Torah can rule the world, says philosopher Yoram

Doreen Wachmann talks to an academic par excellence who used to advise Netanyahu

CHIEF Rabbi Lord Sacks said in Manchester last week that the mark of a good Jew is that he has the "courage to be different", to swim against the tide of public opinion.

Which makes scholar Dr Yoram Hazony, with whom the Chief recently publicly debated philosophy, a Jew par excellence.

Having helped Benjamin Netanyahu write his books when he was Leader of the Opposition and having written Jerusalem Post editorials, Yoram decided there was something rotten in the state of Israeli academia and he set up the Shalem Centre to counteract the pernicious trend.

He told me: "When I founded the Shalem Centre in 1994, Israel was very shallow in terms of ideas. Universities tend to be monochromatic in their views.

"The big issue in those days was the way Zionism was presented academically in universities.

"Academics were questioning whether it was legitimate for Israel to be a Jewish state. There was a systematic critique and assault on the concept of a Jewish state by many leading intellectuals. Their theory was that Zionism was racism.

"They were questioning the Law of Return which grants citizenship to Jews and the Jewish symbol on Israeli flags. In the 1990s these were big issues.

"Leading citizens of political and cultural institutions didn't believe their country was justified. Israel's educational system was moving very sharply in the direction of implicitly or explicitly suggesting that Israel as a Jewish state was not just and that we had to move away from that."

Yarom made waves, particularly with the publication of his first book, The Jewish State - The Struggle for Israel's Soul, which triggered Knesset debates about the educational system.

Yarom feels he made a difference but that the problem still exists.

He told me: "My children go to religious school and study out of a civics text book which opens by talking about the illegitimacy of a nation state because it creates civil wars and bloodshed everywhere in the world.

"They don't know that there's an established Church in England where this does not happen. They think that the only legitimate form of democracy is a state of all its citizens on the French revolutionary model.

"They want to force everyone to be identical and forbid any association between the religious and particularistic elements of the people and the nation.

"They want a separation between Judaism and the State of Israel and to get rid of the Law of Return." He described this type of thinking as "self-hating and intellectually dishonest".

The Shalem Centre is an academic research institute in the fields of history, philosophy, political theory and economics and runs its own publishing house.

Now, with the publication of his latest book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Yoram has set his sights globally and is flying in the face of centuries of academic teaching by affording a central place in the study of philosophy to the Hebrew Bible.

Ironically, it was not at the two top American universities that Yoram attended that he was inspired to study philosophy but at an Israeli yeshiva.

Born in Rehovot, Yoram moved at the tender age of one to Princeton, New Jersey, where his father was lecturing in computers during the computer boom.

Yoram said: "My father always told me that his younger brother in Israel was more religious than him. He used to say, we don't keep everything but the right way to live is the way your uncle lives.

"When I was 18 I went to Israel for a year and fell in love with my uncle and his wife and children in Elon Moreh and I decided to become more observant.

"When I went back to college in Princeton, I became part of a Jewish revival that was taking place in the university. Jewish students were becoming observant and moving to Israel. That's what I did."

In Princeton, Yoram was not interested in philosophy and did not take any courses in religion or politics.

He said: "I grew up in the house of a physicist and was interested in physics. I ended up majoring in Japanese because I had the idea that I was going to move to Israel and wanted to contribute something to the country.

"I had the idea that I would become a businessman. At that time people thought Japan would be the other leading world power.

"I studied Japanese and translated a novella from Japanese for my thesis."

Then, after graduation, Yoram went for a summer to Shapells Darchei Noam Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

He said: "I was sitting at a Shabbat table at the home of a rabbi and I was speaking at length quite bombastically about the various ideas that I had about the way Israel's constitution should be organised.

"The rabbi - dressed in black - who had never been to university mentioned John Rawls, the most famous political theorist of the last half of the 20th century. I had never heard of him.

"He said, 'You have graduated from Princeton and you don't know who John Rawls is? You're a complete ignoramus.'

"He went to his bookshelf and pulled out Rawls and his critics and Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy.

He told me to go and read them and come back to talk to him about them.

"No one in university ever told me about philosophy, only in yeshiva. That fall, they were fascinating reading. They were about the things I cared about. In graduate school at Rutgers, I studied political philosophy."

During his wide-ranging philosophical studies, Yoram discovered that "T'nach and Jewish sources were strangely absent".

He said: "I was learning Plato, Aristotle and Cicero and Augustine. Their subject matter sounded to me over and over again like the same things we had discussed in T'nach, but nobody mentioned that.

"The Greeks, Romans, Christianity, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes. Locke and Rousseau all thought the Old Testament was very important to political ideas.

"They talk about the Old Testament all the time. There are even Hebrew words in Hebrew letters in Locke.

"But my course did not include any Jewish texts. The course treats all references to the Bible in these books as irrelevant, of no importance in the history of western thought. That was the way the professors were trained."

In his book, Yoram attributed this marginalisation of Jewish philosophical concepts to German Christian antisemitism.

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture sets the matter right by showing how profound psychological study of the Hebrew Bible can provide political lessons for all time and countries.

Yoram says: "The T'nach struggles with the kinds of issues raised when running a nation. It is very useful for nourishing the public life of a Jewish state, but not less important for nourishing and guiding the public life of a Christian state."

Pointing to the political theory of the books of Judges, Samuel and Kings, Yoram asks: "Why do we need a state? Most states in the Bible were evil. But in the book of Judges the experiment in anarchy did not work even though God really likes the idea of freedom.

"But the people were not good enough for that. The result was they became corrupt, they had civil wars, they killed one another and were too weak to defend themselves against foreign invaders.

"They descended morally and became more and more depraved until they became like Sodom."

He continues: "The king was supposed to make peace at home and defend the people against their enemies. But God does not really like this because all kings are basically thieves.

"They see no limits to their power so they enslave and oppress their people and any other people they can get their hands on."

Yoram asks: "Is there any way that kingship, human government can be restrained so it's not just evil?"

The answer is the law of the king in the Deuteronomy. The king had to read the Torah every day, make a copy of it and carry it around with him "so that his thoughts are not lifted up above his brothers".

Yoram said: "The Torah is supposed to keep the mind of the king focused on the good of his people. All these laws that restrict the king, that he should not build too big armies, build harems with all these women, shouldn't amass large quantities of wealth, are trying to prevent the king from becoming the enslaver and oppressor of his people."

The king today represents any form of government.

He explains: "Even in a democracy you have the possibility of creating a regime of taxation and service that is so heavy that the people suffer. It is possible for a modern state to create laws through democratic means that leave the people oppressed."

So after last year's Israeli protests against his old friend Bibi Netanyahu's Israeli economic policies, has Yoram resumed his role of advising the current Israeli PM?

No. Yoram does not feel that his role at the moment is to approach world leaders but that he should continue writing in the hope that they will heed his words.

They could do far worse!

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph