Grotius and the Jewish Question: IV Menasseh ben Israel

In Spinoza’s picture of God, God is the infinite, necessarily existing (that is, uncaused), unique substance of the universe. Further, there is only one substance in the universe; it is God; everything else that is, is in God.” For Hugo Grotius, in contrast, God was not an object at all, but only an agent. God’s beneficence is demonstrated by His beneficence towards Jews and those countries that host Jews. He adopted this notion directly from Menasseh ben Israel (Manoel Dias Soeiro), a Portuguese rabbi and Kabbalist, writer and publisher in Amsterdam with whom he shared a long contact and correspondence. Menasseh wrote:

”Hence it may be seen that God hath not left us; for if one persecutes us, another receives us civilly and courteously; and if this prince treats us ill, another treats us well; if one banisheth us out of his country, another invites us with a thousand privileges; as divers princes of Italy have done, the most eminent King of Denmark, and the mighty Duke of Savoy in Nissa. And do we not see that those Republiques do flourish and much increase in trade who admit the Israelites?”

Fleeing the persecution of the Inquisition in 1604, by 1610 Menasseh’s family had resettled in Amsterdam. Menasseh was another prodigy. He excelled in Talmudic studies and had a thorough knowledge of the Torah. At the age of 18, he was appointed to the Rabbinical Council of Amsterdam. He was a gifted orator and read widely from the secular world. At the age 28, he published El Conciliador in 1628, initially in Hebrew. Menasseh became Spinoza’s teacher. However, in contrast to Spinoza who used the inconsistencies in the Biblical text to disprove its divine origin, Menasseh tried to reveal the contradictions as only apparent and then resolve them. In doing so, he used an enormous range of resources, not only the classic Jewish commentators and the Talmud, but also Christian authorities and classic Roman and Greek works.

It was Menasseh whom Grotius sought out to refine his knowledge of Hebrew and develop traditional rabbinic modes of hermeneutics to find the message for the Christians in the text. Foremost of those lessons was that natural law determined that the Israelite idea of the nation state was the key political reference point for organizing polities and the relationships among polities.

Together, along different paths, the two thinkers prepared the ground for the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Great Britain whereby Britain invited the Protestant, William of Orange, to invade England and displace the Catholic king, James. Both argued that the readmission of Jews to Britain (they had been expelled in 1290) was a prerequisite for Britain to both demonstrate it was on the leading edge of tolerance as well as a necessary step in God’s plan to develop a system of nation states welcoming of Jews.

Unlike Spinoza, Menasseh defended the principle of the resurrection of the dead and the divine origin and immortality of the soul. Unlike Spinoza, Menasseh and Grotius were not proto-Zionists. Menasseh was in fact convinced that the restoration to the Holy Land could and should not take place until the Jews had spread and settled in every part of the world. Menasseh was far more interested in finding places for the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees in Sweden or Britain or any other heaven he could locate. Further, Menasseh and Grotius followed Galileo’s universalist message to undermine the Catholic traditional vision of the cosmos and the dominant Catholic version that the Church alone governed all aspects of life, and that monopolistic governance demanded the exclusion of Jews. The Puritans would be among those Protestants who adopted this pro-Jewish stance.

Secularists who demanded the emancipation of reason from faith and some branches of evangelical Protestant Christians became the odd couple in advancing the cause of the emancipation of the Jews.  In 1655-1656, Oliver Cromwell negotiated with Menasseh ben Israel over the terms of the re-admission of Jews into England. Previously, only in the Dutch Republic were Jews allowed both to settle and to practice their religion, albeit not in public.

The Dutch were not only the pioneers for emancipation, but they adopted the Jewish model of a system of nation states grounded in law. All communities were united by language. National communities were united by a common national tongue. The international community is founded on the universal language of contract law as Abraham recognized when he negotiated the terms for paying the Hittites for a gravesite for his recently deceased wife, Sarah. As Grotius wrote in On the Law of War and Peace:

There could be no obligation at all by Promises, if every man were left to his Liberty, to put what Construction he pleased upon them, therefore some certain Rule must be agreed upon, whereby we can know, what our Promise oblige us to; and here, natural Reason will tell us, that the Person to whom the Promise is given, has a Power to force him who gave it, to do what the right Interpretation of the Words of his Promise does require. For otherwise no Business could come to a Conclusion, which in moral things is reckoned impossible.

Grotius is on the side of Shylock and not the Merchant of Venice, Antonio. Clearly, the strong association between Judaism and law in the Protestant Christianity to which Grotius adhered, advised men like Hugo Grotius (and John Selden) to build their theory of constitutional law from detailed studies of Jewish law. Mastery of Hebrew and even of the Talmud was a requisite to such an enterprise. Hugo Grotius, as well as Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, held to the Adam (of Adam and Eve fame) theses that words must have a close approximation to the category of things named, otherwise known as the correspondence theory of truth.

In response, this would be a source for criticism of Jews for their cosmopolitanism, their hyper rationality, their propensity for abstraction as distinct from an organic sensibility and instinctive ethnic identification with one’s own society. Those who held populist nationalist beliefs characteristic of folk and romantic nationalism Grotius labeled as akin to bandits and pirates, enemies of humanity living outside the protection of natural law. The terms of the conflict between the old order and the new had been set.

Although in Grotius’ time, generally the prince decided the piety of the people, after centuries, the consensus on this soon disintegrated. Three years after Grotius died, the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that ended the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War and set the grounds for a league of nations as the principle for determining an international order, provided the acid that would eat away at the premise of princely power to determine the religion of a people. Natural law, not an interpretation of God’s word, would enforce religious tolerance rather than religious conformity.

The old edict required amputating a “rotten member at an early stage before the disease spread…Cut off, by fire, sword and death: that is to say, when their number is still small.” It is still the byword for most autocrats. The new order required protection of civilians and even decent treatment of captured enemy soldiers. We think that the losses suffered in WWI were horrific. But one-third of Germans were wiped out in the Thirty-Year War. Reason became the ruling champion only after enormous cost as the rulers defended at great cost the power to enforce the piety of their members. The Hebrew Bible once translated into the vernacular language rather than Latin effectively undermined the person and power of a monarch inducing a king to respond with even greater ferociousness to any challenge to his rule. The great rebellions, the Dutch against the Spanish, the British against their Catholic monarch, were carried out on the backs of scripture not in defiance of the Bible. The Hebrews and “God’s word” were their inspiration.

The burning questions of the rights of sovereigns versus subjects were posed and answered by reference to Jews, the old order upholding “Davidic Kingship” while the new order cited the earlier Israeli republic where every Israelite had direct access to God. The latter view was taken directly from Menasseh, for not only was Hugo Grotius in contact with him, so were hordes of European Gentile Millenarians. In fact, based on his biblical commentary, Grotius was widely criticized for Judaizing Christianity. He certainly cited Menasseh very frequently. In one of the many letters that he wrote him, he advised, “I implore you to spend all your spare time in explaining the Law. You will do a great favor to all scholars.” (“Grotii Epistolæ,” No. 564, Amsterdam, 1687).

With the help of Alex Zisman


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