The Magazine

Go to the Sources

The religious components of Enlightenment thought.

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By DAVID KLINGHOFFER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Impatience with kings developed under the influence of discussions in the Talmud’s tractate Sanhedrin, which presents monarchy as a divine command, set against the rabbinic view in the Midrashic commentary on Deuteronomy, Devarim Rabbah, that sees setting up a king as a sin, that of rejecting divine rule in favor of human. “I follow the opinion of these rabbis” in the Midrash, explained John Milton, who studied the rabbinic text either in Latin translation or possibly in the original, in a 1654 political tract. He knew Hebrew and Aramaic, making ample use of Midrash in Paradise Lost. Arguments against monarchy from Hebraists including Milton, James Harrington (citing learned disputes among Rabbeinu Bachya, Rabbah bar Nachmani, Gersonides, David Kimchi, and Maimonides), and Algernon Sidney would, a century later, turn up in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.

In De Republica Hebraeorum (1617) the Dutchman Petrus Cunaeus explained that, on political matters, the Hebrew Bible could be relied on with assurance, for the ancient Hebrew republic was “the most holy, and the most exemplary in the whole World.” Cunaeus developed the view that biblical land laws, requiring that the holy land be divided into parcels and distributed equitably among the members of the Israelite tribes (excluding the priestly Levites), were a model for modern European countries. 

Under Jewish law, inherited land, even if sold, returned to the original owner on the Jubilee, every 50 years. Large landholding wealth was therefore impossible. The idea flowed down to liberal thinkers, including Montesquieu, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Tocque-
ville, who saw extreme wealth as a hazard for republican government. Of course, the leveling impulse, for better or worse, remains with us.

Most provocatively, Nelson shows how the idea of “theocracy,” the word itself having been adopted from the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, came in the hands of Jewish-influenced Christian thinkers to embody the case for downgrading the political power of orthodoxy-enforcing priests in favor of religious toleration. In the Jewish republic as described in Deuteronomy, priests were a caste with privileges but also severe economic disadvantages—they could not own land—and no role in governing. Instead, God was king and lawmaker. Among the features of divine-backed rabbinic legislation is the Talmud’s designation of non-Jews as Noachides, children of Noah, with their own table of minimal laws (seven in all) to be observed as citizens of the Hebrew republic. The Dutch lawyer and philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) delved into Maimonides’ description of the Noachide code. In “the standing Practice of the Jews,” Grotius found a rationale for leaving religious dissenters alone. Just as Jewish law allowed pagans to live in the holy land undisturbed, so long as they observed a modest list of moral requirements, so too a Christian country may penalize neither unorthodox Christians nor non-Christians merely because “they are doubtful, or erroneous as to some Points either not delivered in Sacred Writ, or not so clearly but to be capable of various Acceptations.” Grotius influenced John Selden (1584-1654), an Englishman who, in his scholarship, put even greater emphasis on the Noachide laws as “demonstrat[ing] God’s embrace of broad toleration,” writes Nelson. Selden was followed, in turn, by John Locke who, in the Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), likewise emphasized the ancient Hebrew model.

There were, of course, other Enlightenment voices critical of biblical faith—Spinoza, the French philosophes—but it was the theorists of the Hebrew republic who had the greater impact on Western liberal political thought. You could object that, even so, these thinkers made use of the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic texts as source or quote books while misrepresenting their spirit. Sure, in the founding generation, as before and after, many Christians drew comparisons between themselves and the Israelites of old. Samuel Langdon, pastor and representative to New Hampshire’s state constitutional convention, declared in a 1788 sermon favoring ratification of the Constitution, “If I am not mistaken, instead of the twelve tribes of Israel we may substitute the thirteen States of the American union.” But doesn’t the Hebrew Bible call for burning witches, stoning homosexuals, and wiping out an entire city of Jews should they succumb to the lust for idolatry? How “liberal,” and how American, is that? 

Recent Blog Posts