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Judaism and the Modern State

By Yoram Hazony

Why Hobbes learned Hebrew.


A 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.
 
II

W
hen I was in graduate school, I studied the history of political thought from a standard textbook on the subject written by Professor Sabine, which described the history of political ideas as moving from Greek philosophy to Roman, from Roman thought to the political philosophy of the New Testament and the early fathers of the Church, and from there straight to medieval thought. Just like that. Not a single word concerning the Bible or any other Jewish source.
Thus while our own political lexicon is today flush with political ideas derived from the Hebrew Bible—among them concepts such as international peace, new world order, national liberation, social justice, disarmament, civil disobedience, and the inherent dignity of man—Sabine nonetheless treats the Prophets as though they never existed. The index does not even list the Bible, the Old Testament, Moses, Isaiah, or Judaism; indeed, there are no listed references to the Jews at all except where Sabine writes about the political philosophies of Mussolini, Alfred Rosenberg, and Hitler.1
As for the political ideas of the Bible, Sabine attributes more or less all the ones he treats to Zeno of Citium, who founded the Stoic school circa 300 B.C.E. in passing, he does mention the peculiarly un-greek character of Zeno's school:
It was less closely bound to Athens, and indeed to Greece, than any of the other [philosophical] schools. Its founder was a “Phoenician,” which must mean that at least one of his parents was Semitic. After him the heads of the school came usually from outlying parts of the Greek world, especially from Asia Minor, where the mingling of Greeks and Orientals proceeded most rapidly….2
Yet the question as to what might have been the form or content of this “mingling” of the Stoics with “Orientals” escapes the interest of the historian.
Other leading intellectual histories are not much better. Professor Wolin’s suggestively titled history, Politics and Vision, likewise has no listings for the Bible or the Prophets in the index. Unlike Sabine, however, Wolin does devote three whole sentences to Judaism before going on to a series of chapters describing the contributions to Western thought of Christian political ideas (which he calls “a new and powerful ideal of community which recalled men to a life of meaningful participation”).3 Here is what he says:
For the religious experience of the Jews had been strongly colored by political elements…. The terms of the covenant between Jahweh and his chosen people had often been interpreted as promising the triumph of the [Jewish] nation, the establishment of a political kingdom that would allow the Jews to rule the rest of the world. The messiah-figure, in turn, appeared not so much as an agent of redemption as the restorer of the Davidic kingdom.4
Thus according to Professor Wolin, a thousand years of Jewish political thought prior to the advent of Christianity can be effectively nutshelled as the belief that the Jews should seek ultimate political power with the aim of establishing their rule over the entire planet.5
Much the same is true for the other competing textbooks, virtually all of which treat early Christianity with respect, while passing over the Hebrew Bible and the contribution of Judaism to Western political thought with hardly a word, or no word at all.
Where does this view of history come from? The university in its modern form was founded in Germany, and it is there that we find the origins of the history and philosophy curriculum as it is studied today throughout the academic world. One need only look at the historiography of Kant and Hegel to see this same pattern—with explanations as to why one should view things this way.
Here, for example, is Kant, explaining why Judaism should be ignored in a history of the development of Western thought:
It is evident that the Jewish faith stands in no essential connection whatever—i.e., in no unity of concepts—with this... history we wish to consider, though the Jewish immediately preceded this (the Christian) church.... The Jewish faith was, in its original form, a collection of mere statutory laws upon which was established a political organization; for whatever moral additions were then or later appended to it in no way whatever belonged to Judaism as such. Judaism is not really a religion at all but merely a union of a number of people who, since they belonged to a particular stock, formed themselves into a commonwealth under purely political laws.… [Only later was Judaism] interfused, by reason of moral doctrines gradually made public within it, with a religious faith—for this otherwise ignorant people had been able to receive much foreign (Greek) wisdom.6 [Emphasis in the original.]
On Kant’s understanding of history, whatever ideas of significance are to be found in the sources of Judaism must be considered to have been of Greek origin, for the Jews were an “ignorant people” incapable of contributing something important themselves.
A similar argument is made by Hegel, who argues that philosophy has been the possession of only two peoples, the Greek and the Teutonic:
Speaking generally, we have properly only two epochs to distinguish in the history of philosophy… the Greek and the Teutonic. The Teutonic philosophy is the philosophy within Christendom…; the Christian-European people… possess collectively Teutonic culture; for Italy, Spain, France, England, and the rest, have through the Teutonic nations received a new form…. The Greek world developed thought as far as to the Idea; the Christian Teutonic world, on the contrary, has comprehended thought as Spirit.7
And what of Judaism? Did not Christianity emerge from Judaism? Hegel explains that this is not the case, and that the content of Christianity arose more or less ex nihilo, as if in a “second Creation” of the world:
In Christianity [the] absolute claims of the intellectual world and of spirit had become the universal consciousness. Christianity proceeded from Judaism, from self-conscious abjectness and depression. This feeling of nothingness has from the beginning characterized the Jews; a sense of desolation, an abjectness where no reason was, has possession of their life and consciousness…. [In Christianity] that nothingness has transformed itself into what is positively reconciled. This is a second Creation which came to pass after the first….8
Now if one takes these thinkers seriously, and German academia did indeed take them seriously, what arises from all this is a view of the history of ideas in which the Hebrew Bible, as well as Judaism more generally, is seen as a non-player. The Jews were either seen as having received their thought as a gift from the Greeks, or else as having been, philosophically, the nothingness that preceded the birth of Christianity. In either case, it becomes clear how the history of Western thought can be taught without reference to the influence of the Hebrew Bible and of Judaism.


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