traffic light position. In sum, at best it can persuade those who already agree with me about the Bible to agree with me about traffic lights. This is an important element of rhetoric–connecting with the audience in some way to get them to agree with you on something else.* However, do we really want religious leaders trying to get their parishioners to agree with them politically?

Evidence suggests that the answer is no:

In 1991, about 30 percent of Americans strongly agreed that religious leaders should avoid political involvement; by 2008, 44 percent felt that way.

Rosh Hashanah, or any religious holiday, should be time for unity in a community (sorry for the nursery rhyme), not for advocating political division.


* I leave aside here the argument from Rawlsian liberalism in a pluralistic society, which recommends that we find ways to justify our political views in terms of “public reason” without referring to “comprehensive doctrines,” aka, religions.


Institutions and Behavior

The Duke Political Science Department is not organized around the traditional disciplinary subfields of comparative, international relations, and American. While we do retain political theory, political economy, and political methodology, the three research areas above are re-arranged (with varying levels of correspondence) into security, peace, and conflict studies; political institutions; and political behavior. This has been a positive transformation both for the department and for myself as a new student, but I have had the lingering question, “isn’t it all about behavior?” (And I don’t mean this as a subfield chauvinist–my first field is SPC and the second is methods–but it may reflect my guidance by professors at my previous university.)

Last night in class with Guillermo Trejo we came one step closer to solving this conundrum. We put forth the tentative definition of an institution as “an actor who codifies constraints upon his/her/its own behavior.” This could apply to a state’s constitution, a subnational group’s manifesto, or the UN charter. It may need further refinement to avoid overgeneralization, but for now it seems helpful.

Today I came across this example, which helps point to the role of narrative, theology, and hermeneutics in defining religious institutions:

Goldman grew up in New York City as an orthodox Jew for whom religion was a central focal point of everyday life. He saw religion as a communal force and a public issue, and he has spent a career following those principles.

He teaches through tales. In his courses, he uses the great stories of the Bible and the Quran to illustrate the ways and beliefs of Christians, Jews and Muslims. His master’s thesis compared the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as it appears in the Quran and the Hebrew Bible.

(The Hebrew version is more about power and international relations, Goldman reports. The Quran presents a more strictly religious version of events.)

A religion’s stories — like Moses, and the Garden of Eden — are good teaching tools because they’re well-told and compelling, and thus, broadly influential, Goldman says.

“These texts govern behavior for many people,” he says. “So the way these stories are told influences behavior.

I will leave it to readers to reflect upon and argue for or against any of the points I’m making here (either the definition of an institution as self-restrained behavior, or the role of religious rhetoric in defining its own institutions). It does seem to me, however, that Goldman’s interpretation of the Hebrew account of Solomon and Sheba as political and the Quranic account as religious is more reflective of the modern flexibility in interpreting Jewish and Christian testaments that does not yet extend–for various and sundry reasons–to the Quran. For more on this point, see the poorly-titled writings of Ibn Warraq.