Long arc of history: Evolution or revolution?


There are, it is sometimes said, no controlled experiments in history. Every society, every age, and every set of circumstances is unique.

Yet this is not quite true. The history of the past four centuries does offer us something close to a controlled experiment, and the conclusion to be drawn is surprising.

The modern world was shaped by four revolutions: the English (1642–1651), the American (1776), the French (1789), and the Russian (1917). Their outcomes were radically different. In England and America, revolution brought war, but led to a gradual growth of civil liberties, human rights, representative government, and eventually, democracy.

On the other hand, the French revolution gave rise to the “Reign of Terror” in which more than forty thousand enemies of the revolution were executed by guillotine. The Russian revolution led to one of the most repressive totalitarianism regimes in history. As many as twenty million people are estimated to have died under Stalin between 1924 and 1953. In revolutionary France and the Soviet Union, the dream of utopia ended in hell.

What was the difference between them?

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One detail in particular stands out. The English and American revolutions were inspired by the Hebrew Bible as read and interpreted by the Puritans. With the Reformation, the invention of printing, the rise of literacy and the availability of the Hebrew Bible in vernacular translations, for the first time people could read the Bible for themselves.

What they discovered when they read the prophets and stories of civil disobedience like that of the Hebrew midwives, was that it is sometimes necessary to resist tyrants in the name of G-d.

The French and Russian revolutions, by contrast, were hostile to religion and were inspired by philosophy: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the case of France, and Karl Marx in the case of Russia.

There are obvious differences between Torah and philosophy. The most well-known is that one is based on revelation, the other on reason. Yet I suspect it was not this that made the difference. Rather, it lay in their respective understandings of time.

Parshat Behar sets out a revolutionary template for a society of justice, freedom, and human dignity. At its core is the idea of the Jubilee, whose words (“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”) are engraved on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. One of its provisions is the release of slaves:

If your brother becomes impoverished and is sold to you, do not work him like a slave. He shall be with you like an employee or a resident. He shall serve you only until the Jubilee year and then he and his children shall be free to leave you and return to their family and to the hereditary land of their ancestors. For they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt. … I am the L-rd, your G-d. (Lev. 25:39–42).

The terms of the passage are clear. Slavery is wrong. The very idea of the sovereignty of G-d means that He alone has claim to the service of mankind. Those who are G-d’s servants may not be slaves to anyone else.

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It is hard to recapture the radicalism of this idea, which overturned the very foundation of religion in ancient times.

The early civilizations — Mesopotamia, Egypt — were based on hierarchies of power that were seen to inhere in the very nature of the cosmos. Just as there were ranks among the heavenly bodies, so there were on earth. The great religious rituals were designed to endorse these hierarchies. In this respect, Marx was right. Religion was the opium of the people. It canonized the status quo.

At the heart of Israel was an idea unthinkable to the ancient mind: that G-d intervenes in history to liberate slaves — that the supreme Power is on the side of the powerless.

It is no accident that Israel was born under slavery. It has carried throughout history the memory of those years — the bread of affliction, the bitter herbs of servitude — because the people of Israel serve as an eternal reminder of the moral necessity of liberty and the vigilance needed to protect it. The free G-d desires the free worship of free human beings.

Yet the Torah does not abolish slavery. That is the paradox of Parshat Behar.

To be sure, it was humanized. Every seventh day, slaves were granted rest. In the seventh year, Israelite slaves were set free. During their service they were to be treated like employees. They were not to be subjected to backbreaking labor. Yet slavery itself was not banned. Why not? If it was wrong, it should have been annulled. Why did the Torah allow a fundamentally flawed institution to continue?

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It is Maimonides, in the Guide for the Perplexed, who explains the need for time in social transformation. All processes in nature, he argues, are gradual. The fetus develops slowly in the womb. Stage by stage, a child becomes mature. And what applies to individuals applies to nations and civilizations: “It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other. It is therefore, according to the nature of man, impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed.” 

So G-d did not ask the Israelites to suddenly abandon everything they were used to in Egypt. “G-d refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying.”

In miracles, G-d changes physical nature, never human nature. Were He to do so, the project of the Torah — the free worship of free human beings — would be void. There is no greatness in programming a million computers to obey instructions. G-d’s greatness lay in taking the risk of creating a being capable of choice.

G-d wanted humankind to abolish slavery, but in their own time. In Britain and America, it took until the nineteenth century, and in America, it took a civil war.

The challenge is: how can one create a social structure in which people will eventually see slavery as wrong and choose to abandon it? The Torah’s answer lay in a single stroke: to change slavery from an ontological condition to a temporary circumstance, from what I am to a situation in which I find myself. No Israelite was allowed to be treated or to see him or herself as a slave. They might be reduced to slavery for a period of time, but this was not an identity.

Compare Aristotle: “[There are people who are] slaves by nature, and it is better for them to be subject to this kind of control. For a man who is able to belong to another person is by nature a slave.” 


or Aristotle, slavery is a fact of birth. Some are born to rule, others to be ruled. This is precisely the worldview the Torah opposes.

Biblical legislation ensures that neither the slave nor their owner sees slavery as a permanent condition. A slave should be treated “like an employee or a resident” — with the same respect as a free human being. In this way the Torah ensured that, although slavery could not be abolished overnight, it would eventually be.

For Plato and his heirs, philosophy is about the truth that is timeless. For Hegel and Marx, it is about historical inevitability. Judaism is about ideals that are realized through time, by the free decisions of free persons.

That is why we are commanded to hand on the story of the Exodus to our children every year, so that they too taste the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery. It is why we are instructed to ensure that every seventh day, all those who work for us can rest and breathe the air of freedom. It is why, even when there were Israelite slaves, they had to be released in the seventh, or Jubilee, year.

This is the way of evolution, not revolution, gradually educating every member of a society that it is wrong to enslave others, so that eventually the entire institution will be abolished, not by divine fiat but by human consent.

The end result is a freedom that is secure, as opposed to the freedom of philosophers that is all too often another form of tyranny. Rousseau once wrote that if citizens did not agree with the “general will,” they would have to be “forced to be free.” That is not liberty but slavery.

The Torah is based, as its narratives make clear, on history, a realistic view of human character, and a respect for freedom and choice. Philosophy is often detached from history and a concrete sense of humanity. Philosophy sees truth as system. The Torah tells truth as story, and a story is a sequence of events extended through time. Revolutions based on philosophical systems fail because change in human affairs takes time, and philosophy has rarely given an adequate account of the human dimension of time.

Revolutions based on Tanach succeed, because they go with the grain of human nature, recognizing that it takes time for people to change. The Torah did not abolish slavery, but it set in motion a process that would lead people to come of their own accord to the conclusion that it was wrong. That it did so, albeit slowly, is one of the wonders of history.