Judaism and the Modern State

By Yoram Hazony

Why Hobbes learned Hebrew.

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well-established view holds that there is no room for religion in general, and for Judaism in particular, in the public life of the modern state. This view derives from a series of assumptions concerning the contemporary polity, which can be stated as follows:
1.  That the architects of the modern state designed it as a non-religious or even an anti-religious state, whose public life was to be purged entirely of religious influence as a consequence of the excesses of medieval religion;
2.  That these architects, including thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, were themselves ardent secularizers, who found no place for religious tradition in public life; and
3.  That the Bible and other Jewish sources were consequently ruled out of bounds in early modernity and played no role in the establishment of the modern states in which we now live.
Needless to say, if one views the history of political thought in this fashion, it is difficult to see pronouncements on politics whose source is in religious tradition as anything other than an illegitimate intrusion. “We built this city without your help,” the modern polity seems to say to religious tradition, “and we have no need of it now.”
Now, this view of the modern state in its relation to religion is not entirely without foundation, and it is important not to lose sight of this fact. But on the whole, I think it is mistaken. In what follows, I would like to share with you a few thoughts as to why this view is mistaken, and how it is that so problematic an understanding came to have such extraordinary influence.

Yoram Hazony is a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center and a Contributing Editor of Azure. His last book was The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul (Basic Books and The New Republic, 2000). This article was adapted from a lecture delivered before the Third Annual International Worlds Converge Conference on Religion and Humanity held at the Law Society in London on June 22, 2003.

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