The revelation at Mount Sinai – the central episode not only of the parshah of Yitro, but of Judaism as a whole – was unique in the religious history of mankind. Other faiths (Christianity and Islam) have claimed to be religions of revelation, but in both cases the revelation of which they spoke was to an individual (“the son of G-d”, “the prophet of G-d”). Only in Judaism was G-d’s self-disclosure not to an individual (a prophet) or a group (the elders) but to an entire nation, young and old, men, women and children, the righteous and not yet righteous alike.
From the very outset, the people of Israel knew something unprecedented had happened at Sinai. As Moses put it, forty years later:
Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day G-d created man on earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of G-d speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? (Deut. 4: 32-33).
For the great Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, the significance was primarily epistemological. It created certainty and removed doubt. The authenticity of a revelation experienced by one person could be questioned. One witnessed by millions could not. G-d disclosed His presence in public to remove any possible suspicion that the presence felt, and the voice heard, were not genuine.
Looking however at the history of mankind since those days, it is clear that there was another significance also – one that had to do not with religious knowledge but with politics. At Sinai a new kind of nation was being formed and a new kind of society – one that would be an antithesis of Egypt in which the few had power and the many were enslaved. At Sinai, the children of Israel ceased to be a group of individuals and became, for the first time, a body politic: a nation of citizens under the sovereignty of G-d whose written constitution was the Torah and whose mission was to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Even today, standard works on the history of political thought trace it back, through Marx, Rousseau and Hobbes to Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics and the Greek city state (Athens in particular) of the fourth century BCE. This is a serious error. To be sure, words like “democracy” (rule by the people) are Greek in origin. The Greeks were gifted at abstract nouns and systematic thought. However, if we look at the “birth of the modern” – at figures like Milton, Hobbes and Locke in England, and the founding fathers of America – the book with which they were in dialogue was not Plato or Aristotle but the Hebrew Bible. Hobbes quotes it 657 times in The Leviathan alone. Long before the Greek philosophers, and far more profoundly, at Mount Sinai the concept of a free society was born.
Three things about that moment were to prove crucial. The first is that long before Israel entered the land and acquired their own system of government (first by judges, later by kings), they had entered into an overarching covenant with G-d. That covenant (brit Sinai) set moral limits to the exercise of power. The code we call Torah established for the first time the primacy of right over might. Any king who behaved contrarily to Torah was acting ultra vires, and could be challenged. This is the single most important fact about biblical politics.
Democracy on the Greek model always had one fatal weakness. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill called it “the tyranny of the majority”. J. L. Talmon called it “totalitarian democracy.” The rule of the majority contains no guarantee of the rights of minorities. As Lord Acton rightly noted, it was this that led to the downfall of Athens: “There was no law superior to that of the state. The lawgiver was above the law.” In Judaism, by contrast, prophets were mandated to challenge the authority of the king if he acted against the terms of the Torah. Individuals were empowered to disobey illegal or immoral orders. For this alone, the covenant at Sinai deserves to be seen as the single greatest step in the long road to a free society.
The second key element lies in the prologue to the covenant. G-d tells Moses: “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and tell the people of Israel. ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now, if you obey Me fully and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession, for the whole earth is Mine. You will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation . . .’” Moses tells this to the people, who reply: “We will do everything the Lord has said.”
What is the significance of this exchange? It means that until the people had signified their consent, the revelation could not proceed. There is no legitimate government without the consent of the governed, even if the governor is Creator of heaven and earth. I know of few more radical ideas anywhere. To be sure, there were sages in the Talmudic period who questioned whether the acceptance of the covenant at Sinai was completely free. However, at the heart of Judaism is the idea – way ahead of its time, and not always fully realised – that the free G-d desires the free worship of free human beings. G-d, said the rabbis, does not act tyrannically with His creatures.
The third, equally ahead of its time, was that the partners to the covenant were to be “all the people” – men, women and children. This fact is emphasised later on in the Torah in the mitzvah of Hakhel, the septennial covenant renewal ceremony. The Torah states specifically that the entire people is to be gathered together for this ceremony, “men, women and children.” A thousand years later, when Athens experimented with democracy, only a limited section of society had political rights. Women, children, slaves and foreigners were excluded. In Britain, women did not get the vote until the twentieth century. According to the sages, when G-d was about to give the Torah at Sinai, He told Moses to consult first with the women and only then with the men (“thus shall you say to the house of Jacob” – this means, the women ). The Torah, Israel’s “constitution of liberty”, includes everyone. It is the first moment, by thousands of years, that citizenship is conceived as being universal.
There is much else to be said about the political theory of the Torah (see my The Politics of Hope, The Dignity of Difference, and The Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah as well as the important works by Daniel Elazar and Michael Walzer). But one thing is clear. With the revelation at Sinai something unprecedented entered the human horizon. It would take centuries, millennia, before its full implications were understood. Abraham Lincoln said it best when he spoke of “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” At Sinai, the politics of freedom was born.
Faith in the Community
In my lifetime political authority has rarely seemed more tenuous than it does now. The leaders of the major parties face internal divisions. Survey after survey reveals disenchantment with politicians of all shades. Newspaper columns are filled with meditations on the nature of the elusive quality of leadership. And if one message has sounded more loudly than any other, it is the call for a political vision, domestic or international, that would lend coherence to what otherwise seems destined to be a troubled and confusing decade.
I sense among the young people I meet in schools and youth groups something I have not met with before: cynicism and an absence of hope, as if, every political alternative having been tried and failed, an expectation of things getting better is bound to be disappointed.
Beneath this disillusionment is a specific and seemingly unanswerable dilemma. The 1980’s were the decade in which we lost faith in the state as the vehicle of salvation. Neither socialism nor communism delivered what they had promised. Collectivist economies inhibited growth, which alone could pay for the services provided by the State.
There was an alternative, and it captured imaginations not only in Britain and America but even, dramatically, in the erstwhile Soviet Union precipitating collapse. What we could not achieve collectively as states we could achieve privately as individuals. The State would withdraw, leaving private initiative and the free market to produce and distribute goods. Most people would benefit from greater wealth and the freedom to spend it as they choose.
For a time this was a compelling image. But the 1990’s have been marked by a growing sense of its shortcomings. Major social ills continue unabated. Crime figures still rise. Our expectations of health and welfare services outgrow our ability to fund them. The inner cities still fester. There are persistent, even growing sectors of under-privilege and disadvantage. And despite the best efforts of race relations policies, ethnic tensions remain.
Not only this, but the institutions that framed our public life and gave us a sense of national belonging have come under massive assault. None has been spared: the monarchy, the government, the church, the courts. A decade of individualism has taken a heavy toll of the traditions by which our collective identity was given shape. It would be hard, today, to describe what being British is, in any terms other than nostalgia for a long-vanished past.
From where, then, is a new vision of Britain in the 1990’s emerge? Neither collectivism nor individualism seems to have worked. We are caught between the interventionist and the minimalist State, knowing the failings of both and without a third alternative. The major parties battle, internally and against each other, over the precise balance to be struck between the two. But this is not a debate from which we can expect a new language of politics equal to the challenges of the 1990’s.
In 1990 I argued, in my Reith Lectures, for the third and missing term in our political vocabulary. I called it community, by which I mean any voluntary association of people larger than the individual and smaller than the State. The smallest unit of community is the family, and it extends to cover such diverse phenomena as charitable organizations, religious congregations, neighbourhood watch schemes, local race relations groups and parent-teacher associations.
The community is as potent a factor in the life of society as either the individual or the State. But it has been given short shrift in our political discourse. Unjustly so, because it is in these associations that we acquire the virtues that sustain our common life: duty, honesty, service, self-sacrifice, integrity, neighbourliness, fortitude, and civility. Without these, the workings of the market are too impersonal and arbitrary to sustain a sense of shared belonging.
Society as the arena of private choice is a very harsh place for those who make the wrong choices. The shift from State to individual at a time when communities are being eroded has carried a high price in poverty, homelessness, broken families and the drug abuse, vandalism and violence that accompany the loss of meaning. The political domain becomes a place where there are winners and losers, and where there is nothing to give the losers hope.
The Thatcherite vision which so dominated the 1980’s had power because it spoke lucidly to one source of human motivation: economic self-advancement. The drive to work, create and retain the fruits of one’s activity are immensely energizing. The prospect of lower taxation, and more widely distributed home and share ownership spoke to the real concerns of an entire generation.
But Thatcherism was vague, even self-contradictory, at a critical point. Margaret Thatcher herself knew, along with democratic capitalists since de Tocqueville, that liberty, democracy and the workings of the free market are built on moral foundations larger than self-interest. They are sustained by the family and other institutions and traditions which humanize the effects of competitive striving and provide a critical counterbalance to its unequal rewards.
Margaret Thatcher herself placed immense weight on the family as the matrix of social a well as individual responsibility. In this, I believe she was right. But at the very time she was doing so, the family itself was disintegrating at unprecedented speed, with cohabitation, divorce and single-parenthood rapidly becoming not the exception but the norm. Nor was this accidental, for it was a direct consequence of the individualism that so marked the Thatcher years.
The time has come to re-explore the moral basis of society as a community of communities. Such an exploration would focus less on the two terms that have dominated modern political debate – liberty as against equality – than on the neglected word fraternity. It would speak less of rights than of duties, and less of justice than of citizenship. It would see the political order as founded on something stronger than a social contract, namely a covenant, a commitment to the common good. It would see homo politicus as something other than an economic animal, driven by production and consumption.
What those involved in communities know is that there are other sources of human motivation no less powerful than self-interest. I am regularly amazed at the sheer motive force of the human desire to help others and to be involved in projects for the common good.
I have seen a secondary school of streetwise teenagers transformed by a challenge to provide help for a mother in need of assistance for an operation for her child. I have seen senior, hard-pressed businessmen devote large sections of their time to welfare, educational and medical causes. I have seen congregations turn themselves into support groups for the unemployed, giving them hope and practical expertise. These are sources of energy which Britain badly needs if it is to remain a society in which we feel proud to live.
For the foreseeable future, we will be beset by social problems which will yield neither to State intervention nor to private initiative. The missing third alternative is the new partnership waiting to be forged between politicians, religious bodies and voluntary organizations to empower local associations where the civic virtues are practiced and learned. Underlying it would be a concept of society as the place where, in local contexts, we bring our diverse talents and traditions as gifts to the collective good.
There are problems that neither the State nor the individual can solve. Our political vocabulary must now widen to encompass a vision of Britain as a community of communities.
(The Daily Telegraph, 2 October 1993 – reproduced in “Faith in the Future” Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., London, 1995 Pages 55-56)