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.

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Standpoint

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

Palestinian Acceptance of Israel as the Jewish State Must Be a Prerequisite to Further Negotiations

Oct. 19 2018

In 1993, in the early days of the Oslo peace process, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under Yasir Arafat accepted the “right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security.” But neither it nor its heir, the Palestinians Authority, has ever accepted Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, or the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. Robert Barnidge explains why this distinction matters:

A Jewish state for the Jewish people, after all, was exactly what the [UN] General Assembly intended in November 1947 when it called for the partition of the Palestine Mandate into “the Arab state, the Jewish state, and the city of Jerusalem.”

Although the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state does not stand or fall on this resolution—in declaring the independence of Israel on the eve of the Sabbath on May 14, 1948, the Jewish People’s Council, [the precursor to the Israeli government], also stressed the Jewish people’s natural and historic rights—it reaffirms the legitimacy of Jewish national rights in (what was to become) the state of Israel.

The Palestinians have steadfastly refused to recognize Jewish self-determination. [Instead], the PLO [has been] playing a double game. . . . It is not simply that the PLO supported the General Assembly’s determination in 1975, rescinded in 1991, that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” It is that that the PLO leadership continues to speak of Jews as a religious community rather than a people, and of Zionism as a colonial usurper rather than the national liberation movement that it is.

The U.S. government, Barnidge concludes, “should demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist in peace and security as a Jewish state” and refuse to “press Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians unless and until that happens.”

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at BESA Center

More about: Israel & Zionism, Peace Process, PLO, US-Israel relations, Yasir Arafat