What the Hebrew Bible Tells Us About Individualism, Community, and Moral Obligation


Yoram Hazony’s new book, The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scripture, is a welcome addition to the series of studies on the Hebrew Bible written over the last two decades. As Hazony writes, scholars of the “source-critical” method of studying the Hebrew Bible in the nineteenth and most of the 20th century paid little attention to what it would teach were it read as a whole. But starting in the 1970s, biblical scholars once again took seriously the idea that the Bible could be read as a coherent and unified text.

As Joshua Berman writes in his recent book, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, “The shape of these texts, as they have come to us, suggests that the Pentateuch was intended to be read as a whole and in order.” That several authors wrote the biblical texts at different times and sometimes for different purposes, or that the biblical editors sometimes included multiple and inconsistent versions of the same story, does not mean its final compilation cannot communicate important moral teachings.

But what are the moral teachings of the Hebrew Bible? What are its ethics? On these questions, which are important for religious Jews as well as any reader seeking the text’s wisdom, Hazony and Berman seem to disagree dramatically. Neither scholar teases out the possible implications of his biblical understanding for the way we order our society or our politics; yet both sow the seeds for exploring such implications, and from these seeds one can see growth in two very different directions: one toward communitarianism and egalitarianism, the other toward individualism. Both Hazony and Berman try to distinguish the biblical teaching from the teaching of Greek political philosophy — but, as I shall point out below, in many ways Hazony misunderstands the nature of the Greek teachings.

Berman argues that the Pentateuch represented a radical, egalitarian break from the political and theological traditions of the ancient Near East. But this was not the kind of egalitarianism envisioned by Locke and the other early modern political philosophers. Modern natural rights thinkers held that all individuals were created equal qua individuals, in the state of nature before civil society existed, and thus that the moral demands on men must be few (but by no means nonexistent). The Pentateuch’s egalitarianism was, however, communitarian, insofar as the whole people of Israel, and each individual within that society, had responsibilities to his fellow man.

This communitarianism followed from the Exodus, in which Israel as a community escaped bondage in a foreign land. When they returned to Canaan, no one had a better claim than any other to wealth, land, or rule. As Berman writes, “Deuteronomy is a document in which heredity and class play little role in government — a document that has no word for class, caste, noble, or landed gentry.” The biblical laws thus “take the form of an economic system that seeks equality by granting communal and divine legitimation to respective households that assist one another.” The equality of the Israelites did not predate the formation of civil society; their equality stemmed rather from their exodus from Egypt as equals in a community.

The moral responsibility toward others thus required of the Israelites was quite significant. It can be seen most emphatically in the rule of tithing. The biblical requirement differed markedly from the norm in the ancient Near East in the scope of the tithing; but more significantly, every third year the people of Israel needed to pay the tithe to the poor. This was “the first known program of legislated taxation for a social purpose,” according to Berman.

The Pentateuch also required the people of Israel to forgive all debts from their Israelite brethren every seven years and prohibited them from charging interest. Their obligations toward their fellow men were thus steeped in the theology of equality, which stemmed from the Exodus experience, as well as divinely proscribed social welfare legislation. Indeed, Berman writes in his conclusion that “in one area, it may be seen that the Pentateuch stressed equality in a sense underemphasized in liberal rights discourse: equality of responsibility.”

Yet while the biblical regime tried to equalize wealth such that all members of the Israelite community would at least be able to maintain a living, it required fewer political obligations of its members than an Athenian regime would have. The Israelite state was not the apogee of human existence; perhaps it imposed more communal duties than a classical liberal regime would have, but not many more.

Unlike Berman’s egalitarian and communitarian reading of the Exodus, Hazony’s work shows a hierarchical difference between different roles in the Israelite community, and highlights the individual independence which the Exodus created. The ethical teaching of the Bible, Hazony claims, emerges from the distinction between two archetypes in the Bible: the life of the farmer and the life of the shepherd. God eminently prefers the shepherds.

Cain toils and works the land — as God had commanded man to do after the Fall — and even initiates the offering to God. Yet God prefers Abel’s offering from his flock.

Abraham is born and grows up in Ur, the heart of Babylonian civilization, but God sends him to Canaan to be a shepherd at the ripe age of seventy-five. Abraham also challenges and questions God.

Moses, of course, frees himself from the shackles of Egypt to become a shepherd and then frees his people. The life of the shepherd, Hazony argues, is one in which the shepherd “resists with ingenuity and daring, risking the anger of man and God to secure improvement for himself and for his children.” It is a life of “dissent and initiative, whose aim is to find the good life for man, which is presumed to be God’s true will.” The life of the farmer, on the other hand, represents a life “of pious submission, obeying in gratitude the custom that has been handed down.”

Hazony summarizes this ethic:

The nomads have what is more precious to them than all else — independence: Political independence in that they live as nomads, ungoverned, their labor and their property and their actions unregulated and untaxed by anyone other than themselves; ethical independence in that their vantage point and the freedom and dignity of their work allow them to focus on what truly matters — the proximity of all men to danger, error, and death, and the consequent responsibility they must take for discovering the true course for themselves and acting on it.

This is not the kind of ethics Berman envisions. He argues that the biblical ethic is strikingly egalitarian and communitarian: we are equals because we escaped bondage in Egypt as equals. Yet Hazony argues that the “biblical ethics proposes to evaluate human action from ... a point of vantage associated with the life of the nomad, who observes and evaluates all that goes on in human life from a perspective that is outside the political state and free of any prior commitment to it.” The state, Hazony argues, exists for the sake of helping men fulfill their individual responsibilities, “which are prior to the state and entirely independent of it.”

In other words, if we put Hazony and Berman’s nearly opposing interpretations together, this conclusion results: The Jewish people may have left Egypt on equal footing, but they only suffered bondage in Egypt in the first place because they gave up the ethic of the shepherd in favor of the life of the farmer — they gave up the life of Abraham for the life of Joseph.

Hazony recognizes, however, that a state is necessary—the experience of anarchy under the rule of the judges proves as much. But the state cannot be like the states of the ancient Near East. When the Israelites are given a king, his treasury, harem, and stables are limited, all for the purpose of avoiding the foreign alliances and armed conflicts which inevitably arise with the resultant taxation, conscription, and forced labor. While for Berman the limitations on the king suggest the egalitarian quality of the Jewish polity, Hazony believes these limitations exist simply to avoid the totalitarianism of the Near Eastern imperial states. The limitations strike the proper balance between the anarchy of the period of the judges and the bondage of Egypt. It is within this happy middle “that both the people and their king are to find the love of justice and of God that characterized the herdsmen who were their forefathers.” The state exists to help the individual, who was born equal qua individual in the state of nature, to seek the good life.

Hazony’s understanding of ethics in the Pentateuch is not as far from Greek philosophy as he suggests. He claims that Plato and Aristotle convey the same understanding of the individual and the state as the ancient Near Eastern states — that “we must begin with the individual as part of the state that governs him,” and that “it is the state and its laws that give man his life and education.”

For Hazony, Socrates’ conversation with Crito represents precisely the opposite ethic that Moses, for example, personifies. Whereas Socrates refuses to leave his city even though he has been convicted by unjust laws, Moses flees Egypt after he kills an Egyptian in justifiable anger. Hazony summarizes the comparison: “The biblical texts are not less concerned with the preservation and flourishing of the state than are the Athenian texts . . . but they are willing to contemplate precisely those things that Greek thought cannot: the violation of the laws, the abandonment of one’s post, and even the destruction of the state.”

Here Hazony misunderstands the nature of Greek ethics. True, the Greek understanding of morality and the good life makes more demands on men than either Hazony’s or Berman’s reading of the Hebrew Bible, but that does not mean the Greeks accepted the state for what it was. Man could only flourish in a community, but that does not mean each had to accept his own city thoughtlessly. Socrates did, after all, undermine the gods of his city. He did not accept the conventional wisdom. He did precisely what Hazony claims the Greeks could not contemplate: he violated the laws and subtly undermined the powers that were.

Indeed, the Greek position seems, in a way, eminently more sensible than the individualist ethic Hazony develops. For as Hazony admits, there is a terrible tension in the Hebrew Bible: the life of the shepherd is the ideal, but it may be impossible without farmers and cities. The shepherds cannot sustain themselves, and every generation of shepherds after Abraham experiences famine. It is the threat of several years of famine that leads the Israelites down to Egypt — the ultimate farming society.

Hazony recognizes this tension but never resolves it: “Joseph represents the belief that the apparatus of empire can be harnessed to serve Abraham’s ends. And while it does seem for a time as though Joseph may have been right, we know that in the end, his efforts bring his people centuries of bitter oppression.” True enough: but what, then, should Joseph and his brothers have done? Perished in Canaan from starvation?

No part of the Hebrew Bible clearly dissolves this tension. Greek philosophy does not dissolve it either, but rather embraces this tension between the city (the farmers) and the philosopher (the shepherd). The philosopher seeks the good and the truth: he seeks the light in Plato’s allegory. The cave, on the other hand, represents the city, or convention. But political philosophy — any philosophy, that is — would not exist without the city. Would Socrates have existed without the city? Could the prophets have existed without the kingdom?

The existence of a conventional wisdom — and the differences among different conventional wisdoms — are what make political philosophy possible. Socrates did not flee his city, but he did not accept its teachings, either. He was killed by the city, perhaps as the Israelites were enslaved by Egypt. One need not accept the moral views of cities and kingdoms to recognize that men only exist truly as men in these communities.

In the end, it’s hard to say whether Hazony’s ethic or Berman’s ethic is entirely persuasive standing alone. The biblical laws were undoubtedly more egalitarian than the laws of the ancient Near East, but the biblical narrative also values individualism far more than Berman recognizes. That narrative values a kind of enlightened self-interest, but it also mandates charity to the poor.

Whatever else one can say of their works, both Hazony and Berman have engaged in a valuable exercise for all who seek the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible. Whether we value the individual over the community, or vice versa, matters less than that we start thinking about our obligations to ourselves, to our families, and to the state in light of the hundreds of years of human experience that the Hebrew Bible movingly captures.

This essay originally appeared in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ. It is reprinted with permission.