The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831 to investigate the American prison system; instead, he discovered the inner workings of American democracy. Coming from France, de Tocqueville worried that, in a free society like America, democracy would turn citizenship into a series of tepid exchanges between isolated individuals and a powerful state. He warned that political equality among the citizenry would erode the social relationships that rooted individuals in family, religious institutions, workmen’s associations, and guilds.
Instead, de Tocqueville found a teeming society that supported, and was sustained by, the associations that drew people from individualism into shared interests and finally into civic life. The fact that these associations were voluntary meant they were a font for the flow of civic values, allowing for the renewal of civic action in every generation—thus refreshing representative democracy in America as civic values evolved over time. What de Tocqueville saw in the sustainable nature of American democracy stood in stark opposition to France’s constitutional monarchy that brought him to power, but lasted less than a decade.1
De Tocqueville was astonished by the ability of Americans to create a collective voice sung by individuals who had a shared vision. When values, ideas, or persons inure a sense of purpose, good political leaders can then [End Page 3] fuse them together and bring citizens into the sphere of public action. For generations, American democracy thrived because the throbbing nature of the civic ecosystem demanded of its citizenry nothing less than a life predicated on values and a virtuous hope in the face of an uncertain tomorrow.2
Historically, Judaism as a system of meaning finds its headwaters not in a collective civic purpose, but in divine fiat. The notion that God is both Creator and Commander to whom we owe our very existence fashions a citizenry that appears more like religious despotism than a body politic. Nearly two centuries before de Tocqueville saw the coastline of the Eastern Seaboard, Baruch Spinoza had already focused his enlightened eyes on the nature of politics in the Hebrew Bible and how different it is from the idea of democracy. For Spinoza, the Israelite camp is a kingdom under God with Moses as its absolute monarch. The Israelites live in fear, giving over all of their rights to God at Sinai and, in effect, moving from one type of slavery to another.3 Democracy, on the other hand, is the opportunity for free men (and now women as well) to live as they choose, with the state confined to regulating reasoned human interaction.4
At its heart, the vibrant civic society outlined by de Tocqueville and the authoritative structures outlined in Judaism stand in tension. Where Judaism speaks of commandments and obligations, democracy retorts with freedoms and rights. When Judaism speaks of community, democracy counters with individuals. When Judaism speaks of eternal covenants, democracy demurs with votes. The two are not only using different syntax; they speak different languages.5
One could say, however, that threshing the values of democracy and Judaism against one another has been the central preoccupation of Jewish [End Page 4] thinkers since the Emancipation, creating centuries of fruitful Jewish philosophical, theological, and sociological writing. Throughout its history, the American Jewish community has responded to modernity by taking many of the best philosophical notions of liberalism and incorporating them into the heart of its religion. One does not have to plumb too far into the depths of American Jewish theology to find the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, the pragmatism of James and Dewey, and the feminism of Friedan—to name just a few. The incorporation of liberal values into Jewish thinking has served as a renewing source of inspiration for clergy, teachers, and seekers alike.
The arc of Jewish religious thinking shows that in generations past, notions of theology and history were the warranting factors that motivated religious actions, affiliations, and beliefs. But we know that liberal democratic values are chary of conventions, even mythical ones. When aligned with authority structures, conventions like theology and history manifest as strong centralizing forces that quash dissent. In place of conventionalism, American Jewish theology tries...