Transcript of the talk I gave at Seudah Shlishit at EAYC Shabbat 21 October 2017
I would to thank the Rav for tolerating me speaking at seudah over these past 7 years, I have yet to be banned from speaking at the EAYC which either means I am not trying hard enough or that I am doing some thing right! To be serious for a moment I want to express my thanks to the Rav and Rebbetzin for everything he has done for me and my family over these years. When we moved to Edgware, there was and still is, only one Kehilla and one Rabbi and Rebbetzin that we could call our own. I hope we can continue to be friends and see each other in Eretz Yisrael.
As this may be my last seudah shiur at the EAYC for some time, it took me quite some time to decide what to speak about. I should really go all out Tzioni and talk about a topic inspired by a visit to the Stockwood discovery centre over the summer. There they had a display about bee honey and correctly identified its importance to Jews around Rosh Hashanah but then incorrectly quoted the pasuk saying that Israel was a land “Zavat Chalav uDevash – flowing with milk and honey, which we all know is not referring to bee honey! I decided to break the cliché and to do something completely unrelated to Israel or Aliyah– however for the sake of tradition I will say as follows: you all should be making Aliyah and feeling really guilty for being so comfortable in lovely Edgware and enough said about that.
So what is this mysterious title all about? The focus of the shiur will be an important historical figure call John Selden who lived in 17th Century England. However, before we talk about him as a brief detour, I thought I would give a short overview of the history of the Jews of Britain, which when researching I found rather fascinating and hope you do to.
According to Mordechai Lewittes’ “Highlights of Jewish History” there is reason to believe that the first Jews to arrive on Britain’s shores may have been refugees with the Roman armies following the unsuccessful Bar Kochba revolt. A Bar Kochba coin found in England may indicate that refugees may have fled to England after the defeat of Judea in 136.
The official settlement of Jews in Britain is generally accepted to have begun 1000 years later when William the Conqueror crossed from France to England in 1066, when many Jews (during the life time of Rashi) followed the French movement of people during this relatively prosperous period. In 1096 more fled to England to escape the crusades.
Jews lived happily under the special protection and service of the king for about a century. Often contracts of the time were drawn up in Hebrew and would be registered in a special chest guarded by royal officials. When a loan was repaid to a Jew a shtar was drawn up as a record and some say that this is what is believed to have given the name to the famous “Star Chamber” which was an English court of law which sat at the royal Palace of Westminster, where such documents were kept. However most accept the explanation that the ceiling was decorated with a starry pattern and thus acquired its name. Maybe the stars were stars of David?
This all came to an end in 1199 following the death of Richard the Lionheart (who tried, ultimately unsuccessfully to protect the Jews, before his eventual capture by the King of Austria). In 1218, Jews had to wear a special badge to differentiate themselves. By 1290, the Jews had been expelled and about 16,000 Jews made their way to France, Germany and Spain.
It was not until 1657 that Oliver Cromwell would encourage Jews to resettle in Britain. Credit for this this can be attributed to one man, Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel. Menasseh Ben Israel was the son of a Marrano Jew, Yosef (his brother was fittingly called Ephraim) they had escaped the inquisitions of Portugal by moving to Amsterdam, then a place of free worship and prosperous trade. Menasseh excelled in his studies and by 18 years old was asked to be the Rav of the Amsterdam congregations. Menasseh married a Marrano girl called Rachel Abarbanel a descendant of Don Isaac Abarbanel. One of Rabbi Israel’s most famous students was Baruch Spinoza, who as we know, was subsequently excommunicated whilst the Rav was in England. Menasseh set up his own printing press and rolled out book after book, spreading Torah knowledge far and wide. Rembrandt was proud to proclaim Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel as a friend and even etched a sketch of him on display in museums around the world.
Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel wrote a book called ‘The Hope of Israel” in it he responds to reports of the ten lost tribes being spotted in South America, and details his view of how the prophecy of redemption will come true. In this book he tried to prove that the Mashiach could not be expected as long as the Jews were excluded from England.
“Did the Torah not say, ‘and the Lord shall scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to another’? Before the redemption could come Jews must be found in England and in all other parts of the world.“
If England admitted the Jews the coming of the Mashiach would be quickened. British supporters and friends convinced Menasseh to write to Oliver Cromwell (a Puritan, sympathetic to the Jews and the Bible, who had just won a civil war) to petition him to formally readmit the Jews and was subsequently invited to Britain (in 1655) to make his case in person. Ultimately, Cromwell made no formal proclamation and Menasseh went back to Amsterdam broken hearted and ill (he died in November 1657) however the right for Jews to settle was granted, thus modern British Jewish history began.
On to Morenu Harav Rav Seldenus otherwise known as John Selden…
I first discovered the story of John Selden in an Oxford University Press book called ‘Renaissance England’s’ Chief Rabbi – John Selden’ by Jason Rosenblatt. I was intrigued by the title seeing it on someones shelf and decided to buy it. So who was John Selden? John Selden was born in Sussex England in 1584 and died in 1654, based on the above we now know that in his lifetime, there would have been no Jews (officially) living in Britain (I believe there was a tiny S & P community at the time including relatives of my good friend Rabbi Garry Wayland). Although not alive to see it, it is clear that his writings had a positive influence on the question of readmission of the Jews and also on the Jewish Naturalisation Act or the Jew Bill of 1753.
John Selden was an English jurist and a scholar of England’s ancient laws and constitution. He was a polymath and wrote extensively, and here is the big surprise – half a dozen of his works were Rabbinic works! He was without a doubt the most learned ‘Rabbi’ in England at the time (admittedly there was little competition). Uxor Ebraica analyses the theory and practice of the Jewish laws of marriage and divorce. On the very last page he suggests that the canon law of divorce still in effect in England be reformed and brought more closely into conformity with Jewish law. He wrote a work on the laws of the Kohanim – De Successione in Pontifacatum Ebraeorum. In De Synedriis et Praefacturis Juridicis Veterum Ebraeorum, he deals primarily with the constitution of Jewish courts, including the Sanhedrin, which Seldon notes is not priestly in composition. It’s understated argument demonstrates that matters which are at present under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts in England, in ancient times were decided by Jewish courts that could well be called secular. The implicit argument is that the Sanhedrin might serve as a positive model for Parliament. These are just a few examples. But the question is – how did he write all these and why?
On March 4, 1629, John Selden, the most learned man in England, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He had been arrested on charges of conspiracy and sedition against King Charles I. From prison Selden wrote the following letter:
Whilst imprisoned he was to embark on a course of study lasting for the next 25 years, that was to define his mature scholarship in later life and lasting legacy. The Westminster copy was a combination of the first and second editions of the Talmud published in Venice by Daniel Bomberg between 1520 and 1539. Fourty four tractates, 2.5m words on 5,894 pages, without any vowels or punctuation. (as a side note – Rabbi Lieberman has in fact studied from this very same copy of Talmud that John Selden used and there is an interesting legend about how this copy came to Westminster!)
At this time in history, there was a flourishing Christian Hebraic movement, evident in the early history of America and the subject of a talk of its own. In a beautifully written Hebrew letter found in the Beinecke Library in Yale (dated 29/09/1641) from Christian Hebraist, Joannes Stephanus Rittangel, he writes to Selden referring to him as Morenu Harav Rav Seldenus and adds that he is writing from Cantabrigia – Ir VeYeshiva Hamehulla, Cambridge – The Esteemed City and Yeshiva. In reference to Selden sitting as a member of Parliament he refers to him as b’Shevet ha’Gazit – sitting in the chamber of hewn stones where the Sanhedrin sat. It is incredible to think how this was all going on in a country that had kicked out its Jews over 300 years earlier.
Selden’s attraction to Rabbinic law already existed prior to his study of the Talmud. Selden was well aware of the problems of legal innovation and its justification. The common law’s (the part of English law that is derived from custom and judicial precedent) continual development through re-interpretation of previous cases, relying upon “artificial reason,” was precisely what so offended the universal right reason of King James and Hobbes. For Selden, at the origin of every state were those natural laws that allowed for the existence of civil society. At their basis was fides est servanda; but that “first being” is “increased, altered, interpreted” so much so that like a “ship that by often mending had no piece of the first materials or as the house that is so often repaired, ut nihil ex pristina materia supersit,” so said Selden of 1616 in his note to Chapter 17 of Fortescue’s De Laudibus Legum Angliae. Thus, Selden likely saw the rabbinic, adversarial “oral law” of the Mishnah and Talmud as resembling common law. Selden was not scared to use the Rabbinic law to fight against the clerical power of his time, often getting himself into trouble with the Church and the Crown. Selden even developed a theory of international law based on the seven Noachide laws. A full coverage of his Rabbinic works is probably the subject of years long PHD, and possibly a good follow up shiur by some of our lawyers here however if you are really up for the challenge pick up the book! I was also made aware of the following work written by the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine (and of Ireland), Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Herzog titled: John Selden and Jewish Law, Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law (1931) but have not yet been able to find a copy (any librarians able to assist I would be very grateful).
Selden had a huge influence on the next generation of great thinkers, John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke among others and made his stamp on the development of English law and thought. Before this study, I was totally unaware of the very Jewish foundations of modern society. Interestingly, the Rabbinic roots of John Selden and not often highlighted and in academia are often overlooked despite them representing the fruit of his most mature labours in later life. Thanks to Jason Rosenblatt’s work, this topic has been brought back into the limelight.
One final thought.
Despite not meeting each other – Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel and John Selden were intimately linked and played a truly miraculous role in the history of the Jewish people. Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel’s theory that the redemption could not come until Jews were living in Britain, leading to the petition of Oliver Cromwell and acceptance of Jewish settlement. John Selden’s independent Judeophillic writings and Rabbinic influence on British law and the legal readmission of Jews into Britain. Had Jews not been allowed back into Britain, there would have been no Moses Montefiore, no Balfour declaration, no State of Israel and no Jonathan Levy standing here today on the verge of joining our peoples destiny in Eretz Yisrael.
People say it is hard to believe today. I think, if we look for the yad Hashem in history, with a megillat Esther style overview, its not as hard as you think.
May Hashem bring the redemption quickly and may we all join together next year in Jerusalem or even Mitzpe Netofa! Amen amen amen.
POSTSCRIPT: According to Adam Gersch QC the expulsion order of the Jews of Britain has not infact been revoked! Adam wrote directly to the Queen on this matter some years ago and was referred to the Prime Minister and then the head of the Legal Commission (I think that’s what he said). He received assurances that the Jews were safe in Britain and that the expulsion order will not be actioned. To be continued….