Kingdom of Priests

National Review Online thoughtfully offers a nice little roundup of a recommended Passover reading. Marshall Breger recommends:

Aaron Wildavsky’s Moses as a Political Leader assists one in understanding the Bible generally and the Passover story specifically in political terms. The political saga of the Jewish people is a story worth remembering. The Haggadah, of course, mentions Moses briefly only once. It correctly tells the story of the Exodus with the emphasis on the divine. But the politics of the Exodus saga should not be forgotten.

Wildavsky’s book is one I’ve been meaning to read, but Breger’s comment about the “politics of the Exodus saga” is right on. One book that got left out of the recommended list, but that is also very worthwhile and that deals extensively with the politics of the Exodus, is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s Haggadah commentary.
It may seem a little late for Haggadah recommendations, as the first Seder will begin (Pacific Coast time) in about 5 hours. But Pesach lasts 8 days, and the significance of the Seder liturgy is year round. Studying the Haggadah during the intermediate and final days of Passover is wonderfully appropriate.

Rabbi Sacks, who is chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and one of the most enlightening figures in Jewish life today, notes the paradoxes of political freedom: 

Without sovereignty and a land, without police or an army, without any of the normal accoutrements of nationhood, the Jewish people kept Jewish law voluntarily in exile for two thousand years. There is nothing remotely like this in history.

Judaism has a special word for this unique form of freedom. It is cherut. In the Ethics of the Fathers, the sages explained it by way of a brilliant play on words. Noting the similarity between cherut and charut, “engraved,” they re-read the biblical text in which Moses descended from Mount Sinai holding in his hands the two tablets of stone containing the law of God. The verse reads, “The tablets were the work of God; the wriing was the wriing of God, engraved on the tablets” [Exodus 32:16]. The rabbis said, “Read not charut but cherut, not engraved but freedom, for there is no one so free as one who occupies himself with the study of Torah.” What they meant was that if the law is engraved on the hearts of its citizens, it does not need to be enforced by police. True freedom — cherut — is the ability to control oneself without having to be controlled by others.”

Which is why:

The ideal of the Torah — lofty but not utopian — is of limited government accompanied by personal self-government, the law of the state taking second place to the law of the heart. Only a self-disciplined people will be able to sustain for long the political framework of liberty.

Which, in turn, is why Sacks finds it so sinister that in the post-modern West, “The very idea of objective standards of right and wrong has become suspect.” Refer, please, to what we discussed yesterday about David Brooks and the New York Times.
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