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Reviewed by:
  • Renaissance England's Chief Rabbi: John Selden
  • Clayton D. Lein
Renaissance England's Chief Rabbi: John Selden, by Jason P. Rosenblatt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 314 pp. $99.00.

The impact of Greek and Latin scholarship upon English Renaissance culture continues to be examined intensely, but apart from studies of the King James Bible and Milton, little concerted attention has been devoted to the contribution of Hebrew studies to that culture. Hence the exceptional importance of Jason Rosenblatt's new study: Renaissance England's Chief Rabbi: John Selden, a work deploring and correcting that neglect. Rosenblatt's volume swirls around Selden, but is more broadly dedicated to "the cultural influence of rabbinic and especially talmudic scholarship on some early modern British poets and intellectuals as mediated principally by Selden" (p. 3).

The sweep of the volume is large. Rosenblatt opens with the divorce proceedings of Henry VIII. Lacking adequate rabbinic authorities in England, Henry sent inquiries to Jewish scholars abroad concerning incest laws and critical biblical texts concerning levirate marriage. This discussion illuminates the impoverished state of Hebrew studies at the outset of the English Renaissance and the curious responses of the rabbis themselves, and likewise shows how an understanding of that theological controversy leads to a richer understanding of Hamlet. From that point, Rosenblatt focuses upon Selden's [End Page 184] intense exploration of rabbinic and Talmudic material and the impact of his studies upon a wide spectrum of English figures, ranging from Ben Jonson to Sir John Vaughan

Among English intellectuals of his time, only Selden placed "rabbinic thought at the centre of his scholarship" (p. 105). The focus of Rosenblatt's study is thus two-fold: (1) the character and direction of Selden's explorations of rabbinic wisdom; and (2) his transmission of that learning to his friends and to his culture at large. Rosenblatt documents that Selden's fascination with rabbinic materials was already well advanced by the time of the writing of De Diis Syris (1617) (p. 2), and Selden continued to explore these materials until the end of his life, producing six substantial works resting upon that scholarship. By the time of his death in 1654, Rosenblatt affirms, "Selden would have been the most learned rabbinic scholar in the country," an accomplishment leading one Christian Hebraist in 1641 to address him as "Rabbi" (p. 4). Selden's reputation, moreover, as the most learned man in England led students of every stripe to pore over his volumes, to such an extent that he in essence became a primary text himself, the study of Selden generally substituting for the study of the actual rabbinic works. Once Selden's influence weakened, tellingly, so did the quality of Hebrew learning itself in England.

As important as the study of Hebrew texts themselves, however, was Selden's orientation. Rosenblatt shows that Selden's rabbinic works "constitute a notable exception to those products of the English Renaissance that emphasize otherness and difference" (p. 161). "In the midst of an age of prejudice," he insists, "Selden transmitted an uncommonly generous view of Judaism" (p. 9). So influential were Selden's views, in fact, that Rosenblatt argues that his promulgation of ideas drawn from ancient writers as well as post-Talmudic rabbis created conditions leading to the reintroduction of Jews into England in the 1650s (pp. 277–8).

Such is the larger portrait of Selden. The chapters themselves have a divided emphasis. The first half of the volume brings rabbinic learning (largely mediated by Selden) to bear on literary matters. Selden's learned correspondence with Ben Jonson over the issue of cross-dressing is particularly interesting, as are Rosenblatt's two chapters detailing Selden's influence upon Milton's creations. Rosenblatt's rabbinic reading of Samson Agonistes is decidedly provocative, as are his demonstrations of how Milton often took materials from Selden but pried them away from Selden's quite different, tolerant orientation. The second half of Rosenblatt's book turns to broader issues of intellectual history and will be of most interest to students of legal history and of seventeenth century culture, particularly regarding marriage, legal institutions, excommunication, the interpretation of biblical violence, and the evolution of...


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