Hebrew's role in Western political thought

Exclusive Video: Meirav Jones explains how Hebrew writing, Jewish thought played a critical role at the dawn of Modernity.

February 20, 2011 17:02
2 minute read.
Meirav Jones

Meirav Jones. (photo credit: Leadel.com)


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Indeed, there is a bridge between the Jewish state and a Western state which exists in the genetic make up of the two state's roots. When analyzing the dawn of Modernity, we come across Jewish ideas and Hebrew sources.  Through examples and texts of the leading philosophers and writers of the 17th century, such as Thomas Hobbes and John Selden, Meirav Jones, a philosphy scholar and the head of Shalem Center's Project on Jewish Ideas in the West, sits down with Leadel and explains the thinking behind those who wrote the book on modern society.

In political science and philosophy studies we learn that Modernity is a secular enterprise, as it was taught by Thomas Hobbes and in Western political thought.  However, what role does Hebrew writing play in these political sources? One explanation comes from the Messianic mood of the era, making Jewish sources relevant to the Messianic ideas of the era, but Meirav Jones thinks differently.

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At the dawn of Modernity in 17th century England, the world was moving into a world of nation states.

The Hebrews had a model of a nation state - a model of a nation with its own laws and institutions that governed itself - something everyone was seeking during this period. The Hebrew model opens historical discussions on the topics of legislative thinking and the Sanhedrin such as creating a sustainable and ethical society with regard to the poor and resource distribution. The model addresses dilemmas of whether there should be a monarchy or democracy.

John Selden, the most important legal thinker in England, wrote a book filled with Hebrew words at a time when Jews did not reside in England. Additionally, John Milton, in his political pamphlets, quoted Jewish texts.

Although Jews had been expelled from England, Hebrew was taught at Oxford and Cambridge University. It was one of the three languages, alonside Greek and Latin that were allowed to be spoken at major universities. The people who made their way to America during this time, were coming from this world where Hebrew, Greek and Latin were the three languages of this humanist world. In fact, it had an extra value existing as a common language between Puritans and Messianic authors, so much that even the opening address for Yale University was delivered in Hebrew.

Between 1574 and 1680 there are roughly 100 works that called upon some variation of the Hebrew republic. Meirav proves that the model of ancient Hebrews is something on which society can be shaped. Hebrew models were used in the structure of new European nations as their own nations and laws were constructed.

Meirav Jones is a philosophy scholar and the head of Shalem Center's Project on Jewish Ideas in the West. Since 2005 she served as associate editor of Hebraid Political Studies.  Jones is currently an Associate Fellow at Shalem in the Department of Philosophy, Political Theory and Religion, pursuing a doctorate on the topic "The Image of Israel and the Development of Political Ideas in England 1640-1660."

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