The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom

By Fania Oz-Salzberger

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

In the past three decades, several major works re-examining Locke have transformed his previous image as a theorist of thin or negative liberalism, as the spiritual father of capitalism, and as the herald of secular political rationalism.58 Locke held that promises will not be kept without God, and that no social contract and no civil society can be maintained without keeping promises. He believed not only that the state needs to guarantee its citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and property, but that its citizens also have duties toward the state, and particularly toward their fellow men, who partake in the image of God.

Locke argued for these principles with reference to both the New Testament and the tradition of natural law. But the key to the link between Locke’s theory of political obligation and his idea of social obligation lay in the Hebrew Bible. Robert Filmer, against whose ideas Locke’s first Treatise of Government was principally directed, had argued that the king rules by the grace of God and, being a direct heir of Adam, is exempt from human control. Locke summoned all his biblical expertise in order to refute the argument that God gave Adam absolute sovereignty, or that this sovereignty was passed on, first to Noah and then by lines of legitimate patrimony all the way to James II of England. Rule is not an absolute possession, Locke asserted, and it is not passed on through lineal inheritance.59 The right to rule depends on the ruler’s commitment to the rights of the ruled, and it may be annulled and transferred when the violation of the subjects’ rights transcends tolerable limits.

What did Locke learn from the Hebrew Bible? First, that men left the state of nature and established civil society out of necessity. Locke’s state of nature is occasionally conflictual, demanding temporal leadership and justice. Appealing to divine intervention may prove insufficient in such pre-political quarrels: Otherwise, why would the children of Israel and the Ammonites take up arms after the judge Jephthah had explicitly called upon God to judge between the two?60 Like several Calvinist thinkers before him, Locke saw in the period of the judges a transitional stage between the state of nature and civil society, and discerned in its failings a proof of the necessity of the state for resolving disputes.61 It was the Bible, he argued, that documented the particular moment that puts men out of a state of nature into that of a commonwealth, by setting up a Judge on Earth and establishing a political, or civil, society.62

The Israelites founded a state that was not only unique and divinely ordained, but which favours not at all paternal dominion.63 At its foundations lies the Tora, the legal basis of what Locke had called in an earlier work the national Jewish liberty.64 But because God himself had established the government of the Jews and devoted special attention to it, Locke found it necessary to remark on the Scriptures being utterly silent about everything that pertains to other governments, and to note that the Bible speaks very little of polities.65 This does not mean that God is not present in the state. On the contrary, true religion, for Locke, was the only guarantee for any political transaction. But no ruler can arrogantly assume absolute dominion while at the same time relying on God’s grace. If a ruler is tyrannical, the divine right flows through those who would rebel against himas Locke found in the assistance God rendered to Hezekiah in rebelling against the king of Assyria in the book of Kings.66

But if no king can claim an unreserved birthright dating from Adam, no owner can claim property rights going back to the same primeval bearer of rights. For just as Adam was not absolute sovereign of the earth, neither was he its owner: He received no dominium from his Creator over the land beneath his feetand neither did Noah or his sons. In the beginning, said Locke, all the world belonged to all human beings.67 Here was the subtle link between Locke’s theory of governmentthe limitation of political dominium—and his moral economy, which was based on the limitation of material dominium. The link lay in the second and third chapters of the book of Genesis, Locke’s oft-ignored primary source of reference.

Locke, to be sure, was no Leveller.68 Most of his interpreters today agree that he viewed the historical phase prior to the enclosure of property, a phase identified with the early part of Genesis, as a negative community from which people took for themselves private property over the course of time, and not as a positive community, according to which all of the land belongs to all human beings in perpetuity.69 There is nothing wrong with private property because, as the republicans argued, it serves as the basis for civic participation in the political community.70 But material possessions are never so much ours that they cease to be God’s.71

This claim is a cornerstone of Locke’s political philosophy: To him, property includes our lives, our liberty, and our private possessions, which are also the key to our membership in the political community.  But precisely for this reason there is a limit on private property.  In the distant past, human beings owned whatever land they could till by their own labor, and enjoy for their own consumption.72 The invention of money, however, greatly increased the possibility of accumulating wealth and property. But if a fellow human is starving, his right to life overrules our right to property, and we are obligated to feed him.73 In Locke’s words: God, the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his children such a property, in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it.74  Absolute ownership is thus as unacceptable as absolute rule. Early liberalism drew its principles of social justice from the same wellspring from which it drew its principles of limited government.

Locke still belonged to the class of moral economists, whose political thinking could never ignore the three great symbols of the biblical needy: The stranger, the orphan, and the widow. He would have agreed with Leibniz’s succinct equation, that justice is none other than charity.75 And it is worth noting that whereas in Latin and its daughter languages there is no etymological connection between justitia and caritas, the Hebrew equivalents, tzedek and tzedaka, are semantical twins.

The rise and fall of the republic of the Hebrews in European political philosophy was part of the rise and fall of moral economy. So long as the right to property was offset, as in Locke, by the hungry man’s right to surplusage, the early Hebrew commonwealth could present a unique model of an altruistic community rooted in law.76 But perhaps a reversed causality also holds true. So long as jurists and political thinkers read the Bible as a historical and political text, they remained committed to the principles of moral economy.



Several explanations have been given for the decline and fall of the Bible as a political text in the early eighteenth century. Historians have attributed it to the demise of radical Protestantism, to the growing revulsion against pious enthusiasm,77 to the downfall of the English revolutionary republic, to the rise of centralized monarchy based on raison d’etat, and to the decline of Latin and Hebraic erudition in the wake of Enlightenment philosophie and the witty vernacular prose of Addison and Voltaire.

It is worth noting, in this context, that few Protestant cultures gave up the Scriptures so quickly and so thoroughly as did the Scottish Enlightenment. Despite the clerical background of some of its leading lights, and in line with the professed secularism of its greatest mind, David Hume, the particular Scottish understanding of economics and society disposed of moral economy efficiently and persuasively. Adam Smith’s economic world is certainly a moral place, but its morality is based neither on Genesis nor on Deuteronomy. It relies on the natural functioning of the marketplace, guided by an invisible hand and founded on the principle of absolute property rights.78 Private property, for Hume and for Smith, no longer requires a divine dimension. Brotherly altruism is no longer expected from men created in God’s image. Hume and Smith saw modern European man as a merchant rather than a citizen, gracious and refined, but self-serving to the core. Public welfare is no longer founded on his conscious charity. It is, rather, an unintended benefit of his self-interested activity, thanks to the corrective mechanisms of the modern marketplace. He is a man of his word and tends to keep his promisesas a result of social pressure and concern for the opinion of his neighbor, not out of the fear of God. An individual may or may not be moral, but society as a whole cannot be moral, nor does it need to be.79 Justice is blind, orin eighteenth-century termsit is beautifully mechanical. When setting out to invent the modern science of economics, Hume and Smith put aside the Bible and Cicero, and eagerly opened Newton’s Principia Mathematica in their stead.80

From the

The DissidentVixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger and Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture by Richard Pipes
The Haredim: A DefenseHow scholars have misunderstood the ultra-Orthodox.
Secret of the SabbathIt isn’t about R&R. It’s about how to be a creative human being.
Zohan and the Quest for Jewish UtopiaAdam Sandler's hit comedy reflects a deep divide between Israeli and American Jews.
Nietzsche: A MisreadingNietzsche and Zion by Jacob Golomb

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2022