Thursday, January 25, 2007

What Does Jerusalem Have on Athens?

Political Hebraists kibbitzing at a Shalem Center conference in 2004 (Photo: Shalem Press)

It was the second-century church father Tertullian who famously asked, "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem," in a polemical attack on the supremacy of classical, Graeco-Roman paideia (learning) among literate men of his time. Christians had no need of pagan intellectual traditions, Tertullian argued, they had their own body of texts to scrutinize and venerate -- they had "Jerusalem."

Behind Tertullian's strident objection, of course, lies the reality that Athens has a lot to do with Jerusalem. The Graeco-Roman and the Judaeo-Christian have never been far apart in the history of ideas. Modern scholars of various stripes have long noticed this, but, apparently, not until now in terms of the history of political thought. In December, the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, hosted a conference called "Political Hebraism: Jewish Sources in the History of Political Thought." (The Chronicle of Higher Education reviewed it this week). The meeting was organized by the political theorist Yoram Hazony. He and his fellow-travellers have a journal, Hebraic Political Studies, which
"aims to evaluate the place of the Jewish textual tradition, alongside the traditions of Greece and Rome...explore the political concepts of the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature, the significance of reflections on Judaic sources in the history of ideas, and the role of these sources in the history of the West."
There seems to be a heavy emphasis on early modern thinkers, but the Hebraizing tendencies of medieval politicians and political theorists receive treatment too. I wonder what's to be said for the ancients...

1 comment:

Amos said...

Very interesting. At first, when you mentioned the focus on the early modern period, I thought of all those Protestants (or rather Calvinists) running around, trying to set up theocracies. But it looks a lot broader actually. There was a course here at Berkeley by a guy called Adi Ophir (visiting prof. in the Rhetoric department) that might have been relevant, last fall. He gave a talk on "Catastrophes and Sanctification: Reflections on the Economy of Divine Violence in the Hebrew Bible." I think Moses Mendelssohn has some very pertinent perspectives on pluralism; he is indeed one of the few genuine pluralists in the Enlightenment.

Oh, also, did you know that the Shalem Center was founded by Pton alumni? I didn't.