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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought

Event Recap

Modern political science owes more to Hebrew sources than has traditionally been understood, argued Harvard government professor Eric Nelson at a December 7 lunch colloquium. Nelson’s new book The Hebrew Republic and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard, 2010) has garnered much attention in scholarly circles, and his talk drew a packed seminar room of faculty, students and community members.

Contrary to the prevailing narrative of secularization, Nelson said, seventeenth-century European political thought was driven in important ways by the revival among Christian scholars of the study of the Hebrew Bible and language. Protestant political thinkers came to see the Mosaic constitution as a “divine republic” and sought out rabbinic sources to help interpret political and judicial laws. This encounter with rabbinic sources, argued Nelson, inspired a transformation of seventeenth century political thought in three areas.

First, by unearthing a critique of monarchy as a form of idolatry, it fostered a strident belief that a republic (i.e., a non-monarchical regime) is the only valid form of government. Until that time, the dominant view among political thinkers was what Nelson calls “constitutional pluralism,” an acceptance that different forms of government were appropriate to different contexts.

Second, the encounter with Hebraic sources upended the traditional view that mandatory redistribution of wealth is anathema to a healthy republic. Studying the Mosaic constitution through the lens of Jewish philosopher Maimonides, Dutch scholar Peter Cunnaeus concluded that redistributive agrarian laws were  an important part of the vaunted Hebrew Republic, and thus should be considered in contemporary European republics as well.

Third, crucial seventeenth-century arguments for religious toleration were “fundamentally religious in character,” said Nelson, and were not based on the concept of church-state separation. Finding in their study that the divinely-guided Hebrew Republic actually practiced religious toleration, they reasoned that contemporary Europeans should, too.

The consequences of this Christian encounter with Hebrew sources, Nelson said, had an enormous impact on seminal thinkers like John Milton, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Indeed it points to the paradoxical fact that the secular age in which we live was shaped at its outset by religious thought. This point, more than any other, inspired the lively discussion period that followed.