by Mordechai Levy-Eichel

Review of The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought by Eric Nelson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010) 229 pages.

“[T]hough that version be not the more ordinary, yet is it approved by above ten modern Interpreters, Jesuits, and others, men very learned and of unsuspected faith, who stick close to the Hebrew text.”

—Blaise Pascal, Additionals to the Mystery of Jesuitism (1658)

While God may or may not have a history, religion most certainly does. For too many of those who write about the past, however, any sort of change over time is usually described in a linear fashion. “Once upon a time we were religious, now we are secular” goes one of the most persistent stories of modernity. Even for those who tell a reverse story of modernization, like Eric Nelson, who in his shapely new study The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought presents us with a tale that reveals how our modern political institutions and ideas emerged out of a more religious context than we commonly realize, political change still occurred in a clear and unidirectional way: history is progressive. And while for Nelson, as usual with those who compose progressive or Whig histories the heroes are Protestants figures, this time around time a series of Jewish texts are responsible for inspiring them to come up with the tolerant, democratic, and more equitable economic order that is modernity.

Most critiques of Nelson’s work, which has been widely reviewed in academic journals, general circulation publications like the Jewish Review of Books, and online forums like The New Republic’s The Book, have focused on the changes wrought in early modern European political thought by the reading of ancient and late antique Jewish texts by fervent Protestants. Out of these encounters spring Nelson’s trinity of distinctively modern political ideas: The exclusive legitimacy of republican government, the legality of the redistribution of wealth by the state, and the rise of toleration. But it is in his introduction, which includes a concise account of “the Hebrew Revival” in which Nelson presents his larger and underlying historical argument that “after 1517, the story of Christian Hebraism becomes a disproportionately Protestant story, unfolding for the most part in the great centers of learning in the United Provinces, Northern Germany, and England” (12-13).  This assertion is the key to his other arguments, and it is on this point that I will focus here.

A former student of the influential historian Quentin Skinner, Nelson has made two important revisions to the work of the “Cambridge School” of intellectual history which Skinner, along with the political theorist John Dunn and the historian J. G. A. Pocock, helped establish with works like “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas” (1969), The Political Thought of John Locke (1969), and The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (1975). Their books and essays emphasized the ideological context of various early modern political thinkers rather than the truth or ultimate validity of, say, Locke’s ideas. This approach has involved close attention to the language of people like Machiavelli or Hobbes showing how the discourse employed by these thinkers shaped their arguments with contemporaries.

Although there have been a few exceptions – for instance some of the work of John Dunn and much of the work of Mark Goldie, another student of Skinner – religion has often taken a back seat to politics in the Cambridge School’s approach to intellectual history. Nelson, in staking a claim for the importance and centrality of religion to republican ideas in the early modern period – and by implication, to democratic ideas today – has admirably brought up some fresh points as academics reconsider the continued persistence of religion. And by highlighting various traditional Jewish texts that non-Jewish figures of the period consulted (from the Babylonian Talmud to Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah) in the seventeenth century, Nelson has presented a case for the religious origins of modernity. As he writes near the end of his book:

The same institutions and practices (representative government, toleration, etc.) have historically been justified in two very different ways: as politics in the absence of God or as what Godly politics requires. The question of which predominates in the modern West must remain open, but given the force of the story we have been telling, we might well wonder whether God remains our sleeping sovereign after all (137)

Nelson is a Protestant reader of history. The word, or rather the discourse, is the thing for him.  More even than his focus on Protestant thinkers as being responsible for formulating our modern political ideas, Nelson views the development of the “modern world” as itself being the product of the reading of a few old works. He tries to distance himself from this position in his introduction, noting that “the encounter between Protestant theorists and Hebrew Sources did not take place in a vacuum” (5) and that it was, for instance, “undoubtedly the case that the intensifying fury of the English Revolution, and the ultimate execution of the English King in 1649, prompted English Republicans to consider radical arguments about the proper form of political life” (5-6). Here he modestly claims that “[t]he Hebrew Revival made republican exclusivism possible [emphasis added] by introducing into Protestant Europe the claim that monarchy is a sin” (6). Yet repeatedly throughout the rest of his book, Nelson asserts that republican pamphleteers had come to believe that republics were the only sort of legitimate regimes because the “Talmud, then, exerted a powerful and radicalizing influence on numerous expositors of Biblical Kinship” (35), or how it was “the rabbinic tradition that, in the hands of Christian exegetes, would transform republican political force” (37), or how the commentaries on the Biblical land law had “convinced a new generation of republican writers to re-examine the antipathy toward redistribution they had inherited from their forebears” (59).

Modernity, however, is not simply the result of an argument or two. Discourses are rarely, if ever, historically casual. The weight of the intellectual revolution which Nelson thrusts upon the reading of excerpts from the Bavli and Devraim Rabbah only serves to underline all that is left out of his account of why monarchy began to widely seen as a sin in Early modern England –from how Charles I had dismissed Parliament for over a decade to the way that his notorious Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, attempted to impose the Anglican Book of Common Prayer upon a restive Scotland. Jewish sources confirmed many, but caused few, of the attacks on Charles I, or any of the other undemocratic political forms of early modern Europe.

Nelson’s overall argument raises a larger issue: Namely, the way he links Protestantism with liberal ideas and modernity. This is an old Whig habit. History is not only progressive, but it is the tale of the development of the individualistic, capitalistic, and Protestant individual. The attempt to trace the source of modern ideas to Jewish texts should not obscure this point, which frames Nelson’s argument. Emphasizing that The Hebrew Republic is not a history of political Hebraism, Nelson describes his project as an attempt to explore “how the Hebrew revival changed what it was possible for Europeans to argue [emphasis in the original]” (6). While noting medieval Christian study of Hebrew texts, as well the work of a few Post-Reformation Catholic Hebraic scholars like Gilbert Genebrand, Regius Professor of Hebrew in sixteenth century France, Nelson minimizes the importance of such endeavors after “the rupture of 1517” (12). Rather, Nelson asserts “there was a “constitutive link between Reformation and Hebraism” due, first and foremost, to Luther’s notion of Sola Scriptura which “made the study of the Bible a Christian Duty and led Protestants back to the original texts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament to an unprecedented degree” (13).

Given the decisive significance Nelson attributes to this point, it is worth pausing here to unpack a few of the implications of such an interpretation. Although he cites other contributing factors, the central cause of the Hebrew revival according to Nelson was the Protestant, theologically inspired, retrieval of the original text of the Bible. We are led to understand that this engagement with the Hebrew Bible in the original led directly to the reading of rabbinic texts, Nelson does not in fact make such a claim, leaving it for his readers to implicitly assume. This gap, however, is an important one, and I shall return to it below. But if we do follow up on Nelson’s actual claim, and consider what effects a renewed emphasis on the Bible had in, say, early modern England, we notice a different story than the one he tells. As Naomi Tadmor observes in her sensitive study The Social Universe of the English Bible, it is in the early sixteenth century that the bible was “moving from the social and Political margins to the centre” (4). Translated and retranslated from the Hebrew (instead of the Latin Vulgate) beginning in 1530, over the next century the English Bible, which had once been prohibited, provided the language in which much of the political, social, religious struggles of the period were played out. Tadmor points out, however, that the idiom of the English Bible came to be used both by those who supported an increase in royal power and those who supported an increase in parliamentary power. In other words, the recovery of Hebrew texts was used by ideologues of all different stripes to promote their views. Tadmor especially highlights its use in legitimizing the growth of the English State, itself one the most important developments in the political life of early modern Europe. Nor was the reading of the Hebrew Bible for political wisdom happening only in Protestant countries, but also in Catholic ones. For instance, Jacques-Benigne Bossuet’s treatise Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Scripture makes the same intellectual move that Nelson exalts John Milton for, namely asserting that the laws God imposed upon the ancient kingdom of Israel are not unique, but rather in fact constitute the “only just and rightful kingdom.” Bossuet scoured the Hebrew Bible, a work he asserted was the surest source of political knowledge and insight, for political lessons. Bossuet dedicated his work to the heir of Louis XIV, the Sun King himself being the supreme example of one of the other new political developments in Europe, the absolutist monarch, opening Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Scripture by declaring “[a]ll that Sparta, all that Athens, all that Rome—or, to back to the beginning, all that Egypt and the best-governed states—had by way of wisdom, is nothing in comparison to the wisdom which is contained in the law of God, from which other laws have taken their best features.”

While Nelson sidesteps the way figures in this period also made use of Judaic texts to make modern illiberal political arguments, this was as natural a consequence of the Hebrew Revival as the republican arguments that Nelson dwells on. The political readings of the Hebrew Bible are, of course, not quite the same thing as the political readings of later rabbinic texts.  These are two distinct, but not separate, stories of the Hebrew revival, and we risk distorting the latter if we explain it only by reference to the former. Considering the varied uses of the Hebrew Bible in this period should make us wary of the tale Nelson tells, however, since engagement with it did not lead to any particular kind political position, nor was it confined to the Protestant world.

Finally there was a great shift in seventeenth century religion which Nelson, in his desire to uncover the religious origins of modern political thought, downplays. The religious enthusiasm, or in Nelson’s words, the “deeply theologized context” (3) of the seventeenth century both bubbled up and bubbled over, cresting in the mid-seventeenth century Wars of Religion. This did not mean a subsequent decline in religion, or an increase in secularization, but rather a change and transformation in religion. Helping us get beyond the dichotomy between religious and secular by demonstrating the religious origins of some of our most cherished secular political ideals, Nelson at the same time in his conclusion reifies these categories, simply moving up into the eighteenth century the abandonment of Hebrew texts as sources of political wisdom. This would have been a shock to American political thinkers and actors, from the founders of New England, to many of the slaves fleeing the South during the Civil War who saw their journey north in terms of the story of Exodus. And to many slaveholders, for that matter, who justified their actions by citing the example of slavery in the “Hebrew Theocracy” of David and Solomon. The impact of Hebrew sources on modern political thought then was not one moment (even if that moment lasted for over a century), nor simply a matter of intellectual contention. Rather, it was part of a series of continuing questions about the dynamics of political and religious change in modern societies.

In his essay, “Political Hebraism and the Early Modern ‘Respublica Hebraeorum’: On Defining the Field,” Kalman Neuman points out that “Political Hebraism is as a whole better seen as a common mode of discourse than as a defense of a specific political position.” If we are to understand Political Hebraism, the Hebrew Revival, and the impact of such sources on early modern Europe, we will have to examine not only how Hebrew (and Aramaic, and other) texts were also read in ways we today might not find so appealing, but most importantly to integrate the use of such works into the social, economic, and political eruptions that convulsed early modern and modern Europe. It is to Nelson’s deep credit that he has made this conversation one in which many more scholars will now hopefully participate.

Mordechai Levy-Eichel, a second year fellow of the CJL, is a graduate student in history at Yale University. He primarily focuses on early modern Europe (especially seventeenth century England), early modern and modern Jewish history, and intellectual history. His dissertation focuses on the expansion of, and religious reactions to, mathematics in early modern education.

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