Some Jewish Reflections on Locke's Letter concerning Toleration

By Cohen, Jonathan | Cross Currents, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Some Jewish Reflections on Locke's Letter concerning Toleration


Cohen, Jonathan, Cross Currents


One of the most provocative insights from the flood of punditry that followed the September 11th attacks came in October 2001 from Andrew Sullivan. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Sullivan suggested that the Muslim world has not reached the same understanding as the West about the need for church and state to be separate because it has had no historical experience parallel to the bitter religious wars that racked Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sullivan further opined that Islam was entering such a period now, in which moderates were being pitted against reactionaries, with the West serving as a convenient target for the latter to score points in what is, essentially, an intramural struggle.

I make no claim here about the correctness of Sullivan's analysis, either of the supposed innocence of the West as bystander, or of the current state of Islam, or of the supposed lack of prior religious infighting in the Muslim world. (For example, shouldn't the bitter split between Sunnis and Shi'ites count?) Nor, for that matter, is it so clear that the West is even now entirely free from religious intolerance. Nevertheless, Sullivan draws our attention to how remarkably well-entrenched the West's value of religious toleration has become, not only relative to the Muslim world, but even relative to the West's own bloody history. Sullivan concluded his article by pointing to John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration (1685) as a watershed in Western history. It is of course a perennial chestnut, whether ideas produce events or events produce ideas. All the same, the present historical juncture does seem a propitious time to return to Locke's Letter, full of appreciation for the triumph it represents over one of humankind's self-destructive tendencies.

What I propose to do here is take a look at the Letter from the somewhat equivocal vantage point of Judaism. I call this vantage point equivocal, first, because in one sense Judaism is part of the Western world which has, for the most part, accepted the value of religious toleration Locke argues for, yet in another sense Judaism rests outside the Christian frame of reference from which Locke writes. Second, Jews have surely benefited from the attitude of toleration Locke propounds, possibly more than any other single group. Yet Locke's arguments, in particular his assumptions about religion, might still leave Jews uncomfortable. If the Letter reflects a way of thinking Jews do not find congenial, might we have reason to be uneasy about our place in the Western societies whose value of toleration traces its historical genesis to Locke's world and indeed to this very text? By the same token, centuries after Locke urged toleration of minorities, we find ourselves in the surprising position--quite inconceivable in Locke's time and for a long time afterwards as well--of being the political majority in Israel. How well do Locke's arguments apply to the Israeli situation? Despite their origin in Christian modes of thinking, do these arguments nevertheless suggest the need for rethinking the political role of religion in Israel?

I will first recount the argument of the Letter itself, noting along the way points at which Jewish readers might raise their eyebrows. I will then discuss the reaction of one very significant Jewish reader of Locke, Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn, in his Jerusalem (1783), attempts to redefine the distinction between church and state in what he takes to be, on the one hand, a more Enlightened and, on the other hand, a more Judaic way. In the end, however, Mendelssohn's system fails, and this sends us back to Locke with renewed appreciation: in the last analysis, the strength of Locke's conception is not its vision of religion but its vision of the state. I will close with some reflections on where this examination of the Letter leaves us with regard to church-state separation in America and in Israel.

I

Nowadays, Locke is best known philosophically for his work in political science (Two Treatises on Government, 1689) and epistemology (Ideas, 1690); he is also an important figure in philosophy of education (Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 1695).

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