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The Politics of Revelation

The Politics of Revelation

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The revelation at Mount Sinai—the central episode not only of the Parshah of Yitro, but of Judaism as a whole—was unique in the religious history of mankind. Other faiths (Christianity and Islam) have claimed to be religions of revelation, but in both cases the revelation of which they spoke was to an individual (“the son of G‑d,” “the prophet of G‑d”). Only in Judaism was G‑d’s self-disclosure not to an individual (a prophet) or a group (the elders), but to an entire nation, young and old, men, women and children, the righteous and not-yet-righteous alike.

From the very outset, the people of Israel knew something unprecedented had happened at Sinai. As Moses put it, forty years later:

Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day G‑d created man on earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of G‑d speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?1

For the great Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, the significance was primarily epistemological. It created certainty and removed doubt. The authenticity of a revelation experienced by one person could be questioned. One witnessed by millions could not. G‑d disclosed His presence in public to remove any possible suspicion that the presence felt, and the voice heard, were not genuine.

The authenticity of a revelation experienced by one person could be questioned. One witnessed by millions could not.

Looking, however, at the history of mankind since those days, it is clear that there was another significance also—one that had to do not with religious knowledge, but with politics. At Sinai, a new kind of nation was being formed, and a new kind of society—one that would be an antithesis of Egypt, in which the few had power and the many were enslaved. At Sinai, the children of Israel ceased to be a group of individuals and became, for the first time, a body politic: a nation of citizens under the sovereignty of G‑d, whose written constitution was the Torah, and whose mission was to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Even today, standard works on the history of political thought trace it back, through Marx, Rousseau and Hobbes to Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, and the Greek city-states (Athens in particular) of the fourth century BCE. This is a serious error. To be sure, words like “democracy” (rule by the people) are Greek in origin. The Greeks were gifted at abstract nouns and systematic thought. However, if we look at the “birth of the modern”—at figures like Milton, Hobbes and Locke in England, and the founding fathers of America—the book with which they were in dialogue was not Plato or Aristotle, but the Hebrew Bible. Hobbes quotes it 657 times in The Leviathan alone. Long before the Greek philosophers, and far more profoundly, at Mount Sinai the concept of a free society was born.

Three things about that moment were to prove crucial. The first is that long before Israel entered the land and acquired their own system of government (first by judges, later by kings), they had entered into an overarching covenant with G‑d. That covenant (brit Sinai) set moral limits to the exercise of power. The code we call “Torah” established for the first time the primacy of right over might. Any king who behaved contrarily to Torah was acting ultra vires, and could be challenged. This is the single most important fact about biblical politics.

Democracy on the Greek model always had one fatal weakness. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill called it “the tyranny of the majority.” J. L. Talmon called it “totalitarian democracy.” The rule of the majority contains no guarantee of the rights of minorities. As Lord Acton rightly noted, it was this that led to the downfall of Athens: “There was no law superior to that of the state. The lawgiver was above the law.” In Judaism, by contrast, prophets were mandated to challenge the authority of the king if he acted against the terms of the Torah. Individuals were empowered to disobey illegal or immoral orders. Individuals were empowered to disobey illegal or immoral orders. For this alone, the covenant at Sinai deserves to be seen as the single greatest step in the long road to a free society.

The second key element lies in the prologue to the covenant. G‑d tells Moses: “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and tell the people of Israel. ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now, if you obey Me fully and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession, for the whole earth is Mine. You will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation . . .’” Moses tells this to the people, who reply: “We will do everything the L‑rd has said.”

What is the significance of this exchange? It means that until the people had signified their consent, the revelation could not proceed. There is no legitimate government without the consent of the governed, even if the governor is Creator of heaven and earth. I know of few more radical ideas anywhere. To be sure, there were sages in the Talmudic period who questioned whether the acceptance of the covenant at Sinai was completely free. However, at the heart of Judaism is the idea—way ahead of its time, and not always fully realized—that the free G‑d desires the free worship of free human beings. G‑d, said the rabbis, does not act tyrannically with His creatures.

The third, equally ahead of its time, was that the partners to the covenant were to be “all the people”—men, women and children. This fact is emphasized later on in the Torah in the mitzvah of hakhel, the septennial covenant renewal ceremony. The Torah states specifically that the entire people is to be gathered together for this ceremony, “men, women and children.” A thousand years later, when Athens experimented with democracy, only a limited section of society had political rights. Women, children, slaves and foreigners were excluded. In Britain, women did not get the vote until the twentieth century. According to the sages, when G‑d was about to give the Torah at Sinai, He told Moses to consult first with the women, and only then with the men (“‘Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob’—this means the women”). The Torah, Israel’s “constitution of liberty,” includes everyone. It is the first moment, by thousands of years, that citizenship is conceived as being universal.

There is much else to be said about the political theory of the Torah (see my The Politics of Hope, The Dignity of Difference, and The Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah, as well as the important works by Daniel Elazar and Michael Walzer). But one thing is clear. With the revelation at Sinai, something unprecedented entered the human horizon. It would take centuries, millennia, before its full implications were understood. Abraham Lincoln said it best when he spoke of “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” At Sinai, the politics of freedom was born.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or to join his e‑mail list, please visit
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Jorge Qro. Mexico January 26, 2016

Thank you again Rabbi Sacks, a text that brings Heaven down to my world. I've read it and I side with you, Rabbi Sacks, because what you have stated has been useful to resolve some facts which has caused damage to my spirit. Reply

ML Miami, Fl February 5, 2013

The authenticity of Revelation to one person Rabbi Sacks does not state that there were no revelations to just one person. He states, "The authenticity of a revelation experienced by one person could be questioned. One witnessed by millions could not. G-d disclosed His presence in public to remove any possible suspicion that the presence felt, and the voice heard, were not genuine". To sum up, G-d revealed himself to many, as can be seen in our Tanach. However, any possible suspicion as to the genuineness of the revelation vanishes when millions experience it. If one were a judge in a court of law and had to determine the truthfulness of a matter, and there was just one witness, one can readily see that millions of witnesses would be more credible than one. The beauty of our Torah is that those that witnessed Sinai told their children, who told their children, down to the present. As contentious as Jews are, there is no dispute as to our Torah. All use the same scroll with the same letters. Case closed. Reply

Anonymous Dallas, TX February 2, 2013

Speaking Truth to Power I lived for a short time in Spain which was then under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. The people had no power and no say in politics, but at least we knew where we stood. Tell me, Chief Rabbi Lord, what power did the little apple-knocking Jew ever enjoy under the dictatorship of Moses who, along with his brother Aaron, enjoyed a lock on power in both church and state for all eternity? For that matter, what power does the little Jew have today to change anything about his religion? Chief Rabbi Lord, your article was disingenuous to say the least. Reply

Chava Ottawa February 1, 2013

On the Philosophy included I found this a wonderful message and want to thank the Rabbi who wrote it. However, I realize the philosophical and political books are meant to strenghten the argument but I find they actually detract from the argument. I say this simply because the way in which all of these books are presented is not way there original authors intended them (that is to say there message is not what is quoted here) and some are completely out of line with the message at all (I doubt you would find any political philosopher that would tell you that Aristotle's Politic's is about God ruling the city or that or that Hobbes calls for a democracy or free society of any sort). Anyway I understand and like the message but simply hope that if books outside the jewish tradition are used again that they will be read or fact checked. Reply

peter Leesburg. Va February 1, 2013

revelation to a nation Wonderful comparison of religions by their one vs many revelation. We stand on solid ground of the Torah. Reply

Anonymous uk January 30, 2013

answer to hank - with respect if you look carefully at the narrative in Exodus 19 and 20, you will see clearly that everyone heard G-d. This is besides the quote given by Rabbi Sacks of Deut. 4. Reply

hank g tonawanda ny January 29, 2013

burning bush with all respect Rabbi, you quote a portion of tora that was a person experience for moses.. when was it that the children of israel ever heard the voice of the lord..?

as i recall they are told their ear's would not be able to bear hearing the lord speak and so it was written that they would have naviim/prophets sent to them as messengers of the lord.. so there are many instances through out the tora where many were individuals with a message to give to the children of israel.. so the lord never voiced over the entire people as you write about, rather he has always spoken through the true naviim..

i dont know, feel free to correct mee where i am misstating the facts Reply

ML Miami, FL January 29, 2013

Revelation to one The majesty and uniqueness of Torah is that Sinai was witnessed by the whole nation. This is where the Law was given. This does not detract that revelations were also given to our patriarchs, prophets, and judges. Our religion is based on a National revelation and not one given to one or a few. Reply

Anonymous USA January 29, 2013

The Politics Of Revelation Wonderful essay Rabbi Sacks. I would like, very much, to read your The Politics of Hope, and The Dignity of Difference, as well as The Chief's Rabbi's Haggadah. Your articles are very instructional. I study Torah and all the books in Judaism, as well as the history of Israel. It is a lot to be up to date with all, being that before, years back, when I was younger, ignorant of my ancestry and the sadness of my soul, life to me was a chaos. Seeking for answers and the Living G-d. When finally asked him with all my heart to teach me His ways and statutes, He, blessed be He, heard my cry and had mercy on me. This is when He, in His Infinite Compassion revealed to me the truth. Now, at 65, have a long way to go, but His ways are the short ways, although appear long. He can transform time and space in a twinkle of an eye. Chabad is a great teaching source. All the Rabbis here are doing a great job. Mashiac will be coming soon. Blessed be He. Baruch Hashem. Reply

J.W. Norfolk, VA January 29, 2013

Revelation to one is valid too You mention mt. Sinai and the witnessed miracles by all of Israel but what about the revelation given to one? Are we to assume that the vision of Abraham is not valid or when G-d spoke to him because it was only witnessed by one. Or the visions of Ezekiel or Daniel. I'm just curious how these fit in with your thesis in this article. Reply

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