How the Hebrew Bible Helped Birth Modern Democracy
Jews brought many wonderful things to modernity, but one of the greatest Jewish breakthroughs arose due to Renaissance Christian efforts. This innovation was “republican exclusivism,” and the absolute rejection of a monarchy — which can be found in the Torah portion of Shofetim, and specifically in its rabbinic commentaries that sparked a political revolution in the West.
The story begins with the Protestant Reformation, which, as historian Eric Nelson noted, “made the study of the Bible a Christian duty and led Protestants back to the original texts of the Hebrew Bible.” In contrast, Catholicism taught that the Old Testament was relevant only as allegorized prophecies of Jesus and was not “worthy of study on its own terms.”
In rejecting Rome, Protestants had a problem. The Hebrew Bible is enigmatic, and without Catholic commentaries, how could it be understood? Begrudgingly, they turned to the Jews.
English clergyman Henry Ainsworth wrote in 1615 that even though Jews are “for the most part blinde,” to the lessons of the Bible, one must consult “Hebrew doctors of the ancienter sort, and some later of best esteeme for learning” if one wishes “to give light to the ordinances of Moses…”
In the text, Ainsworth references “the commonwealth of Israel.” Like him, many Christian thinkers were fascinated with the political structure of Biblical Israel and its applicability to contemporary Europe.
The political change in Europe was sparked by the discordance between Deuteronomy 17 and I Samuel 8, with the former detailing God’s instructions for instituting a monarchy (“Thou shalt set him king over thee”) and the latter describing the prophet’s rejection of kingship (“The thing displeased Samuel, when they said, ‘Give us a king’”).
The reigning understanding of these verses was that God sanctioned and preferred a monarchy, and Samuel’s anger flared because the Jews rebelled unjustly against him. As Christian Hebraists first dipped into Jewish sources, this view was buttressed: Judah HaNasi and Maimonides held monarchy as an obligation.
Then, Christian scholar Wilhem Schickard, while studying Rabbi Bahya ben Asher’s exegesis, wrote that “in his commentary on Parashat Shofetim … [i]t was not [God’s] will that there should be any king in Israel.” Schickard quoted the Midrash on Shofetim “that this [institution of kingship] conflicts with the liberty of the Jewish people … [God] intended that there should be no fear of kingship over you.” Instead, God intended — and the Israelites had actually established — a representative republic.
Suddenly, dark clouds began forming over the kings of Europe, commencing the long road to democracy. Many people started to sense that if God believed monarchy was sinful, then all kings must be overthrown. John Milton, one of the first European political writers to brand monarchy as inherently wrong, drew on this Midrash, concluding “this evidence all proves that the Israelites were given a king by God in his wrath,” and that kingship is idolatry.
American independence was propelled by this creed. Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense” argued that “the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government … was a kind of republic … Kings they had none, and [kingship] was held sinful.”
As Parashat Shofetim approaches, we should appreciate that Biblical words uttered millennia ago had the endurance and power to topple kings and unshackle untold millions from royal chains. Certainly, these words are powerful still. The Torah set the world in motion towards human freedom, and our sages stewarded this treasured message across the ages. Thank God for that.