The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom

By Fania Oz-Salzberger

What modern republican thought learned from the Bible, the Talmud, and Maimonides.



The seventeenth century was the most biblical of European centuries. It transformed the Renaissance Hebraism associated with Pico della Mirandola, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and Johannes Reuchlin, as well as the theological Hebraism of the early Reformation. Martin Luther, who put the New Testament on the kitchen table of almost every literate home in northern Europe, did not commend it for its specifically political aspects. The politicization of the Hebrew Bible, and its application to modern notions of liberty, was a project of second- and third-generation Protestants, and particularly of Calvinists.

From the second half of the sixteenth century, when the Puritans began culling new political ideas from the Bible, until about 1710, when the early Enlightenment launched its attack against the new demon of pious superstitions, the Old Testament played some part in most discussions of the good state, of the best form of government, and of the proper relations between rulers and subjects. Seventeenth-century thinkers used their Bible in a multitude of ways: There were biblical royalists, biblical republicans, biblical regicides, biblical patriarchalists and defenders of the old order, biblical economic revolutionaries and deniers of private property, biblical French imperialists, biblical English patriots, and their biblical Scottish counterparts. Policies, polemics, and parodies were based on the Bible. Writers and readers alike were intimately familiar with the Old Testament.11 In Protestant Europe and in much of counter-Reformation Europe, it was the central compartment of a learned man’s toolbox, the principal weapon in his scholarly arsenal.

On the antipodes of political thought in that contentious and bloody century, we find at one extreme Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, an advocate of the French monarchy and an enthusiastic supporter of its claims to empire over Europe. Bossuet’s Old Testament deftly justified the absolute right of kings and conquerors. At the other extreme, proponents of regicide, like the pseudonymous Stephanus Junius Brutus in Vindiciae contra Tyrannos, found in the same holy book no small measure of support for their own beliefs.12 The English Levellers, anti-royalist revolutionaries who called for the destruction or redistribution of private property, present us with a third extreme.13 What all of these had in common was their stout belief not only in the supreme importance of the Hebrew Bible as an authority for their convictions, but also in its uniqueness as a source of historical models. Since Calvinists and Puritans, monarchists and monarchomachs, French and Dutch and English alike all viewed themselves as the second Israel, the ancient Hebrew state was their best political template, if not their only one. Not Athens or Sparta or Rome, but Israel, with its kings and priests, its tribes and elders, its institutions and, especially, its laws.

By focusing only on the biblical roots of republican ideas, we leave most of these interpretations aside. The seventeenth-century radical Baruch Spinoza, who was more of a democrat than a republican, also remains on the sidelines of this particular story. So does the tradition of religious tolerance that was transformed by Spinoza and Locke into a doctrine of political tolerance.14 For at issue here is neither toleration of the weak, the dispossessed, or the misguided, nor the question of metaphysical equality among God’s creatures, but rather the acts of citizens within the polity: The interrelations among active bearers of civic virtue, their dealings with their government and laws, and their commitment to what seventeenth-century thinkers still recognizedup to and including Lockeas the image of God within them.

A highly influential group of seventeenth-century thinkers found within Hebraic sources a cluster of significant ideas, and put them into the mainstream of European intellectual history. These thinkers, and the ideas about which they wrote, were linked to one another in several ways. The following sections of this essay discuss three seminal ideas, explicitly and often exclusively Hebraic in their inspirationideas for which Aristotle, Cicero, or Tacitus (among others) could not reasonably be creditedwhich played a crucial role in the genealogy of modern political thought. They affected early modern thinking about the state and about political liberty, and took part in the birth pangs of classical liberalism itself. They deserve study, and perhaps they merit the kind of cautious quest for new relevancy that historians are sometimes tempted to engage in while plying their trade.

The first of these was a concept of international borders, nonfeudal demarcations of sovereign states, which underpinned a novel, natural-law-based theory of the state, law, and rights. Second, a moral economy, based on primeval universal community, entailing mutual social responsibility and imposing limits on property rights. Third, the idea of the federal republic as modeled on the twelve tribes of Israel: An ancient decentralized government and a multi-centered society that allowed the Israelites to maintain, for a significant period of time, an extraordinary political system that combined a seemingly deterministic divine plan with an abundance of very human personalities and desires. These three interconnected ideasborders, moral economy, and federal republicinformed the European republican legacy (and perhaps affected the modern republican state of mind) in ways that continue to be felt today. In the context of contemporary political philosophy, the time may have come to invoke and review them in a non-antiquarian perspective.



John Selden was an English jurist who devoted his entire life to the study of ancient Hebrew law. His great ambition was to demonstrate that the laws of the Jews, given in the Pentateuch and interpreted in the Talmud and in Maimonides’ Mishneh Tora, constitute the historical core of the natural law common to all mankind. Enlightenment thinkers, notably Voltaire, would later mock Selden’s effort as the scholastic triflings of a dusty erudit, but in his own day admiration for Selden was widespread. Hugo Grotius called him the glory of England and both Leibniz and Locke held him in the highest esteem.15 Selden’s greatest work, the monumental Law of Nature and the Nations According to the Hebrews (1640),16 was written in seven parts, each corresponding to one of the seven Noahide laws, which the author saw as an original expression of natural law, as well as the fundamental text for the law of nations.17 The almost exclusive Hebraic basis of Selden’s jurisprudence is precisely what earned him unreserved fame during his lifetime, and posthumous scorn in the anti-Hebraist climate of the Enlightenment.

According to Selden, the early Israelites created, with divine guidance, the first juridical state in history, a veritable rechtsstaat which became the paradigm for the rule of law thereafter. The law given by God at Sinai was natural law itself, hence the Israelite laws deriving from it belong not in the realm of canon law but in that of civil law in the most proper sense. A test case was provided in Selden’s early work The History of Tithes (1618), which examined the Israelite rules of tithing, and of sabbatical and jubilee years.18 Selden observed that these were not merely ritual obligations but formed an integral part of the Hebrew civil code, and should therefore serve as a practical model for any future society wishing to enact just agricultural and social laws and to encourage communal responsibility.

This same thesis, that divine principles were geared towards a just and practical constitution, appeared to Selden to hold true for the rest of the Hebraic legal system as well. In Uxor Hebraica (The Jewish Law of Marriage and Divorce, 1646), he applied it to the Jewish matrimonial laws.19 Elsewhere, he analyzed ancient Israel as a classical polity: The Sanhedrin was a senate dedicated to interpreting and expanding upon the Tora, which in purely political terms is the Israelite constitution.20 Divine law was the cornerstone of the ancient Hebrew state, which was the first in history to recognize the supremacy of law in all human affairs.21 Like his contemporary Thomas Hobbes, Selden used the early Israelite commonwealth as an inspiration for a revolutionary philosophical move. This involved the novel conceptualization of the state as the supreme moral authority, leading to the ultimate separation of the state from God, of politics from theology, and of civil from divine law. This philosophical step, it should be stressed, was made not by the ancient Israelites, but by Hobbes and Selden themselves, and could not have been accomplished without their Greek, Roman, and Renaissance sources.22 Selden, like Hobbes, was orthodox in his religion, but Erastian in his political stance, rendering unto God what was God’s and unto parliament what was parliament’s.23 His Hebraic modelinasmuch as it was a model for post-biblical politiesachieved the breakthrough of removing civil society from its divine cradle. Like Hobbes, Selden thus paved the way for the secularization of modern European politics.

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