Hugo Grotius and the Jewish Question: VI Political Theology

My previous five blogs dealt with the following:

I Sovereignty

II Grotius and Spinoza

III Spinoza

IV Menasseh ben Israel

V Theology and Revolution

In the last blog in this series, I want to review the previous five blogs, but within the context of political theology. What is political theology? It is a doctrine that the secular cannot be divorced from the sacred. If a divorce is attempted, parts of the secular world will be made sacred, and that can be very dangerous as evidenced by the relatively mild case of laïcité in France and in Quebec, and the very serious case of the national socialist movement (Nazis) in Germany. For without sacred ground, there is no solid foundation for political authority.

The topic was brought to the forefront of political thought by a German National Socialist (a Nazi), the German jurist and professor of law, Carl Schmitt, in his 1922 book, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. His 1915 equivalent to a master’s thesis was titled, On Guilt and Types of Guilt. His equivalent to a doctoral thesis in 1916 was called The Value of the State and the Significance of the Individual.

He also wrote:

Dictatorship (1921)

The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923; 1926; 1988)

The Idea of Representation: A Discussion (1931; 1988)

The Concept of the Political (1932; 1966; 2007)

The titles alone suggest where he stood in terms of politics.

However, the titles may suggest what he believed, but they do not indicate how those beliefs were translated into significant action. And I am not just referring to his joining the Nazi Party as a radical antisemite or to his active participation in the bonfires burning Jewish books as un-German or anti-German. In 1932, he was the counsel for the Reich government in opposition to the deeply socialist Prussian government that was suspended by the right-wing government of Franz van Papen. The court ruled against the Reich by concluding that the suspension was illegal, but, based on Schmitt’s innovative arguments, the court nevertheless ruled that the Reich had the right to install a commissar in control of decisions. This ruling effectively destroyed the federalism of the Weimar Republic. It also set the precedent for sidelining President Paul von Hindenburg and allowing the newly installed Nazi government to rule by decree or, as they say in America, by executive action.

Modern political theory, constitutional law and international law, as conceptualized by Hugo Grotius, rooted sovereignty in the people rather than a singular all-powerful monarch on the basis of a covenant with God. As conceived by both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the original covenant was simply a social contract made amongst a group of people to constitute a state in which their natural powers were delegated to either a ruler or a legislative elected authority, primarily a transactional exercise in Locke. Hobbes, as we shall see, legitimized authoritarian rule because the sovereign people of their own free will deeded their authority to a singular all-powerful ruler. Locke argued that the people would not surrender their power to anything but a legislature and executive branch that they continued to control. As we have seen, Grotius took neither of those two paths, but continued to insist that the prime covenant must be made between God and humans. The prime source of authority was still the sacred.

In the decision to make the people sovereign rather than a singular divine authority of His representative, for Schmitt, the foundation of the political was not and could not be rooted in human rational choice theory but had to be based on a theology that gave primacy to one voice over another. The shift from a divine source of authority to the people was not itself a matter of choice, but a paradigm shift that itself was irrational and, therefore, theological since it went beyond reason into the realm of faith.

As I wrote in my first blog in this series, we are witnessing the reintroduction of theology of the irrational into politics, not just over issues like abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia, but in the emergence once again, this time, in the most powerful nation in the world, of a leader who believes he stands not only outside of and apart from the legislative authority of the state rooted in the people, but outside of the fundamental conception of the people as sovereign. Trump believes that the leader is sovereign because the leader is in tune with and knows the will of the people. Trump may just be a Hobbesian dictator, but I suspect not, since in his thinking, there is no reference to the people delegating power to a singular person. They voted for him because his people identified with him.

Thus, for his base, it does not matter what intellectual elites say. Rather, the members of his base feel as if those elites condescend towards them. In contrast, Trump speaks their language and says what he thinks, and assumes that because he thought it, that it must be true since he said it. It does not matter that Trump lives in a penthouse with gold taps or is a billionaire, the members of the base feel that they are seen through him. The members of the base believe that members if the intellectual elite do not see them, know them or desire to know them.

This has created a constitutional crisis, not because the elected leader has assumed he has been placed in power by the will of a collectivity, but, more importantly, because a supine political party that once rested totally on the rule of law, totally on individual rights, totally on rationalism and self-interest, has been inverted and surrendered its legislative authority to a lawless autocrat who can turn international diplomacy into a personal transactional exercise rather than a defence of national interests.

However, perhaps that should be no surprise. After all, the party of individualism, the party of free enterprise, always did take its communitarian base largely for granted. It was Richard Nixon who saw the necessity of joining the issue of security on the international stage to security on the domestic stage and winning the Deep South to the Republican cause by appealing to the presence of racism in most Americans at the time. Even more importantly, the Republican Party knew that it was the party of the Revolution, the party forged by the Civil War, the party that, in the name of the “sacred union,” declared war on states in which their members’ representatives voted democratically to secede. Did the political body of each state in a federation have the right? Or did the constitution create a covenant which made the nation indivisible? For Schmitt, the choice of which sense of the sacred was right could not be determined by reason, but only by unreason and, hence, the resort to violence.

In fact, America had been born through such a choice, through revolution. In the international realm, were the treaties made between Native Americans and Britain sacrosanct or were they simply instruments of an imperial power to keep a vibrant new nation within boundaries? The key issue in the Civil War then became how do we decide, or who decides who is sovereign and what is the characteristic of that sovereignty domestically? How do we decide and who decides whether or not to base ultimate authority in the hands of a democratically elected legislature and who has the right to belong to that body who delegates responsibility to a legislature? The answer Grotius offered still resided in the sacred and was never separated from sacred authority?

Grotius used the biblical text as his authority that insisted that God gave that authority initially to a people, the Israelites who spoke a common language, forged a national identity and were rooted in a specific territory guaranteed them by God. God did not give that authority to an institution like the Roman Catholic Church so that it could ultimately reside in a pope and through the device of the king’s two bodies, a secular king that erred and a sacred one that expressed divine authority. Who then was there to sanction a monarch as possessing a divine right to rule? The Jews were a light unto the nations and the Dutch nation had come to see that light. In imitation of the Jews, they insisted that, through revolution, they could and would earn the right to rule themselves as a nation state.

For Grotius, in contrast to Hobbes and Locke, sovereignty was not a matter of a random collection of persons coming together in a state of nature to forge a state at a time when the nation and the state were created at one and the same time. Rather, the nation preceded the state. It had a common linguistic and cultural heritage and an attachment to a specific territory. But in history, it was just as much or even more that the battle with Spain over the freedom and self-determination of the Dutch, as well as an escape from Roman Catholic repression, that forged the nation. Nation states were born in blood – or, in the case of Canada, the fear of blood.

That is, as Schmitt argued, revolution, the recourse to violence, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a cause. Revolution and blood sacrifice were critical. In other words, sovereignty comes to the fore in the context of a crisis. There is currently such a crisis in the U.S.A. today. Democrats, and three of the eminent legal scholars who testified last Wednesday, argue that the national interest had been compromised and that foreign powers had been invited to intervene in an American election – arousing a deep-seated fear that foreign interference would undermine the sacredness of the insulated electoral process. In the abuse of that sacred right, the elected monarch of the United States posed as a traditional monarch, one above the law and one capable of denying witnesses and evidence to a duly elected committee of the House of Representatives.

I insisted in my opening blog that it was necessary to go back to sources, which was also the insistence of Grotius. Natural law emerged in history and could not be conceived as an abstraction forged in a state of nature divorced from history. The secular state governed by its people in accordance with the rule of law emerged from a sacred text. Grotius was not a modernist who divorced the sacred and the secular, just the church and state. Though he had a secular agenda, he supported that by reference to the Bible and, in particular, the emergence of the Israelites as a nation governed by the rule of law.

To repeat what I wrote in my opening blog in this last series, “Grotius propounded a theory of sovereignty based on a doctrine of natural law independent of the will of God and deriving its existence from the nature of man as a rational being who seeks a society consonant with his intelligence. Reason provided the basis for justice in the state and justice among states, both in peace and in war.” But the fault line remained the juncture of the sacred and the secular. And underneath that fault, was violence, war and conflict, the resort to which Grotius tried to restrict to the rational. Resorting to violence required a just cause (in contrast to conquest or revenge). The threat had to be imminent and self-defense must be the ultimate justification. Those who decide must be rightfully constituted authorities and consider the resort to war a last resort adopted to overcome a serious injustice.

But who decides who is the rightfully constituted authority, especially when the conflict is precisely over that issue? Who decides whether abolishing slavery is a just cause or, alternatively, the principle of states’ rights and self-determination is? Grotius did not resolve those issues. However, by alluding to the biblical record, he argued that God’s message and the true answer to that bedevilment was revealed in using critique to understand the intention of the Biblical text. The secular remained firmly rooted in the sacred even as it sought its independence.

“A doctrine of a right of rebellion explained the nature of sovereign authority within the state; a doctrine of just war was used to explain the nature of the sovereignty among states. Sovereignty, internally considered and defined by will and externally considered, defined by consent, derives its content and meaning, and its force of obligation, from the nature of man, from the law of nature, hence, natural law theory.” War between and among nations was to be determined by a compact among nations.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Hugo Grotius and the Jewish Question – Part V: Theology and Revolution

For non-Christians, this is intended as a useful backgrounder to Hugo Grotius’s Christianity and a preparation for my final blog on Grotius. Some Christians who are not Calvinists might find it useful as well. I welcome corrections from my Christian friends.

As I have written, unlike Galileo Galilei, Hugo Grotius (Huig van Groot) (1583-1645), who was twenty years younger than Galileo, was intimately involved with Jews, and with one Jew in particular, Menasseh ben Israel (Manoel Dias Soeiro 1604-1657). Like Galileo, Grotius was an amateur theologian. Again, like Galileo, he was aligned with one faction of Christianity opposed to another, but instead of being aligned with Catholic anti-Aristotelians versus the Aristotelian Jesuits, Grotius was aligned with a Calvinist Protestant faction, the Arminians against the Gomarists,  

Jacobus Arminus (1560-1609) was a Dutch theologian. His followers were known as Remonstrants, a faction of Calvinists, that is, Augustinians as opposed to Thomist Aristotelians. In particular, Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at the University of Geneva, introduced the soteriological variation to Calvinism preoccupied with salvation. The Remonstrance (1610) was a theological statement signed by 45 ministers and submitted to the States General of the Netherlands, the Dutch Congress comprising a House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer) and a Senate (Eerste Kamer) that so influenced the structure of the nascent republic of the United States of America. The States General in turn convened the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 to consider the five articles of Remonstrance dealing with salvation, namely:

  1. Salvation (and condemnation on the day of judgment) was conditioned by the graciously-enabled faith (or unbelief) of man;
  2. The Atonement is qualitatively adequate for all men, “yet that no one actually enjoys [experiences] this forgiveness of sins, except the believer …” and thus is limited to only those who trust in Christ;
  3. “That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will,” and unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God’s will;
  4. The Christian Grace “of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of any good,” yet man may resist the Holy Spirit;
  5. Believers are able to resist sin through Grace, and Christ will keep them from falling; but whether they are beyond the possibility of ultimately forsaking God or “becoming devoid of grace … must be more particularly determined from the Scriptures.”

In other words, salvation, deliverance or redemption, the saving of an individual from eternal suffering and from a separation from God, depended on faith and not works nor the rulings of any institution – God alone would be the judge of human innocence or guilt. All Christians, not just Arminians, not just Calvinists, not just Protestants, but all Christians could atone for their sins, for Jesus had died on the cross to atone for the sins of all humans, but only those who had accepted this proposition, that Jesus had died on the cross so that they could be forgiven, could garner atonement in this way.

Thus, though salvation was open to anyone, atonement, or forgiveness of sins, was only open to Christians. Depending on the sin, they had a ranked order in terms of degrees of depravity. Various Christian sects differed on what was or was not to be considered a depraved state and to what degree. This led to at least five different theories of atonement: ransom, Christus Victor, recapitulation, satisfaction and moral influence. Recall that Catholicism had demarcated three forms of required atonement: penance, alms and satisfaction.

Arminians were Calvinists who believed that saving grace was a prerogative of the divine spirit and nothing that humans did of their free will could determine whether they could be saved, but only the Holy Spirit. But even if one was chosen, humans could remain closed to receiving that Holy Spirit. Grace, however, could even overcome that resistance.

Who were the Gomarists? They were followers of Franciscus Gomarus (François Gomaer 1563-1641) He had been educated in Strasbourg, Oxford, Cambridge and Heidelberg. Like most Calvinist theologians, he was fluent in Hebrew and was named a Professor of Hebrew at the University of Leiden, the main competitor in continental Europe to the University of Padua as the Princeton of its age. There, Jacobus Arminius was a colleague. Gomarus accused the latter of teaching Pelagian doctrine, namely that a person from his own free will was capable of doing good or evil and choosing God without the aid of divine intervention – in direct contradiction to the basic precepts of Calvinism.

Arminius, however, insisted that election was solely a matter of faith and predestination determined that faith. Gomaris and Arminius came to direct intellectual blows in the assembly of the States of Holland in 1608 and 1609. Then Arminius died. Against Gomarus’ will, Konrad Vorstius, one of the Arminians, took his place. Gomarus was so offended he resigned his professorship and became a professor first at Saumur and then at Groningen.

Unlike Arminius, Gomarus advocated that restrictions be placed on the Jews. Why did Arminian doctrine remain open to the equality of Jews while Jews remained suspect to Gomarians and required limitations on where they lived, how they dressed and on their interactions with Christians? In Arminian theology, election depended on faith; predestination determined that faith. For them, that was the central message of the Bible. But in life, humans were free to do good or evil whether or not they were open to being saved.

For Gomarists, God, not humans, was the author of all sin; ironically, this was similar to the position of Spinoza, a liberal. But the principle for Gomarists had a particular Christian twist. The Fall of Man was decreed by God. So was the Fall of Jews and their failure to accept Jesus as their saviour. Thus, Gomarists, unlike Arminians, opposed tolerance not only for Jews but for Roman Catholics as well. As long as Jews believed that their salvation depended on following the rules of biblical law, they not only could not be open to salvation, but could influence Christians, namely Calvinists, to close their hearts to faith. Jews themselves could never be saved. However, Arminius left open the possibility that Jews could be saved by other means than faith, but only those who became Calvinists were eligible for grace being bestowed upon them.

Nevertheless, both men were thoroughly fluent in Hebrew and had a close acquaintance with the Torah. However, only Artimius reached out to Jews, and most particularly Menasseh ben Israel, to help in interpretation of Hebrew words and phrases and for learning different techniques for biblical interpretation.

When Gomarus in the Synod of Dort (Dordtecht) failed in the debate to have Artimius condemned for heresy and fled Leiden, Leiden became an intellectual and financial centre for both Christians and Jews and one of the islands of respect and tolerance in Europe. 

For the new covenant of faith in Jesus and God succeeded, but did not displace or replace the Jewish covenant with God. Jews could have had their own route to atonement and salvation. It was an early form of two-stream theology with respect to the relations of Christian and Jews. It was not for man to determine that Israel had broken the old covenant which gave rise to the new one of salvation through accepting Jesus as one’s saviour. Hence, there was no need to convert Jews or for Jews to convert, let alone to persecute Jews inherently as fallen and needing salvation.

For both versions of religious belief, God alone was absolutely righteous. Only persons pure of sin could approach Him. Only God could decide on reconciliation between man and God, but Jews followed a different path of sacrifice, more specifically, the ritual of the Paschal lamb and the search for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement. Christians required acceptance through faith in the role of “the suffering servant” and the mediation of a divinely sent servant of the Lord who was wounded for man’s transgressions and would bare the sins of the many.

Jews, learned and practicing, did not accept this depiction of themselves, even as they thrived under this form of theological tolerance. For one, forgiveness by God was not a single epiphany in one’s life, but a temporary state very dependent on follow through. Further, korbanot or offerings could only be useful in atoning for minor sins committed in ignorance without intent. They were not transactional exercises; there were no payments for sin and giving the gift to God was the means of transforming a sinful into a sacred act. The sacrifice was only effective if the person making the sacrifice was sincere in his or her repentance. Finally, restitution to the person harmed was required. All of these principles would have a deep effect on Grotius’ conception of the role of law.

One other piece of background, this time political rather than theological. For eighty years, between 1568 and 1648, the northern seven provinces of the Netherlands or the Low Countries (as distinct from what became Belgium and Luxembourg) which were extensively, but far from majoritarian, Calvinist or at least Protestant, were in revolt against the rule of the Roman Catholic King Phillip II of Spain who was the hereditary monarch for those provinces. His father, Charles, had been born and brought up in the Netherlands and spoke Dutch as well as French, Spanish and German. Phillip II would eventually become heir to the Spanish throne and eventually ruler of the entire Habsburg Empire, of which the Low Countries were an integral part.

However, as head of the most powerful state in the world at the time with its huge empire in the Americas, the Spanish ecclesiastical and corrupt nobility turned out to be no match in the end for the sincere, pious, humble and morally superior Dutch rebels who took advantage of the initially decentralized rule of Charles V and Phillip II after 1555. Phillip, unlike his father, had grown up in Spain and spoke no Dutch.

The Dutch managed to keep the Inquisition at bay and were able to resist and win against the efforts to re-centralize power using a precursor of no taxation without representation. They revolted against a heavy burden of taxation and the heavy hand of repression of Phillip’s de facto governor, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba, in 1567 led by William of Orange (senior), but only after initial very severe losses and a retreat to guerilla warfare. Victory would be achieved as the powerful Spanish were weakened by a four-front war – against the Ottomans, against the French, against the English pirates and, finally, against the Dutch.

This was a clash of cultures with deep roots in religion. William of Orange converted from Catholicism to Calvinism in 1573. But under the influence of an intimate knowledge of the Torah, the Dutch developed a nationalist ideology of self-determination influenced by the history of the Jews whom they believed had discovered and become the first nation state. The international law of Hugo Grotius was premised on nation states as the prime entities of the international system with international law governing the relationships between those states. Thus, the revolt led to the creation of an independent Dutch Republic, the United Provinces, under the rule of William of Orange (William the Silent), de facto in 1581 and de jure in 1648. But it was not without great cost. In the Spanish-French rivalry, which we have already seen played out in Italy and in competition for leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, the Dutch had France as an ally, but that meant that large swaths of the Southern Netherlands were annexed by France under Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII of France.

It was during this period of the revolution that Dutch theology, political and legal theory emerged as the prototype for a modern nation state. Further, the energy and creativity of the Dutch Republic led to it becoming an important sea power with its own colonial empire, a very prosperous merchant class alongside an economic, scientific and cultural explosion. However, two factions emerged in the Dutch camp mentioned above, each rooted in theology, economics, class and distribution of power. There were the well-to-do merchants who became Arminians and were intellectually led by Hugo Grotius. They were opposed by the Gomarists with their much harsher and narrower interpretation of scripture. Though the Arminians won the intellectual debate, in 1619 they lost the internecine conflict. Grotius, initially captured, was helped by his wife to escape in a chest ostensibly filled with books. The mode of escape was itself symbolic.

The significance: secular politics and its sacred ground were seen then as interdependent.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Birth of a Nation: Parashat VaYeitzei – Genesis 28:10-32:3

I love hearing from my readers. Further to my anticipation of an antisemitic backlash after the House passes the articles of impeachment, I learned yesterday that the fourth expert witness at the Judiciary committee hearings, Jonathan Turley, is also Jewish. His arguments for going slow and that the evidence gathered was insufficient to impeach and lacked the evidence of key witnesses (which Trump has prevented them from giving), and that impeachment requires a compact across party lines, were not very convincing and contradicted earlier statements of his. But he did not vote for Trump, was critical of his behavior as “highly inappropriate” in asking a foreign leader to investigate a political rival and agreed that withholding military aid approved by Congress until the President of Ukraine did him a favour was an impeachable offence. Turley was a witness for the Republicans but he effectively undermined the case they had tried to make. Was Turley a trick on them by those tricky Jews, some are bound to ask? Rick Wiles, a right-wing evangelical from Florida, already went further and called the whole process a “Jew coup.”


A nation is born. Abraham only gave birth to a progenitor of the nation of Israel, namely Isaac. Isaac, in contrast, was the earthly father of Jacob who was the real father of the Israelite nation. Who is this Jacob and what mark did his forbears leave on him? For one, he was the spiritual son of his grandfather, not his father.

His father, Isaac, was certainly scarred very deeply by his father’s, Abraham’s, efforts to sacrifice him. Isaac did not attend his own mother’s funeral, possibly because she did not intervene to prevent his own father from taking him up a mountain where Abraham planned to sacrifice him. With his older half-brother, Ishmael, he came together finally to bury his father in the cave of Machpelah, possibly in an act of forgiveness to his father for how that father had traumatized him.

Isaac was a nebbish, an unlikely father of a nation. Like his father before him, he had two sons, Esau and Jacob, who were not only full-blooded brothers, but twins. Jacob was a very flawed individual. Under the tutelage of his mother, Rebekah, he used a ruse to trick his brother into transferring to himself his older twin’s birthright in a mundane transactional exercise where he paid for that birthright with a bowl of lentils for his tired and hungry brother. Jacob had been ambitious from birth, coming out of the birth canal literally on the heel of his brother. He was a second born son who wanted to be the first born.

When Isaac was blind and old, as old as his father had been when he tied Isaac up and took out a knife to kill him, Isaac called his older and favourite son, the tougher and rougher huntsman, Esau, to bless him. Esau echoed the same words Abraham had uttered when he had been called by God, “Hineini, here I am.” Isaac then requested his son, Esau, to go out into the woods and hunt his favourite game so he could eat it possibly for his last supper. Esau’s mother took the opportunity to organize a second ruse whereby Jacob would pretend to be Esau and thereby receive his father’s blessing.

When queried by Isaac how he, Jacob, had returned from the hunt so quickly, Jacob told a lie to his father and claimed that he killed the game because, God by good fortune had done for him what he had done for his grandfather, delivered an animal for “sacrifice” in a timely fashion. Not so fast, Isaac said. You have the voice of Jacob. How can you be Esau? But Jacob had followed his mother’s instructions, dressed in Esau’s clothes and covered his arms with animal pelts so his father would feel his arms as if they were hairy like those of his older brother.  

Isaac then blessed Jacob, not once but twice at that time, first when he felt his supposedly hairy arms and then again after he had finished eating and Jacob had come close so Isaac could smell him, not knowing that he was smelling Esau’s clothes. He would eventually bless him a third time before Jacob fled to Haran. Isaac blessed Jacob as follows:

“May God give you

Of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth,

Abundance of new grain and wine.

Let people serve you

And nations bow down to you

Be master over your brothers

And let your mother’s sons bow to you.

Cursed be they who curse you,

Blessed be they who bless you.” (27:28-9)

Isaac had unintentionally blessed the man of smooth words (and clever tricks) rather than the worldly man with the terrific manual skills of a great hunter. Jacob had come with guile and stolen his older brother’s, Esau’s, blessing. Nevertheless, Esau, weeping, asked his father to bless him as well. Isaac agreed. He reversed the order, granting him the fat of the earth and the dew of the heavens, but said that Esau would have to live by the sword and not live in abundance. People would not serve him. Rather, he would have to serve his brother but would eventually break free and be the father of many nations.

Unlike Isaac’s mother, Rebekah intervened lest Esau use his weapons to kill Jacob. Jacob fled to Haran, to his mother’s brother, Laban. Isaac blessed him again, but insisted that he not take a Canaanite wife.

Parashat VaYeitzei then begins. On the first evening, Jacob first lies down for the night and has a dream. A stairway or ladder reached from the ground upwards to the sky like the stairwell in a surrealist painting. The angels of God were going up and down the stairway. The Lord, for the first time called YHWH, appeared beside him and gave him his fourth and final blessing:

“I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the ground on which you are lying I will give to you and your offspring. Your descendants shall be the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth will bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised.” (28: 13-15)

What a weird blessing!

  • Abraham is referred to as Jacob’s (real? spiritual?) father
  • Jacob and his descendants will be given a territory, the prerequisite to forming a nation (a land that will be referred to subsequently by Jacob as “the abode of God” and the gateway to heaven)
  • However, the descendants will be scattered to the ends of the earth
  • Further, the nations among whom they will live will not bless the descendants of Jacob, but will be blessed by the presence of that diaspora
  • God promises to protect those descendants; presumably, they will be in need of protection
  • Eventually, God will return the descendants of Jacob to the sacred ground after which they will be left on their own; God will leave them.

The latter item is the most peculiar of all because Jacob refers to the land to which the descendants will return as the abode of God. Why would God leave his abode? Because the earth is not God’s place, not where God belongs? Humans will have to learn that it is where they belong. That is the lesson Jacob learns that neither his father, Isaac, nor his grandfather, Abraham learned. It is then and there that Jacob proclaims his fealty to God, but conditionally only, at least at this time, so long as God protects him and his descendants. What about after they return to the holy land and God leaves those descendants on their own?

Ever onward and upward as Nancy Pelosi said yesterday just after she had announced that the American House of Representatives would vote on impeaching Donald Trump. Ever onward and upward vowed Jacob.

Jacob reaches Haran and the home of his uncle, Laban, and perfects the arts of deception that he learned under the tutelage of his mother, Rebekah. First, he refuses to follow the norms of the shepherds who await the arrival of all the shepherds with their flocks before they roll the stone off the well to water their flocks. When Rachel arrived with her father’s flock, Jacob pre-empted them and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. He then kissed his cousin Rachel and wept tears of joy. Laban promises Rachel to him as his wife if he, Jacob, will work for him for seven years. But Laban tricks him and substitutes his older daughter, Leah for Rachel.

Poor Leah. Her husband loved her younger beautiful sister more than her. In contrast, Leah was not beautiful and had “weak eyes.” Jacob woke up in the bridal bed with Leah and realized he has been tricked. He is outraged, ran to Laban, and, irony of ironies, accused Laban of deceiving him. Jacob must work seven more years for the hand of Rachel. However, Rachel was barren after they marry. But Leah gave birth to Reuven – “the Lord has seen my affliction” and, hopefully, “now my husband will believe me.”

No such luck. Simeon, “the Lord heard,” was born. But Jacob remained deaf to her yearning for love. Levi was born and all Leah could hope for by that time was Jacob’s “attachment.” Again, nothing. Then her fourth son, Judah (“I will praise”), is born and she no longer looks to Jacob for love, but turns to God. And she accepts the blessing of her four boys as sufficient. She has been blessed with the grace of God, not Christian grace that delivers salvation, but Jewish grace that delivers satisfaction. True to his sense of original outrage, Jacob even buries Leah in the Cave of Mapilech without addressing Leah as his wife. Jacob never rids himself of his bitterness and resentment. But he has a son, Judah, who will be satisfied with whatever comes his way.

Jacob had four more sons, two from Rachel’s maid, Bilhah – Dan (God has vindicated me) and Naphtali (I have prevailed). Leah, after she believed that she had passed child-bearing age, gave her maidservant, Zilpah, to Jacob and the maid bore Gad (luck) and Asher (fortune). Then a turn of events. Just as Esau had given up his birthright in return for a bowl of lentils, Leah gave Rachel the mandrake her son had given her in return for a chance to once again sleep with Jacob. Leah had a fifth son, Issachar (reward – for giving her maid to Jacob) and a sixth son, Zebulun (a choice gift) and a daughter, Dinah.

Finally, presumably because of taking the aphrodisiac mandrake that ostensibly removes barrenness, Rachel gave birth to Joseph and would later give birth to Benjamin. Jacob returned Laban’s trickery on him and made a deal and using a gimmick of light and dark rods to stimulate cross breeding of black and white sheep. He took the best animals for his breeding program to get all of Laban’s best sheep and goats. Jacob the trickster has outwitted his trickster uncle claiming that he learned the trick from God.

Then Rachel stole her father’s idols and Laban was left without their protection. When Laban came after his daughters and his grandchildren, and what he believed were his stolen flocks but, also, primarily his stolen idols, Rachel became a trickster insisting that because she was menstruating, she could not get off her camel’s saddle under which she had hidden her father’s idols so that he could not find them when he searched the whole of Jacob’s camp. After an argument, and presumably because Laban felt he lacked the protection of his gods, Jacob and Laban agreed on a peace deal and a line of territorial division which each could not cross to attack the other. The territory promised by God now had a boundary.

The whole deal, however, came at a cost. Rachel died in her next effort to give birth and was not buried at Machpelah, the only matriarch not to be buried there, ostensibly because she had betrayed her father for the sake of Jacob and Jacob, unknowingly like Oedipus, had promised that anyone who stole the idols would die.

Jacob will still have to make peace with Esau. Before he meets Esau, he will wrestle with a man – his alter-ego – and prevail, and Jacob will become Israel, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Up until that time, there is no sign yet that he can fulfill the blessing of God and become a father of a nation. Yet the clues are there. Contrast Jacob with his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham. Both were failures as fathers. They each had two sons who went their separate ways. Jacob had twelve sons and they would stick together and become a nation. How did he pull off that conceivably unprecedented act?

The beginning was not promising. He was an ambitious trickster, taught how to dupe by his mother, a skill which he perfected when he dealt with Laban. However, these were his superficial flaws. His deep flaw was that he still suffered from Adam’s greatest weakness, Adam wanted to be like God. Adam thought he was like God since he brought things into being by naming them and thereby creating a divine realm of words to match the divine realm created by God. Adam was a nerd who did not even recognize he had a body and a sex drive. His erect snake had a voice of its own and Adam took no responsibility for what it did. Adam had to learn he had a body through the so-called disassociated penis and Eve. The result of his not taking responsibility for what he did was that he was cast out of the Garden of plenty to make a living in the world by the labour of his hands.

Abraham, following Adam, had denied his accountability and blamed God for ordering him to kill his son. More importantly, he had failed to defend his oldest son, and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, as they were cast, both mother and son, into the wilderness. Abraham was guilt ridden and would try to kill his less favourite son, Isaac. Isaac too was flawed. He had also had a favourite, but once again backed the wrong horse, the first born and an outdoorsman rather than a homebody and bookish man. He had to be tricked into following the right historical course of second-born rather than first born alpha males becoming the leader of the nation. It is only when Jacob wrestled with the “angel,” (ish) (32:25), and pinned him. Did he, in effect, wrestle with his other half, his Machiavellian self on whom he had heretofore relied for survival, pin him and then release him? Had he freed himself from being a tricky Dick?

His son Joseph would inherit his ability to use trickery, but at a much more sophisticated level. Joseph was his eleventh son, not his first-born. By surrendering the Illusion that he was God, Jacob would become Israel, the father of a nation, for he now saw that his life had to be fully dedicated to his earthly family and not becoming himself a god. His greatest accomplishment, his greatest achievement, would be that, unlike his father, unlike his grandfather, he would become the instrument which allowed the twelve brothers to forge a nation together. He gave birth to the nation that Moses would have to forge into one. That was an historical accomplishment.

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

Hugo Grotius and the Jewish Questio – III Spinoza

Baruch (Bento) Spinoza (1632-1677), born in Amsterdam into a middle-class Portuguese Marrano family who had returned to Judaism, was a child prodigy. He was the star pupil in his Yeshiva, studied Torah and Talmud in great depth and mastered Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and later Latin as well as Hebrew. When he was 17, because of financial pressures on his family, he abandoned his formal studies and entered his family’s import/export business. Unlike most of the other figures we have or will discuss, though, as his intellectual fame rose, he was offered university positions, he never accepted one. For most of his life, he earned his money as a lens grinder.

Something happened over the seven years after he left school. What, we do not know, except in retrospect from his writings afterwards. At the age of twenty-four in 1656, his Sephardic synagogue issued a herem, a writ of excommunication that not only kicked him out of the Jewish community of Amsterdam, but ominously warned that anyone who seeks to contact him, either orally or in print, or do him any favour, or would “read anything composed or written by him, will suffer the same fate.” Shades of the Inquisition and Galileo! Luckily, the Amsterdam community was powerless compared to the Inquisition and Spinoza went on to write and publish his works and achieve international fame. In his own career, he gave witness to his heretical belief in the autonomy of the individual free from the chains of tradition.

Why? Spinoza rejected the idea of:

  • a transcendent divine being, though he was not an atheist
  • that such a God was merciful and providential
  • that the soul was immortal
  • that life was lived to ensure the immortality of the soul
  • that much of the authority of the rabbis was not only suspect but ungrounded
  • that the law as inherited by tradition was not binding and was certainly not handed down by God

Spinoza was prolific. However, the only book that he published under his own name during his lifetime was, Principles of Philosophy (1663), a critique of Descartes. Among his major works, he wrote:

(1661) Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect

(1667) On the Improvement of the Understanding

(1670) Theological-Political Treatise

(1675) Political Treatise

(1677) Ethics [Spinoza died that year.]

In this blog, I will primarily be concerned with his anonymously published 1670 volume, Theological-Political Treatise, a response to the threat to the principles of toleration that had been developed in Holland. However, I will also touch upon his Compendium to Hebrew Grammar probably completed in 1675, and, of course, his Ethics which also criticizes the traditional conception of God and of humans and their beliefs in its dedication to the life of reason.

This is not as simple to articulate as it sounds. For Spinoza, though less subject to persecution than Galileo or Grotius, did have to resort to some degree of subterfuge in his writing using ambiguity, contradiction and paradoxes as disguises. Did Spinoza write for the elite few or for the many? This and many other puzzles pervade his works. But it is unequivocal that Spinoza stood up for freedom of thought and expression, for the subordination of the clergy to the secular and the independent use of reason as a human right.

What did he have to say about God? Though Spinoza was never as blasphemous as I appear to be in a much more tolerant age when I opine that in parts of the Torah, God sanctioned genocide, Spinoza went much further than I ever had and held God to be responsible for all the cruelty, suffering and inhumanity in history. Perhaps it is there that the interpretive unanimity ends. There are those, like Goethe or Coleridge, who treated him as a God-intoxicated pietist in the life he led as well as in his philosophy, but a pietist of culture rather than traditional religion. Others, like the Huguenot, Pierre Bayle, denounced him as an atheist. So did Montesquieu and Hume. Or was he, as I had been introduced to his writings as an undergraduate, simply a pure and very unique metaphysical system builder? Or, as I consider him here, was he a pioneer in the Enlightenment in general and on the Jewish question more specifically?

How could Jews be entitled to equal rights with all other citizens? As individuals but not as a community as in France? As participants in a new emerging common culture? For with the emergence of the nation state as the dominant form of political organization, an emergence directly influenced by the precedent of the Israelites, a central unitary state of its citizens rather than an inherited authoritarian order ridden with divisiveness and conflicted loyalties, was envisioned as creating order and preventing chaos by being based on the rule of law. However, did this mean that Jews were to be given rights but Judaism was to be relegated to the private sphere of belief rather than the way of life of a community? Was this a Faustian bargain that Jews made to attain their freedom as equal citizens of the new emerging nation states? Did Spinoza give rise to what Yosef Yerushalmi called, “the psychological Jew,” where collective character traits displaced community – bookish, ambitious, possessed of a sense of community responsibility, intellectual and with a hypersensitivity to antisemitism? Was Spinoza the hero of this new point of view?

Divine election of a people – nonsense. No longer a Moses who spoke to God and led his people to create a nation in a conquered land, but a pioneering and very flawed nation state builder torn between authoritarian propensities and mystical convictions versus a determination to emancipate his people. In that interpretation, Spinoza was, as Emmanuel Levinas claimed, a defiler of Judaism and was justifiably excommunicated when portrayed as a key stage in the emancipation from religious authoritarianism and its replacement by a nation state governed by all its citizens in which each individual possessed equal civil rights. Did that mean relegating the Torah to an interesting literary work and substituting a new type of sacred text composed by humans, such as declarations of independence and constitutions as a foundation for a political society? Did the latter displace allegedly transcendentally-inspired sacred documents composed from divine sources?

To do that, the divine sources of inherited scripture, which gave religious authorities a dominant voice, had to be critiqued. Spinoza was your man. He did not use criticism to support scientific conclusions as Galileo did. Nor to support political conclusions as Grotius did. Rather, Spinoza pioneered in a new emerging higher criticism which rigorously applied reason to the inherited sacred textual materials, but not to undermine Judaism, but rather to demonstrate that Judaism contained the seeds of modernity in its conceptions of the rule of law, its portrait of a political identity and in the emphasis on history as a record of the revelation and instantiation of freedom over time, more specifically of a democracy of sovereign individuals where freedom rather than security and protection is the true measure of a successful polity, one in which each citizen is required to think for himself and contribute to the general will.

Thus, Jewish scripture, the Torah, must not only be emancipated from the conviction that it rests on divine authority and that it is, of necessity, a fount of eternal wisdom, but that it is a text that deals with conflicting political ideals and tensions and provides a record of their resolution. Further, the text itself has and must have multiple origins. However, inherent in the text was a conviction that there was a basis for certainty, that knowledge was, in the end, true and eternal rather than dependent on history and inherently flawed. The question then was what eternal truth did the text point to as it expressed the social and psychological needs of a people at different points in their history?

Thus, as with Galileo, as with Grotius, both the world (of nature) and the word were treasure chests of hidden secrets to reveal insights into what was eternal and true for all time. As in the examination of nature, the use of critical reasoning to unpack those truths was necessary. It would take a new era to determine that nature was to be approached as an object outside ourselves while history was to be approached as an empathetic reenactment of the thoughts of past agents and their intentions. Instead, Spinoza was the precursor of the positivists who would subsume historical studies as a department of science dedicated to finding explanations of the causes of all behaviour in tune with universal natural laws. Spinoza followed Galileo in holding that the revelation of the laws of nature could be found in Torah (such as Joshua’s claims about the sun stopping proving that the earth traveled around the sun), but went further and insisted that history, and hence scripture, was to be examined to reveal eternal laws of behaviour.

Contrast this with the effort of Grotius to uncover a pristine form of Christianity within the text, a very different humanistic enterprise than the scientific approach advocated by Spinoza. Contrast the views of Spinoza with those of Francis Bacon. Instead of a Spinozistic unitary one in which science was the result of the utilization of reason, Bacon offered a tripartite division of knowledge. Only science was the product of reason while creativity – such as the writing of poetry – was the product of the imagination and history was the result of the use of memory. For Spinoza, history had an emancipatory role in debunking superstition and fables that belong to the past in favour of timeless truths.

Yet all of these thinkers, Galileo, Grotius, Spinoza and Bacon, whatever their differences, opposed the Lutheran doctrine that one could only grasp the truth of scripture by opening oneself first to grace and surrendering oneself to the service of and trust in Jesus. But this process, that of Spinoza more particularly, was also opposed to the approach of the Kabbalists, who bracketed reason in order to grasp the hidden and symbolic meaning of the text. However, for these modern anti-Aristotelian anti-scholastics, this was perhaps a more honest option in opting for irrationality rather than using reason to distort and deform scriptural text to make it conform to a predetermined abstract ideology. Maimonides even more than the Jewish mystics was really Spinoza’s target in his critiques. In his Treatise, Maimonides is portrayed as a dogmatist who would twist and torture text to make it conform to principles purportedly derived from reason and, thereby, make reason and faith complementary.Like Rashi, Spinoza favoured pshat over drash, favoured detailed linguistic exegesis over imaginative reconstructions, favoured critique over a rationally structured guide to the perplexed, preferred innovative interpretations over confirming the conclusions of previous authorities, favoured close adherence to what the text said in contrast to treating the text allegorically to support pre-established rational dogma. Instead, Torah consisted of universal truths consistently repeated in the text (love the stranger) and binding on all of humanity. Anything else was superfluous.  

With the help of Alex Zisman

Hugo Grotius and the Jewish Question – II Grotius and Spinoza

Galileo, I had argued, set up the premises for the secularization of religion, that is, the separation of religion from a universal discourse rooted in civil society and underpinned by science. This was a foundation for the Enlightenment as well as the basis for a modern Jewish identity. Baruch Spinoza would make that explicit in his Theologico-Political Treatise. The emancipation of the Jews presumed human emancipation, that is the basic common nature of all humans as a precondition for political emancipation. The civic emancipation of the Jews  was based on a radical separation of civil and political society. As I hope I made clear, there was no such separation in Galileo’s political environment.

I will not consider Spinoza’s cosmology and the unity of substance as an arguable pantheistic premise. Nor will I be concerned with Spinoza’s views of the mind-body problem, a preoccupation of René Descartes. Rather, I will use Spinoza as background for understanding Hugo Grotius’ contribution to the emancipation of Jews, notably both as individuals and as a nation. As you will see in subsequent weeks, both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke also pioneered in separating church and state, civil and political society and rooting those separations in nature. But unlike these thinkers, both Spinoza and Grotius made the interpretation of the Torah a foundation stone for these differences, Spinoza by unpacking and unveiling the hidden lessons of the world as the complement to unravelling the hidden lessons of the word that claimed to be divine, Grotius by unpacking and unveiling the hidden lessons of the divine word as the complement to unravelling new lessons for the political world.

Galileo took on the battle with the Aristotelians in both science as well as theology. In contrast, Spinoza acknowledged a debt to Maimonides, by far the most important Aristotelian in Judaism, but with whom he had very fundamental differences. But unlike Galileo, who came on bended knee before the all-powerful Inquisitional Court, Spinoza had the advantage of a tradition that a) had little power over the individual and b) had a strong tradition of tolerating diverse opinions. Spinoza built on those two factors to create the foundation for a modern Jewish identity free from any of the authoritative strictures of tradition.

Spinoza provided the foundation for the very model of a modern liberal Jew to free Jews from the chains of prescribed Halachic Judaism. Jews had used law to keep Jews repressed. The Roman Catholic Church relied on coercion and institutional power to keep Catholics in line. Spinoza would use the belief in the rule of law to free Jews from the oppression of law in favour of law that liberated Jews. Spinoza, using critical hermeneutics, demonstrated that Judaism both held back modernity but also provided the philosophical foundation for modernity just as Grotius in his own way contended. A dialectic was at work: liberalism was rooted in Jewish sources and Jewish sources provided a ground for liberalism.

Why? Precisely because Jews believed in the rule of law and Grotius would make the rule of law the centerpiece of a modern and free society. What about transcendence? What about revelation? Immanence replaced transcendence. The revelations of nature and natural history replaced the revelation from above. Judaism was ideal for founding modernity. In turn, modernity allowed Jews to free themselves from obscurantism in favour of liberalism and the rule of reason for Spinoza and the rule of law for Grotius.

Why law? Because law was about practical, immediate and day-to-day matters. And law would provide a basis for living in society whether one was a Jew or a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim, and even for a so-called atheist Jew. This new view of a state was not the French version where secularism or laïcité would become the non-traditional religion of the new state, a new state that, in the name of laïcité, would ban religious head coverings and crosses by teachers, students and civil servants. In this case, the state replaced the Catholic institutions dedicated to preserving and perpetuating accepted traditions, only this time the traditions were devotedly anti-clerical.

Both Spinoza and Grotius introduced a liberalism not of mere tolerance, but a liberalism of recognition, a liberalism that respected differences. Instead of simply and primarily ceremonial law, which Spinoza rejected, Grotius made the whole body of law relevant to shaping the body politic. At the same time, both thinkers banished any preoccupation with other-worldly realms as a source for applying law to this world and ensuring the freedom of both individuals and nations. That meant that the divine origins of both the word and the world had to be both incorporated and overcome in the vision of a world unfolding. For Grotius it would reveal itself primarily in time. For Spinoza, the revelation would be primarily spatial.

For Spinoza, Mosaic law was dynamic and variable as it revealed itself over time to develop a world of civic equality in a new Promised Land rooted in liberalism and the rule of law, but a new, more encompassing and more far reaching rule. This was the New Jerusalem. But was this new utopia a stepping stone from emancipation to assimilation? One has to look at and read Grotius to find the answer, which was negative. For liberation was not just individual but collective. National self-determination, and not just individual emancipation, was the other leg on which modernity stood. Without the balance of national self-determination, individuals were reduced to an atomistic, isolated and alienated state incapable of engaging in a collective enterprise that made responsibility the complement to rights, accountability the social counterpart to individual initiative, and the rule of law the method for avoiding anarchy or apocalyptic solutions relying on creating a new world ex nihilo or merging with the dominant social world through assimilation.

Like Spinoza, Grotius also developed his political views from the study of the Torah. Grotius’ Argumenti Theologici, Iuridici Politici and his Defense of the Catholic Faith Concerning the Satisfaction of Christ were the foundational building blocks for his political theology. This would be the first story of his intellectual home focused on the principle of sovereignty in his Commentarius in Theses XI: An Early Treatise on Sovereignty, the Just War, and the Legitimacy of the Dutch Revolt, and his second story theory of the laws of just war within the rule of international law in Prologomena to the Law of War and Peace and The Rights of War and Peace. These are the complements to Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise.

Spinoza and Grotius were both republicans and democrats. Democracy meant individual rights and majority rule. Republicanism implied duties more than rights and meant the rule of law and the protection of minorities. Democracy meant self-determination and the belief that sovereignty rests in a people as a whole and not a sovereign person such as a monarch or emperor.Republicanism explicitly was anti-monarchical as well as anti-clerical in regimes where clerics were given authority over speech and religion.

Further, the marriage of democracy and republicanism meant the primacy of civil society over the body politic, of self-interest over collective national interests – without devaluing either the political life of the state or the importance of national interests. That did not mean that the body politic was rooted in individual self-interest or the possessive individualism of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke. This was neither Spinoza’s nor Grotius’ liberalism, which meant a respect for human dignity rather than either a respect for political or business authority (Hobbes) or freedom of speech and expression rather than the reduction of speech to transactionalism (Locke). If Spinoza was the intellectual founder of political Zionism, Grotius discovered the foundations for the self-determination of the Dutch free from Spanish imperial rule that resided in the classical nation-state of the Jews.

With the loss of religious certainty, the populace turned to a mad gold rush to search for certainty in science. And they ended up in the twentieth century only with probability – that is, uncertainty. Instead of a religion rooted in the rule of law, such as Judaism, Christians and their secular heirs ended up with a religion of faith, of inwardness, of mainstream, especially evangelical, Protestantism. They did not turn towards a religion based on an adherence to tradition rooted in a body of law and sacred texts. People turned towards communities of faith where truth was found from within rather than from without. With the turn inwards, Judaism became for many Christians the embodiment of bad faith, of heresy, of a set of behavioural practices at odds with both a coercive social order and a so-called tolerant one free of the dominance of any sacred text. Man-made secular texts, like constitutions and declarations of independence, were to take the place of sacred religious texts for both Grotius and Spinoza.

Hence the new secular religion. Hence, toleration as the only alternative to a religious faith in a single institution. Hence a new foundation, a New Jerusalem free of religious sectarian zealotry in exchange for a religion of volunteer organizations of believers who were born again and transformed into faithful servants of a human rather than divine order. Religious minorities could be tolerated. Jews could thrive in the interstices of these realms of toleration.

Holland, in opposition to Tuscany, was a centre of this realm of tolerance and respect for the rights of both individuals and minorities. In America, through New Amsterdam that became New York, the new doctrine would appear in Article 6 of a constitution that ruled out religious tests for entry into public office and a First Amendment that prohibited Congress from passing any law “respecting the establishment of religion” and preventing the free exercise of belief. Awe became a refugee from public life. Mystery was reserved for an exploration of nature. Religion, banned from public life, went underground and inward – at least until new forms of religious zealotry burst open periodically, but especially strongly in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Secularism in promoting a culture of skepticism and disbelief, a culture which rejected public expressions of devotion and sentiment, left a vacuum in which dogmatism could periodically burst forth.

And when it did, the “deep state,” the secular state of non-partisan and objective minions, would mount the ramparts of secularism to once again do battle with the forces of irrationality who believed in a messianic leader of fantasies immune to any tests of truth. But why was this necessary? Where did we go wrong? Perhaps a return to origins, a return to Spinoza and Grotius can provide the answer.

Before I develop this theme more thoroughly, I offer the metaphor of the pendulum clock and the belief that politics is a process of moving to an extreme and then moving back through a mid-point to an opposite extreme. Then the pendulum would again move back towards the centre. The pendulum clock was one of the most important metaphors for early modern political philosophers. Based on Galileo’s principle of isochronism, Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) created his pendulum clock in 1656. The ideological background included the principles of his father, Constantijn Huygens, as well as Andreas Colvius (1594-1671), Elie Diodati (1576-1661) and, most of all, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). Spinoza (1632-1677) was also influenced by Huygens’ development of the synchronization of the pendulum clocks in his views on the complementarity of motion of bodies in the universe. (See Filip A.A. Buyse (2017) Society and Politics, “Spinoza and Christiaan Huygens: The Odd Philosopher and the Sympathy of Pendulum Clocks.”)

Both Grotius and Spinoza would introduce to both theology, but from very different points of view, and to political theory, but this time from complementary points of view, the principle of both change and balance. Rather than the effort of Aristotelians to avoid extremes for the sacred middle, both Grotius and Spinoza accepted the dynamic principle as primary, that movement towards an extreme was an integral part of obtaining balance. A radically inverted view of balance, compared to Aristotle and his seventeenth century disciples, underpinned the philosophical opinions of both Spinoza and Grotius.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Hugo Grotius and the Jewish Question – Political Sovereignty

Once again we are living in a period of polarized societies divided into two main factions with no ability, not only to cooperate, but even to share the same reality. That was the situation in the seventeenth century. Now, of course, we have lived for a long period after the belief in a democratic society promised liberation from dogmas and mindblindness, after liberalism became a set part of the foundation of Western democracy. We are back into such a period, initially with radical Islam versus Western democracy, but currently with a political leader of the most powerful state in the world backed largely by evangelical Christians and white nationalists who sew the fear of the electoral primary process into anyone who might deviate into the path of reasonableness, the path of detached observation and the path of dispassionate judgement.

The above once depicted the party of the right, the party of the rule of law, the party most dedicated to combatting a left ideology of dogma and repression. That party most dedicated to individualism, rationalism and self-interest has become a party of cowards fearful of deviation from mob thinking, from the idol of the tribe as Francis Bacon called it. Instead of a wall of separation between church and state, the desire is to have religion intervene in determining who can marry and preventing any woman from having an abortion. The religious question has returned like a typhoon or hurricane sweeping across the whole earth, as not any religion, but as a religion of dogma indifferent to facts, a religion of intolerance ready at hand to smear anyone who would dare tell the truth.

It is time to go back to the sources when religion and secular rationality were divorced from one another, even though at the time the main  contenders held up a belief not only in their separation, but also in their complementarity. We are witnessing the return of the political-theological alongside the return of a rising wave of antisemitism. Galileo was only a whisker away from the clergy. Spinoza and Grotius, Hobbes and Locke, practiced secular rather than religious theology where the key question was neither divine salvation nor revealed truth from on high, but truth observed directly and supported abstractly in service of improving life on earth. That was the secular agenda. That was the intellectual agenda. To battle fear and superstition, false news and institutionalized power. But what happens when the barbarians, when the deplorables, storm the gates and once again seize power?

How had the battlements built over such a long time become weakened? Did the modes of separation of the secular and sacred realms, that Galileo saw as complementary structures, contain deep fault lines that undercut the structure and strength of modernity? In America today, in Iran today, in China today, a right-wing machine is fighting with all its might and with a heavy hand to preserve an alternate reality that has little to do with what we see before our very eyes and through our very ears. And the process stinks to high heaven. The protection of life and liberty, the protection of the rule of law and, most importantly, the protection of the planet, have all been put at risk.

In the seventeenth century, society witnessed the overthrow of the clergy’s monopoly of public office. Those who came at the end of that process, the Quebecois, inverted the field and demanded a secular monopoly over positions of power, so revolted were they by the previous clerical monopoly. John Milton, the English poet, went to visit Galileo in his final sickly years. He would go back and write Areopagitica (1644) following Galileo’s death protesting against the state assuming the power of religious institutions to approve and license the publishing of books.  

This is true Liberty when free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv’s high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What can be juster in a State then this?

One need only look at Iran to see the effects of a religious dogmatic authority seizing power over the state to enforce group think. In America, those who oppose such a coup are called members of “the deep state” for they are at heart believers in a state free from the clutches of dogmatic religion and an attitude of mindblindness. They do not believe that the way of avoiding deep and intractable divisions in views of the world required re-establishing religious-based coercion by imposing a common faith imposed on reality rather than drawn from it. The goal of the secularists to divide and conquer by splitting the “believers” into a multiplicity of sects which would engage in a free market of beliefs, a market they were convinced would protect the secular order. It did not. It has not. Why?

The concept of sovereignty influences every problem in contemporary legal philosophy. The modern doctrine of a determinate authority within the state, has its origin in the seventeenth century. At the time of the rise of powerful post-Reformation states, and the destruction of the unity of Christendom, Grotius propounded a theory of sovereignty based on a doctrine of natural law independent of the will of God and deriving its existence from the nature of man as a rational being who seeks a society consonant with his intelligence. Reason provided the basis for justice in the state and justice among states, both in peace and in war.

Hugo Grotius (Huig de Groot 1583-1645) analyzed the concept of sovereignty in his book De iure belli ac pacis libri, tres, On the Law of War and Peace (1625). Sovereignty denoted the legally supreme will within a state as well as the political authority in dealing with other states. Grotius set forth a legal basis for the Netherlands (actually the twelve northern provinces of the Netherlands) to win their freedom and independence from the Spanish Empire. A doctrine of a right of rebellion explained the nature of sovereign authority within the state; a doctrine of just war was used to explain the nature of the sovereignty among states. Sovereignty, internally considered and defined by will and externally considered defined by consent, derives its content and meaning, and its force of obligation, from the nature of man, from the law of nature, hence, natural law theory.

The doctrine of self-determination was used to set boundaries to that self-determination. State sovereignty worldwide justified the security of national navies on the high seas. The governance of the oceans and the sea lanes of the world could not become part of a state’s territorial jurisdiction in order to retain the idea of freedom of the seas critical to Dutch international trade. When Dutch merchants in present-day Singapore in 1604 seized the cargo of the Portuguese, with whom the Netherlands was at war because Portugal was allied with Spain, and the Netherlands had been engaged in an on-again, off-again Eighty Years War with Spain, Grotius took up the case of the Dutch merchants to attack the more fundamental problem of the monopoly on trade exercised by imperial powers.

Grotius inverted the traditional argument that based a case primarily on power. If there was to be freedom on the high seas, there had to be a complementary freedom within the boundaried states that used those seas, that is, a doctrine of self-determination and territorial sovereignty. Then when states were in conflict, there had to be a law governing that conflict, rules of war, or a just war doctrine, that was the product of agreement amongst those states. The terms of international trade could not be set unilaterally by an imperial power.

The debate begins with imperial sovereignty, the previous classical doctrine that victory in war and de facto control determines sovereignty, a position strengthened by a concert of powers agreement. Territorial sovereignty runs counter to that doctrine, countering the belief in divine promise as evidenced by the real exercise of power in this world. Instead, the rights of states exist because states are earthbound and control a bordered territory and not because of divine authority evidenced by the extent of state power and the way a state is able to exercise its power around the world. Legitimacy is not determined by power, supposedly divinely sanctioned, but by the root of that power in a sense of a people belonging to a specific territory and the exercise of control over that territory. State sovereignty as self-determination and the autonomy of a nation state were comparable to the right of a person to be self-governing and to the ownership of private property vis-à-vis other persons.  

What about territory not under the jurisdiction of a recognized state? Using Roman law, states could acquire territories by cession, control of a territory over time, by inheritance or by conquest. This doctrine of sovereignty allowed competing empires to take control of non-European territory in a more or less orderly manner on the principle of reciprocity without natural law intervening to hand sovereignty over to indigenous peoples, as Britain did initially in its treaties with Native Americans. Ironically, the American War of Independence can be viewed as war between modern imperialism, which did not recognize the rights of indigenous peoples, and classical imperialism which did. That is, it became a war between the colonists who wanted to expand into the “Indian” territories and Britain which insisted that these incursions were contrary to the treaties Britain had signed.

Grotius had studied treaties with non-Europeans, specifically East Indian Sovereigns who allied with European powers. Hence, there had to be an international “Law of Nations.” As the modern doctrine of sovereignty evolved, natural law justification gave way to positive law, that is, law is what states say it is. But that gets us ahead of our story. For Grotius, the foundation was natural law that determined sovereign law and the use of reciprocal agreements to enforce that law. Peace settlements were considered mutual agreements rather than just inscribing the terms of surrender of a defeated party.

Grotius insisted that there had to be a common law among nations that determined whether going to war was justified and the rules for conducting a just war. Going to war had to be justified by reason and just cause – self-defence, reparation of injury or punishment. Further, the conduct of war was itself boundaried and certain conduct was declared to be illegal. Natural law bound all peoples and nation states which could not be trumped by local customs. One of the laws of the conduct of war declared that only sufficient strength was justified proportionate to achieve victory.

Was that natural law sanctioned by religious authority, in the case of Protestantism, by the Bible?

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Irishman

The Good Soldier Schweik (or Švejk) is the most translated Czech novel in history. A satirical comedy written by Jaroslav Hašek entitled in full (but not in Czech) The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War, the war referred to is WWI set in motion when Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo. 15 million combatants died, 140,000 of them Czech. In that war, Hašek himself served in the 91st Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army of a corrupt and disintegrating empire and spent a good part of the war as a POW.

The message of the send-up is that war is absurd and pointless. It is also an exercise in futility. The men fighting and dying in the war do not know what they are dying for. And they all are fighting for a polity towards which they feel no loyalty. They are simply taught to obey orders, otherwise they would be shot. The specific target of the satire is military discipline.

Schweik is either an imbecile or a brilliant pretender who feigns incompetence to frustrate the will of his commanders. He enters the scene as a dealer in stolen dogs (Frank Sheeran in The Irishman begins as a dealer in stolen meat) who becomes an over-the-top enthusiastic recruit for the war. Frank commits one hit after the other. Schweik encounters one adventure after another, including his arrest as a spy and/or deserter and then his re-arrest for getting into a street fight, following which he is promoted.   


Yesterday, we spent three hours at the site of the second bloodiest battle of the American Civil War after Gettysburg. In the battle of Chickamauga, immediately south of Chattanooga, a battle spread over about 9,000 acres, two armies clashed, that of the Confederacy and the other, the Union Army. We toured specific sites on the largest Civil War park in America guided by a park ranger who was writing his master’s thesis in history.

The war had come to southern Tennessee on the northern border of Georgia. The Union Army decided that the best way to break the back of the Southern rebels was to divide the west and east wings of the confederacy and also capture the gateway to the south, Chattanooga, where four rail lines crossed at this juncture of the Tennessee River. This would also open the gateway to the deep south and Georgia’s munitions factories and the industrial heartland of the Confederate war machine. Gangsters fight to secure and expand their turf just as armies do. And momentous events mark their histories.

On 23 August 1863, Union major general William Starke Rosecrans made a feint across the Tennessee River, drawing Confederate Braxton Bragg to redeploy his Army of the Tennessee, allowing the union army to cross the river and capture Chattanooga. Bragg could count another defeat in his long retreat from Virginia and Kentucky. But Bragg kept his army intact to fight another day.

On 20 September, Bragg prepared to counter attack and recapture Chattanooga. According to our park ranger guide, if I recall correctly, Bragg had number on his side – 72,000 men compared to 65,000 for the Union Army of the Cumberland. However, when I checked later, it seemed that Rosecrans also had 25,000 men under the command of General Burnside stationed at Knoxville to the north. On the other hand, Bragg evidently had only 35,000. However, the guide was correct for before the Battle of Chickamauga, Bragg was reinforced by Confederate troops from Knoxville. In the process, he gained an advantage in cavalry of 15,000 to 11,000 Union mounted soldiers. Further, he had better and much more secure supply lines as well as prosperous farms versus the Appalachian mountains virtually barren of farms to feed Rosecrans’ army. However, as our guide pointed out, the Union forces were equipped with Enfield repeating rifles that could get away a shot every 3 seconds compared to the Confederate muskets that could only get a shot away every 20 seconds.

Numbers counted. The quality of equipment counted. But the most important elements seemed to be leadership, strategy, tactics, courage, morale and luck – and the corresponding absence of stupidity, cowardice, insubordination, lack of discipline and desertion. The Union soldiers respected, even adored, their commander, General Rosecrans. He had led them to a series of victories before. On the other hand, as our guide noted, the Confederate Army of the Tennessee was riven with dissension and distrust of their Commander, General Bragg, in particular, by his two key subordinates, Lieutenant Generals Leonidas Polk and William J. Hardee, The latter transferred to Mississippi. Polk, demonstrably incompetent, was left in place because of his close friendship with President Jefferson Lee of the Confederacy. His errors almost sabotaged Bragg’s counterattack.  

Further, the Confederates were largely led by wealthy plantation holders defending slavery whereas the Tennessee yeomen had little interest in fighting to preserve slavery. Thus, although numbers counted, loyalty mattered more. But numbers still counted, just under 65,000 Confederates under arms faced almost 61,000 Union soldiers. Rosecrans had decided to pursue Bragg’s retreating army though risking his own army being bush wacked. Instead, of choosing to consolidate and reinforce his position, he moved his army south of Chattanooga, dispersing his troops along a wider front than ever before and divided into five distinct groups. Bragg saw an opportunity to counterattack. The Battle of Chickamauga was the result.

Each side, as our guide informed us, made critical errors. The rest of the tour exposed a few of the key mistakes of each side as well as small victories snatched from the hands of defeat once the direct engagement of the two armies began on 18 September 1863. One error on the Confederate side was the result of a loss of a real battle on the first day that allowed Rosecrans to both consolidate as well as discern Bragg’s intentions. On the Confederate side, a force on the very north of the line did not attack at dawn as ordered but four hours later, thereby losing the element of surprise. On the Union side, Rosecrans, tired and sleep deprived on the third day of battle, gave a contradictory order to his two groupings on the south, ordering them to close ranks with the group immediately north and also commanding the southern unit to be a backup force. In following the second command, they opened a wide gap in the Union line through which Bragg’s troops would pore through. In the end, Rosecrans lost the battle of Chickamauga, but Bragg failed to follow through and attack the Union army that had retreated to Chattanooga.

Rosecrans was relieved of his command to be replaced by Ulysses S. Grant who would go on to win victory after victory and eventually become President of the United States. What an absolutely different account of war than that found in The Good Soldier Schweik! About the only common feature of both was luck and the huge number of casualties. There were 34,000 at the Battle of Chickamauga. As the ranger relayed the tale, the men deployed were the brothers and sons and relatives and neighbours with whom they fought and most were fighting for a cause in which they believed alongside soldiers whom they trusted. But both accounts differ radically from the violence and conflict on display in The Irishman and both the loyalty and betrayal of blood.

Martin Scorsese’s film, which we saw last evening, is a flashback by a good soldier, Frank Sheeran, an American of Irish descent who learned to speak Italian after 141 days of battle in Italy in WWII. At an early point in the movie, he recalls how he was given orders by a nod and a wink to take no prisoners and we see on the screen two Italian soldiers digging a very deep hole. When they come up out of the hole, Frank Sheeran, played by Robert de Niro, shoots them. He will spend most of the rest of his life working for both the mob and Jimmy Hoffa. largely as a messenger and a hit man.   

I very much looked forward to seeing the movie. However, at one point, I fell asleep for five minutes. The movie drags and is far too long. The film is based on a 2004 book by Charles Brandt adapted by Steven Zaillian entitled, I Heard You Paint Houses, a euphemism for I learned you are a hit man. The film is full of the same winks and nods that Frank Sheeran learned to obey in the army. His career after the war, it was implied, was just a continuation of what he had learned during the war. Unlike The Good Soldier Schweik,which celebrated disobedience and anarchy, The Irishman is about following orders and not getting out of line. It is not about courage. It is not about discipline. It is not even about intelligence of the intentions and plans of the other side. For a mobster does not have to discern the intentions of others; he need only suspect that those intentions and consequent behaviour do not align with one’s own.

Frank is adopted by the mobster Russel Bufalino, played superbly by Joe Pesci, whom he serves loyally all his life. He is subsequently also adopted by Jimmy Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters played with extraordinary force by Al Pacino who has ties with the Bufalino crime family of Philadelphia. The movie is literally littered with other real crime bosses and “soldiers.”  Divided loyalty even more than divided forces, each with their own loyalties, is a central thread running through the movie – loyalty to the mob versus the union, to one crime family, the Bufolinos of Philadelphia versus the Genovese crime family of New York, loyalty to one union boss over another, and to the mob versus one’s family. All the while, Frank maintains a stoic mien as these tensions fight within him and are always settled with the message, “It is what it is.” You accommodate to circumstances and the need to survive. There is no higher principle in life or in war.

National politics is reduced to the same equation as the narrative is set against the election of Jack Kennedy over Richard Nixon, with each being backed by a different crime boss with the determining factor being the Chicago crime family in cahoots with Mayor Richard Daley who backs Jack Kennedy. The mob expects a payoff, the ouster of Fidel Castro and the recovery of the mob’s casinos and other riches expropriated by Castro. The result is the Bay of Pigs imbroglio. The mob never forgives or forgets Jack Kennedy

Ironically, the result is also the naming of Robert F. Kennedy, Jack’s brother, as Attorney General, who declares war on both the mobs and the crooked Teamster Union. But Jack is assassinated – hint, hint, through the machinations of the mob – Robert Kennedy is out and the siege of the mobsters and the Teamsters Union is lifted. All through the film, typed copy appears on screen in front of a mobster or teamster indicating the date they were snuffed out and how. Over and over and over again, through the cars, through the elaborate costuming and sets, we are told that this film is an authentic representation of reality. But it is a reductionist reality boiling down to the quest for power and the need for survival and politics is but an extension of the same ethos.

What mostly disrupts this “rational” order are impetuous personalities like Jimmy Hoffa and Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, boss of the New Jersey crime family. It is they who attract the attention of the legal authorities. Both seek the limelight.  And both attract the attention of political and police authorities to themselves and their criminal activities. Jimmy Hoffa eventually loses his roost and is convicted of jury tampering. Teamster Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba) replaces him. Neither smart nor tough, but a likeable guy, he retains power by making loans to the mob from the union pension fund. Hoffa who had supported Richard Nixon against Kennedy in 1960 with street muscle and campaign financing, is pardoned by Richard Nixon in 1971. One is reminded of Police Agent Bretschneider in The Good Soldier Schweik, as Robert Kennedy repeatedly tried to get Hoffa. Bretschneider ended up being eaten by his own dogs.

Hoffa himself reminded me of Oberleutenant Lukáš in The Good Soldier Schweik who is genuinely liked, even loved, by Schweik, but it is Schweik’s incompetence that eventually undermines and destroys his career, just as Frank’s competence as a hit man ensures the end of Hoffa, at least in Scorsese’s version of history. Instead of a pretentious brilliantly acted and produced mobster epic, The Irishman could easily have been a satire. But it is not. Nor is it an insightful exploration of how and why men become gangsters and how they perform in such roles. There is neither courage nor cowardice, neither good nor faulty intelligence, neither rational or erroneous plans except as minor and almost irrelevant notes – Joe Pesci does not know that the person whom he is telling to eliminate a pest on the West coast is wearing a wire.

The message that mob and union violence is absurd, pointless and futile, since we all end up old and eventually dead, does belong to satire, but not to a film with pretentions of historical authenticity. In Scorsese’s film, there is no ultimate loyalty. We all end up alone and dead whether we live in the underground or on the top of the world in business and politics. And what we want most is respect rather than money or power. Honour and glory are not signs of courage, but markers of recognition. Not “I couldda been a somebody,” but rather, “I wanna be a somebody.” That is what drives these men. Perhaps that is why they pretend to play soldiers while lacking most of the key attributes to succeed in fighting real wars. The Irishman is a movie of cynicism in the guise of a very expensive and ultimately celluloid thin tale with a moral message that we ought not to glamorize or humanize gangsters and mobsters as Scorsese had done in his previous films. Why critics viewed is as deep, I cannot tell. And overwhelmingly they rave over the film.

As a gangster film set against a political background, it bears no comparison to Peaky Blinders. It is not about crime. It is not even really about betrayal. It is about obedience, blind and untrammelled obedience. It is also both a tribute as well as inversion of Scorsese’s previous mob films as if, like Frank in his old age, he wants to redeem himself from his life’s work and is offering a confession to his Catholic priest. However, there is not a thrilling moment in the film, a key element in the gangster genre. Along with the acting and the production qualities, that could have turned the movie into a single marvellous one.