During the ongoing debates over “Brexit,” members of the British legal establishment have inclined toward skepticism about their country’s membership in the EU on the grounds that European law threatens to replace or preempt English common law. Ofir Haivry, reflecting on a similar debate that took place 400 years ago, notes the surprising influence of Jewish legal theory:
[E]arly in the 17th century . . . schemes to codify English law were inspired by figures like Thomas Hobbes and the Dutchman Hugo Grotius, proposing to replace traditional laws with new universal theories based on . . . reason and natural rights. . . .
John Selden, the foremost common lawyer of his generation . . . [argued, to the contrary,] that universal moral principles can really be upheld only within particular legal systems fitted to the disposition and character of a nation.
As the model for his approach, Selden offered the Jewish legal tradition of the seven fundamental Noahide principles that, according to the Talmud, all the descendants of Noah (that is, all of humanity) were commanded to observe. Nations were free to devise laws according to their wishes and necessities, as long as they did not transgress these basic principles. Selden pointed out that the continued adherence of the Jewish nation to talmudic law in the centuries since the destruction of their state by the Romans proved the benefit of this approach. For the Jews, scattered around the world and with no central government, had long lost all political attributes of a nation but one—they still adhered to their traditional national law.
A nation defined by its particular laws and customs was, for Selden, the essence of England, too, and this idea has endured among common lawyers ever since.