Eric Nelson. The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought. Harvard University Press. 240 Pages. $27.95
The intellectual historian Mark Lilla has called the “Great Separation” that moment in the West’s history when theology was decisively banished from political theory. This Great Separation — traditionally dated, if somewhat roughly, to the beginning of the 17th century — marked the end of political theology, a way of thinking about and justifying political institutions through scripture. Political legitimacy, henceforth, demanded secular justification alone, an achievement that Lilla thinks the West should regard as one of its highest. Here is Lilla’s description of this moment, taken from the pages of his book The Stillborn God:
divine . . . did not. It was replaced by a new approach to politics focused exclusively on human nature and human needs. A Great Separation took place, severing Western political philosophy from cosmology and theology. It remains the most distinctive feature of the modern West to this day.
Other distinguished scholars, such as Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self and Jerome Schneewind in The Invention of Autonomy, have reached similar conclusions about the dawn of our secular age.
Eric Nelson’s new book The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought claims that this traditional story is not only wrong but “almost exactly backward.” “It was,” Nelson says, “in the seventeenth century, in the full fervor of the Reformation, that political theology reentered the mainstream of European intellectual life.” This revived political theology — developed by Locke, Grotius, Milton, and other less well-known figures — took its bearings from that commonwealth in the title of Nelson’s book: the respublica Hebraeorum, the Hebrew republic. But more importantly, claims Nelson, this new political theology gave the West at least three central commitments whose authority it imagines to be solely secular. On Nelson’s radical argument, these commitments — to toleration, rough material equality, and republican government — entered Western political thought only after having been discovered in the Hebrew Bible.
We are now fairly nonplussed by such “everything-you-thought-was-wrong” contrarianism. The canonical stories are canonical, after all, because they are at least mostly right and are certainly not “almost exactly backward.” But in a mere 139 pages of text Nelson has convinced me that most of what I — and, I gather, most others — thought about the history of early-modern political thought is almost exactly backward. The Hebrew Republic is a landmark achievement — astonishingly learned, lucidly written, and thoroughly persuasive. Its small size and quiet prose mask its tremendous power; it’s a little explosive device, positioned at just the right spot, and might just bring down a massive intellectual edifice.
Nelson’s story begins with the revival of scholarly interest in the Hebrew Bible in the late 15th century, a time when Hebrew texts and grammars became more widely-available in Christian Europe. The revival received added impetus from the Reformation’s commitment to sola scriptura, which made, in Nelson’s words, “the study of the Bible a Christian duty and led Protestants back to the original texts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament to an unprecedented degree.” More important still was the spirit in which the texts were approached. The Reformation broke “the conventional Catholic view that the Hebrew Bible should be regarded as a typological prefiguration of the Gospel. On this traditional account, the Pentateuch was not to be read primarily as an account of Israelite history, but rather as an allegorized prophecy of Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection; its laws were not to be studied as the regulations of an actual human community, but rather as vatic intimations of the Christian sacraments.” Protestant scholars, by contrast, “were much more likely to regard the Hebrew Bible as worthy of study on its own terms.” This meant reading the first five books of Moses as, quite literally, an account of a political constitution — the Hebrew republic — as worthy of study as Athens or Rome. Or, rather, infinitely more worthy of study than the heathens’ Athens and Rome. If the Hebrew republic outlined in the five books of Moses had been designed by God, surely it was the one most worthy of imitation. Athens and Rome may have had statesmen of wisdom and character, but the Hebrews had Yahweh.
The problem was trying to determine exactly what sort of republic God had given to the Hebrews. How was one to decipher and decode the massively complex and, at times, irreducibly odd farrago of injunctions? To this end, says Nelson, Christian scholars turned to the “full array of rabbinic sources” that had also become available — the Talmud, Midrash, targums, and medieval law codes. The 16th-century Hebraist Henry Ainsworth captured the strange mixture of reverence and confusion (tinged perhaps with a hint of anti-Semitism) Christian scholars felt before this Jewish exegetical tradition. To make the Hebrew Bible reveal its secrets, he counseled, one must consult the “Hebrew doctors of the ancienter sort, and some of the best esteem for learning . . . to give light to the ordinances of Moses touching the externall practice of them in the commonwealth of Israel, which the Rabbines did record, and without whose help, many of those legall rites (especially in Exodus and Leviticus) will not easily be understood.” Jews, thought Ainsworth, were “for the most part blinde,” but not when it came to understanding their sacred scripture.
What the Hebrew doctors of the ancienter sort — from Josephus and Maimonides to obscure medieval exegetes — helped these early-modern Christians understand about God’s political plan for the Hebrews was essentially threefold: First, that God considered republics the only legitimate constitutional form; second, that God encouraged the redistribution of wealth through coercive state action; third, that God desired a republic broadly tolerant in questions of belief. God, then, wanted a tolerant, redistributive republic; and because God wanted it, so did Locke, Grotius, and Milton; and because they did, so do we.
The Hebrew Bible does not look to be rife with republican sentiment, and for a long time actually provided evidence that God not only condoned but preferred monarchical government. At Deuteronomy 17:14–15 God famously gives these instructions to his chosen people: “When thou are come unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me; Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee.” Most Talumudic glosses on this passage — which, to my eyes at least, looks like a straightforward endorsement of kingship — lent support to early-modern monarchists who were keen to remind republican rousers that just as God wanted a king for the Israelites, so ought they. But this was not the only interpretation of the passage and Nelson shows that an entirely different tradition of Jewish commentary proved decisive for republican political theory.
This different tradition was the one “found . . . in the Devarim Rabbah, a compendium of classical Midrashim (rabbinic exegetical commentary) . . . most likely redacted at the end of the ninth century.” This tradition turned the Deuteronomy passage on its head. Far from endorsing monarchy, insisted this tradition, Deuteronomy 17:15 reveals monarchy as a sin. Indeed, because monarchy involved “bowing down to flesh and blood instead of God,” it was “tantamount to idolatry,” the most egregious of all sins. Milton emphatically endorsed this argument and put it to his own republican ends: “God indeed gives evidence throughout of his great displeasure at [the Israelites’] request for a king — thus in [1 Samuel 8] verse 7: ‘They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them, according to all the works which they have done wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods.’ The meaning is that it is a form of idolatry to ask for a king, who demands the he be worshipped and granted honors like those of a god.”
Nelson expertly shows how such an argument would simply not have been available to Milton had it not been for the rediscovery of the Midrashic tradition. For quite some time, in fact, the passage mentioned by Milton — 1 Samuel 8:7 — had actually been interpreted in the same un-republican manner as had Deuteronomy. Monarchists took the passage not as evidence of God’s distaste for kings, but merely as evidence of God’s distaste for the disorderly way the Israelites asked for a king. But the Midrashic tradition ran in exactly the other direction and gave Milton and others like James Harrington (and, still later, Thomas Paine) the authority to insist that God’s preferences were exclusively republican. Monarchical rule was reserved for God and God alone, as Milton has Adam lament near the end of Paradise Lost:
Above his brethren, to himself
Authority usurped, from God not
He gave us only over beast, fish,
Dominion absolute; that right we
By his donation; but man over men
He made not lord; such title to
Reserving, human left from human
From this point on, monarchism ceased to be a credible option for modern political thought. While we might thank Milton, he might have thanked the rabbis of the Midrash.
The second major innovation Nelson credits Jewish sources with having introduced to early-modern political thought has been slightly less decisive. This is a commitment — by no means universally shared — to redistributive schemes in the service of mitigating economic inequality. Contemporary republicans like Philip Pettit endorse such schemes on the grounds that extreme economic inequality is a form of unfreedom incompatible with self-government. Though Pettit does not source his commitment to redistribution to doctors of the “ancienter sort,” Nelson claims that it was only through the early-modern encounter with Jewish scholarship on the Hebrew Bible that any, however minimal, investment in redistributive schemes got a footing in modern republicanism.
Indeed, for quite some time most republican political discourse was characterized by a deep antipathy to redistribution. It did so with the ancients’ blessing. Cicero, for example, thought that the Roman agrarian laws, which took public land and apportioned it among the lower classes, were particularly destructive of the Roman Republic. They merely, he wrote in De officiis, “robbed one man of what belonged to him and gave to another man what does not belong to him.” No surprise, then, that early-modern political thought, in thrall to the authority of Rome, followed this sentiment. Machiavelli, in his own writing on the Roman Republic, echoed Cicero in calling the agrarian laws a plague that “was the cause of the destruction of the republic.” Far better than transferring wealth about, thought Machiavelli, was keeping “the public rich and the citizens poor,” even if this meant extreme inequality. For no matter what ill this inequality bred, still greater ill attended attempts to remedy it.
But Cicero’s authority proved no match for God’s. God, it turns out, had himself given the Israelites something not unlike the Roman agrarian laws in order to ensure a rough equality of holdings in his Hebrew republic. This he had instituted through two different injunctions: First, that a woman marry a man from the tribe of her father and, second, that there be a remission of debts every seventh year. The first prevented an initial distribution of land among the tribes from “being disturbed by the routine incorporation of a female heir’s portion into the estate of her husband.” The second prevented land that had been confiscated from a debtor from remaining with his creditor in perpetuity. “Land shall not be sold forever,” says God at Leviticus 25:23, “for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.”
These injunctions provided republican theorists like James Harrington with powerful grounds to insist that proper commonwealths guaranteed economic parity. Unequal distributions bred tyranny:
Nelson’s claim is that such an argument — with its biblical authority — was simply not available before the revival of scholarly interest in the Hebrew republic. Redistributive schemes, remember, had been anathema to republican political theory throughout most of the Renaissance. But the rediscovery of the Hebrew republic — and of an authority even greater than Cicero — gave political theory the argumentative resources it needed to make good on a claim that redistribution was not only not damaging to a polity but may well be necessary to maintain the spirit of fraternity that made free self-governance possible.
Perhaps the most enduring result of the “Great Separation” — on the traditional story, at least — is an abiding commitment to toleration. Once theology and political thought went their separate ways and, “for the purposes of political argument, all appeals to a higher revelation [were] considered illegitimate,” it became considerably easier for a polity to countenance amicably a range of beliefs among the citizenry. Toleration, then, is intimately linked to secularization. But, on Nelson’s revisionist telling, toleration is actually the result of early-modern attempts to emulate the spirit of the Hebrew republic. In Nelson’s words, toleration did not “reflect an emerging conviction that religion ought to have no role in political argument.” Rather, toleration reflected an emerging conviction that God demanded toleration of the Hebrews and, therefore, demands it of us.
This is the trickiest section of the book to follow, but perhaps only because it rings most counterintuitive. To render schematically Nelson’s very intricate argument, we would begin by noting that the republican polities lionized by Grotius and other early-moderns are not well described as “secular.” But they weren’t quite religious either. Rather, they embodied the constitutional form of the Hebrew republic, which itself was neither “religious” nor “secular.” It was instead a special kind of polity in which religious and secular matters were in the hands of a single, authoritative civil body. This civil body, then, could legislate on religious questions, but only insofar as such questions affected the health of the polity. But, and this is the key claim, the number of religious matters weighty enough to affect the polity’s health was very small. This all entailed that a polity’s civil authority could, and should, more or less tolerate a wide range of beliefs.
The upshot of the argument — nearly each step of which unfolded amidst torturously complex interpretive disputes — received further support from consideration of how the Hebrews treated the Gentiles living among them. On Grotius’ account of the Hebrew republic, which Nelson cites, the demands placed on the Gentiles were mild:
. . . in the Hebrew, hasidei ‘ummot, Righteous among the Gentiles; as it is read in the Talmud . . . These, as the Hebrew Rabbins say, were obliged to keep the Precepts given to Adam and Noah, to abstain from Idols and Blood, and from other Things . . . but not the Laws peculiar to the Israelites.
Crucial, yet again, is the authority of the “Rabbins.” The untrained early-modern eye might well have seen in the Hebrew Bible a reason to persecute nonbelievers, just as God did the Canaanites. But these “Rabbins” — Grotius is here referring to Josephus — insisted that God persecuted the Canaanites not for unbelief, but on account of serious, manifest crimes — crimes destructive to the health of the Hebrew republic. Early-modern Christians, then, were to do the same, refraining from persecuting nonbelievers, and affording them wide latitude in nonessential religious matters, so long as they maintained, in Nelson’s words, “a minimal standard of general morality.”
The sharpened eyes of specialists will doubtless dispute some of the finer points of Nelson’s argument, something that Nelson might welcome, since so much of his book investigates the consequences of very fine exegetical disputes. No amount of scholarly caviling, however, will overturn the monumental achievement that this book is. To compare very great things with things merely great, Nelson’s book reads like Anthony Grafton’s work — mind-bogglingly learned, and yet deeply humane. Quite a number of the stories modernity tells about itself are false, and the story of the Great Separation looks to be yet one more. I, for one, am happy to be freed of the erroneous, aggrandizing picture of secularism’s great victory — not for any religious reason, but simply because it is truer to the spirit of modernity to interrogate its own origins, even if the results of that interrogation are ones modernity refuses to recognize as its own.