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Go to the Sources

The religious components of Enlightenment thought.

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By DAVID KLINGHOFFER
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The Hebrew Republic

Go to the Sources

Charlton Heston in ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956)

Photo Credit: Getty

Jewish Sources and
the Transformation of European Political Thought
by Eric Nelson
Harvard, 240 pp., $27.95

Created Equal

How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought
by Joshua A. Berman
Oxford, 264 pp., $39.95

In the longstanding, periodically eruptive political fight over whether the United States is historically a “Christian nation,” the hotspot was recently the state board of education in Texas, where a group of Christian activists on the board has amended education standards to emphasize the Christian motivations of our country’s Founders. This could affect the way textbooks are written not only in Texas but, given the state’s size and influence, in many other states as well. The prospect of a generation of students growing up to think there’s something inherently Christian about America has secularists feeling anxious.

The issue turns, in part, on whether as men of the Enlightenment, the Founders were more likely to be wary of religion’s influence on government than friendly to it. In a long essay in the New York Times Magazine on the Texas situation, Russell Shorto summarizes, “In fact, the Founders were rooted in Christianity—they were inheritors of the entire European Christian tradition—and at the same time they were steeped in an Enlightenment rationalism that was, if not opposed to religion, determined to establish separate spheres for faith and reason.”

The simple equation between the Enlightenment and an intellectual unease with biblical religion is familiar, but is it factual? Two new books, dealing not with the American founding but more broadly with the biblical roots of European liberal political thought, substantially and interestingly complicate the question. If anything, the tradition of political reflection that educated the men who signed the Declaration of Independence turns out to be less Christian than, well, Jewish.

In The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, Harvard government professor Eric Nelson tells a story with few actual Jewish participants. His protagonists, with names like Grotius, Selden, Harrington, and Cunaeus, instead are Christian political thinkers and legal theorists of the 16th and 17th centuries. Yet the Jewish, and specifically rabbinic, influence is startlingly direct and pronounced. “It will not do to talk about a single, unitary Enlightenment in European intellectual history,” writes Nelson, “still less to assume the Enlightenment and revealed religion were invariably (or even usually) opposed.” That’s an understatement.

The rise of Protestantism and the concomitant belief in the ability of an individual reader to interpret the Bible for himself brought a heightened sensitivity to the importance of grappling with Scriptural texts in their original languages. For help in understanding the Bible’s often cryptic Hebrew (and some Aramaic), necessarily masked and whitewashed when rendered in other languages, Christian Bible scholars turned to the Jewish community, especially that of Holland. Translations of classic works of rabbinic exegesis, from the Talmud and Midrash to the legal and philosophical works of Maimonides, duly appeared. One English Hebraist, Henry Ainsworth, typically explained in his Bible commentary (1611-1622) that such an effort could only be adequately accomplished under the guidance of “Hebrew doctors of the ancienter sort, and some later of best esteeme for learning, as Maimony, or Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, (who abridged the Talmuds) & others.” The impact of this openness to Jewish scholarship far exceeded matters of theology and soon encouraged a revolution in political thinking.

Nelson concentrates on three areas: the rejection of monarchy in favor of an exclusive commitment to republicanism, the increased willingness to use the power of government to equalize citizens through the redistribution of wealth, and the insistence on tolerance for religious minorities.

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