An American Editor

June 7, 2010

On Books: The Hebrew Republic

One of my recent book purchases was Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought. I purchased the book because I saw it advertised by Harvard’s Belknap Press in The New York Review of Books and thought, based on the title, that the subject would interest me.

Nelson’s thesis is that modern political thought — the thought found in 18th and 19th century political documents and thinking — arose not from excluding religious discourse from political thought but from the embracing of religious thought, particularly Jewish political thought through the renewed interest in study of the Hebrew Bible that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nelson notes that many of the leading writers and thinkers of those times learned to read the Hebrew Bible in its original language and then read the commentaries on the Bible written by leading Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides.

Nelson explores three thought transformations that arose as a result of the study of the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinical commentaries: (1) that the only legitimate government form is the republic; (2) that the state must coercively maintain an egalitarian distribution of property (but not that the state must redistribute property); and (3) that a republic that followed god’s laws would of necessity tolerate religious diversity. These notions led to an attempt to create new social constructs, new covenants between individuals and society, based on what was perceived as a constitution designed by God as revealed in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic interpretations.

It is Nelson’s argument that these transformative thoughts were what lead to the notions of “liberty, equality, fraternity” that dominated political thought beginning in the 18th century and continuing on to today. He shows the influence of the Hhebraic thoughts on theorists and writers such as James Harrington, Hugo Grotius, John Milton, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, and Thomas Hobbes.

The book is short, approximately 230 pages cover to cover. This is not a bad thing but I mention it because of what I perceive to be the critical flaw in this book, aside from the question of the validity of his thesis: the book is written and reads as if it is a doctoral dissertation or a master’s thesis.

The book also suffers from one other significant flaw, at least to my way of thinking, although it is far from alone in this regard: It uses endnotes rather than footnotes. I’ve discussed this before (see Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses), but I consider this a major defect in a book because of the constant need to switch between the beginning and the end of the book. If the endnotes are not intended to be read, then don’t have them; just have a bibliography. But if they are intended to be read, then use footnotes, which are less disruptive.

The constant switching degraded significantly the reading experience of this book. They made it hard to follow the argument Nelson was making. At first I tried to ignore them and just concentrate on the text, but I failed — I was afraid of missing important information. And I discovered that had I ignored the endnotes, I would have missed some important information. A couple of examples are notes 99, in which Nelson elucidates how one group read and understood certain words; 105, which discusses Rousseau’s view of the distinction between “sovereignty” and “government”; 106, which identifies sources for the role played by “the Hebraic exclusivist argument I have sketched out in the wholesale delegitimization of monarchy during the American Revolution”, which lead me to note additional readings I need to pursue; and 198, in which Nelson identifies his position as being between that of Martinich and that of Collins as regards Thomas Hobbes’ religious beliefs.

Ultimately, the question is does Nelson have something valuable to say. Yes, he does. And his ideas are worth further pursuit, although I am not convinced by this current work that his view of events is correct. What is important is that they are thought provoking. Now if he only had written his work so that it was more accessible and less like a doctoral dissertation whose emphasis was on meeting the peccadilloes of a degree-granting committee than on expounding a new way to look at the roots of modern political thought.

Should you read this book? If you are interested in the origins of modern political theory and want to know more about what influenced the critical thinking of the 18th and early 19th centuries, then yes, you should; otherwise, probably not.

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