“Rabbi” John Selden used to spend many evenings enjoying a glass of sack or a pint of ale (or several) at the Mermaid Tavern located between Friday and Bread Street. Drinking within distance of the bells of St. Paul’s, the good “rabbi” would share the insights of his brilliant jurisprudential mind with Jacobean England’s intelligentsia; here, the Inner Temple legalist argued over bitters with the playwright Ben Jonson (who called his friend the “Monarch of Letters”), or heard from William Strachey about the dramatic crash of the Sea Adventurer off the coast of Bermuda. When he was younger, he may well have shared a drink at the Mermaid with that establishment’s most famous regular, William Shakespeare, who based a play called The Tempest on Strachey’s story about that Atlantic shipwreck, which was possibly recounted to him in that very pub. When the explorer Walter Raleigh wasn’t imprisoned he would frequent the tavern too, as would the poet John Donne. An informal gathering of writers and intellectuals called the “Sireniacal Gentleman” often met at the Mermaid (alongside a group with the similarly unlikely name of the “Damned Crew”). It was certainly an unusual synagogue.
So what conversations did “Rabbi” Selden have with his congregants? Did he discuss his suggestion that Parliament (of which he would eventually become a member) should organize itself along the lines of the ancient Jewish Sanhedrin? Or the possibility that the Karaites of Turkey were a type of “Jewish Protestant”? Or did he share a letter he received from another scholar, Johannes Rittangel, that was addressed from a “yeshiva” of no small renown called Cambridge University?
“Rabbi” Selden wasn’t Jewish, of course. He was a dutiful member of the Church of England, baptized at the parish church of St. Andrews in West Sussex, a faithful Protestant who tended toward more High Church affectations. While not a rabbi, or even a Jew, Selden was the first Englishman to write comprehensive Talmudic scholarship, fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic (among other languages) and composing thousands of pages of Midrash. He was also one of England’s greatest historians, and probably its finest legal theorist.
Selden’s studies of Judaism were accomplished without personally knowing any practicing Jews (though he corresponded with many learned rabbis by letter), for they had been expelled during the 13th-century reign of Edward I. With a small community of mostly Sephardic crypto-Jews living in London at the time, scholar Jason Rosenblatt convincingly argues in Renaissance England’s Chief Rabbi, Selden was the most knowledgeable person concerning Judaism anywhere in the British Isles, if not simply “the most learned person in England in the seventeenth century.” In his seminal study of Selden’s Hebraism and its relation to English Renaissance literature, Rosenblatt writes that “England, after all, unlike some other European countries its size, never produced a great medieval or early modern rabbinic sage.” England had no Maimonides, and it had no Rashi; it had Selden.
Christian Hebraism began with the Renaissance reading of Judaism in a Christian or secular context, producing something that could anachronistically be called “Jewish Studies.” Selden may have been the most prominent example of this type of scholar in England, but he was by no means the first in Europe, or arguably even in the wider Western world. Relations between Jews and gentiles generated an equivalent interest in cultural difference far back into antiquity, through the Middle Ages, and into the Renaissance. The Hellenistic Pharaoh Ptolemy II’s quasi-mythic commissioning of 72 Jewish translators to prepare the Greek text of the Septuagint three centuries before the Common Era is one early example of non-Jews expressing an intellectual curiosity about Judaism.
Greco-Roman fascination with Judaism was enduring and deep. Some four to six centuries after the translation of the Septuagint and during the early Common Era the Roman literary critic Pseudo-Longinus in his On the Sublime presents the Jewish God as a potent example of the philosophical and aesthetic concept that his treatise expounded upon. He writes that “the lawgiver of the Jews—no mean genius, for he both understood and gave expression to the power of the divinity as it deserved… wrote at the very beginning of his laws… ‘God said,’—what was it?—‘Let there be light, and there was. Let there be earth, and there was.’ ” Note the evocative misquote—yet even if Pseudo-Longinus may have been a Hellenized Jew (like both the Egyptian philosopher Philo and the Roman historian Josephus) his example demonstrates a gentile interest and appreciation for the study of Jewish subjects and texts.
England had no Maimonides, and it had no Rashi; it had Selden.
The Tanakh itself shows evidence of Greek and Jewish syncretism, Ecclesiastes evidences some large similarities to Epicurean philosophy (even as epikoros became the Hebrew slur for an apostate), and Job arguably follows the dramaturgical structure of classical tragedy. By the era of Roman domination of Judea during the time of the Second Temple, there is ample evidence of large communities of gentile yir’ei Hashem, or “God-fearers,” in the Mediterranean world. These were gentiles who did not convert to Judaism, but still recognized the religious authority and validity of the Noahide covenant (as Selden would), and lived ritually and morally in conjunction with it. If evidence from the book of Acts is taken as authoritative, they seemed fairly content that this covenant did not require them to be circumcised.
In the classical world, Jewish practice and thought was one intellectual option among many that included Epicureanism, Stoicism, various mystery cults, and eventually Christianity (to which it can be assumed many of that earlier group eventually converted). In many ways, these gentile God-fearers were first in a long tradition of groups that would be slurred as “Judaizers,” that is gentiles who were understood by their coreligionists as being a bit too Jewish in their practice. What marks the God-fearers as so fascinating is that they were ethnically, linguistically, and culturally clearly not Jewish, yet felt a pull to Hebraic tradition and theology. Groups such as the early Christian Ebionites, who believed that the entirety of Mosaic Law must be followed even if one is a baptized Christian, were almost entirely ethnically Jewish. The God-fearers, in coming from a gentile cultural background signify something different, a distinctly non-Jewish fascination and respect for Judaism.
In identifying the emergence of Jewish Studies as an academic discipline we need to separate out intellectual curiosity from doctrinal piety—no easy task in a world where secularism was an impossibility. Academic disciplines and departments, like all aspects of our contemporary secular period, evolved from earlier religious antecedents. As such, especially as Christianity emerged as the dominant ideological system in late antiquity, discussions of Jews and Judaism couldn’t be theologically neutral, and so these scholarly writings almost always had the gloss of Christian apologetics, whether the standard anti-Judaism of patristic thinkers like Augustine, or the vociferous, teeth-gnashing bigotry of a writer like Marcion (who it should be said was ultimately condemned as a heretic, even if he was instrumental in the development of the New Testament canon). Any account of non-Jewish intellectual curiosity about Judaism must, of course, take into account those separations between Jew and gentile.
Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity both developed as intellectual approaches to conceptualizing the relationship between God and man in a post-Temple world. Perhaps dating from the first century Church Council of Jerusalem, the two groups would increasingly define themselves in different ways. For Jews, the new Temple would in many ways be the Torah itself, while for Christians it was the person of Christ. This distinction is important for conceptualizing what Jewish Studies could be because it sets the contours of who was a Jew and who was not.
Anti-Judaism was central to most Christian discussions of Judaism from late antiquity through the Middle Ages. Outside of the relatively tolerant Islamic world, the scholarly study of Jews was overwhelmingly polemical in its denunciations. This often hinged on Christian attacks on the veracity and morality of the Talmud, with centers of Jewish Talmudic thought often subject to attack both intellectual and physical throughout the Middle Ages, and the Talmud itself put on trial. Christian theologians of the period had difficulty with both their faith’s relationship to Judaism, as well as the continued existence of the Jews who maintained their religious beliefs and practices despite Christianity’s existence. Since a variation of the Hebrew Scriptures lay at the center of Christianity, it was easier to attack the post-biblical rabbinical Talmud.
In part the Talmud was such a convenient locus of polemic because its sheer length and complexity all but guaranteed that even the most learned scholastic and monastic authorities would have been unfamiliar with its contents, and thus accusations of its immorality or “anti-Christian” nature could be spread amongst a populace who had no means of evaluating the veracity of such claims. Rosenblatt describes the first printed Babylonian Talmud, produced under papal license by Daniel Bomberg in the liberal environs of Venice in 1520, consisting of “forty-four tractates approximately two and a half million words on 5,894 folio pages, unadorned by either vowel points or punctuation.” Three years later Bomberg published the Jerusalem Talmud in its entirety; ultimately many copies would find themselves burnt in Rome’s Campo de Flori.
It wasn’t until a century after this first printing that Christians like Selden would even begin to gain mastery of the Talmud; it existed in the Christian imagination as a dangerous book that set the Jews apart in their perfidy. There were attacks on the Talmud from the time of the 5th-century Byzantine emperor Justinian through the next millennium, including a 13th-century Spanish disputation where it was defended by Nahmanides, public burnings in France during the same century, accusations against it in 15th century Aragon, and throughout the rest of the period as well. In Christian apologetics of the time, the Talmud could be marked as distinctly Jewish, while the Bible was understood as having supersessionally passed into Christian hands away from those who first wrote it.
One of the first great Christian defenses of the Talmud (and there had been intermittent ones in the past) was delivered by Selden’s precursor in Jewish Studies, the German scholar Johannes Reuchlin. A faithful German Catholic, Reuchlin’s defense of the Talmud was against scurrilous accusations leveled by a converted Jew named Johannes Pfefferkorn. The “Pfefferkorn Affair” became a seminal event in Renaissance history, as intellectual luminaries like Desiderius Erasmus weighed in on the apostate Jew’s proposal that copies of the Talmud need to be immolated. It was in 1509 in a Europe on the verge of Reformation that Pfefferkorn, a man of dubious background (having been imprisoned for robbery and if anything an opportunist), claimed that, “The causes which hinder the Jews from becoming Christians are… because they honor the Talmud.” The Dominicans of Cologne agreed. As a result, authorities confiscated Jewish books to be burned. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian wasn’t so sure, and so Reuchlin, master philologist, and consummate humanist, was enlisted to examine the matter and to ascertain the validity of Pfefferkorn’s claims. Reuchlin was a practitioner of Renaissance humanism as it spread from its origins in Italy through the rest of Europe. He is among that earliest generation of citizens in the “Republic of Letters,” who could be seen as precedents for academic scholarship as it came to be practiced in the West.
A half-century of historiographical triumphalism has commonly taught that the Renaissance was a profound rupture between the medieval and the modern; the reality is both more mundane and more interesting. Fundamentally humanism was a pedagogical approach, and a method of scholarship defining itself against the Aristotelian scholasticisms of the previous centuries. If the humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries were anything, they were academics who approached the questions they investigated by recourse to a set of methodologies and guidelines that strikes us as if not modern, at least as anticipating the modern. This was after all the period when the great universities of Europe—Oxford, Bologna, Salamanca, Paris, Valladolid, Basel—first began to distinguish themselves in the disciplines of the liberal arts. And this is the first period where something like contemporary masters and doctoral degrees first emerge. Scholars like Lorenzo Valla who marshaled in the 15th century detailed linguistic arguments to demonstrate why The Donation of Constantine was a forgery or Erasmus’ historical explanation of why the Comma Johanneum was an interpolation into the New Testament, embodied this free-ranging and fearless approach to texts. This approach in large part was based in a sober and rational consideration of the linguistics and philology of classical languages like Greek and Latin—and ultimately Hebrew. This is not incidental to the development of Jewish Studies—indeed Reuchlin was perhaps the progenitor of that discipline as it emerged out of the new scholarship of the Renaissance, and thus was the perfect individual to defend the Talmud against the accusations of Pfefferkorn.
Reuchlin studied what came to be called the Christian kabbalah under the tutelage of the occult philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola at his Neo-Platonic academy in Florence. This Christian Kabbalah would become one of the central metaphysical systems of the Renaissance, and a source of an enduring fascination concerning the Jews. From della Mirandola, the German scholar derived a deep knowledge of Hebrew texts beyond simply that of the Tanakh, but of the Talmud and even the Zohar as well. His De Rudimentis Hebraicis arguably stood as the ultimate example of Renaissance Jewish exegetical thought penned by a non-Jew. No Christian Hebraist would surpass Reuchlin in their knowledge of Judaism until Selden; there is no doubt that despite Pfefferkorn being raised as a Jew that Reuchlin understood the religion far more, and was more sympathetic toward it as well. Rancorous pamphlet wars that would put any contemporary internet fight to shame marked the intellectual life of the era (as a perusal of the correspondence between Thomas More and William Tyndale can substantiate). Reuchlin and Pfefferkorn did not disappoint, with the later even accusing the former of being bribed by the Jews for his support.
Reuchlin’s campaign on behalf of the Talmud was difficult, he was called before the Inquisition several times, and faced severe denunciations by other academics. He would ultimately be victorious, however, and then some—one result was that Maximilian ordered that every German university should have at least two professors of Hebrew, arguably the beginnings of contemporary academic Jewish Studies. There remained a dark irony in his victory, however; in part, it was suspicion about Pfefferkorn’s own Jewish ancestry and all the implied markers of supposed essential duplicity, which tainted his denunciations of the Talmud as untrustworthy. Witness Erasmus’s characterization of him as “a criminal Jew who had become a most criminal Christian.”
While professors in Germany argued either for or against the Talmud, and while it was being printed in Venice, no copy of it existed in England, which after all supposedly had no Jews. England’s lack of a Talmud changed in 1529, shortly following the settlement of the Pfefferkorn Affair in a Germany now being roiled by the earliest years of the Reformation when none other than Henry VIII requested the importation of Bomberg’s printing of the Talmud for his personal library. Its purpose? Research—to find rabbinical justification to aid in his annulment from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.
It was a different copy of the Talmud which Selden references a century later in 1621 when imprisoned for his role in drafting a protestation about the rights of the House of Commons. He cheekily wrote to his compatriot Sir Robert Cotton, “I have much time here before me, and there is in Westminster Library the Talmud of Babylon in diverse great volumes. If it be a thing to be obtained, I would beseech you to borrow them.” Although an estimably respected scholar already, it was Selden’s reading of this Talmud acquired during his brief imprisonment that would transform him into the greatest Christian Hebraist of the age. Already celebrated for De Diis Syris (1617), as Rosenblatt enumerates, his writings following his imprisonment included:
six works, some of them immense, that add to the scholarship remarkable competence in the Babylonian-Aramaic texts of the Talmud: De Successionibus ad Leges Ebraeorum in Bona Defunctorum (1631), which covers every phase of the Jewish law of the Hebrew priesthood; De Jure Naturali et Gentium juxta Disciplinam Ebraeorum (1640), which conceives of the imperatives of natural law in terms of the rabbinic Noahide laws, or pracepta Noachidarum, divine voluntary universal laws of perpetual obligations; De Anno Civili (1644), a lucid and methodical account of the Jewish calendar and its principles as well as a treatise on the doctrines and practices of the Karaite sect; Uxor Ebraica seu De Nuptiis et Divortiis Veterum Ebraeorum (1646), a thorough survey of the Jewish law of marriage and divorce and of the status of the married woman under Jewish law and the massive De Syedriis, in three books (1650, 1653, 1655, the last, incomplete and published posthumously), a study of Jewish assemblies, including the Sanhedrin, with parallels from Roman and canon law.
Rosenblatt’s 2006 book published by Oxford University Press (housed at Selden’s alma mater) is the authoritative study of the Hebraist’s out-sized influence on 17th-century England, and the ways in which that influence can be seen in writers like Jonson, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton. That last listed poet, one of the most learned men of the century, deferred to Selden’s immense knowledge of Hebrew, and it was from the Hebraist that Milton drew the massive list of demonic names that populate the parliament of Pandemonium in Paradise Lost’s first and second books.
There is a telling and fascinating correspondence between Selden and his drinking buddy Jonson that demonstrates the intellectual finesse of the scholar, his acute, analytical, rabbinical mind arguably exhibiting that style called pilpul, that is of “peppery reasoning.” In 1614, seven years before Selden would acquire his Talmud, Jonson wrote to his friend concerning the question of cross-dressing in the theater. With secular theater being an innovation only a generation old, religious authorities, in particular, the Puritans, had condemned the practice of boys performing in women’s clothing as immoral and indecent. Massive tomes such as 1633’s Histriomastix by the Puritan William Prynne, which got its author’s ears cut off after declaring that actresses were “notorious whores” (one of the few actresses on the stage at the time being Queen Henrietta Maria), were a common genre.
Jonson, who despite his popularity was always in a precarious religious position as he oscillated between Anglican to Catholic and back again, consulted Selden on what the actual biblical interpretation regarding cross-dressing would be. The playwright whose livelihood depended on a theater that was being attacked for supposed “monstrous androgyny, boys in delicate dresses worshipping Venus with bears” needed the analytical expertise of a rabbi to explain how theatrical cross-dressing and the Bible could be reconciled. He writes to Selden specifically about the proper interpretation of Deuteronomy 22:5, which was commonly marshaled by Puritans in condemnation of the theater. The poet inquires to “the literal sense and historical of the holy text usually brought against the counterfeiting of the sexes by apparel.” On the Continent, the practice of Jews sending letters to learned rabbis for insight into the proper application of Halakha was a common genre called responsa, of which hundreds of thousands of examples survive. Rosenblatt and his fellow scholar Winfried Schleiner convincingly argue that Selden’s reply to Jonson is a type of responsa, where Selden specifically utilizes the reasoning of Maimonides to assure Jonson that theatrical cross-dressing is biblical permitted.
Selden’s nimble and rigorous logic is based in a historically contextualized understanding of the Bible, which avoids the unsophisticated literalisms of the theaters’ critics by embracing the nuanced interpretation of Maimonides. The verse in question reads, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment.” Selden explains to Jonson that what seems straightforward is not so. Based on his knowledge of Hebrew he explains that Deuteronomy 22:5 refers not to women in men’s clothes, but rather to specifically armor, and as such is not a condemnation of cross-dressing but of specifically ancient pagan rites that involved the worship of Venus and Mars, making theatrical cross-dressing kosher.
Jonson took this explanation to heart, when later that year in his experimental masterpiece Bartholomew Fayre he mocked the fussy Puritan condemnations of the theater by having a ridiculous character Zeal-Of-The-Land Busy lose a disputation to the puppet Dionysius, who ultimately finds victory in the debate by dropping his puppet-pants and demonstrating that his kind have no genitals, and are thus not guilty of cross-dressing. While played for laughs, Dionysius’s act is also meant to show the ridiculousness of religious zealotry. In this, Jonson was inspired by the tolerant and liberal understanding that Selden inherited from the Rambam. As Rosenblatt writes, “Selden’s letter on cross-dressing is a rare and important example of calm tolerance.” It is humbling to remember that 400 years ago Selden acknowledged the naturalness and reality of gender fluidity, basing his reading on correct biblical etymology and not cold literal misinterpretation, and furthermore, he did this in defense of Renaissance England’s greatest cultural contribution, it’s stage art.
True inheritor of Renaissance humanism and humble student of a culture not his own, Selden was one of England’s finest cosmopolitans for whom wisdom was found where it was found. His worldview was expansive and generous, as he wrote, “’Tis much the doctrine of the times that men should not please themselves, but deny themselves everything they take delight in; not look upon beauty, wear no good clothes, eat no good meat, etc., which seems the greatest accusation that can be upon the Maker of all good things. If they are not to be used, why did God make them?” This humane perspective, and sense of religious toleration and flexibility marked Selden’s political writings, which alongside his continental equal Hugo Grotius, were instrumental in the development of a philosophy of international law.
The Noahide Covenant, in particular, fascinated Selden; the same contract that the God-fearers 15 centuries before him had believed designated the behavior of Jew and non-Jew alike. These are the seven laws given to Noah that the Talmud claims are binding on all of humanity, and from their existence, Selden developed a theory of the universal nature of law. Grounded in an exegetical reading of Genesis, the Talmud argues that the entirety of humanity was given this universal covenant that included injunctions against murder, theft, and animal cruelty among others, and the requirement for each people to establish courts suited to the needs of their individual culture. Based on his reading of the Talmud, Selden argued that the legal systems of every country (say the system in England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and so on) can vary in certain matters of custom and tradition, but that ultimately these courts must be grounded in certain universal principals. In Selden’s perspective, the law cannot be arbitrary, and violations that contradict this universal covenant are not legally justified.
Selden’s legal and ethical vision in many ways anticipates the Enlightenment of a century later. While “natural rights” were very much an 18th-century concept, Selden’s argument for basic, universally binding ethical precepts existing beyond nation, language, or religion anticipate the rationalist political and moral shifts to come. There is something appropriate in the fact that the progressive political movements of the coming revolutionary age, which would find Europe’s ghettos liberated and Jews accepted in their nations as citizens for the first time, in part had its precedent in the thinking of a Christian inspired by rabbinical thought. What John Selden offers is a fascinatingly respectful, if not deferential, reading of Judaism on its own terms. While the problematic nature of cultural appropriation is raised, one must still marvel at the unprecedented ecumenical esteem in which Selden held Jews. As Rosenblatt writes, “One might argue that Selden is precious precisely because he is uncommon, like the courageous few who throughout history have refused to be swallowed up by the mob.”
In 1655, crowds in London would have seen a sight that they may have expected to be curious, save for how surprisingly unremarkable it must have been. The English populace had long been familiar with the idea of a Jew, Shylock, and Barabas creeping upon the stage with fake nose and red fright wig, and the Christ-killer slur of Holy Week sermons. But here, in the increasingly massive and cosmopolitan English capital, walked an actual, practicing, open Jew for the first time in 365 years. A Dutch rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel, strolled through the capital on a fall day that year, perhaps pass the Mermaid Tavern, or through the East End which would one day be populated with many Jewish immigrants, or maybe he perused the bookstalls of St. Paul’s whose massive dome would not be built for a few more decades. But for anyone paying attention to that man in the crowd, they would not see a fake nose and red fright wig, but rather a staid, unassuming man. Ben Israel, with his long, dark Van Dyke and his plain starched white collar and wide-brimmed hat in the Dutch style looked more like an engraving by Rembrandt (who did, indeed, draw him) than the stock Jewish character of anti-Semitic stereotype whom the English crowd was familiar with. If anything, in his simple black cloak, the rabbi looked like nothing so much as a sober, conservative Protestant parson.
A decade before, the rabbi had met a Portuguese Jew who had returned from the Brazilian colonies, convinced that the Indians were remnants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Among Jews as well as Christians the 17th-century was a messianic era, and the reports from the mistaken Jew convinced the Dutch rabbi that the Jewish people must be fully dispersed to all corners of the globe to hasten the arrival of the Mashiach. But America was very far away, England only across the North Sea. And so Menasseh ben Israel decided to initiate negotiations with the English government to secure the passage of his people to that isle.
With the Interregnum government of Oliver Cromwell, ben Israel’s diplomacy took on a new immediacy, as the Puritans sometimes saw themselves as New Hebrews, and were thus theoretically amenable to the rabbi’s request. The Lord Protector had his own millenarian hopes for Christ’s return in his lifetime, and he may have been swayed by ben Israel’s arguments. Cromwell, always a cagey operator, may also have been enticed by the possibility of Jewish merchants transferring their lucrative connections to Spanish traders from Holland to England. And so the rabbi was dispatched to Westminster to argue before this English Pharaoh on behalf of the Israelites.
The possibility of Jewish readmission was hardly unequivocally supported. None other than William Prynne, he of the denunciations against theatrical cross-dressing, vociferously argued against the Jewish admittance into the Commonwealth. Ben Israel summoned his considerable scriptural knowledge to argue the religious necessity that England should lift the ban on the Jews (while his congregation in Amsterdam ironically took his absence as an opportunity to excommunicate a student of his, a meddlesome epikoros named Baruch Spinoza). But ultimately the conference decided that there was no legal cause to continual barring the Jewish people from England. And so one writer simply recorded in his diary “Now were the Jews admitted.” If Cromwell expected Christ to come, he didn’t; and if ben Israel expected the Mashiach to arrive, he also didn’t. But the Jews did come, and England was better for it.
Selden never got to converse with ben Israel, or any other Jew in the flesh for that matter, never seeing the fulfillment of his work. The scholar had died the year before. But in those chambers, surrounded by the political and religious luminaries of Commonwealth England, the spirit that presided was that of Selden, whose advocacy and defense of both religious liberty and for the Jews had made ben Israel’s arrival possible.
Ed Simon is a senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books and an adjunct assistant professor of English and Media Studies at Bentley University. He is the author of America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion. His Twitter feed is @WithEdSimon.