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The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom

By Fania Oz-Salzberger

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


In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill declared the age of Christian morality to be over. The ethical system grounded in Scripture could no longer be taken seriously as a basis for modern conceptions of liberty. The New Testament is not a complete moral system at all, nor does it claim to be; whereas the Old Testament, though certainly containing an ethical doctrine elaborate indeed, was in many respects barbarous, and intended only for a barbarous people.1

Mill thus sounded a solemn death knell for three centuries of political Hebraism. For three hundred years, political thinkers mined the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and rabbinic literature for ideas, examples, and full-fledged political systems, with the aim of applying them to contemporary Europe. For Mill, as for Marx, such political historicism is over. Modern man must henceforth come to terms with justice and liberty on his own, armed with his understanding and conscience alone. Neither the ancient Greeks nor the Romans are of any further use to political theory in the West; while the Hebrew and Christian Bible, for Mill and many of his contemporaries, belonged strictly in church or on the desks of comparative philologists.

Mill’s heirs, including late-twentieth-century liberals like Isaiah Berlin and John Rawls, have likewise tended to view any mixture of theology and politics as either dangerous or obsolete. Thin liberalism, the liberalism of human rights and free markets, no longer requires either the classics or the Bible, notwithstanding its persisting declaratory respect for the Greek polis and the Roman republic as foundational models.2 In the sophisticated marketplace of liberal-democratic ideas that Mill helped to establish, the ancient Hebrew stall was relegated to obscurity.3

And yet the story of political Hebraism, the sustained effort to read the Bible politically during the seventeenth century, is one of the most exciting chapters in the history of political thoughtand it is a chapter rather than an anecdote. This essay attempts to point out some of the most interesting, most thought-provoking, and least studied Hebraic and Judaic origins of early modern political thought in England and beyond. It will examine several political Hebraists of the seventeenth century, and will consider the reasons for the abandonment of biblical and post-biblical sources of political thought by Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkersin particular modern liberals. Seventeenth-century judaizing was, for thinkers like John Stuart Mill, one reason for the Casaubon-like obsolescence of seventeenth-century political philosophy. In fact, Hebraic scholarship became the very epitome of that obsolescence.4

The history of ideas is a wily creature. In the last three decades the seventeenth century has become the locus of a new, or contextual, history of political thought. Its concepts of liberty, carved out during the Dutch struggle for independence, the English civil war, and the Glorious Revolution, are a major focus of scholarly work. And while both founding fathers of the contextual history of political thought, John Pocock and Quentin Skinner, have warned against the facile drawing of present-day political conclusions from the study of historical texts, recent works (including Skinner’s) have increasingly sought out contemporary relevance in the history of political ideas.5 As Richard Tuck put it, The point of studying the seventeenth century… is that many of the conflicts which marked its politics are also to be found in some form in the late twentieth century, and indeed, the better our historical sense of what those conflicts were, the more often they seem to resemble modern ones.6

In Skinner’s cautious formulation, There must be some deeper level at which our present values and the seemingly alien assumptions of our forebears to some degree match up… Intellectual historians can hope to produce something of far more than antiquarian interest if they simply ply their trade.  It is enough for them to uncover the often neglected riches of our intellectual heritage and display them once more to view.7  The present writer, who belongs to an academic culture far more willing to politicize its intellectual history than that of the Regius Professor at Cambridge, is in full agreement with him about the need for historians to simply ply their trade. The texts themselves, however, excavated and quoted and discussed in their own contexts, sometimes scream to be made relevant right over the historian’s bowed head. In particular, a new foundation has been sought recently for contemporary concepts of liberty, which attempts to reconstruct seventeenth-century republican ideas as possible sources of inspiration for a model of political liberty broader, or better balanced, or more subtle, than the classical thin liberalism, the liberal theory that insists almost exclusively on civil rights and freedom of expression.

Isaiah Berlin identified two major models of political liberty in Western thought of the last four centuries. The first, which Berlin himself advocated, was the negative liberty of classical liberalismthe freedom of the citizen from the state, the freedom of the individual to pursue happiness and defend his property against interference from the regime and from his fellow human beings. Against that vision stood the republican model, which Berlin described as being based on positive liberty, and which he distrusted deeply. Here the citizen is called uponeven obligatedto engage in public life, to exercise active responsibility in the polity, in shared public concerns, in the res publica. Berlin saw in positive freedom the roots of totalitarian nationalism.8

Some of Berlin’s most significant followers, however, take issue with this dichotomy. For several years now, Quentin Skinner has been engaged in a serious rethinking of the tradition that he calls liberty before liberalism, or the neo-Roman tradition of modern Europe.9 He suggests this as a substitute for, or rather a necessary complement to, the individualistic idea of liberty, the possessive individualism (in J.B. Macpherson’s phrase) which has until recently been identified with classical liberalism. Skinner and his colleagues also suggest reading John Locke as a republican rather than a minimalist or negative liberal, a point to which I shall return. Republican liberty, Skinner argues, is not inimical to the preservation of individual liberty, but essential for it. The relation between Berlin’s positive and negative concepts must therefore be reworked and harmonized. The seventeenth-century neo-Roman tradition is, for Skinner, a viable basis for this endeavor, and hence a usable legacy if used with caution.

In this essay, I would like to consider an as-yet-unreconstructed piece of the seventeenth-century matrix for rethinking contemporary liberalism. Most of the recent contextual historians who have given new relevance to seventeenth-century political thought have paid little attention to its voluminous Jewish sourcesbiblical, talmudic, and rabbinic. By most accounts, republican liberty flowed into Europe directly from Rome, by way of Machiavelli.10 The story, as told in Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment (1975) and in many subsequent monographs, has no need for the books of Joshua, Judges, or Kings; nor for Josephus, the talmudic tractate Sanhedrin, or Maimonides. They are similarly absent from Skinner’s Liberty Before Liberalism (1998), the most recent attempt to single out the usable portion of Europe’s republican legacy: A heavily stoicized but almost wholly de-christianizedand fully de-judaizedcorpus of political thought.

Something is surely amiss. Jewish texts were not accidental sources for the subtle discussion of liberty engaged in by seventeenth-century thinkers. There were several important ideas about the nature of freedom, which early modern Europe learned from the Bible and its Jewish interpreters, and from them alone. These ideas, which Enlightenment thinkers and their progeny either abandoned or ignored, have now returned to the forefront of political discourse, and are relevant in no small measure to contemporary Israel as well. Their reconstruction may therefore prove valuable both to the history of European political thought and to the subtle intellectual debate underlying Israeli political discourse today.

This is not an essay about Jewish philosophy as such, or about Christian readings of Jewish sources, but about early modern European political philosophy, which felt fully and intimately at home with the Hebrew scriptural canon, enjoyed some familiarity with later Jewish texts and exegeses, and accommodated a very small number of living Jews within its sphere of discourse. The interpretations to be discussed here are neither Christian nor Jewish, but ethical and political. The Hebrew republic, the polity idealizedpractically inventedby early modern Hebraists, is significant above all as a political model. It is part of the often neglected riches of our intellectual heritage, not as Jews (or, for that matter, as Christians or Moslems) but as denizens of modern polities in need of refining their concepts of political freedom and active citizenship.



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