Twelve Tribes under God

Twelve Tribes under God

The Torah and the Talmud do not receive the credit they deserve as the source of much early thinking on liberalism.

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"The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom" by Fania Oz-Salzberger, in Azure (Summer 2002), 22A Hatzfira St., Jerusalem, Israel.

Ask a political theorist to name the historical foundations of Western liberalism, and the reply will be predictable: the polis of Athens, the Roman Republic, the Magna Carta, etc. Few are likely to mention the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—or the Talmud. Yet during the birth of liberalism in 17th-century Europe, intellectuals of all kinds found political inspiration in the Old Testament, and many used the Bible in surprisingly inventive and critical ways.

Oz-Salzberger, a historian at the University of Haifa in Israel, argues that many influential "Hebraist" thinkers of this crucial period recognized the Old Testament as a political document—in essence, as the Israelites’ constitution. The English jurist John Selden, for example, argued that national sovereignty was derived from biblical concepts of fixed borders and the division of peoples. Selden helped destroy the last remnants of feudalism and pave the way for nation-states: "Total borders made total sovereignty, and fostered the modern system of international relations." Petrus Cunaeus, another prominent Hebraist, found in the Bible "what Aristotle, Cicero, and the Stoics all lacked: a clear notion of social responsibility and communal justice." The godfather of liberalism himself, John Locke, was a noted Old Testament scholar who based his Two Treatises of Government in part on an interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Locke’s famous commitment to the "pursuit of life, liberty, and property," Oz-Salzberger asserts, was grounded in a theory of responsibility and charity drawn from the Bible.

These philosophers tended to find in the ancient "Hebrew Republic" an example that could correct for deficiencies in the Athenian and Roman models. Three features of the Hebrew Bible held particular interest: its emphasis on national borders, its concern for social equity, and the unique federal structure it prescribed for the Israelites, decentralized into 12 tribes and yet unified in one people. If the West now views liberty as more than the freedom from government intrusion—in other words, if we strive for a free community, governed under a just system of law—then, Oz-Salzberger writes, we owe a great deal to the Bible and its 17th-century readers.

With the notable exception of Locke, however, few Hebraist thinkers are widely remembered, and even Locke’s thought was largely purged of its religious themes in subsequent interpretations, especially during the 18th-century Enlightenment. Under the cultural reign of rabid anti-traditionalists such as Voltaire, and with liberalism acquiring a focus on political institutions, the Bible’s role shrank markedly. The "book of books had been removed from the desk of the political philosopher. It is back in its late-Renaissance place, on the preacher’s pulpit or under the philologist’s lamp," Oz-Salzberger observes. Yet the biblical tales of Saul and David and Gideon and Deborah remain the paradigmatic stories of political actors. The Bible, she concludes, still has something to teach us about politics and human liberty.

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