History of Jewish Ideas in the Christian and Islamic Worlds

Did Jewish ideas and sources have a significant role in the establishment of the modern West? Until recently, the answer of both the academic and the man or woman in the street, would have been “no.” The commonly held belief was that the modern democratic state was established on the basis of ideas developed by Enlightenment thinkers who drew their inspiration from Greek, Roman, and Christian sources, and owed little, if any, intellectual debt to the Jews. Yet for much of Western history, Jewish sources were at least as essential to the development of key values and political philosophy as the Greco-Roman ones.

Meirav Jones on Political Hebraism Meirav Jones on the Impact of Jewish Ideas in Early Modernity

A stunning example is the early modern period, when from the middle of the sixteenth century through the seventeenth, Hebrew was studied alongside Greek and Latin as part of the required curriculum in universities throughout Europe, and beyond academia, post-Reformation Europeans felt intimately at home with the Hebrew Bible and the people whose history it described. By the mid-17th century, Dutch Parliament opened with the words, “Ye Children of Israel”; Cromwell compared himself to biblical figures; and classical Jewish texts significantly influenced the republican works of Harrington and Milton. John Selden, the leading English legal thinker of the age, wrote a major work on the Noahide laws, citing hundreds of biblical and rabbinic sources in their original Hebrew and Aramaic. Hugo Grotius, father of international law, found the Hebrew Scriptures indispensable to the formation of his path-breaking legal and political theories.

Over the past decade, a quiet revolution has been gathering aimed at restoring Jewish sources to their appropriate place in the history of ideas. Beginning in 2004, Herzl Institute scholars Yoram Hazony, Ofir Haivry and Meirav Jones initiated a series of conferences and publishing ventures with the aim of putting the issue of the Jewish sources of Western thought back on the international scholarly agenda. This broad initiative included the publication of the peer-reviewed quarterly journal Hebraic Political Studies, which generated 17 issues between 2005 and 2010; the translation into English of Latin works of political theory that heavily cited Jewish sources; and a number of important books and articles which were inspired by the movement initiated in Jerusalem and labeled “Political Hebraism.”

At present, the Herzl institute is today the worlds foremost academic center for the study of the impact of Jewish ideas on the tradition of Western political thought. Herzl Institute scholars involved in the project include Ofir Haivry, Meirav Jones and Yechiel Leiter.

Works on the subject by Institute scholars include:

Ofir Haivry, John Selden and the Western Political Tradition (Cambridge, 2017).

John Selden, The Law of Nature and of the Nations According to the Learning of the Hebrews, with Introduction by Ofir Haivry (Shalem, forthcoming).

Yechiel Leiter, John Locke’s Political Philosophy and the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge, 2018).

Meirav Jones, The Idea of Israel in Seventeenth Century British Political Theory (forthcoming).

For more information about this project, go to the “Hebraic Political Studies” website.