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Political Legacy

A new book examines the debt 17th-century republicanism owed to Jewish sources

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Frontispiece of Leviathan. (LibraryThing.com)

The Hebrew Republic, Eric Nelson’s short but deeply learned and thought-provoking new book, sets out to resolve what looks like a strange historical paradox. Any standard textbook will tell you that 17th-century England was the birthplace of modern, liberal, secular ways of thinking about politics and government. At a time when England was convulsed by civil war, religious hatred, regicide, and revolution, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke began to argue that the state should be considered as a purely human invention, whose purpose is not to follow God’s laws or promote the one true faith, but simply to secure peace and prosperity to its citizens. As Nelson summarizes this standard view, “the peculiar achievement of the seventeenth century [was] to have bequeathed us a tradition of political thought that has been purged of political theology.”

At the same time, however, the 17th century is also known, especially in England, as a time of intense religious passion and a new fascination with the Bible. As Nelson remarks, historians have called that period “the Biblical century,” and Hobbes and Locke both discuss the Bible in detail. The major reason for this new interest was, of course, the rise of Protestant Christianity, which taught that God’s will could be known only through the Bible and not through any church or priest. It became crucial, then, to read the Bible in its original form, undistorted by commentary and translation—that is, to read it in Hebrew.

As Nelson shows, it was not unheard of for Christians to study Hebrew before the 17th century. In particular, missionaries would “use Hebrew texts in order to refute Judaism and advance the cause of Jewish conversion.” But the 17th century saw what Nelson calls the “great flowering” of “Christian Hebraism,” as non-Jewish scholars began to study the Tanakh, and even the Talmud and rabbinic commentaries, at universities in Holland and England. The invention of printing, too, played an important role by giving non-Jews access to rabbinical texts for the first time. (The first printed Talmud was produced in 1520-23 by a Christian printer in Italy.)

Nelson argues that it was not a coincidence that Englishmen began to show an interest in republican government, redistribution of wealth, and religious toleration at just the same moment that they were learning more about Judaism than ever before. Rather, they were led to these new, seemingly secular ideas by their research into the laws and government of ancient Israel, as documented in the Bible and interpreted by the rabbis over centuries. “Christians began to regard the Hebrew Bible,” Nelson writes, “as a political constitution, designed by God himself for the children of Israel.” In a sense, then, traditional Jewish ideas—as interpreted, and misinterpreted, by Christian scholars—lie at the very origin of modern politics.

The Hebrew Republic traces a biblical and rabbinic genealogy for several important political concepts that, on their face, would seem to be strictly modern and secular. The first is what Nelson calls “republican exclusivism”—the idea that a republic, in which the people govern themselves, is the only valid form of government. Greek and Roman political theory always treated the republic as just one of several possible options for good government, alongside the equally legitimate monarchy and aristocracy. Why, in the 17th century, did Englishmen begin to argue that kings could never be acceptable rulers, that all sovereignty had to flow from the people?

The standard, secular explanation would turn to Hobbes and Locke, who thought of the state as the product of a social contract in which the people delegate their powers to a ruler for the common good. Nelson shows, however, that the debate on this subject in the 17th century revolved around the example of ancient Israel—in particular, on the passage in I Samuel when the Israelites demand that Samuel give them a king, “to judge us like all the nations.” When Samuel tells God about this, God is clearly displeased: “They have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” Samuel goes on to list all the abuses a king will commit—from conscripting men into his army to seizing land and cattle for taxes—before giving in to the people’s request and anointing Saul.

Of course, Christian readers had always known about this passage. What changed during the “Hebrew Renaissance,” Nelson shows, was that they now had access to the debates about kingship in the Talmud and the commentaries. Particularly influential was the discussion of monarchy in Devarim Rabbah, a collection of midrashic commentaries on Deuteronomy translated into Latin in 1625. “The Rabbis say: God said unto Israel: ‘I planned that you should be free from kings,’ ” the midrash begins, going on to cite a wide variety of verses and commentators:

Rabbi Simon said in the name of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi: Whosoever puts his trust in the Holy One, blessed be He, is privileged to become like unto Him. Whence this? As it is said, “Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose trust the Lord is” (Jeremiah 17:7). But whosoever puts his trust in idolatry condemns himself to become like [the idols]. Whence this? As it is written, “They that make them shall be like unto them” (Psalms 115:8).

This midrash, Nelson shows through some impressive textual analysis (in Hebrew, Latin, and English), helped inspire English republicans to the radical new claim that kingship was inherently sinful, because it was a form of idolatry. It was cited by John Milton in his attack on the English monarchy, and it influenced several passages of Paradise Lost. Republican theorists like James Harrington and Algernon Sidney drew on the same rabbinic sources. Even Thomas Paine, defending the American Revolution in Common Sense, was echoing Devarim Rabbah.

Another key text in this debate was Deuteronomy 17:14, where Moses, looking forward to the time when the Israelites have conquered the land of Canaan, says: “When thou art come unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee … and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me.” This, at least, is how the King James Bible translated it. But the Talmud records a debate about whether the Hebrew word “ve-amarta” should be understood as a description—“you will say”—or an imperative: “you shall say.” If the former, then Moses is simply predicting that the Israelites will demand a king; if the latter, he is ordering them to demand a king. Amazingly, Nelson shows, this Talmudic dispute became very well-known among English Christians, to the point that Harrington could refer to it knowingly in an anti-monarchist tract: “The one party will have the law to be positive, the other contingent and with a mark of detestation upon it.” Harrington even cites Gersonides and Maimonides in his discussion.

Nelson’s second and third chapters pursue a similar strategy, showing how Christian readings of Hebrew texts influenced other major political debates. Until the 17th century, even political thinkers who supported a republic had been absolutely opposed to the redistribution of wealth by the government. They were influenced in this, Nelson shows in another passage of wonderful scholarship, by their understanding of Roman history. According to ancient historians, the downfall of the Roman Republic had been caused by the introduction of a law that redistributed lands from wealthy aristocrats to the poor. The lex agraria, as the law was known, stood as a warning to future generations that the state must not be allowed to interfere with private property.

But the Hebraists, turning from Rome to Israel, noticed that the Biblical Jubilee—which held that every 50 years all land must be returned to its original owner—was itself a kind of lex agraria, designed to prevent any one person from amassing too much land. They pored over the minute explanations of the property code in the Talmud, especially in Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah. And they concluded that if the laws of Israel were given by God himself, then they must trump even the example of Rome; redistribution of wealth must be God’s will.

So, Harrington, in the imaginary model society he called Oceana, called for all estates beyond a certain size to be confiscated by the state. His reason, he explained, was that he was following “the fabric of the commonwealth of ancient Israel,” which was “made by an infallible legislator, even God himself.” As late as 1795, Nelson finds an American minister (Perez Fobes of Boston) sermonizing on “the wisdom of God in the appointment of a jubilee, as an essential article in the Jewish policy. This, it is probable, was the great palladium of liberty to that people.” Once again, a seemingly modern principle—redistribution of wealth by the government in the name of social equality—is shown to have Jewish roots.

It is possible that Nelson somewhat overstates the influence that these Jewish sources and examples had on 17th-century thinkers. Did modern thought about government really come from the Bible, or—as seems more plausible—did reformers like Harrington look to ancient Jewish sources to justify their modern ideas, borne of their experiences in war and revolution? As Nelson himself acknowledges, “the encounter between Protestant theorists and Hebrew sources did not take place in a vacuum.” No doubt specialists will be debating the arguments of The Hebrew Republic for some time to come—which is a testimony to Eric Nelson’s profound and original book.

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Michael Hoffman says:

The author conflates Talmudic Judaism with the faith of the Old Testament Israelites. Since the Talmud invalidates the Tanakh with the distorting prism of the authoritative rabbinic exegesis, it cannot be said to be the Biblical faith. For example, what happened to the Jubilee in the “state of Israel”? For decades the chief rabbis issued loopholes voiding its observation.

Of course there were Christian Hebraists. They saw themselves as the true Israelites, and regarded the rabbis in the manner in which the Zohar regards the Mishnah, as “the graveyard of Moses.”

Jonathan Silverman says:

Michael,

You got issues. Pardon the ad hominem argument but that was the thought which came to my mind.

The Talmud does not invalidate the Torah. They go hand in hand. The Written Torah and the Oral Torah. And since you are quoted the Zohar, let me divulge a Kabbalistic secret, that the Oral Torah is like feminine and the Written Torah is masculine and they go together.

You really lost me when you blasted the Mishnah….

It could be that one of the most significant achievements of the 17th century was founding of “a tradition of political thought that has been purged of political theology” as Eric Nelson put it. Because I am aware of shortcomings of Christian readings of Hebrew texts I found the author’s insights very helpful in helping me to better understand not only 17th century republicanism but what happened to those who indulge in the today’s Republican thinking based on fear, hostility, anxiety, and greed, and a notable absence of “the peace of mind”.

R.E. Prindle says:

J. Silverman: Hoffman doesn’t have ‘issues.’ He is a profound scholar of Judaism well beyond your abilities. If Hoffman lost you then it’s you who doesn’t understand.

There is no use discussing the difference between Hebrews and Jews in the Protestant mind but what Hoffman says about it is true.

This is merely a case of historical objectivity and your Jewish subjectivity. You have the ‘issues.’

Michael Hoffman, the author does not “conflate” Tanakh and Talmud. He is merely showing how certain Bible narratives and rabbinic commentaries resonated with Republican thought at that time. FYI, neither Maimonides nor Gersonides were Talmudists but were Jewish thinkers of immense intelligence and breadth whose insights far exceeded the boundaries of Judaism to enrich the entire Judeo-Christian religious and cultural tradition (much in the same way as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd influenced Medieval Scholasticism).

To speak of “Old Testament” faith (a queer expression that reeks of Christian supercessionism and a general depreciation of Tanakh) or THE ‘Biblical faith” is to speak
of something about which we know very little due to the scarcity of texts from that era. And even if we could draw the outlines of this supposedly pure “Biblical faith”, purged
of its Talmudic accretions and “distortions”, we would know nothing of how it was practised and transmitted by its adherents.

Michael Hoffman, you sound like the numerous groups (Marcion gnostics, Kairites, Protestants) which attempted to reconstruct a tradition cleansed of the commentary and exegesis
that jarred with their theology. As if any one theological perspective or overarching vision of religious truth, could extract from the tangle of Scripture a single, internally consistent
worldview.

Your severing of the Oral tradition from the Bible is as indicative of some high-handed, arrogant theological bias as the view a view that you wrongly attribute to the readers and
redactors of the Talmud, namely that Talmud exhausts Tanakh. No Sir, the Talmud does not set itself up as the definitive, authoritative interpretation of Tanakh. Quite the contrary.
The Talmud is shot through with doubt and a general reluctance on the part of the rabbis to claim that theirs was the final word, the definitive interpretation (a capability unique to God).

As for the bizarre reference to the State of Israel, are you not aware that Israeli law is secular in character and that despite its (unwholesome) arrangements with Orthodox rabbinic establishment,
the laws of land use and ownership are secular and civic in character? There are plenty of “nice” customs such as the jubilee year that could be re-introduced. But why remove these artificially from
the theorcratic legal, political and religious system of which they were orginally a part? Why not go the whole hog and turn Israel into a theocracy?

Finally, the Christian Hebraists looked to the Israelites as an example of a holy nation, a kingdom of priests. What distinguished them from their Catholic “co-religionists” was their desire to emulate Israel, not to supersede it (this is evident in Calvin’s notion that divine history of the Israelite’s was a crucial element in God’s plan for mankind and that as agents of God’s will, the Jews still carried His message and purpose). “Verus Israel” is a Catholic idea. The Protestants saw themselves as following in Israel’s footsteps, not as erasing them. Herein lies a possible explanation for the (comparatively) tolerant attitude of Protestant authorities to the Jews (c.f. United Provinces, England after Cromwell, the American Republic).

Forget the bit about the “state of Israel.” I just realised you were referring to the United Monarchy and ancient successor states. Woops!

Even so, the rabbis were never “in command”. Pharisaic Judaism only came into its own religiously in the first century CE and flourished after the fall of the Second Temple. So you’d have to blame the Temple faction for interpolating your objective, unpolluted, totally artificial “Biblical faith.”

Just to be clear: to speak of these matters is merely to discuss their historical relevance. This is merely about how the debate was conducted but has no relation to reality. These old gods are not only dead, they never existed except in the imaginations of believers. No god ever existed to objectively promise any people anything.

The Old Testament faith was superseded by that of the New Testament. Jesus himself said so. That Jews reject this story merely means they are unbelievers while Christians are believers. ‘Nothing is true or false in religion but thinking makes it so.’ Whatever your religious beliefs may be I accept as true to you.

It is historically true that the Old Testament precedes the commentary. Without a source there can be no commentary. Elementary, my dear Watson.

So, the Bible is severed having nothing to do with your theological interpretation.

As far as the Puritans go, they did see themselves as the New Chosen People superseding the old as the true continuation of the Hebrews, who have nothing to do with modern Jews, while the Jews refusing to accept this obvious truth, to them, need to be converted to be ‘saved’ from themselves. This must be true to them. Reconcile it how you will if you can.

The Roman Catholics represent the New Dispensation superseding the Jews as Jesus indicated. This is in the evolution of religious thought.

The Protestants, from which I spring, are a bunch of bozos who consider Catholicism a false faith and the Jews deluded. Or, they did fifty years ago.

As Jesus was a Jew who told the woman at the well ‘We Jews know what we believe while you goyim don’t’ and people do believe this, Jesus is the greatest salesman the Jews have to bind the goyim to them. You’d better love Jesus because if you succeed in discrediting him, which I devoutly hope you do, you will sever any connection to the poor dodos who believe in him.

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Hobbes et al are pointing to “Divine Right” actually being “Divine Obligation”–that is, the Divine is Perfectly Capable of Accomplishement without requiring the crown/state to supervene. Jubilee, etc. are mechanisms for removing the advantages of idoolatry.
As noted, when the clergy began to ignore this, the clergy began to fail, leading to Jesus Comment about “in Spirit and in Truth” at the end of His dialog with the woman at jacob’s well.
so-called american “Christians” are virtually forced to deny that reality, and drift back to a tudor conception of their leader’s “right” to determine theology.

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Political Legacy

A new book examines the debt 17th-century republicanism owed to Jewish sources

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