Friday, April 23, 2010
The Napoleonic Sanhedrin Theory of Equal Rights (Part I)
My previous post on the American flag received some strong reactions. At least one person questioned my loyalty to Judaism. I do not blame the person or think he is entirely wrong. I take my loyalty to the United States as a citizen very seriously. I am very open to the possibility that the requirements of citizenship violate the precepts of Judaism and that I have to choose between being a practicing Jew or an American. Part of what separates me from most people today is that I do not view citizenship and the benefits that come with it (voting, equal protection before the law, holding legal office etc.) as inherent rights, but as privileges, privileges that you pay for by taking on certain obligations. These obligations are not to be taken lightly and it is quite possible that the price is too high and one should turn citizenship down. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that today everyone is given full citizenship, men, women, white, black, Christians, Jews, atheists. Thus citizenship becomes the norm to be treated as a given, without any thought to any consequences. Contrast this with being a citizen of the Roman Empire.
My model for gaining equal rights and citizenship is a little-known event, known as Napoleon's Sanhedrin. Before the French Revolution, Jews lived in semi-autonomous kehillot. They were not citizens of the countries in which they lived in, but were rather sometimes tolerated resident aliens. The French Revolutionary government was the first to grant Jews equal rights. It did this by disbanding the kehillot and making Jews, as individuals, French citizens. In the years 1806-07, when Napoleon was at the height of his power, he gathered together noted Jews from across the religious spectrum and put to them certain questions as to the ability of Jews to be citizens. Among these questions where:
May a Jewess marry a Christian, or a Jew a Christian woman or does Jewish law order that the Jews should only intermarry among themselves?
In the eyes of Jews are Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion considered as brethren or as strangers?
Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?
Does Jewish law forbid the Jews to take usury from their brethren?
Does it forbid, or does it allow, usury in dealings with strangers?
This whole affair collapsed into absurdity as members of this "Sanhedrin" attempted to balance Jewish tradition with giving Napoleon the answers he wanted to hear. Are Jews allowed to marry? Yes, sort of, not really, no, but we still are a loving tolerant religion. Today the incident is remembered simply as a historical oddity. That being said, this incident was critical in that it set up many of the issues for modern Jewry as a good example of, what I like to call, the "Enlightenment bargain." Jews agreed to make certain concessions to the surrounding culture and, in turn, they were given citizenship and equal rights. How far these concessions went was up for discussion. It could be anything from agreeing to speak the vernacular to being baptized. In essence, all Jews, even the most extreme Haredim, have made some version of this bargain and have assimilated to some extent.
In a larger sense, Napoleon's Sanhedrin is important in that it offers a different model of gaining equality from the one that modern liberalism is used to. In the modern liberal model, there are oppressed groups being denied what is rightfully theirs. Members of these groups decide to fight for these rights and, aligned with enlightened members of the general society, succeed in gaining equality for their people. For example, blacks in America were being denied the right to vote. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream and finally convinced white America that it was wrong to deny blacks equal rights. A properly chastised white America did a mea culpa and passed the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
The story of Napoleon's Sanhedrin is not one in which Christian Europe suddenly awoke to the fact that they had been mistreating Jews for a thousand years and finally decided that Jews really were just like everyone else and should be tolerated, given equal rights and ultimately made into citizens. On the contrary, it was Jews being put on trial before European society and asked whether they were deserving of being given citizenship. Being a citizen means taking on certain responsibilities and being of a certain mindset to be able to function within society. Can you be trusted not to simply abuse citizenship for your own ends? If you cannot live up to this then no rights. This model puts the onus, not on the general society, but on the given minority group.
(To be continued …)