Yehuda Halper
Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Bar Ilan University

The 21st Century Sadducees

What would be a finer or more just form of government than that which makes God the leader of all and that which entrusts the religious authorities, as a group, with managing the greatest affairs? … For the religious authorities are appointed overseers of all, as well as judges of disputes and punishers of the condemned.

This is how Josephus Flavius describes the Sadducee state of the first century (Against Apion II, para. 21), for which form of government he coined a new term, θεοκρατία, which would later come into English as “theocracy.” As Josephus sees it, God is the hegemon of this regime, but it is administered by the kohanim, or religious authorities. In administering this state, there is no distinction between political leaders, judges, and executioners – all are united and governed not by checks or balances, but by piety.

Two thousand years later, as Israel moves to subjugate the court system to the Knesset, to ensure Knesset supervision over all institutions of the country, to increase the stature of religious courts, and to force direct ministerial oversight over the police and prison system, it is difficult to escape the feeling that we are headed back to the Sadducees. Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir, and the other members of the National Religious party have repeatedly stated that their ultimate goal is to rebuild the Temple and to reinstate the monarchy, a monarchy that controls both Temple and State a la the Sadducee regime of the first century.

Also like the Sadducees, whose king-priests were always accused of disregarding the Torah, they have chosen a leader who does not observe the Jewish Laws they would impose on others; compare the “Strengthening the National Kashrut System” on the National Religious party website with the photos of Netanyahu eating lobster on Friday night in an expensive London restaurant. More significantly, the National Religious representatives adopt Sadducee brutality in bearing a grudge and taking revenge (Cf. Lev. 19:18) against the rest of Israel for the Disengagement from Gaza; consider Ben Gvir’s request that the police fill Ichilov’s emergency room with broken bones and fractured skulls. It is difficult not to recall how after conquering and brutally slaughtering the rulers of Gaza in 96 BCE, king-priest Alexader Jannaeus turned to attack the Pharisees, initiating the 14 year long Judaean civil war.

The rise of this neo-Sadducee movement is shocking. Indeed, six months since it came to power, it has somehow become associated with the mainstream of Jewish, non-Haredi religious thought. I do not know if this is due to the spread of Habad messianism, which idolizes a supreme, all powerful leader, or just a general understanding that the Messiah must involve an unchecked monarchy. As a professor of Jewish thought, I have encountered only few who do not think that Jewish politics, properly understood, is monarchical and one to which checks and balances are an anathema, only able to detract from the holiness of the Law.

Of course, this is not the view we find in Jewish rabbinic sources. The Torah sets out a regime with judges, governing officers (later also a king), an independent prophet, and a family of priests who are dedicated, inter alia, to preserving and interpreting the written Law. None of these different powers was to become subjugated to another and much of the Bible contains accounts of what happens when one authority oversteps into the power of another.

The notion of separation of powers did not die with the rise of the Hasmonean priest-kings, however. Indeed, the rise of the Rabbis is nothing less than the formation of an independent court system. That is, the Rabbis would provide an independent interpretation of the Law, often in contradiction to the Temple practice. Such accounts of friction abound throughout the Talmud. But the first chapter of Mishnah Yoma describes how such interactions could work in harmony. According to that account, the Rabbis accompany the High Priest from long before the ceremony, teaching him the laws of the ceremony, and making him swear to uphold the law of the court. Unlike the priesthood, the Rabbinic court was not determined by birth, but by the ability of its members to make their interpretations of the Law widely accepted. Thus former bandits like Resh Lakish and late-bloomers like Rabbi Aqiba could work their way into high-powered roles. This system is far from democratic, but it assigns clearly separate powers to court and king, even while Sadducee thinkers may have ultimately rejected the legitimacy of such separation.

Without political power, Jewish thinkers over the course of history had little to say about issues like government authority and separation of powers. Still, Rabbinic Judaism always acted as a court system counter to the (non-Jewish) ruling authorities. The dreams of attaining Jewish authority, for the most part, remained dreams and we do not find serious political thought about how to integrate Rabbinical courts into a Jewish governing body at all throughout the Middle Ages.

Indeed it is not until the Renaissance that we find thinkers who start to describe a future Jewish state with separation of powers. Isaac Abravanel was most prominent among these, arguing in places that republican governance, such as that of Venice, Genoa, and Bologna, is far superior to a monarchy. Abravanel advocates for term limits of three months for republican rulers, and reads Deuteronomy 17 to advocate for separate judges and legislators with different jurisdictions. Around the same time, Johanan Alemanno writes an extraordinary accolade for the Republic of Florence, following many Florentines in claiming that in a republic all the citizens are king. He praises the value of private industry in a republic and the support of the republic for the arts and sciences.

Yet it is not until the 16th century that we find the beginnings of the language of modern liberalism, the principles which we now associate with “democracy.” Judah Moscato, Rabbi of Mantua, interprets Psalm 122: 5, “There stand the thrones for judgment, the thrones of the house of David,” to refer to two separate authorities: the court and the executive branch. He develops a Hebrew word for right (ḥoq, in his idiosyncratic language) which he associates with justice (mishpaṭ). Most significantly, he says governance must be done with consent of the governed (ʿim haskamat hamunhagim), a concept I have not seen anywhere earlier.

All this is to say that Rabbinic Judaism is not in itself in conflict with liberal democracy – a point that was obvious to all until quite recently. I am not claiming that Rabbinic Judaism is necessarily liberal or democratic; it is not. Yet, there is a rich and varied history of ideas that is far more complex and interesting than we find advocated from those who would have us return to the state of the first century Sadducees.

About the Author
Yehuda Halper is associate professor in the department of Jewish Philosophy at Bar Ilan University. He directs the Israel Science Foundation, Research Grant: "Samuel Ibn Tibbon's Explanation of Foreign Terms and the Foundations of Philosophy in Hebrew." His 2021 book, Jewish Socratic Questions in an Age without Plato won the Goldstein-Goren book award for best book in Jewish Thought 2019-2021.
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