The 17th-Century Statesman and Philosopher Who Found in the Talmud the Key to England’s Political Future

A jurist, scholar, political thinker, and member of parliament, John Selden (1584-1654) played an important role in Britain’s political and religious development during one of its most tumultuous periods. His erudition extended not only to Latin and Greek but also to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, and his systematic study of the Talmud and other rabbinic works informed much of his political thought. Reviewing Ofir Haivry’s recent John Selden and the Western Political Tradition, Noel Malcolm writes:

As Haivry shows, Selden’s political career, with its apparent shift from radical oppositionist to conservative critic of parliamentary innovations, followed a consistent set of principles. Selden was one of the leading English thinkers who developed a fully constitutional theory of the exercise of political power: [to him,] apparently exceptional areas of decision-making, such as the royal prerogative, or emergency powers justified by “reason of state,” had to be enclosed within a legal framework, and the final guarantor of that framework was . . . parliament itself. Yet the constitution was what it was, with the king’s distinct authority interlocking with parliamentary power; for parliamentarians to appropriate royal rights was just as bad as the king imposing taxes without their consent.

The principle that, legally and politically, we must accept that things are what they are—and not what our a-priori theorizing would prefer them to be—marks Selden down as a conservative; for Haivry, indeed, he is the unacknowledged founder of an English conservative tradition, as important as Burke but writing more than a century earlier. . . .

An important focus [in the book] is on Selden’s engagement with Jewish legal traditions. . . . On the face of it, the connection is problematic, as the Jewish nation had a very different history and culture from the English one. We could expect Selden to have become—as he did—an expert on Anglo-Saxon law in order to understand long-term English developments; but why the laws of the Talmud?

Part of Haivry’s answer is that to Selden, the Jewish tradition offered an exceptional case-study in how a complex legal system can be maintained, changing and developing incrementally all the while, over a huge length of time. In this sense it was just an exemplary model for English Common Law, rather than an influence. But, more importantly, Selden also believed that talmudic writers had preserved a fundamental set of natural laws, known as the “Precepts of the Sons of Noah,” which—Noah being the ancestor of the entire human race after the Flood—formed the basis of all legal and political systems.

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More about: Christian Hebraists, England, History & Ideas, Philosophy, Political philosophy, Talmud

Zionists Can, and Do, Criticize Israel. Are Anti-Zionists Capable of Criticizing Anti-Semitism?

Dec. 12 2018

Last week, the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg defended the newly elected anti-Israel congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, ostensibly arguing that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism aren’t identical. Abe Greenwald comments:

Tlaib . . . has tweeted and retweeted her enthusiasm for terrorists such as Rasmea Odeh, who murdered two American students in a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969. If Tlaib’s anti-Zionism is of the Jew-loving kind, she has a funny way of showing it.

Ilhan Omar, for her part, once tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” And wouldn’t you know it, just because she believes that Zionist hypnotists have cast global spells masking Israeli evil, some people think she’s anti-Semitic! Go figure! . . .

Goldberg spends the bulk of her column trying very hard to uncouple American Jewishness from Israel. To do that, she enumerates Israel’s sins, as she sees them. . . . [But] her basic premise is at odds with reality. Zionists aren’t afraid of finding fault with Israel and don’t need to embrace anti-Zionism in order to [do so]. A poll conducted in October by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that a majority of Americans Jews have no problem both supporting Israel and criticizing it. And unlike Goldberg, they have no problem criticizing anti-Semitism, either.

Goldberg gives the game away entirely when she discusses the discomfort that liberal American Jews have felt in “defending multi-ethnic pluralism here, where they’re in the minority, while treating it as unspeakable in Israel, where Jews are the majority.” She adds: “American white nationalists, some of whom liken their project to Zionism, love to poke at this contradiction.” Read that again. She thinks the white nationalists have a point. Because, really, what anti-Semite doesn’t?

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel & Zionism, New York Times