by Yitzhak Lewis

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

“This book is not a work in the field of Jewish Studies” warns Eric Nelson, only a few pages into his The Hebrew Republic, published last year by Harvard University Press. “My story is about how European Christians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries interacted with a foreign corpus of political and theological writings […] though I hope scholars in [the field of Jewish Studies] will find it interesting.” Nelson’s modesty is duly noted. This book, however, is certainly a relevant one for Jewish Studies, at least as much as it is for the study of Early Modern European political thought. I will attempt to situate the book’s argument within the broader context of the field of Early Modern Jewish Studies in a moment. First let us review Nelson’s story about European Christians.

The Early Modern period in Europe (by which we broadly refer to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) was a time of coming to terms with great novelty. In the final decades of the fifteenth century, print technology had been developed, the American continent had been encountered and Hebrew sources were becoming increasingly available to Christian readers. In the course of reconciling with these many novelties, a certain historical imagination developed within European thought, which tended to conflate “them” and “then”. Over increasingly frequent encounters with non-Europeans (and we might in this context add “non-Christians” as well) “they” were conceived as an historical anteriority existing in the present as a form of difference or otherness.

This otherness was by no means always automatically perceived as negative. In fact, from Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) to de Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” (1580) to Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) to Dryden’s “noble savage” (1672), reflecting upon “the other” stirred the imagination of European thinkers to re-imagine their own reality. Nelson’s contribution in this regard is his demonstration of the role Hebrew sources played in the construction of this historical imagination and in the re-imagining (by thinkers who “had for the most part never met a Jew”) of European political reality. More specifically, Nelson helps us see that while many of the non-European societies encountered and reflected upon in Early Modernity were perceived as having no writing, the historical imagination through which European reality was reshaped was nonetheless deeply textual.

If our initial exposition seems to have already led us astray from the anticipation of the specifically Hebrew textual object of Nelson’s discussion, this will attest to the fact that while this may be a book about Christians that “had for the most part never met a Jew” it is by no means only about them. It is also about Hebrew texts that had for the most part never been encountered by Christians, until then. Following the project of Hebraism, a wide variety of texts that had previously been accessible only to a very specific crowd (scholars of Hebrew with access to the right manuscripts) became available, translated, printed and disseminated to a much larger audience. It is a series of such first encounters that Nelson tracks and analyses over the three chapters of his book.

Nelson methodologically reconstructs the textual paradigm of the Early Modern historical imagination. He tracks the history of a particular political debate from Greek and Roman sources to Early Modernity, at which point it encounters its counterpart in Hebrew sources. He then specifies the historical circumstances that enabled the encounter, and proceeds to track the history of the debate as it developed in the Hebrew sources up to the very same encounter. “The transformation of European political thought”, as the subtitle of the book refers to it, is enabled at the moment the European thinkers encountered this alternate political trajectory. The “otherness” of the debate, as it is developed in the Hebrew sources, stirs the re-imagination of European political reality.

Thus in the first chapter the debate over the legitimacy of kingship as it develops from the Bible through Talmudic and Midrashic texts to Maimonides is the textual environment in which Milton formulates for the first time an argument not against the legitimacy of a particular monarch, but against monarchy as an institution. In the second chapter the debate over land distribution as it develops from the biblical laws of tribal estates and the Jubilee year through Josephus, the Talmud and Maimonides provides the context for a transformation of republican political thought, which begins to support neither the protection nor abolition of private property, but its redistribution. In the third chapter the debate over distribution of civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction as it develops from biblical accounts of God’s civil legislation through Josephus and the Talmud to Maimonides is the major reference point for thinkers in Holland and England who wish to formulate a theocratic argument for religious toleration.

The broader argument of the book is that it is not secularization, but rather an increased recognition of biblical reality as a divinely authoritative political model, which gives the study of Hebraica its transformative force in the realm of political thought. At the same time, it is the encounter with this alternate model, in which a clear distinction of “them” and “then” is nigh impossible, that solidifies its “otherness.” Nelson’s subtlety and close reading of both the European and Hebrew debates, and particularly their moments of intersection, betray a certain implication this book may have not merely for the study of European political thought or the development of Hebrew letters, but for our understanding of the way in which both of these had shaped and were shaped by each other within the Early Modern European imagination.

This leads to the final point of this review, which will suggest a way to situate Nelson’s argument within the broader field of Early Modern Jewish Studies. I begin with a question. Throughout the book there is reference to the “Hebrew revival,” “Hebrew materials,” “Hebraism,” “Hebraica,” and “Hebrew language,” yet several of the texts most central to Nelson’s argument were not written in Hebrew. The Talmud and Midrash were largely written in Aramaic; Josephus wrote in Greek; Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed was written in Arabic. What is it that unites texts of such diverse languages, together with the Bible and other commentators, under the title of “Hebrew”?

The short answer, which Nelson admits he does not take up in this study, is “Christian Hebraism more broadly.” The longer answer, within which we may situate the contribution of this book, is that Hebraism is an ideology, theology, practice by which the Early Modern imagination of Christian Europe conceives “their” tradition as “theirs,” simultaneously and through the same encounter by which it becomes a reference point and inspiration for a Christian European “us” and “our” political tradition. The ambiguity of the designation “Hebrew” as a language of text and as the culture of a social group is the product of the very same processes and encounters which Nelson sets out to elaborate, and thus cannot be avoided. “My story is about how European Christians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries interacted with a foreign corpus of political and theological writings,” he states. The “interaction” this book discusses is precisely what leads to the construction of these “writings” both as “foreign” and as a “corpus” in the Early Modern European imagination.

Several scholars of Jewish Studies have offered accounts of this interaction from the perspective of European Jewish communities and their textual and interpretive practices. Nelson’s contribution elaborates this interaction from the perspective of European Christians’ textual and interpretive practices, and is a most thought provoking addition to this ongoing discussion.

Yitzhak Lewis is a PhD student in the department of MESAAS at Columbia University. His focus is on Modern Jewish Literature, specifically the connection between “Modern” and “Jewish” within the field of Literature. He received his B.A. from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2007) in Comparative Literature, Psychology and Creative Writing.

[Editor’s Note: For an alternative take on this book, see here.]

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