A Mushroom State or Covenant State?

A Jewish state does not mean a halachic state. That is not relevant so long as all Jews in Israel do not choose to lead a life of Torah and of mitzvah observance. On the other hand, a democratic state does not mean a state founded on progressive values in their radical sense.

“A state cannot be Jewish,” Amos Oz once wrote, “any more than a chair or bus can be Jewish” (Oz, 1998, 50). This is more of a hyperbolic witticism than a reasoned argument: a chair cannot be democratic, either. Even so, this statement by Amos Oz highlights an acute conceptual need. When we speak of a “Jewish and democratic state,” we are generally concerned with elucidating those two adjectives: what does “Jewish” mean, and what does “democratic” mean? Such clarification is necessary, but there is another discussion that ought to come first, and may be yet even more vital: What is a state? After all, there are nouns, like chair and bus, that are fundamentally very hard to pair with the adjective “Jewish,” however Jewishness may be defined. By contrast, there are nouns that are very easily combined with “Jewish,” even before we’ve determined the exact meaning of that important adjective. We all see that it makes more sense to talk of a “Jewish book” than of a “Jewish microprocessor.”

The prevailing liberal view of the state and its essential nature greatly curtails the ability to infuse it with Jewish content. Someone who expressed this idea with a vivid and much more relevant image than that used by Oz was the Haredi Knesset member Rabbi Avraham Ravitz. When asked once whether he considered Israel to be a work of the devil, illegitimate and impure, Rabbi Ravitz answered in the negative: “The state, for me, is one big residents’ committee.” By this he meant that the state is neither sanctified nor debased, but simply a random association of people working to advance shared interests. That is an on-the-mark description, unexpectedly emanating from the Haredi sector, of the liberal convention known as the “social contract.” According to this convention, the state is an association of individuals, and its authority stems from the power vested in it by those individuals. Social contract theory has a number of different formulations that address the question of why individuals bind themselves by joint contracts that limit them: for the sake of their personal security, according to Hobbes; to ensure greater tranquility and prosperity, according to Locke; or to jointly establish an improved mechanism for social justice, in Rawls’s sophisticated formulation. All these versions of the social contract share the assumption that the state is nothing but the association of its citizens for the purpose of achieving their individual aims.

Such a state cannot truly be Jewish. It would be Jewish to the same degree as a chair, or a bus, or at least a residents’ committee. On the basis of social contract theory, it is hard to justify any kind of collective identity for a social contract state. Like a residents’ committee, such a state is meant to serve the interests of its citizens – or, at most, a few universal values shared by all its citizens. Even if most of the state’s citizens are Jewish, Judaism is not relevant to the identity of the social contract state. If we adopt the liberal axioms pertaining to the state and its nature, then we validate the stance of the philosopher Joseph Raz: Israel can be a Jewish state only if we are referring to a state that embraces values that Judaism introduced and that are today accepted by the entire democratic and liberal world, such as the sanctity of life, social justice, human dignity, and the rule of law. Raz goes on to draw the necessary conclusion: “Notice that in the same sense France too can be a Jewish state. It too can embrace the values that Judaism gave to the world […] Indeed, it may well be said that in that sense no state can be a morally virtuous state unless it is a Jewish state” (Raz 2007, 370).

This, then, is the place to which the social contract approach brings us. And for this reason, our internal investigation of the Jewish character of the state requires us first of all to ask whether the social contract approach is reasonable and sufficient. The issue is that social contract theory cannot explain why people are so emotionally attached to their countries. After all, they do not usually exhibit deep sentimental attachment to their residents’ committees, and they certainly aren’t willing to risk their lives for those committees in wars against other residents’ committees.

The liberal thinker John Locke indeed yearned for a global commonwealth that would supersede the different nation-states that human beings had established. In response, the conservative statesman Edmund Burke declared Locke’s Second Treatise of Government to be “one of the worst books ever written.” A similar longing for supra-national government was expressed by the 20th century liberal economic philosopher Friedrich Hayek (Hazony, 2018, 34-35). Yet at no point in human history have people show willingness to move in this direction: they have always seen themselves as belonging to a particular country, usually one linked to the group with which they identify, its history and culture. Can this be mere coincidence, or does the social contract emerge against the background of a given group identity that preceded it?

If there is one historical case that does bring the social contract theories to mind, it is that of the United States, where, it would seem, people convened and elected to become a nation by means of a shared constitution. The American constitution is, ostensibly, the social contract on whose basis the United States was formed. But as the philosopher Roger Scruton noted, even that constitution opens with the words “We the people of the United States” – indicating that in the eyes of the document’s authors, the people and its identity preceded its constitution. Even before the constitution took effect, even before the involved parties gathered to draft a social contract, there was a “we,” a first-person plural, a source of belonging and identity. Scruton called social contract theory “a fiction that hides the empty heart of modern politics” (Scruton, 2003, 19; Scruton, 2014, 43).

According to Yoram Hazony, political philosophy professors tell their students that states are born of social contracts for the same reason that some parents tell their children that babies are brought by storks; they think that the truth is too ugly and too hard to take. The difference is that children eventually grow up and learn the truth about their birth, while many students are never disabused of the lie about how states come into being. Hazony calls the vision of a neutral civic state “a separation of nation and state,” and demonstrates its speciousness (Hazony, 2018, 76-77, 156).

Thomas Hobbes, the first prominent modern formulator of social contract theory, defined his philosophical method as “looking at men as if they had just emerged from the earth like mushrooms and grown up without any obligation to each other” (Hobbes, 1998, 102). Hobbes chose his metaphor carefully. He regards people not as roses or anemones that have just sprung up from the ground, but as mushrooms – i.e., as rootless organisms. In Hobbes’s view, people came into being ex nihilo, immediately founded a political entity in order to protect their interests and anchored that entity in a “social contract.” Hobbes’s mushroom state is very similar to Oz’s chair state and to Rabbi Ravitz’s residents’ committee state. It is a state that embodies no collective identity but consists, rather, of a collection of personal contracts. Does it truly bear a resemblance to the actual states that exist in our world of real people?

The main issue is not one of chronology, but of essence; not what occurred at some point in antiquity, but what is happening today. The social contract approach advances the idea that in the present day the connection of individuals to their country is entirely functional and practical. The state is a large-scale practical association, a big residents’ committee, and nothing more. To the extent that patriotism exists, it does not relate to a shared religious, national, or collective ethos, but to joint legal arrangements, as Jürgen Habermas tried to persuade us.

What is the reasonable alternative to the social contract approach? The national alternative views the state as the expression of a collective identity that transcends the common government. A state is the national manifestation of a people who have a history of their own, shared memories, shared experiences, and usually also a common language, revered forebears, and so on. A state is not a loose assemblage of individuals, but the political expression of a people. Human beings belong to nations and deeply identify with them. People do not display loyalty to bureaucratic institutions, but to a nation and its heritage. And in our own context: the State of Israel is not a random collection of individuals who want to maximize their interests, but rather a political tool of the Jewish people.

What does Judaism have to say about this political theory? Judaism doesn’t start having an opinion only once we’ve finished defining what a state is and started thinking about how to fill it with Jewish content. Judaism has a crucial philosophical and intellectual message to convey regarding the first stage, the actual defining of the state. I have shown elsewhere how, based on our eternal sources, a relevant and sophisticated political approach might be developed, one that challenges the liberal convention of the social contract (Navon, 2021).

Burke strove to formulate an approach of this kind that would diverge from the social contract idea, but without returning to that of the oppressive monarchy. “Society is indeed a contract,” Burke wrote, “but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco […] It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection […] between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” (Burke, 1999, 103).

Here Burke is formulating the idea of a contract that is also more than a contract, and that can provide the foundation for a society’s actual existence. “Even if we recognize the social contract for what it is,” wrote the contemporary philosopher Roger Scruton, an intellectual heir of Burke, “[…] we nevertheless find it hard to formulate our social and political obligations in other terms” (Scruton, 2003, 19). What term might replace the social contract as the basis for political life in today’s world?

We Jews already have such a term, taken from our ancient sources. The Book of Exodus tells us that at the foot of Mount Sinai, God asked for the Israelites’ consent to be His people and to receive His commandments. But that consent is not a regular contract, as it also obligates people who did not sign it: “Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath; but with him that standeth here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14). What Burke referred to as a “partnership […] between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born,” our Scripture simply called a brit, a covenant.

One of the great political scientists of the 20th century, Daniel Elazar, explores the political implications of the covenant idea in outstanding works of scholarship. The Jewish covenant, Elazar explained, is very different from the contract, i.e., the social contract: “A covenant is much more than a contract […] because it involves a pledge of loyalty and morally grounded obligation beyond that demanded for mutual advantage, often involving the development of community among the partners” (Elazar, 1991, 27).

A covenant is similar to a contract in that it is not authoritarian – it does not encourage tyrannical rule. A covenant differs from a contract in that it is not merely an arrangement between individuals meant to advance their interests. It is, rather, a connection based on shared identity and shared values. On the national plane, the existence of the people is a basic fact that precedes the covenant. The Israelites were a nation even before they made a covenant with their God at Mount Sinai. If we are talking about individuals creating a political entity ex nihilo, it is hard to understand how that mutual consent expands to the dimensions of a covenant. For this reason, contract theorists have reduced social consent to the level of a simple contract. But when an ancient, deep, and shared identity forms the background to that consent, it is easy to understand how that consent is no mere contract, but something much greater. The covenant adds a dimension of agreement and consent to a basic preexisting stratum. People who are linked by a common past, a common heritage, and common dreams dedicate themselves in unison to anchoring this national background in a sovereign national unit as well. That is the Jewish people’s political covenant, and it does not engender a “mushroom” state, but rather a “roots” state.

Thus, the basic Jewish approach views society and state as products of a covenant, not of a social contract. The state is definitely not the be-all and the end-all of the people; it may not even be the people’s most important tool, but it is a major national manifestation of the spirit of the people. Although there may be citizens in it who are not Jewish, and who are entitled as individuals to equal rights, the collective identity is Jewish. This should be reflected in the state’s language, calendar, values, and laws. In my view, this needs to be the point of departure.

And what of democracy? Eliezer Schweid noted that during Israel’s first quarter-century of statehood, almost no one imagined that the state’s Jewishness and its democratic character might stand in contradiction to each other. It was clear to all that harmony and congruence prevailed between the two, not contradiction or conflict. Only after the Yom Kippur War, wrote Schweid, did “the evil rumor began to circulate that there is a contradiction between a ‘Jewish state’ and a “democratic state’” (Schweid, 1996, 134). According to Schweid, this turning point came about not as the result of actual changes, but from changing expectations of the democratic state among certain circles. If one compresses into the word “democracy” a radical outlook that makes individual rights the sole issue of substance, then democracy and Judaism are indeed bitterly at odds. But that is not the sole meaning; it is not the meaning intended by the founders of the state, who did not use the word “democracy” at all in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. And it seems to me that that is not a reasonable definition of this term in the relevant context.

A Jewish state does not mean a halachic state. That is not relevant so long as all Jews in Israel do not choose to lead a life of Torah and of mitzvah observance. On the other hand, a democratic state does not mean a state founded on progressive values in their radical sense. If we understand “Jewish state” to mean the covenant state of the Jewish people, and “democratic state” to be a state whose political system is democratic, then not only is there no contradiction between them, but Israel’s democratic character stems from its Judaism. Israel is a democratic state because it is a Jewish state.

When Holocaust refugees started arriving in Eretz Israel, Nathan Alterman (1910-1970) wrote one of his greatest poems about them, “On the Boy Abram”:

“The Refugee Problem”

Is the name of this chapter

In the history books.

But it is not a problem

My brave bureaucrats,

That tears your folders and wires apart.

Not a problem that compels ships to the sea,

But an ancient voice thundering on high.

Not a problem, but the rebirth impulse of a nation,

Not a problem, but God’s word to Abram.

It was not the values of democracy and individual rights – though these are important in themselves – that drew our forefathers to Eretz Israel from the four corners of the earth. As usual, Alterman manages to put his finger on the exact, crucial issue of our existence here: What brought our fathers to this place, and what ties us to it? If the answer is an assortment of individual interests, then we are caught in never-ending tangle of contradictions. If, however, we embrace Alterman’s response – “the rebirth impulse of a nation” – then all that remains is to argue about the details. And arguing is just fine with us – we’re Jews, after all, and this is a Jewish country.


In Hebrew:

Elazar, Daniel J. (1991). “Covenant as the Basis of the Jewish Political Tradition.” In Daniel J. Elazar (ed.) Kinship and Consent: The Jewish Political Tradition and its Contemporary Uses (pp. 26054). Rubin Mass.

Navon, Chaim (2021). A Small State for a Great Nation: More Jewish, Less Coercive: Proposal for a “Thin” Jewish State. Miskal (Yedioth Ahronoth and Chemed Books).

Oz, Amos (1998). All Our Hopes. Keter.

Raz, Joseph (2007). “Against the Idea of a Jewish State.” In Michael Walzer, Noam Zohar, Menachem Lorberbaum, and Yair Lorberbaum (eds.). The Jewish Political Tradition (Vol. 1: Authority) (pp. 269-373). The Shalom Hartman Institute.

Schweid, Eliezer (1996). Zionism in a Post-Modernistic Era. The Zionist Library of the World Zionist Organization.

Scruton, Roger (2003). An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (Ben-Zion Herman, translator). Zmora-Bitan and University of Haifa Press.

In English:

Burke, Edmund (2013). Reflections on the Revolution in France (first published in 1790). Cambridge University Press.

Hazony, Yoram (2018). The virtue of Nationalism. Basic Books.

Hobbes, Thomas (1998). On the citizen (first published in 1641). Cambridge University Press.

Scruton, Roger (2014). How to be a Conservative. Bloomsbury.

Rabbi Chaim Navon is a thinker, author, and columnist.

An official translation by Robert Friend exists, but we were unable to find it. Perhaps you have it?