The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom

By Fania Oz-Salzberger

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

This was the first major break in the ranks of classical liberal thought,81 and with the help of a selective reading of Locke it grew progressively deeper. The citizen was increasingly seen as enjoying rights granted by the state, but was freed of performing voluntary moral duties toward his community. Constitutions and governmental mechanisms took the place of individual civic involvement. Hume deemed it unwise to base a large modern state on the virtues of its citizens.82 Jean-Jacques Rousseau redefined republic as any state in which the rule of law prevailed.83 Immanuel Kant concluded that an ideal state may be run by demons, so long as they are guided by reason.84 In considering the success of the future European state, all three placed their trust not in citizens but in reason, institutions, and law. In this way, classical liberalism had internalized the concept of territory and law which John Selden had derived from the Bible and the Talmudbut not the imperative of mutual responsibility gleaned by Cunaeus and Locke from the same sources.85

Enlightenment philosophes no longer needed the Old Testament and the republic of the Hebrews. The political writings of Hume, Kant, and the American founders make few references to the Jews, and care little for their ancient political experience. The glaring contradiction between the grandeur of the Jewish texts and the miserable state of contemporary Jews, a constant source of astonishment to seventeeth-century readers, no longer troubled the eighteenth century: The Hebrew texts were as obsolete as the living Jews themselves. The books, not to mention the rabbis, could no longer provide sustenance for new theories of government and society.86 European liberalism regarded the Jews as objects of distaste, curiosity, or charity, but not as partners in conversation, certainly not within the realm of political thought.87

This was not a question of anti-Semitism. Many of the seventeenth-century thinkers, including Selden, had no difficulty combining a disdain for the Jews of their time with great interest in and respect for the ancient Hebrew republic, and even for the later rabbinic writers. By the eighteenth century, no such contrast could be found. For Montesquieu and for Hume, biblical history provided at best some minor political examples, as would any book in an educated man’s library.88 For others, such as Kant, the Jewish political tradition became a negative precedent in every respect.89 The customs of Israel documented in the Bible no longer exemplified the historical application of natural law, and the Israelites were no longer the fortunate nation that had once been, by means of the revealed law, so close to carrying out God’s own political design. The commonwealth of the Hebrews no longer stood for liberty.90

An offhand remark by Hume, in his essay Of Public Credit, supplies a vivid example that dramatizes this change. The Bible makes mention of the treasury of King Hezekiah, writes Hume, if I remember correctly.91 One doubts that John Locke could possibly refer to the Old Testament in so careless a manner. Yet many in the generation following Hume no longer even took the trouble to attempt to remember correctly.92

A lone voice in the wilderness was Moses Mendelssohn, who, in his book Jerusalem and in his other writings, attempted to halt the rapid abandonment of the Scriptures and the Jewish corpus by Europe’s philosophers. But Mendelssohn himself was seen by too many of his contemporaries, and by several historians of the Enlightenment, more as an object of tremulous declarations of tolerance, as in Lessing’s Nathan the Wise,93 than as a thinker to be reckoned with, who had restored substantive elements of Jewish thought to modern philosophy. Mendelssohn is remembered primarilyand in a manner that would have angered and annoyed him to no endas an object rather than as a subject, as a beneficiary of ethical conduct rather than its philosopher.94

And it was precisely this attitude that the thinkers of the Enlightenment passed on to later European liberalism. The Jew was no longer a political mentor, but an object of tolerance. The Jews of Europe were addressees, but no longer correspondents. The Jew depicted in the writings of Lessing and Walter Scott and George Eliot is a beneficiary of kindness, at times an erotic creature, an attractive and esoteric bearer of ancient wisdombut his book of books had been removed from the desk of the political philosopher. It is back in its late-Renaissance place, on the preacher’s pulpit or under the philologist’s lamp.95



Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, the idea of liberty in Western liberal thought, which Jewish scholars such as Isaiah Berlin and Jacob Talmon did so much to fortify, was seen as decidedly un-Hebraic in its origins. Even Hannah Arendt, whose critique of individualistic liberalism draws on Greek sources and regards the polis as a principal source of inspiration, had no need for the Hebrew republic. The Jewish commitment to liberalism, greatly intensified after World War II and the destruction of European Jewry, relied barely at all on Jewish sources of inspiration. Talmon and Berlin, both of whom had a firm Jewish cultural identity, attached themselves to liberalism as its grateful beneficiaries, not as members of a culture that had nurtured its early roots.96 Other Jewish liberals, such as the Oxford legal scholars H.L.A. Hart and Joseph Raz, felt no need for any link between their ethnic or cultural origins, on the one hand, and their legal and political doctrines, on the other. Conversely, philosophers of Judaism, such as Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, who used Hebrew sources extensively, did not belong squarely among liberal political thinkers.

In the last three decades, the situation has changed. Classical liberalism has sustained sharp criticism from thinkers who have internalized its values. Thin liberalism, they argue, is not enough; ensuring basic civil rights and a free market cannot suffice. Isaiah Berlin’s cherished negative liberty, the freedom of the individual from the gross interference of state, church, or other establishments, does not exempt us from confronting the question of positive liberty, the freedom to undertake civic activity on a communal level, whose enforcement Berlin so greatly feared. Liberals today are raising questions of social, and not only civil, rights; of group rights and group identity, and not only individual identity; of the cohabitation of different cultures within the same political framework; of the varieties of political life far from the centers of political power. Hence, critical-liberal and post-liberal Jewish thinkers, such as Michael Walzer, Amitai Etzioni, and Yael Tamir, have begun to find meaning in their own Jewish sources.97 Yet this remains almost wholly an American experiment. Most British and Continental scholars still ignore the Hebraic origins that complement the neo-Roman inspiration of the European republican tradition.98

At this particular juncture in the history of political thought it may well be worthwhile to take a fresh look at the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and the Mishneh Tora: The political Bible, which for the philosophical Christian reader was holier than Tacitus, yet more historical and political than the New Testament; the Bible as a textbook on political borders and universal laws; the legal Bible, whose God is first and foremost the judge of all the world, a title which at times allows a mortal like Abraham to bring even God’s own actionsvocally and unequivocallyunder judicial review.99

But not only the political Bible and the legal Bible await those who read Locke’s sources seriously. So does the social Bible, whose regulations were so great an inspiration to utopian republicanism and moral economy in the seventeenth century. Had this tradition not been cut off in its prime, it could have had a direct impact on much of the social thought of the early twentieth century. The early Labor Zionists knew something of this powerful link of inspiration; A.D. Gordon and Berl Katznelson and Martin Buber certainly did. Labor Zionism and the founders of the kibutzim and moshavim knew intuitively that biblical influence fed the modern longing for social justice, but they did not know that Selden and Cunaeus and Harrington and Locke had already explored this ground. Nor did they know that early modern Europe had invested great efforts that might have built a bridge connecting ancient Israel to modern Israel, and linking new ideas of liberty and justice with their Hebrew origins. Now that modern Israel seems to have lost interest in its own social vision, the need to rediscover that link has become all the more urgent.

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