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An Ancient Constitution

Thinkers of the 17th century saw the Greek polis and Roman republic as models for democracy. Another source, now forgotten, was Israelite society, says Fania Oz-Salzberger.

Kristin Eliasberg
December 03, 2003

How did the early modern republicans use Jewish sources?

Many major thinkers in the 17th century considered the ancient Hebrew polity to be the first community that exercised the rule of law as an overarching principle of government. You have the English jurist John Selden [1584-1654] devoting all his scholarship to legal Hebraism. To him, the Torah was the ancient Israelite constitution—namely, a very detailed legal mechanism that was the first and best example of natural law, divinely ordained but also a functioning human legal code. He viewed the Torah as a constitution, a moral code of law which could be used to resist any attempts by a king or other strongman to place himself above the law. This is what the Germans would many years later call a Rechtstaat—a state of law, a rule of law. Which is, of course, one of the mainstays of republican government. Selden was able to read Hebrew and studied not only the Torah but also the Talmud, which he used to support his argument about the sophistication of the ancient Jewish legal system. Selden’s reputation ranged far and wide; his works on the ancient Israelite code were known both in England and on the continent.

What about a Biblical foundation for the notion of the republic, which is generally seen as the legacy of Greece or Rome?

Many of the republican thinkers considered the fine balancing act between the Twelve Tribes to be a deeply republican achievement. They also paid attention to the laws giving roughly equal social and economic power to the various tribes and to the families within each tribe. According to ancient Jewish law, every 50 years you have to make an assessment of everybody’s property; if somebody has gained very much over the others, they have to give it back. It’s distributive justice; the idea is that the various families within each tribe have to be on a similar standing in their economic and social status. Here is a critical mainstay of a good republic: as many citizens as possible are economically able to take part in political life.

In Holland, the political philosopher known as Cunaeus [1568-1638] wrote an effective book called The Commonwealth of the Hebrews, which invoked both the notion of federalism and the notion of social justice. James Harrington, John Milton, and other members of the generation of the English revolution also found the Old Testament a convenient source of inspiration. They interpreted the laws of equity—whether rightly or wrongly, that’s another question—as creating the best economic model for a republic in which as many people as possible have property and therefore can participate in political life.

How did these theorists decide to turn to the Hebrew Bible?

Thanks to Protestantism, the Old Testament, translated into vernacular language, appeared on kitchen tables in many Northern European homes during the 16th century. Thanks to humanist scholarship, Hebrew was elevated to the status of a lingua sacra, and taught in theology faculties in Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere. Hebraism became a central part of late humanist scholarship. Political Hebraism, which I am interested in, was a natural outgrowth: The Bible had so much to offer political theorists by way of social and political experience.

Did these theorists have any contact with Jewish scholars?

Someone like John Selden probably never met a Jew in his life: Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, and were not readmitted until after Selden’s death. But other English jurists of his time traveled to Geneva and Amsterdam, where they took part in the wonderful though brief period of scholarly and social interaction between Jewish rabbis, primarily exiles from Spain, and Christian scholars, particularly the Calvinists.

John Locke, you claim, was influenced by Biblical ideas about economic equity. How do you square this vision with his reputation as an unadulterated capitalist?

He’s not part of the Chicago School, though the Chicago School would be happy to take Locke on board. He actually cared a great deal for social solidarity. He wrote a beautiful sentence in an early essay saying that material possessions “are never so much ours that they cease to be God’s.” The idea that everything we have is, first and foremost, the property of God underlies Locke’s insistence that charity is a duty, not a question of individual decision. John Locke is a Christian deeply influenced by the Old Testament, and not a modern free-market figure.

How would you distinguish this conception of social solidarity from the Christian notion of charity?

In the Jewish tradition, charity is embedded in a legal system. The ancient agricultural laws insist that you give away some of your product. These are very impressive laws enforcing on the rich and on landowners a whole set of charity norms: They have to give away a certain part of their agricultural product for the use of the poorest members of society, whom the Bible calls by the token names of widow, orphan, and foreigner. That is different from the Christian notion of charity, which leaves good deeds to voluntary goodwill alone.

How did you notice these Jewish sources of European political thought?

By accident. Like many other students at Tel Aviv University in the 1980s, I steered clear of Jewish history and opted for what we called “general history”—which amounts to everything but Jewish history. At Oxford, I specialized in early modern European political theory in the British Isles. But as my research began to encompass early modern republican thought in Europe, I began to note the profound influence of Jewish texts and ideas on mainstream European political thought. What amazed me was the extent to which the Jewish contribution went unnoticed and underresearched.

Why do you think what you find to be such an obvious and important influence would have been overlooked?

When we talk about Jewish contributions to European history, we do not think of political theory. The dominant approach to the history of political thought for the last 25 years has treated their frequent biblical references—to both Old and New Testaments—as quaint remnants of the theological past. Though they acknowledged that political philosophers like James Harrington and John Locke knew the Bible and quoted from it, the Bible itself was never acknowledged as a genuine source of inspiration for political theory.

Part of the problem lies with the modern understanding of the Bible as a solely religious text detached from modern socio-political theory—unless you are a Christian fundamentalist or its Jewish equivalent, an ultra-Orthodox nationalist who thinks modern Israel should be replaced by a Torah state. Otherwise, I think modern thinkers overlook the secular legacy of the scripture, whereas the 17th-century thinkers themselves took the ancient Israelite political society to be a valid historical model equal to—and perhaps better than—the Greek polis or Roman republic. They took the Torah to be a viable ancient constitution. You could be a great contributor to secular political thought, like Thomas Hobbes, and nevertheless treat the Bible with great respect as a model for modern theory.

Why is teasing out the Jewish roots of 17th-century democratic theory relevant today?

For two reasons this line of thinking might provide a useful path. The first has to do with a debate over the idea that Israel can only be a Jewish or a democratic state, but not both. If we notice that modern liberal democracy has quite a few “Jewish genes,” we see that this is not a dichotomy at all. Democracy is not alien to Judaism. Liberal democracy is partly made of early modern republican thought, and Jewish sources contributed to that early modern European political discourse.

The second reason has to do with the current state of dialogue between the European Union and the Jewish world. Europeans must become more aware of the Jewish fingerprints on their own culture. Jews were not just the victims of Europe. They were the co-architects of modern European political thinking. This could be a good basis for reconstructing a dialogue—which is now in deep trouble. I think this dialogue must be cultural and historical before it becomes political.