Customer Reviews: The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought
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on July 4, 2010
On a sparingly furnished stage the author conjures and comments with clear and crystalline voice the great Protestant political thinkers of the XVIIth century: Erastus, Grotius, Harrington, Hobbes and, as grand finale, the secularising Spinoza, as they argue their political thoughts. The great Talmudists - from Rabbi Yehudah to Maimonides - form the choir that gives strength to the voices seeking dramatic illumination as to the character of the perfect common-wealth.

Nelson's main point is that the Renaissance did not innovate much in political thought, as it is usually thought - hugging the ancient Romans too closely as well as the Medieval philosophical tradition. The three great novel principles:

* Republican exclusivism (the idea that a Republic is the ONLY possible political system);
* Redistribution of wealth in favour of the poor;
* Religious tolerance;

emerged in the Low Countries as Protestant scholars sought a reading of the Bible not contaminated by 1000 years of Catholic tradition and hit on the Talmudic commentaries, which had arrived with the Jews expelled from Lisbon.

So well is the dramatic representation crafted, so subtle the marshalling of the arguments that I found myself compelled not to put down the pleasingly shortish book - and for sure the subject matter is arcane, and the arguments far from easy to grasp in their subtle differences. This work is an intellectual feast of the prime order - one that is seldom on the academic menu. Mostly one gets contrived and confused cogitations of obtuse minds in desperate search "theory" - as if intellectual life depended on it.
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on September 27, 2012
Eric Nelson at once provides a highly focused look into our political past, while at the same time, unknowingly provides a glimpse into our political future.

The Reformation radically changed the way men approached political science. As Nelson points out, "It became the central ambition of political science to approximate, as closely as possible, the paradigm of what European authors began to call the respublica Hebraeorum (republic of the Hebrews)." Previous authors had looked elsewhere for political guidance, now they would have to look to "the perfect constitution designed by the omniscient God." Old Testament Israel was now seen as the Divine model to imitate in political affairs.

Nelson focuses on three major political areas impacted by the "Hebrew Revival" as he tags it: exclusive republican government, the inseparable link between land distribution and political liberty, and religious toleration. Nelson does not extrapolate his excellent study into the future, but it will become obvious to the student of history that the American colonies were major beneficiaries of the "Hebrew Revival", continuing its trajectory long after European counterparts had jumped ship. The radical politics of Thomas Jefferson can be seen as rooted in the study of God's Law, as Jefferson drank deeply from James Harrington, a major player in the period under Nelson's scope. After reading the Hebrew Republic, it will become apparent where Jefferson got his desire to distribute 50 acres of land to practically every adult male in Virginia in order to secure widespread political liberty.

What happened?

Nelson locates the demise of the "Hebrew Revival" in the demise of faith in the God of the Old Testament Scriptures, a product of the 18th Century Age of Reason. I would add it was later joined by the Age of Escape, as Christian theology abandoned the transformation of planet earth in the name of Christ, and morphed into escapism. Nevertheless, if we are to believe the God of the Old Testament Scriptures, the "Hebrew Revival" is not just a thing of the past, for it is the ultimate destiny of all nations.

I highly recommend Hebrew Republic, and commend Eric Nelson on his work.
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on April 14, 2013
I have always heard that the founding fathers designed a new form of government drawn from long study of classic sources and debate among learned scholars. But I never questioned who were these sources. Eric Nelson, in this 229-page book (including notes and index), introduced me to many of these classic Greek and Roman sources by way of analysis alongside the introduction of classic Hebrew sources. I agree with others who comment that it is a vast subject to compress in under 300 pages. But Eric Nelson writes well and I appreciated the brevity, since I would not be able to tackle a much larger work. I have tagged a dozen pages with quotes to share with friends; and bracketed many sections to review before I shelve the book. I think it is worth keeping as a good reference work.
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on February 15, 2012
This work by Eric Nelson received the 2012 Laura Shannon Prize for European Studies in the Humanities, an award which carries a $10,000 prize and is administered by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the University of Notre Dame. The jury statement reads, "An electrifying, bold analysis, Eric Nelson's The Hebrew Republic is a transformative work in political and intellectual history that makes a significant contribution to European studies. Nelson argues persuasively that a European engagement with Jewish political thought was central to the development of modern notions of republican government, the redistribution of wealth, and religious tolerance. Using rabbinical commentaries and examining republican thought, Nelson's careful scholarship offers a wealth of new and counter-intuitive insights. This is a watershed in presenting the history of political thought and is a very important book with which scholars will engage and argue for decades to come." The final jury was composed of Caryl Emerson, A. Watson Armour III University Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Princeton University; Don Howard, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values, University of Notre Dame; Suzanne L. Marchand, Professor of History, Louisiana State University; Mark W. Roche, Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C. Professor of German Language and Literature, University of Notre Dame; and Paul Woodruff, Professor of Philosophy and inaugural Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies, University of Texas at Austin.
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on January 5, 2015
Well written and deeply researched, Nelson fills a major gap in understanding the the history of political thought and reversing the damage to that history done by the Enlightenment.
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on June 23, 2016
A very good analysis of our western culture and morals and ethics, showing that its origin was largely from the bible as well as Greco-Roman instutions.
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on May 19, 2016
Excellent coverage of the topic.
Revolutionary look at the development of modern political thought.
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on August 7, 2015
Excellent scholarly history; exactly what I expected. Came early in perfect condition.
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on February 5, 2013
I have only diagonalized it as I need it later on for my course, but it seems just what I need.
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on May 18, 2011
This short, 139 page book certainly does stimulate a lot of thought about political philosophy. The author is trying to show that Westernized political thought was affected greatly by 16th and 17th thinkers studying ancient Hebrew sources. He mostly succeeds. In doing this he leads us through some boring and random ancient sources because they were the ones who influenced men like Erastus, Grotius, Hobbes and Spinoza who in turn influenced modern politics.

What did and did not lead to today's Westernized thought? Secular thinking and structure has had the spotlight, but Eric Nelson shows that this is probably unearned. Instead he posits three concepts put forth by thinkers after researching Hebrew sources: Kings and aristocracy are out and a republic is in. Redistribution by government is in. Religious toleration is in.

I think that he succeeds with the first and last, but sandwiched in between is a repugnant and distasteful concept that has no current support. At least not widely.

Maybe he is redefining agrarian reform from land and property confiscation (redistribution of wealth) to primarily progressive taxation. Or perhaps he is simply referring to the concept that kings should not own all the land. In any case, this distracts from his main thesis and leaves the reader uneasy.

The overall concept of the book, however, is quite stimulating and well worth the reading.
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