The BEST: The Hebrew Republic

Raphael Zarum Tradition Online | February 18, 2021

Summary: In The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (2010), Harvard Professor of Government, Eric Nelson, argues against the standard view that Western political thought was founded on secular foundations. Rather, the Christian encounter with traditional Hebrew texts caused the radical transformation of that field in the 16th and 17th centuries. Armed with newly available rabbinic writings, from the Talmud to Maimonides, European Christian scholars “began to regard the Hebrew Bible as a political constitution, designed by God himself for the children of Israel” (3)

Why this is The BEST: I remember how excited Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was when this book first appeared in 2010. Over a decade before, in his The Politics of Hope, R. Sacks was already contrasting the early Western political perspective of self-interest with the Jewish covenantal community, so to read new research that extensively showed the influence of Jewish texts on the political ideas of the likes of Hobbes, Milton, and Locke was both a vindication of his own analysis and an opportunity for further exploration. 

R. Sacks first employed Nelson’s ideas in The Great Partnership, his 2011 book about the relationship between religion and science. “Science,” he wrote, “must be accompanied by another voice. Not in opposition to science, but as the humanizing voice of what once we called the soul” (127). This humanizing voice can be seen in the Bible’s treatment of political power, and was understood and promulgated by early European political thinkers “who argued for constitutional (i.e., limited) monarchy, the principle of toleration and their uniquely modern freedom, the liberty of conscience” (131). R. Sacks then relates this to his understanding of the traditional Jewish perspective which he calls “the politics of freedom.” This is “politics with a human face, the politics that knows the limits of power, as well as the transformative effect of free persons freely joining together to make social institutions worthy of being a home for the divine presence” (143).

In one Torah study, before exploring the revolutionary approach to society and slavery in the sedra of Behar, R. Sacks once again draws on Nelson’s work to explain the biblical basis of two of the revolutions that shaped the modern world: 

The English and American revolutions were inspired by the Hebrew Bible as read and interpreted by the Puritans. This happened because of the convergence of a number of factors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the Reformation, the invention of printing, the rise of literacy and the spread of books, and the availability of the Hebrew Bible in vernacular translations. For the first time, people could read the Bible for themselves, and what they discovered when they read the prophets and stories of civil disobedience like that of Shifrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, was that it is permitted, even sometimes necessary, to resist tyrants in the name of God. The political philosophy of the English revolutionaries and the Puritans who set sail for America in the 1620s and 1630s was dominated by the work of the Christian Hebraists who based their thought on the history of ancient Israel” (Covenant & Conversation: Leviticus, 368).

In another Torah study, this time on Va’ethanan, he focuses on the verses, “This is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6). For R. Sacks an essential element of this wisdom was the Torah’s conception of nationhood. It was this that would inspire other nations. He bases his justification for this on Nelson’s book which he calls “a fine recent study.” He then gives his summary of the key ideas of The Hebrew Republic from his particularly Jewish perspective:

Nelson argues that the Hebrew Bible influenced European and American politics in three ways. First, the Christian Hebraists tended to be republican rather than royalist. They took the view – held in Judaism by Abarbanel – that the appointment of a king in Israel in the days of Samuel was a (tolerated) sin rather than the fulfilment of a mitzvah. Second, they placed at the heart of their politics the idea that one of the tasks of government is to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, an idea alien to Roman law. Third, they used the Hebrew Bible – especially the separation of powers between the king and the High Priest – to argue for the principle of religious toleration” (Covenant & Conversation: Deuteronomy, 61-62).

The Hebrew Republic, which R. Sacks waved at me with delight in his office immediately after it was published, enabled him to further develop his political readings of the Torah and show how rabbinic interpretations, in Nelson’s words, “radically transformed European political thought and pushed it forcefully towards what we call modernity” (22). 

The upshot of all this for us is monumental. We Jews living today in Western states are mistaken in thinking that the political structures of our governments were born out of the Enlightenment’s secularism. Nelson reveals the unintuitive irony that the drive to separate Church and State came from these early modern readings of the Bible. The problems of monarchy, played out so dramatically in the biblical books of Samuel and Kings, and so fervently debated by our rabbinic sages, became the model that convinced these European thinkers of the need for a politics built on liberty. Some of them might have been atheists, but their political aspirations – what R. Sacks called “covenant politics” – came from the pages of our Tanakh

How parochial it is then for us to only take an interest in national politics when it directly concerns our own constituency or national homeland. Knowing that modern ideas of government were constructed from our sacred text should inspire us to be impassioned about its vision for society as a whole. And the dangers associated with covenantal politics that R. Sacks highlighted – overconfidence, moral self-righteousness, ultranationalism, loss of principles leading to corruption and injustice – should be front and center in our minds when we are making important decisions about how we engage in the countries in which we live. 

Our tradition has had much to say about how humans should live together in harmony. If we confine our faith to the halls of study and prayer and ignore the halls of power, we betray God’s revelation to our ancestors which forged the Jewish philosophy of nationhood.

Rabbi Dr. Raphael Zarum is the Dean of the London School of Jewish Studies.

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