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Renaissance England's Chief Rabbi: John Selden.

Jason P. Rosenblatt. Renaissance England's Chief Rabbi: John Selden.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. x + 314 pp. index. illus. bibl. $99. ISBN: 0-19-928613-2.

Jason Rosenblatt's book elegantly demonstrates a twentieth-century scholar's understanding of--and appreciation for--a seventeenth-century scholar's humane learning. Much like the Christian Hebraist who is his subject, Rosenblatt traverses the borders between Judaism and Christianity, considering the writings of a man who was remarkably free from the Christian, exclusivist anti-Jewish prejudices of his time. This book is well-written but not an easy read: it comprises specific, detailed, even dense discussions of texts unfamiliar to many readers. But it is a necessary book, as it concerns the cultural importance and influence of Selden's "rabbinic writings."

Renaissance England's Chief Rabbi complements James Shapiro's Shakespeare and the Jews, qualifying Shapiro's influential thesis that in the Renaissance the Jew became defined as the "other" not just to the Christian but to the "English." For Rosenblatt shows how one man--Selden--had the desire as well as ability to understand Judaism on its own terms, to see the rabbis as mitigating the "rigor" of the Old Testament, and thus to discover in rabbinic thought (rather than Christianity?) the basis for universal morality, for humane law. The implications are profound, even if Rosenblatt modestly draws back from pushing them to their limits.

If Selden's learning is everywhere apparent, so is Rosenblatt's. He is at home with Latin texts as well as the Talmud. Selden has long been recognized as an important figure in seventeenth-century England, but scholars have focused on his political and legal thought, without attending to his Hebraic scholarship or to rabbinic aspects of his writing. In part, that omission reflects the secularist emphasis of scholarship, but it also is probably because no Selden scholar has possessed the learning (in Hebrew and the Talmud) that Rosenblatt has. Discussing Selden's major texts, Rosenblatt shows that the "rabbinic" or "Jewish" aspect of Selden's writing was essential to his political thinking.

The ironies and contradictions inherent in "Christian Hebraism" are discussed in an opening chapter, which uses Hebraica to illuminate arguments over Henry VIII's divorce, Claudius's marriage to Gertrude in Hamlet, and Jonson's Epicoene--the latter, with its cross-dressing leading to a second chapter, on a letter from Selden to Jonson on cross-dressing and the bisexuality of the gods. There is something of the miscellany in these chapters, yet they show us how research into the past could bear on contemporary issues. Chapters 3 and 4 concern Milton. Rosenblatt focuses on small but revealing details--the angel Zephon's confrontation with Satan (book 4, Paradise Lost) and Milton's catalogue of pagan dieites--and then reconsiders Samson Agonistes as a "heroic attempt to understand the Hebraic ethos on its own terms" (108). Chapter 5 explores the "fierce talmudic exchanges of Samuel Parker ... and the poet Andrew Marvell" (112), showing Parker's and Marvell's debts to Selden and John Lightfoot, but also noting Marvell's limitations (in both rabbinic knowledge and empathy for Jews). The next five chapters draw out the influence of Selden on Hugo Grotius and many others, and this second half of the book focuses on Selden's importance for the development of the idea of toleration. A chapter on "Natural Law and Noachide Precepts" argues that Grotius's notion of "divine, universal, positive or voluntary law" was elaborated and transformed by Selden, whose writings actually identified "natural law with the rabbinic Noachide precepts" (141). "Noachide precepts" (a concept developed in rabbinic tradition) were the basic moral duties God commanded to Noah and his children after the flood--hence they could be seen as "universal" and not particular to the Jews. The importance of Noachide precepts (and hence, rabbinic thought) to Selden cannot be underestimated, for they form the basis not only of his idea of natural, universal law but also for a remarkable inclusivity that led Selden to seek "continuities among the cultures of pagans, Jews, Muslims, and Christians" (142).

Rosenblatt suggests that Selden's scholarship had a "positive effect" on the question of Jewish readmission (5), even though Selden died before the formal debate under Cromwell. "The history of the religious toleration of Jews would be incomplete without acknowledgement of the impact of the idea ... that the rabbinic Noachide precepts are a universal, perpetually binding law issuing from the will of God" (147). I could wish "toleration" were part of the title of this book, whose most compelling claim is that Selden's Hebraism was crucial to the development of the idea of toleration. The power of this argument is sometimes in danger of being lost in the detailed textual discussions. But a reader's patience will be rewarded. Meticulously, Rosenblatt shows Selden's writings defining a biblical (Old Testament) and talmudic basis for morality, toleration, justice, and civil society. Not only was this, as Rosenblatt argues, a welcome departure from and corrective for the anti-Judaism that has characterized so much of Christian history. It also powerfully dismantled the Christian opposition of New Testament "mercy" to "Old Testament law/justice," allowing mercy to antedate Christianity and a merciful justice to characterize the pre-mosaic Noachide laws. Instead of seeing the "rabbis" as the posterity of the Pharisees demonized in the New Testament, Selden rescues rabbinic thought as a fount of universal law and merciful justice that could become the basis for toleration.

This book not only shows the inclusivity and humanity of Selden's learning but also demonstrates these qualities. What Rosenblatt praises in Selden reveals his own values: Selden is "uncommonly generous," "far more charitable" than most of his contemporaries (277); he uses his learning, not for divisiveness, but to promote "toleration" (278). Indeed, Rosenblatt himself is so charitable that he refrains from too vigorously exposing the anti-Jewish positions of Milton or Marvell, even as he wishes that Milton had more of Selden's inclusiveness. He ends this book with the hope that, if "readers of the twenty-first century can remove the overlay of prejudice that begrimes" words like "Pharisee," then Selden's "cultural influence will not have ended" (278). Jason Rosenblatt's specific concern here may be with anti-Jewish prejudice, but his broader desire for a "united humanity" is everywhere clear.


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Author:Guibbory, Achsah
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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