This is going to be a review of a new book that you absolutely have to read. It’s also going to be a personal story about myself and some of my colleagues, which you absolutely don’t have to read. So if you’re just interested in the book review, skip down to the second part of the letter, which is about Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010). The main thing is that you buy this book and read it. Hopefully you will also write something about it. It’s that worth reading. It’s that important.
It is an unspoken rule of modern historiography that the Hebrew Bible could not have contributed anything significant to the rise of modern ideas and institutions. This rule has been at the basis of academic writing on the history of the West for at least two hundred years. And its influence has been decisive: Nearly every serious book available about the rise of the modern world has taken this “No Biblical-Influence” Rule as axiomatic.
The only problem is that it’s false.
Almost everyone who’s ever written on the birth of modernity has recognized that the 17th century was the crucible in which modern ideas, science and political institutions were born. Less familiar is the fact that this same period was also a time of spectacularly intense Christian interest in the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Talmud, and later rabbinic sources. This is not just a matter of a few collectors of linguistic relics studying Hebrew. The effort to retrieve Jewish learning and traditions was a massive undertaking whose effects were felt, directly or indirectly, across the European intellectual landscape. An indication of what was happening is the astonishing effort at translation of rabbinic sources into languages accessible to Christians—an effort that, by century’s end, had led to the translation and publication in Latin of 15 tractates of the Talmud, the Mishnah, a range of Midrashic compilations, the Targums of Onkelos and Yonatan, rabbinic works by Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi, Ibn Ezra, David Kimchi (Radak), Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag), Abravanel and others, as well as the Zohar and other kabbalistic texts. An index of Christian works interpreting this ocean of newly translated Jewish sources, compiled in 1694, includes an amazing 1,300 titles, many of them published time and again all over Europe.
The story of the birth of the modern West, as it’s been told and retold since it was given definitive form by partisans of the Enlightenment, tends to ignore all this furious Hebraizing activity. And when it isn’t ignoring the Hebraism of the 17th century outright, it argues, in effect, that there were two different 17th centuries: On the one hand, there was the 17th century of religious fanaticism—a century characterized by rampant messianic expectations (“millenarianism”), the Thirty Years’ War and the English Revolution. On the other, there was the 17th century of the philosophers, who knew better than to be duped by the biblicism of their contemporaries, and who employed reason alone to produce the scientific revolution and the theoretical foundations of free government. On this view, the fact that the writings of leading 17th century thinkers such as Descartes, Grotius, Milton, Selden, Hobbes, Boyle, Newton, Harrington, Locke and Leibniz are full of theological speculation and biblical interpretation are to be dismissed as “window-dressing”: The substance was freeing itself from any unseemly religious commitments, but the form had to pander to the tastes of the audience and be such as to evade censorship.
The last fifty years, however, have witnessed an ever-accelerating rethinking of this received view of the 17th century. Painstaking archival work has served to place the principal philosophical figures in their religious context—a project that has militated ever-more strongly toward the view of these men as genuinely religious individuals, whose avid interest in the Hebraic sources was for real. Indeed, it is becoming progressively clearer that their science and political thought can’t really be separated from the spirit of the Reformation and the Hebraic revival, which both shaped their thinking and was shaped by it in turn. In other words, it’s beginning to look like the answer to the riddle of the 17th century is precisely the opposite of that suggested by the Enlightenment story: As it turns out, there was only one 17th century, and the modern age was born out of an intellectual matrix that was steeped in Hebraic texts and the ideas that come of taking them seriously.
The retrieval of the story of the “Biblical Century” is a project that has been the work of dozens of scholars in recent years. One of the reasons my previous letters have alluded to a new opening to Judaism and to the Jewish sources at the universities is precisely the rapidly increasing excitement surrounding this project of reconstructing the story of the 17th century in light of the Jewish sources, which can now be felt among historians, philosophers, political theorists and Bible scholars around the world. It’s still a relatively small movement. But there’s no doubt that the study of early modern Hebraism is also gaining ground quickly in academia, and has the potential to transform the story of the West as we’ve known it.
I’ve had the privilege of getting to see one aspect of this undertaking from up close. In the spring of 2001, my Shalem colleague Ofir Haivry returned to Jerusalem from a trip to London carrying a crate filled with photocopies of the huge folio pages of John Selden’s masterpiece, The Law of Nature and the Nations According to the Learning of the Hebrews (1640). I had encountered the political Hebraism of the 17th century before in pioneering works by the political theorists Michael Walzer and Daniel Elazar, and I had received letters from Ofir on the subject. But nothing I had read really prepared me for what was in that crate. Selden’s The Law of Nature is 700 pages long. It is a work of the scope of Hobbes’Leviathan, published eleven years before Hobbes’ work. The entire text is in Latin. And yet on nearly every page one finds—Hebrew. Not just a word or a phrase here and there, as in Locke. But entire paragraphs of biblical and Talmudic Hebrew, as well as Aramaic, followed by discussion that refers to famous medieval rabbinic figures constantly and at length. What was this all about? Who could possibly have written such a work? Who could possibly have been interested in reading it?
As I learned about it, my surprise only grew deeper. John Selden was in his day perhaps the most important political and legal theorist in England (“the law-book of the judges of England,” as the poet Ben Jonson called him). Yet Selden chose to publish most of his ideas in the form of a series of massive commentaries on the social and political ideas of the Talmud. Selden’s works sought to retrieve the political thought of the rabbis and apply them to pressing questions of early modern political theory such as the concept of a national tradition, the proper relationship between church and state, the theory of marriage contracts (especially pressing as Protestants broke with Catholic traditions on the subject), and much else. In particular, Selden’s The Law of Nature seeks to develop a political theory capable of undergirding the ongoing refusal of the English to abandon their national system of law, the Common Law, in favor of the putatively universal Roman Law being aggressively promoted on the Continent. Relying on the Jewish legal system as a prototype, and on rabbinic political theories as a crucial ally, Selden seeks to show that only a world constituted of independent nations, each with its own particular legal tradition, can be the basis for mankind’s search for that which is ultimately just and true. The rabbinic “Laws of the Sons of Noah,” which serve as the Talmudic version of a universal natural law, are taken by Selden to be the best approximation of a natural law available to mankind.
Yet when I went back to George Sabine’s History of Political Thought, which had for decades been the definitive work on the history of Western political ideas, all I found by way of explanation was this:
Selden’s opinions both of politics and religion grew from a kind of secularism not very common in the 17th century, and from a shrewd worldly-wisdom…. Selden’s utilitarianism, secularism, and rationalism were far from typical but they appeared again in his friend Thomas Hobbes and in a sense they had the last word at the Revolution in the thought of Halifax.
“What on earth does this mean,” I asked Ofir: “A kind of secularism not very common in the 17th century? It must have been a very uncommon kind of secularism. How often does secularism lead political theorists to write 700-page commentaries on the Talmud?”
To which he replied: “I think you’ll find the answer to your question in the part about Selden’s shrewd worldly-wisdom. The shrewd worldly wisdom he’s talking about is the wisdom of the Bible and the Talmud.” He was half joking. But as it turned out, this wasn’t really a joke at all.
For two years, I dragged a hardbound photocopy of Selden’s work with me on every trip to the United States, showing this enormous Latin text to academic colleagues and potential donors. Some were so shocked as they flipped through the pages that they asked me to print them a copy of their own so they could show it to their friends.
My most important meeting was with my mentor Gordon Schochet, an authority on 17th century English political thought who had been my dissertation advisor at Rutgers. Gordon had taught me pretty much everything I knew about political theory, and had helped me steer a doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of the biblical book of Jeremiah through a skeptical department. It was, in fact, because of Gordon that I had completed my doctorate, and because of that doctorate that I had ended up opening an institute for studying political thought in Jerusalem. He had changed the course of my entire life. So when I thunked that huge Latin volume onto the table at Jerusalem Pizza (the kosher restaurant in New Brunswick), it was rather an emotional moment for me.
Gordon carefully turned the pages, squinting down at one huge sheet after another. “Prof. Schochet, do you know this stuff?” I asked.
“Sure, sure,” he said slowly. “We all know this stuff.”
“So how is it that no one ever mentions it? Does anyone write about it? It’s astonishing. If political thinkers were actually reading this across Europe in the 1600s, it changes the picture. Why isn’t it ever discussed?”
Gordon paused and thought for a bit. Finally, he said: “I’ve been looking at these texts for twenty-five years. The biblical and rabbinic texts are all over. But you’re trained not to see it. You’re eyes just pass over it, and you don’t see it.”
I knew what he had said. But I didn’t know whether he was agreeing with me, or just looking for a gentle way to tell me I had latched onto something foolish and should really let it drop. “Is it worth doing something with it?” I asked, with my heart beating in my throat.
“Oh yes,” he said. “It’s worth doing something with it.”
Ofir and I showed Selden’s The Law of Nature to Israeli scholars and public figures as well. The effect was immediate and electrifying. By the fall, we recruited our first public lecture on the subject. We had recently met with a dazzling young Israeli historian of the Scottish Enlightenment named Fania Oz-Salzberger, who had raised questions closely related to the ones we were raising. “Why does Locke quote the Old Testament time and again in his Second Treatise on Government, but never the New Testament?” she asked. “He refers to the Hebrew texts constantly, but it’s as if it’s been suppressed. Do you know that our editions of 17th century works never even list the Bible in the index? Check it. They never do. In January 2002, Shalem hosted Fania’s first public lecture on the question of whether the Bible and Talmud could have had any effect on the foundations of Western political ideas. Nine hundred people attended. A few months later, we published the lecture in Shalem’s house magazine Azure, under the title “The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom”.
“Off-prints,” Fania told me after the magazine came back from the printer. “I need off-prints.”
So we printed off-prints, and Fania sent them to forty of the most prominent intellectual historians and political theorists in the world. Fania’s training was at Oxford, and I think there was not a little bit of the spirit of the reformation in this mailing of the off-prints. Certainly, her younger readers took her in this way: They read Fania’s lecture like a manifesto, like she had nailed ninety-five theses to the church door.
A year later, there was sufficient momentum to begin organizing the first of what became a series of international conferences on the subject, ultimately involving hundreds of scholars and students. The first conference was entitled “Political Hebraism: Judaic Sources in Early Modern Political Thought,” and took place in August 2004. The moving force behind this effort was another young Shalem scholar of Hebraism, Meirav Jones, who joined Gordon, Fania, and Ofir in convening the conference, and then in persuading the Dutch Grotius scholar Arthur Eyffinger to team up with them in the establishment, in 2005, of Hebraic Political Studies, a peer-reviewed quarterly journal edited by Gordon and Arthur. In 2006, Shalem Press published the first of a series of translations into English of early-modern works of Hebraist political theory, Petrus Cunaeus’ The Hebrew Republic (1617), edited by Arthur Eyffinger. A second translation in this series, Carlo Sigonio’s The Hebrew Republic (1582), edited by the young Italian scholar Guido Bartolucci, was published just now by Shalem Press. The first book-length treatment of John Selden’s political Hebraism, by Georgetown professor Jason Rosenblatt, appeared in 2006; and incredibly, in 2010, there will be not one but two international conferences on John Selden—one at Oxford University and the other at the Sorbonne in Paris. And at Princeton University this spring, Fania is teaching a course called Human Values 354/History 254/Politics 354, “Rediscovering the Hebraic Sources of Political Thought”—the first time the Hebraic aspects of the 17th century political theory have ever been taught in a semester-long course for undergraduates. Both Meirav Jones and Gordon Schochet are giving guest lectures. My daughter Avital is enrolled in the course.
In one of my earlier letters, I wrote that in the universities, the door is open for a real change in the standing of the Hebrew Bible, and of Judaism more generally. The anecdotes I’ve pulled together here should give you a pretty good sense of why I say this. In my experience, people are ready for a change, including some of the most important scholars in academia today. We’re still talking about a very small movement, with a long way to go. But it’s one whose time has come.
What I’ve told you is the first part of the story. I don’t know what happens in the second part. But I know it begins in March 2010 with the publication of Eric Nelson’s new book on political Hebraism, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought.
Eric Nelson is a young professor of government at Harvard, an expert on the reception of Greek texts and ideas in the early modern period, whose papers on political Hebraism began appearing in 2007. Nelson is a superb scholar, and The Hebrew Republic is the best work to have appeared thus far on the subject of early modern political Hebraism by a considerable margin. It’s an academic book that covers lots of new ground and sports extensive bibliographic references. But at the same time, the writing is clear as a bell and perfectly accessible to readers with no previous background in the subject. So if you want to begin thinking seriously about the place of the Jewish texts and ideas in the history of the modern West, this is the place to start.
There is much to appreciate in Nelson’s work. But what is most impressive is his willingness (all too rare, unfortunately) to pick an open fight with a truly massive opponent. And he’s also willing to names names, so we don’t have to guess who he’s going after: Nelson’s opponent is what I’ve been calling the Enlightenment reading of the 17th century, with its unchallengeable axiom that the Hebrew Bible could not have contributed anything significant to the rise of modern ideas and institutions (The “No Biblical Influence” Rule). Nelson sees this reading of history as having been promoted in the last century by leading intellectual figures such as Leo Strauss and John Rawls, and more recently in prominent books such as Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment (2001) and Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God (2007).
As against this view, Nelson offers a refreshingly bold reinterpretation according to which the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic texts in fact had a massive impact on the thought of the 17th century. As he writes:
[The] explosion in the quantity of available Hebraica affected virtually every aspect of European intellectual life…. The Hebrew revival transformed European literature and criticism, medicine and science, theology and ecclesiology, and philosophy and law.
And this was at least as much the case in the realm of political ideas:
[Hebraist] texts radically transformed European political thought and pushed it forcefully toward what we callmodernity.
Nelson attributes our inability to understand this actually quite obvious fact about 17th century political ideas to the common supposition that in medieval and Renaissance Europe, political theory was “fundamentally Christian, an exercise in applied theology”; whereas the philosophers of the 17th century “no longer recognized religious claims as authoritative” and “came to regard them as inherently dangerous to civil peace.” But Nelson says that this accepted reading of history “puts things almost exactly backward”. What was actually going on is that a much less religious Renaissance political tradition gave way, in the age of Reformation, to an overwhelming revival of religious and biblicist sentiment among the political thinkers of the 17th century:
[The accepted] narrative seriously misrepresents the relationship between Renaissance political thought and the political thought of the 17th century. Renaissance humanism, structured as it was by the pagan inheritance of Greek and Roman antiquity, generated an approach to politics that was remarkably secular in character…. It was, rather, in the 17th century, in the full fervor of the Reformation, that… Christians began to regard the Hebrew Bible as a political constitution, designed by God himself for the children of Israel. They also came to see the full array of newly available rabbinical texts as authoritative guides to the institutions and practices of this perfect republic.
Nelson points, for example, to the fact that during the period in question, over one hundred books were published on the subject of the respublica Hebraeorum or “Hebrew republic”—that is, on the nature of the political ideas of the Hebrew Scriptures and their rabbinic interpreters. This is a fact that is well-known to historians of the period. But Nelson understands from this something that has eluded many others: This makes writing about the ancient Jewish state “perhaps the dominant genre of European political writing” for over a century. Given that it was during precisely this “Biblical Century” that modern political thought emerges, Nelson argues that we are going to need a radical rethinking of the development of modern political ideas. What is needed, he says, “is an explanation of how these ideas might have been generated, not as a by-product of advancing secularization, but rather out of the deeply theologized context of the Biblical Century.
To make his case, Nelson proposes to study the emergence of three crucial aspects of modern political thought, which can be shown, he says, to have emerged as a direct result of the increased significance and study of the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic writings in the 17th century. The first of these is what he calls “republican exclusivism”—the belief that monarchy is illegitimate and that only a republican form of government is morally defensible. Nelson argues that until the 17th century, Western discourse on this subject was dominated by the Aristotelian political inheritance, which accepted kingship as one of several legitimate forms of government. The principled opposition to monarchy, on the other hand, enters European discourse only through the famous anti-monarchical passages of the books of Judges and Samuel. These biblical histories depict a spiral of political horrors that bring the Israelites to demand a king. Biblical figures such as Gideon and Samuel oppose the people, but in the end, God relents, telling the prophet Samuel: “Obey the voice of the people in all they have said to you. For they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.
Thus the biblical narrative is unambiguous in depicting the introduction of kingship into Israel as a compromise that arises from the weakness of man’s nature—he could have lived with none but God as his ruler, and yet he insisted on erecting a king of flesh and blood. But does this mean that erecting a king is a capitulation to an illicit urge that should be resisted, just like other forms of idolatry? Or does it mean precisely the opposite—that given the reality of human nature, anointing a king is in fact a moral necessity? The Talmud and Midrash split on this question, as did later rabbinic commentators. And as Nelson persuasively shows, the Christian political theorists of the 17th century took sides along precisely the lines that had been defined by the rabbis in the texts they were reading. In particular, the first rabbinic position—which rules out kingship as intrinsically idolatrous—is one that has no other sources in the Western political tradition. When principled opposition to kingship emerges in the writings of such political thinkers as John Milton and James Harrington, it is the direct result of a reading of Hebrew Scripture backed up by this tradition of rabbinic interpretation. Both Milton and Harrington quote the rabbinic positions on the subject explicitly, and these authors then become the source for others (such as Tom Paine) who follow their lead in reading the Scriptures in this fashion.
By the same token, Nelson claims Hebraic provenance for the emergence during the 17th century of a republicanism committed to using the offices of government to redistribute wealth. On Nelson’s reading, European republicans had historically upheld Cicero’s view that schemes seeking to limit the private ownership of land are akin to sedition, and a radical change becomes possible only with the introduction of the biblical jubilee laws into early modern political theory as an example of a just limitation on the extent of private landholding. He sees this idea as having been introduced by Petrus Cunaeus’ The Hebrew Republic (1617), and adopted from there by Harrington and other leading republican thinkers.
In the final chapter of the book, Nelson makes what is perhaps his boldest claim of all: He argues that the modern concept of religious toleration does not, as is commonly supposed, emerge from the demand for a secular state whose sphere of authority will be “separate” from that of the church. Rather, Nelson attributes the rise of religious toleration in the West to views descending from the Swiss theologian Erastus, who in 1589 argued that the church lacked any legitimate authority to compel public acceptance of religious law because in the Hebrew Bible, it was the judges and kings who wielded the right to enforce religious legislation, and not the priesthood. What became known as the “Erastian” view was thus a Hebraist theory that sought to overthrow the centuries-old Catholic doctrine of the “two swords,” which granted the church sovereignty in religious matters, by showing that the biblical and rabbinic political traditions endorsed no such thing. The Erastian position thus upheld the principle of religious legislation for the public good. But it placed the authority to decide on such legislation in the hands of the civil government, which alone should decide which religious precepts are desirable for the society as a whole, and which would lead to gratuitous persecution of otherwise loyal and peaceable sects.
This powerful line of argument was taken up by Grotius, Cunaeus, Selden, Harrington, Hobbes, and Locke—in short, by almost all the most important political theorists of the 17th century. From this, Nelson concludes that it was not atheism and the rejection of the Hebrew Scriptures (as proposed by Spinoza) that brings about the triumph of religious toleration in Western political thought. Instead, it was the Erastian political theory that won the day for political toleration. And this theory drew its force and worldly reasonableness, not from the rejection of the Hebraic inheritance, but from the fact that it was rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Talmud, and later rabbinic commentators.
Nelson’s three examples can be seen as test cases for the thesis that the Hebrew Scriptures and rabbinic sources contributed to the emergence of significant modern political ideas. Having established his argument in these cases, Nelson concludes that the Enlightenment reading of the 17th century will have to be revised or even discarded, and replaced with a truer picture of these thinkers as pursuing a philosophical agenda that was modern, to a significant degree, precisely because it was biblically informed. As he writes:
Once we are talking about a world in which a republican constitution is seen as a requirement of legitimacy, in which the state uses its coercive power to redistribute wealth, and in which broad toleration is the rule, we are recognizably talking about the modern world. And if that world was, to an important degree, called into being, not by the retreat in religious conviction, but by the deeply held religious belief that the creation of such a world is God’s will, then the traditional narrative will have to be significantly revised, if not discarded.
The argument of Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic is clearly drawn, backed up by an impressive array of historical sources, and—most important of all—throws a penetrating light on a chapter in Western history that has until now been almost completely obscured behind a thick cloud of confusion, ignorance, and residual ideological prejudice left over from a different time. It’s the first really unarguable example of what can be achieved if we are willing to approach the subject of Jewish influence on Western ideas in the early modern period with the creativity, tenacity and guts the subject requires. From now on,Nelson’s work will serve as the gold standard against which further work in this field will be measured.
Nevertheless, I do want to challenge Eric on one important point, which I think prevents The Hebrew Republic from being as illuminating a work as it might have been. This is with regard to the way he makes use of the categories of secular andreligious in the new narrative of early modernity that he’s trying to build, and persuade us to accept.
I suspect that many readers are at this point asking themselves the same question, the “window-dressing question”: How do we know 17th century political theorists such as Grotius, Cunaeus, Selden, Harrington, Hobbes, and Locke weren’t really just closet secularists, cynically manipulating the biblical and rabbinic texts to gain support for what were basically Enlightenment doctrines dressed up in religious garb? In this case, the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic sources had no real impact on the political ideas of the 17th century. They just served as camouflage for people who basically sympathized with Spinoza, but didn’t think it was tactically to their advantage to say so out loud.
In one form or another, this is the way partisans of Enlightenment have always written about the philosophers of the 17th century, and Nelson clearly thinks this view is misguided and should be abandoned. Unfortunately, the evidence he musters doesn’t go head-to-head with this argument. What the copious evidence Nelson musters in The Hebrew Republicclearly shows is that the intellectual environment of 17th century philosophy was flooded with Jewish texts, and that these texts were crucial in permitting the supporters of modern political ideas to advance their cause. This in itself is not small potatoes. If we could all agree to this, it would be a pretty big achievement.
But for Nelson, this isn’t enough. He doesn’t just want to say that Hebraic sources, introduced into public life by religious enthusiasts, were then adoptedby secularizing philosophers to support their pre-existing political agenda. He wants us to understand that there was a causal relationship between the explosion of interest in Hebrew language, the Hebrew Bible, and rabbinic sources—and the decisive changes in political philosophy that took place at precisely the same time. As he writes at the outset:
My aim is to explore how the Hebrew revival changed what it was possible for Europeans to argue…. [Hebraist] texts radically transformed European political thought and pushed it forcefully toward what we call modernity.
To be clear about this, I think Nelson is exactly right here. The exposure to Jewish texts and ideas did have a decisive effect on political thought of the 17th century. The question is—what was the mechanism that allowed this impact? How did Jewish ideas, presumed dead and buried for so long, come to have the effect they really seem to have had?
Nelson’s answer is that the thinkers of the 17th century just weren’t the secularizers we thought they were. They lived in a period of religious “fervor,” in which “appeals to God’s preferences as embodied in Scripture” were commonplace, and acceptance of the “authority” of the biblical and rabbinic texts was a given. This message appears throughout the book, but it is clearest in Nelson’s Introduction, where he sets up an explicit contrast (already quoted in part) between the Hebraist religion of the 17th century and the “remarkably secular” thought of the Renaissance:
Renaissance humanism, structured as it was by the pagan inheritance of Greek and Roman antiquity, generated an approach to politics that was remarkably secular in character. The political science of the humanists did not rely on appeals to Revelation, but rather on a sort of prudential knowledge to be found in the study of history and in the writings of the wise…. It was, rather, in the 17th century, in the full fervor of the Reformation, that political theology reentered the mainstream of European intellectual life. The Protestant summons to return to the Biblical text brought with it incessant appeals to God’s constitutional preferences as embodied in Scripture…. During this period, Christians began to regard the Hebrew Bible as a political constitution, designed by God himself for the children of Israel. They also came to see the full array of newly available rabbinical texts as authoritative guides to the institutions and practices of this perfect republic.
In this passage, Nelson presents us with a stark dichotomy between:
- The “remarkably secular” thinkers of the Renaissance, who “did not rely on appeals to Revelation,” but rather on the kind of “prudential knowledge” that one learns from “the study of history” and “the writings of the wise”; and
- The thinkers of the 17th century, who are characterized by religious “fervor,” “appeals to God’s preferences as embodied in Scripture,” and acceptance of the “authority” of the biblical and (in this passage) rabbinic texts.
This leaves the impression that the 17th century philosophers were in the grip of some kind of prodigious religious fervor, so that when they came across the biblical and rabbinic sources and recognized that they were talking about politics, they had no choice but to suspend their intellectual faculties and bow before the authority of God’s preferences as these appeared in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Talmud.
Nelson doesn’t say this, of course. But neither does he offer us any other way of understanding what was going on. And his silence on this point is deafening: What is he saying about thinkers like Grotius and Selden, Hobbes and Locke? The conceptual framework Nelson himself has provided offers us only two choices: Either they were in the camp of those making fervent appeals to Revelation (and therefore religious); or they were seeking prudential knowledge from the study of history and human wisdom (and therefore secular). And as the Enlightenment thinkers who invented this bogus dichotomy were well aware, it’s nothing but a trap: People like Grotius and Selden weren’t summoning people to bow unquestioningly before the authority of Scripture (much less the Talmud!). They were as interested in prudential knowledge, and in learning from history and from the writings of the wise, as anyone else. So if that’s your definition of being secular—and if the only kind of religion you recognize is characterized by fervent appeals to revelation—then all the 17th century thinkers immediately turn out to be secularizers. The theory that their constant citation of Hebrew Scripture and rabbinic literature is no more than a sham quickly follows. QED.
This means that Nelson’s definitions of what he means by secular and religious aren’t lined up with his marvelously acute intuitions about what was really happening in the 17th century—a century in which philosophers like Grotius, Selden, Hobbes and Locke could be interested in prudential knowledge and also, at the same time, sincere and committed Hebraists. Nelson (and the rest of us) are going to have to make a choice: Either we give up on the secular-religiousdichotomy and develop a new conceptual framework that will permit us to understand how the philosophers of the 17th century could really have been sincere Hebraizers; or we give up on understanding philosophical Hebraism as a historical phenomenon—and conclude that the whole thing was just a sham.
Mark Lilla once told me that “There can be no third way” between secularism and religion as the Enlightenment came to understand these terms. But I think that if we’re ever to understand the 17th century, we’re going to have to free ourselves from this prejudice. The fact is that the Enlightenment dichotomy between the secular and the religious breaks its teeth on the phenomenon that is the Hebrew Scriptures, and the rabbinic tradition that arises from them. The term secular comes from the Latin saeculum, which is used to refer to “this world,” as opposed to some other world. What, then, are we to make of the Hebrew Bible—which is almost exclusively about “this world,” and has between little and nothing to say about any other? Are we to understand by this that the Bible, which celebrates prudential knowledge, is a secular text? Or that in the Hebrew Bible, secularism and religion are not opposed to one another, but rather reinforce one another? Or should we perhaps just say that when it comes to the Hebrew Bible, these terms—which are in any case external to Judaism, and imposed on it from outside—are completely meaningless; and begin the search for better fitted concepts, which can really help us understand what we’re talking about?
I suspect that whatever the answer is, we’re going to need it to understand the 17th century. This is a period in which we see the emergence of Hebraized Christianities, in which the dichotomy between secularism and religion breaks down, and the most pious and religiously serious individuals are often precisely those who are avoiding the blind fervor of some of their countrymen, and engaging in a systematic quest for prudential knowledge using histories and the writings of the wise—including those they find in Hebrew Scriptures and in the writings of the rabbis. Developing an appropriate scheme of concepts for understanding this Biblical Century is one of the great challenges that still lie ahead.
Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic is a stunning book, and a singular achievement. I urge you to read it. There’s been nothing yet like it, and it’s truly a fitting kick-off for the next chapter in the effort to rediscover the place of Jewish ideas in the history of the West.