The Attitude Towards Democracy in Medieval Jewish Philosophy
By Avraham Melamed
Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 5, No. 1/2 (1993)
Abstract: Medieval Jewish thought, following Platonic and Muslim political philosophy, on the one hand, and halakhic concepts, on the other, was basically, although reluctantly, monarchist, and inherently anti democratic. It rejected outright what we term here as the ancient Greek variety of liberal democracy, which went against its basic philosophical and theological assumptions.
Introduction: In his various writings Professor D.J. Elazar characterized the Jewish polity as a “republic with strong democratic overtones,” which nevertheless was in reality generally an “aristocratic republic in the classic sense of the term – rule by a limited number who take upon themselves an obligation or conceive of themselves as having a special obligation to their people and to God.” It is true that the Jewish polity is “rooted in a democratic foundation,” in that it is based upon the equality of all (adult male) Jews and their basic right and obligation to participate in the establishment and maintenance of the body politic. But this is as far as the “democratic overtones” of this republic went. It was a republic true enough, but no democracy. It did have some components of what is termed “communal democracy,” but was not a liberal democracy. The various Jewish polities which existed over the centuries were generally very aristocratic in terms of their actual regimes. The idea of a democratic regime was alien to them and went against their basic political and theological premises. The idea of a liberal democracy was absent from the Jewish political tradition until modern times, and medieval Jewish political philosophy, which is the subject of this essay, rejected its Greek variety outright.
Following the Platonic-Muslim political tradition, medieval Jewish philosophy held onto a basically monarchic concept of government. By and large, medieval Jewish philosophers conceived the ideal government to be that of a perfect philosopher-king of the Platonic mold, which acquired a distinct theological meaning through medieval Muslim intermediaries, especially al Farabi and Ibn Rushd. The Platonic philosopher-king was transformed into the prophet-legislator of the Jewish and Muslim monotheistic tradition. Also halakhic thought, for all its hesitations and reservations,finally accepted (limited) monarchy as the preferred kind of government.