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10.21.16 Issue

Leonard Greenspoon, Klutznick Chair, Creighton University

The Bible and democracy. The rabbis and democracy. Israel and democracy. These are some of the many topics that presenters will address at the 29th Annual Symposium on Jewish Civilization, Is Judaism Democratic? Reflections from Theory and Practice Throughout the Ages. This year’s Symposium takes place on Sunday, Oct. 30, and Monday, Oct. 31.

With three venues — UNO on Sunday morning, the Omaha JCC on Sunday afternoon and evening, and Creighton University on Monday morning — there are many opportunities for members of the Jewish community to hear and interact with scholars from throughout the world. (A complete program of Symposium activities will appear as an insert in next week’s Jewish Press.)

Two of the presentations place considerable emphasis on the Hebrew Bible: Baruch Alster, Givat Washington University, Israel, The ‘Will of the People’ in anti-Monarchic Biblical Texts; and Joshua I. Weinstein, Herzl Institute, Jerusalem, If Not Democracy, Then What? Judaism in (and out of) the Space of Regimes.

For Alster, the key biblical passage is Deuteronomy 17, which is critical of the excesses of any human king and demonstrates trust in the people to uphold the covenant with God. In Alster’s view, this is in keeping with a major theme of the Book of Deuteronomy, which sees the public as responsible for its leadership.

In Weinstein’s analysis, classical Jewish sources, from the Hebrew Bible forward, highlight three central aims of the Jewish ideal: leaving “the house of bondage,” inheriting a land of “milk and honey,” and maintaining a covenant of divine intimacy. In this context, no system of governance can be viewed as successful if it loses its sense of dependence on the divine as established in Deuteronomy 8:11-18.

David Brodsky, Brooklyn College, and Simcha Fishbane, Touro College and University System, take the opportunity to analyze classical rabbinic texts. Brodsky’s presentation is titled The Democratic Principle Underlying Jewish Law: Moving Beyond Whether It is So to Why It Is So. Here he establishes that the Mishnah lays out the principle that Jewish law is governed by the rules of democracy: when disputes arise, the majority rules. But, Brodsky continues, democracy is not the ultimate goal, but serves to promote other ends that he has discerned and will discuss.

Fishbane will talk on Mipnei Darkei Shalom [in the interest of peace]: A Domestic Tranquility. For Fishbane, Judaism is not a democratic religion per se, but it does include many aspects that advocate democratic traditions, such as the principle of mipnei darkei shalom. The application of this principle creates an environment of peaceful and mutual respect between all people.

Another two speakers will feature the works of several of the most distinguished modern Jewish philosophers: Samuel Hayim Brody, University of Kansas, Theocracy as Monarchy, Theocracy as Anarchy: Martin Buber’s Biblical Writings and the Foundations of Modern Jewish Democracy; and Joseph Isaac Lifshitz, Shalem College, Jerusalem, Jewish Democracy: From Medieval Community to Modern State.

Brody points to Martin Buber as a religious Zionist who sought out the roots for radical political novelties in traditional Jewish texts like the Hebrew Bible. Buber focused on the pre-monarchic era of Israel, during which God ruled Israel directly. But, as Brody demonstrates, the resultant system resembled something close to anarchy — and this represented the original “constitution” of Judaism.

Lifshitz begins by looking back at the medieval political concept of the Jews, which differs considerably from the modern democratic social contract. Within this framework, Lifshitz presents the political theory of modern Jewish philosophers like Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas as a possibility for modern Jewish democracy.

The American Jewish experience is at the center of two other presentations. The first of these is titled Linking ‘Egypt with Texas’: Emma Lazarus’s Jewish Vision of American Democracy, by Joan Latchaw and David J. Peterson, both professors at UNO. As Latchaw and Peterson point out, Lazarus’s The New Colossus continues to beckon millions to the shores of America. At the same time, the bulk of her poetry has been largely forgotten. By closely examining some of this poetry, they show how Lazarus portrays America and American democracy as enabling Jews to flourish: democratic America offers both refuge and homeland.

Elliot Ratzman, Swarthmore College, has titled his presentation Democracy After Alinsky: The Jewish Community Organizing Tradition. As he observes, many recent theorists and theologians tout community organizing as a model vehicle for democratic practice. Ratzman brings to the fore the prominence of ethnically Jewish founders and participants in this activity, notably the influential “father” of community organizing, Saul Alinsky.

Lawrence H. Schiffman, New York University, and Ori Z. Soltes, Georgetown University, both take broad views encompassing many different time periods and approaches. Schiffman’s presentation is Monarchy and Polity: Systems of Government in Jewish Tradition. In his presentation, Schiffman brings forth a number of texts that offer parallel lines of debate concerning the political organization of the Jewish people. Both texts and practical experience come together to guarantee that by modern times democracy would be assumed by the Jewish community to be the ideal system and model.

Soltes will speak on Democracy, Judaism, Israel, Art and Demagoguery. To the analyses of other presenters, Soltes adds considerations of art. As he illustrates, art has affirmed and challenged, defined and dissented from Israel’s political-spiritual self-conception: it has offered a consummate expression of democratic principles.

No symposium on Judaism and democracy would be complete without some reference to the modern State of Israel. For two speakers, the State of Israel is central: Shlomo Abramovich, Bar Ilan University and visiting scholar, Beth Israel Synagogue, Omaha, ‘The Will of the People’ or ‘The Will of the Rabbis’: Democracy and the Rabbis’ Authority; and Meirav Jones, University of Pennsylvania, The Jewish State and the End of Democratic Judaism.

Abramovich looks with special interest at Orthodox communities of the twentieth century, where rabbis have very wide authority and their followers obey their decisions absolutely. He then explores differing explanations and diverse motives for such absolute obedience to the rabbis. As a result, Abramovich observes that a community led through obedience to rabbis should not necessarily be considered non-democratic.

From her perspective, Jones explores some of the different democratic forms that have characterized Judaism in Eastern and Western Europe from medieval to modern times.  She then contends that the presence of a Jewish state — even a democratic Jewish state — since 1948 has changed the nature of Jewish life such that Judaism is necessarily not democratic.

The keynote speaker for this year’s event is Lenn Goodman, Vanderbilt University, who will talk about Torah and the Norms of Constitutional Democracy. His presentation, which begins at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 30, is in the Omaha Jewish Community Center.

The co-hosts of the annual Symposium on Jewish Civilization are the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University, the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University, the Harris Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the Schwalb Center for Israel & Jewish Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Along with them are the Jewish Federation of Omaha and Creighton’s Committee on Lectures, Films, and Concerts. From within the Jewish community, the Ike and Roz Friedman Foundation, the Riekes Family, the Henry Monsky Lodge of B’nai B’rith, Gary and Karen Javitch, and the Drs. Bernard H. and Bruce S. Bloom Memorial Endowment are among those who also provide generous support.

For further information, contact Colleen Hastings: 402.280.2303, Additional information can be viewed at