Alexander Branover

The Bottom-Up Principle in Judaism

The Torah outlines the bottom-up principle in developing the Jewish society with special focus on the individual and family as a nucleus for communal development.

“You shall be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy” (Vayikra, Book of Leviticus 19 v. 1), is the commandment that introduces the whole scope of ethical and ritual observances of Jewish life. The encompassing system of mitzvot or commandments defines the life and behavior of the Jewish individual daily. The Talmud tells us that there are 613 commandments (including Mishpatim, Edot and Chukim), regulating all possible aspects of the human life ranging from the individual behavior to relations with other people or communal participation. Families, next step in the hierarchy of the human individuals, is a matter of special attention by the commandments overseeing the marriage and childbirth relations. The Hebrew word for Jewish marriage (Kiddushin) means “holiness or sanctification”.  Not only is the relationship of marital commitment itself seen as holy, but the family as the central institution and focus of Jewish life, is the key to the realization of the people’s reason for existing, to be “a holy nation”.  The Genesis story itself presents the central significance of the family in the ethical purpose of the whole universe. This narrative establishes the family as a communal unit.

Families in their turn constitute community. As basic and essential building blocks of communities, families have a crucial role in social development. They instill values of the belonging to the community. Jewish populace of the settlements, towns, states, or countries combines and organizes multiple communities together. There are few laws morale-guarding the society, state, or the kingdom (mostly detailed in the Deuteronomy Book of Torah) yet there are multiple commandments, midrashim, laws, and behavioral codifications regulating the individual, family, or communal life of the Jewish person. It is accurate to depict a trend in a gradual decrease of the number of laws or commandments applied to larger, multi-individual group, as Figure 1 suggests.

Fig. 1 Trend in the Laws applicability from the individual to larger groups

This bottom-up principle embedded in building the thriving Jewish community is fundamentally different from the top-down approaches predominant in other societies. Typical societies operate based on the policies instantiated or legislated at a higher level and propagated down in a hierarchical manner. Eventually these policies reach the individuals or groups of individuals, in a direct or transformed way. Individuals follow or obey by these rules or laws to maximize the reward-cost ratio, where the cost could include penalties imposed by the state or by the society. Higher authority (state, town, community organization) has indisputable role in establishing the modus operandi of the individual. This is not to say that the set of rules constituting the Noahide codex is foreign to such societies. Individual adapts and follows the Noahide codex, yet this set of rules is deemed insufficient for sustained bottom-up communal building. Noahide codex acts more like a complement to the top-down propagated legislative stream of laws and rules, to establish well-functioning society.

Thirty-four centuries of the Jewish civilization are based on the fostering bottom-up approach where the commandments, laws pertinent to the individual behavior are the fundamental step to effective communal building. For more than four hundred years, following the conquest of the Land of Israel, Jewish tribes lived with no central government, with Judges selected based on the respect of the people, in a loose confederation of tribes. Judges were able to exercise legislation and had the influence strong enough to keep the Jews on the right path. The corrective action was more complementary to the otherwise strong self-sustained bottom-up society. The inception of the Jewish Kingdoms (around 1000BCE) brought about a mix of the top-down legislative stream with the bottom-up foundation. In the first and second exiles Jewish society was a subject of foreign rulers and incurred a strongly dominant top-down stream of the laws and legislation. But even in times of total suppression, strong bottom-up foundation has sustained the lives of Jewish individuals, families, and communities, overcoming a top-down stream.

Game theory can help in elucidating a conceptual difference between top-down and bottom-up societies. Specifically, a prisoner’s dilemma game (Rutherford, 2021) offers better insight in the efficient and optimal communal organization and how societies built on a different principle leverages it.  A prisoner’s dilemma describes a situation where isolated individuals acting selfishly result in a suboptimal choice. Establishing a central coordination entity that could have communicated right set of actions or advice to every individual or communal unit, would help to turn an overall outcome optimal for all of them. Top-down societies rightfully assume that with higher authority overseeing everyone’s life and scope of operation with right set of actions, would achieve an optimal outcome for entire community. The mathematics of the prisoner’s dilemma unambiguously confirms this.

Table 1 shows that the only scenario where individuals A and B as well as entire community benefit is when individuals are adherent to the type of Behavior X. Any other type of behavior would lead to sub-optimal Communal outcome due to disadvantageous outcome for one of the individuals. In the top-down society the top-down system of rules or legislation accomplishes an optimal communal outcome by imposing the type of Behavior X on both Individuals A and B. If every individual acts on its own, without top-down legislation, this is likely to result in one of three sub-optimal outcomes indicated as Bad communal outcome in the Table 1.

In the society operating on top-down principle it takes a higher hierarchical authority legislative action propagated down to achieve an optimal outcome. In the society built upon the bottom-up principle the comprehensive set of commandments and rules applicable to every individual ensures optimal outcome. This set of commandments has also descended from the top as the revelation on Mount Sinai with one key difference – it was given directly to every individual being “kingdom of princes and a holy nation” (Book of Exodus 19, v. 6), as opposite to the top-down directives reaching individuals after making way through hierarchies of the typical top-down society.  Every individual in the bottom-up society is upbrought and trained to the type of behavior he/she needs to abide by, since this is an inherent part of the commandment based behavioral codification. And this guarantees the most optimal communal or societal outcomes.

Bottom-up Jewish community reaches an optimal outcome not by the top-down magic or authority but by making every individual adhere to and strictly following the same set of rules. Rather than for individuals to be on a recipient end of the top-down hierarchically communicated law or wisdom, individuals in the bottom-up communities know that the set of rules, commandments, and laws he/she follows, is a guarantee for the better outcome. And if all other members of the bottom-up community follow the same set of rules, this predetermines an optimal outcome on individual, communal, or higher levels. This is important to notice that the logical reasoning between the process of following the set of commandments and rules and an optimal outcome for a higher level of human or societal hierarchy, is not always in the realm of human active or practical intellect (Maimonides). The outcome lies in the realm that is invisible to the human beings armed with the practical intellect and operating with reasoning within its realms. Optimal communal and societal outcome lays in the realm of needing to follow commandments as a fundamental edifice of Judaism.

Fig 2 Principle of the Top-down society

Figure 2 formalizes the view of the society built on the top-down principle. The stream of laws, rules, and regulations flow down, eventually reaching the individual level. The system of Noahide laws complements the top-down streams of law but is not sufficient on its own for the society striving to the sustainable optimal outcomes on every level.

Fig. 3 Principle of the Bottoms-Up Society

The bottom-up principle of the society (Figure 3) suggests the complete system of the commandments and rules applicable to every individual on the lowest level of the hierarchy. This foundation sets up a process, securing optimal outcomes for all the higher levels of societal hierarchy. The commandments and rules acting at higher levels of societal hierarchy are complementary to this bottom-up foundation and serve corrective actions due to human nature of the individuals embracing a full set of commandments. Also rules or decrees inherent for military or policy organization typically originate from higher hierarchies even in such strongly bottom-up society as a confederation of tribes in the times of Judges.  The Figure 3 depicts an asymptotic view of the society built on the bottom-up principle. While this is what we aspire to, there are laws and commandments applicable and operating at larger groups (as Figure 1 suggests). The reason the laws and commandments applicable to larger groups (society, state, kingdom) are relevant in the strict bottom-up community is in the human nature of the individuals that requires corrective actions at a higher level of hierarchy. The laws operating at higher hierarchical levels are therefore complementary to the otherwise strict and encompassing system of individual commandments that dominate the bottom-up society.

The halachic trend associated with a gradual decrease in the number of commandments and laws applied to larger group, favors the viable society built on the bottom-up principle.  Corrective top-down laws, instantiated at higher hierarchical levels, complement the predominantly bottom-up buildup by coping with imperfect human nature and aiding with top-down functions essential for bottom-up society even on a temporary basis. The bottom-up principle reflects a genuine democratization in the societal organization that the universal development strives for.


  • Book of Exodus 19, v. 6.
  • Maimonides. Guide for the Perplexed .
  • Vayikra, Book of Leviticus 19 v. 1
About the Author
Alex Branover is a father of two, residing just outside Boston, MA. Professionally, he serves as a Senior Fellow at AMD (Advanced Micro Devices). Alex holds a Master's degree in Computer Engineering from the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion). Beyond his professional endeavors, Alex is a co-founder of the Torah Lovers Club of Greater Boston, dedicated to promoting Jewish education and thought within the community. He contributes blogs and columns to the online editions of the Times of Israel and IsraelHayom. In his leisure time, Alex is an avid skier.
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