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Monday, May 10, 2010

The influence of Judaism on modern European political thought

Yoram Hazony has a fascinating post about a new book by Eric Nelson, called
The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought.

Hazony writes:
Almost everyone who’s ever written on the birth of modernity has recognized that the 17th century was the crucible in which modern ideas, science and political institutions were born. Less familiar is the fact that this same period was also a time of spectacularly intense Christian interest in the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Talmud, and later rabbinic sources. This is not just a matter of a few collectors of linguistic relics studying Hebrew. The effort to retrieve Jewish learning and traditions was a massive undertaking whose effects were felt, directly or indirectly, across the European intellectual landscape. An indication of what was happening is the astonishing effort at translation of rabbinic sources into languages accessible to Christians—an effort that, by century’s end, had led to the translation and publication in Latin of 15 tractates of the Talmud, the Mishnah, a range of Midrashic compilations, the Targums of Onkelos and Yonatan, rabbinic works by Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi, Ibn Ezra, David Kimchi (Radak), Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag), Abravanel and others, as well as the Zohar and other kabbalistic texts. An index of Christian works interpreting this ocean of newly translated Jewish sources, compiled in 1694, includes an amazing 1,300 titles, many of them published time and again all over Europe.

In the spring of 2001, my Shalem colleague Ofir Haivry returned to Jerusalem from a trip to London carrying a crate filled with photocopies of the huge folio pages of John Selden’s masterpiece, The Law of Nature and the Nations According to the Learning of the Hebrews (1640). I had encountered the political Hebraism of the 17th century before in pioneering works by the political theorists Michael Walzer and Daniel Elazar, and I had received letters from Ofir on the subject.[3] But nothing I had read really prepared me for what was in that crate. Selden’s The Law of Nature is 700 pages long. It is a work of the scope of Hobbes’ Leviathan, published eleven years before Hobbes’ work. The entire text is in Latin. And yet on nearly every page one finds—Hebrew. Not just a word or a phrase here and there, as in Locke. But entire paragraphs of biblical and Talmudic Hebrew, as well as Aramaic, followed by discussion that refers to famous medieval rabbinic figures constantly and at length. What was this all about? Who could possibly have written such a work? Who could possibly have been interested in reading it?

As I learned about it, my surprise only grew deeper. John Selden was in his day perhaps the most important political and legal theorist in England (“the law-book of the judges of England,” as the poet Ben Jonson called him). Yet Selden chose to publish most of his ideas in the form of a series of massive commentaries on the social and political ideas of the Talmud. Selden’s works sought to retrieve the political thought of the rabbis and apply them to pressing questions of early modern political theory such as the concept of a national tradition, the proper relationship between church and state, the theory of marriage contracts (especially pressing as Protestants broke with Catholic traditions on the subject), and much else. In particular, Selden’s The Law of Nature seeks to develop a political theory capable of undergirding the ongoing refusal of the English to abandon their national system of law, the Common Law, in favor of the putatively universal Roman Law being aggressively promoted on the Continent. Relying on the Jewish legal system as a prototype, and on rabbinic political theories as a crucial ally, Selden seeks to show that only a world constituted of independent nations, each with its own particular legal tradition, can be the basis for mankind’s search for that which is ultimately just and true. The rabbinic “Laws of the Sons of Noah,” which serve as the Talmudic version of a universal natural law, are taken by Selden to be the best approximation of a natural law available to mankind.
Hazony wrote about this at length in an article in Azure a couple of years ago. And he highly recommends the book by Nelson.