Readings for Passover: Rousseau on Moses and the Jews

As we head into the Passover season, I’m on the lookout for readings. This past weekend in shul, I was struck by the following passage from Jeremiah 22 (I tend to read around the prayerbooks):

Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbour’s service without wages; and giveth him not for his work.

I was struck not only by the passage’s sense that injustice, in the form of uncompensated labor, is a wrong for which one will be punished but that one will be punished because it is a wrong sown into the building, the very foundation, of one’s construction. It’s that sense of the inseparability, the inseverability and indivisibility, of an edifice and the labor that goes into its creation that seems so archaic. We live in a world, pace Arendt, where the labor that goes into the construction of our material objects is nearly invisible; we have hardly any tangible sense that one can build our chambers by wrong because we have so little sense of how our chambers are built, that they are built at all.

On the flip side, there’s a whole literature, in Nietszche among others, denying that this moral proposition of Jeremiah can even meet the condition of possibility; slavery and domination are intrinsic not only to the construction of material things but to life and culture as such: “Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, imposition of one’s own form, incorporation and at least, at it mildest, exploitation,” as Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil.

What if we were to read the entire Haggadah from the perspective of the slaveholder? Might be an interesting exercise.

But then, in working on this piece on Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem, which should be out in May, I was pointed by Bonnie Honig to this passage about Moses in Rousseau’s Government of Poland, which I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read. (Note to self: sponsor a discussion among political theorists about which of the canonical texts we’ve never read. And why.) The passage also seems apt for the holiday, albeit for very different reasons from the ones discussed above:

I look at modern nations: I see many lawmakers among them but not a single lawgiver. Among the ancients I see three principal ones who deserve particular attention: Moses, Lycurgus, and Numa. All three devoted their principal cares to objects which our learned men would consider laughable. All three achieved successes which would be thought impossible if they were not so well attested.

The first formed and executed the astonishing enterprise of instituting as a national body a swarm of wretched fugitives who had no arts, no weapons, no talents, no virtues, no courage, and who, since they had not an inch of territory of their own, were a troop of strangers upon the face of the earth. Moses dared to make out of this wandering and servile troop a body politic, a free people, and while it wandered in the wilderness without so much as a stone on which to rest its head, he gave it the lasting institution, proof against time, fortune and conquerors which five thousand years have not been able to destroy or even to weaken, and which still subsists today in all its force even though the body of the nation no longer does.

To keep his people from being absorbed by foreign peoples, he gave it morals and practices which could not be blended with those of the other nations; he weighed it down with distinctive rites and ceremonies; he constrained it in a thousand ways in order to keep it constantly alert and to make it forever a stranger among other men, and all the bonds of fraternity he introduced among members of his republic were as many barriers which kept it separated from its neighbors and prevented it from mingling with them. This is how this singular nation, so often subjugated, so often scattered and apparently destroyed, yet ever idolizing its rule, has nevertheless maintained itself down to our days, scattered among the other nations without ever merging with them, and how its morals, its laws, its rites subsist and will endure as long as the world itself does, in spite of the hatred and persecution by the rest of mankind.

Some interesting things to note about this passage.

First, and most obviously, Rousseau’s insistence that Moses gave the Jews a sense of peoplehood without a territory, and that even without a territory, that sense of peoplehood endures over the millennia. Not only without a territory but scattered across many territories.

Second, the poignancy that Rousseau notes of the tension between the Jews’ constant subjugation, the denial of their sovereignty, and their “ever idolizing [their] rule.”

Last, the seemingly bizarre idea of creating a nation out of fugitives and strangers on the earth. There are many ways to conceive of a nation, and often they reside in a glorious past or the recovery of that past. (Consider Machiavelli’s connection between the recovery of ancient glory, particularly of Rome, and the creation of an Italian nation.) Likewise, do they draw on a sense of being at home, rooted somewhere. Yet Rousseau claims that the key to the sense of peoplehood among the Jews is precisely the opposite of both notions: no glorious past, no rootedness anywhere.

For more on Rousseau and the Jews, check out this interesting article by Jonathan Marks.


  1. yastreblyansky March 19, 2015 at 12:55 pm | #

    “Ever idolizing its rule” struck me as looking like a confusing translation, and I took a look at a French text, which gives “toujours idolâtre de sa règle” which I think does clarify the meaning: the “rule” is the whole ensemble of observances, as in “Benedictine rule”, and the adjective is more “idolatrous”, i.e. worshiping/fetishizing the law. In that way it’s meant I think not so much as a poignancy as an explanation, like “because it has continued, in spite of its subjugation, to worship the law, has maintained itself…” Not that that necessarily conflicts with your reading in any important way…

  2. fosforos17 March 19, 2015 at 1:00 pm | #

    You seem to present Nietzche’s sentence “Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, imposition of one’s own form, incorporation and at least, at it mildest, exploitation” as somehow objectionable. But it is nothing more than the restatement of the obvious fact that all living things feed on other living things and on their remains–as true of an amoeba or a potato plant as of a polar bear or human. Whereas Rousseau’s comments on Moses are simply ridiculous.

    • Cavoyo March 19, 2015 at 3:12 pm | #

      I guess in some trivial sense, a potato plant “exploits” sunlight, soil, and water, and “overpowers” other plants that could have used those resources. But it’s a huge stretch to go from that to believing that the only way to build a house is to enslave people.

  3. Mushin March 19, 2015 at 1:01 pm | #

    I love the Kabbala and I disagree with the cultural assumption that our ancestral nobility in our biological roots was ever based in enslavement of one another. We created that mistaken observer error and only man can change it by realizing it was a cultural error. We need a Jubilee dialing this economic warfare in Nation States back to ‘zero’ and new game. Enjoyed the reflection of creating a nation from nothing as strangers on earth. Sounds like a solution!

  4. Nick Z March 20, 2015 at 11:46 am | #

    The Romans themselves, of course, thought their ancestors were exiles from a defeated nation, and that their city, once founded, was populated by fugitives and murderers.

  5. Maya March 20, 2015 at 12:54 pm | #

    Indeed a worth-reading passage by Rousseau. The ethos of birth as a free people – a body politic under a law – and of return to the ancestral land: They are at heart of the biblical story of exodus and of the Hagadah. They are what Pessach means for many of us here in Israel and what we celebrate. Corey Robin seems to hate our guts for wishing to live as a free people in our ancestral land. I’m still not quite sure why all this resentment. The upcoming holiday might be a good opportunity to express my confusion.

    • thenodster March 22, 2015 at 9:37 am | #


      If you are an Ashkenzim, then your “ancestral homeland” would probably be Hamburg, with stopovers in Khazakstan or Moscow, if the genetic evidence is anything to go by.

  6. thenodster March 22, 2015 at 10:25 am | #

    Professor Robin overlooks a vital part in the maintenance of a sense of peoplehood among European Jews, and that is the near-aristocratic status of medieval Jewry as financial middlemen.

    Would this sense of peoplehood have been maintained if the Jews had been absorbed into the agrarian population? Possibly — but almost certainly not. If this is the case, then Jewishness itself exists only as a result of centuries of the most abysmal exploitation in the form of usury.

    Anyone reading this may disagree with the thesis that the existence of Judaism today rests on the creation of these cross-border financial networks, but I’ll hazard a guess to say that someone else has already explored this notion.

    • yastreblyansky March 22, 2015 at 10:37 am | #

      That’s probably wrong, as well as unattractively dependent on traditional anti-Semitic stereotype. If there’s a related hypothesis to be drawn from Rousseau’s argument it would be that the maintenance of the Law, which requires all male Jews to be literate, would explain why there were always community members active in spheres outside the “agrarian” population, wherever the local power permitted it (which I guess it generally was in the case of moneylending, as also of things like musicianship or medical practice).

    • Corey Robin March 23, 2015 at 7:53 pm | #

      Consider yourself banned, thenodster.

  7. gstally March 22, 2015 at 9:15 pm | #

    I have not read Rousseau’s “Government of Poland” but I am keen to do exactly so thanks to this post. There’s a lot in there that reminds me of Maimonides, or at least what I got out of my reading of him, comments on the centralizing of sacrifice in the temple so as to eventually curb the prevalence, but not the sanctity and reverence of, sacrifices. You know, sort of like the Japanese putting all their eggs in the Yamato basket. It’s going to break one way or another. There’s also his reasoning of the “roots of the law” with his critique of Kalam, especially his reasoning for the בשר בחלב (those damn cheeseburgers) really made me think about what Ol’ Mosey was really up to.

    Oh and on Nietzsche, I was reading too long ago some of Samuel Smiles and a few passages really caught my eye:

    “Even the best institutions can give a man no active aid. Perhaps the utmost they can do is, to leave him free to develop himself and improve his individual condition. But in all times men have been prone to believe that their happiness and well-being were to be secured by means of institutions rather than by their own conduct. Hence the value of legislation as an agent in human advancement has always been greatly over-estimated. To constitute the millionth part of a legislature, by voting for one or two men once in three or five years, however conscientiously this duty may be performed, can exercise but little active influence upon any man’s life and character. Moreover, it is every day becoming more clearly understood, that the function of government is negative and restrictive, rather than positive and active; being resolvable principally into protection,—protection of life, liberty, and property. Hence the chief ‘reforms’ of the last fifty years have consisted mainly in abolitions and disenactments. But there is no power of law that can make the idle man industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober; though every individual can be each and all of these if he will, by the exercise of his own free powers of action and self-denial. Indeed, all experience serves to prove that the worth and strength of a state depend far less upon the form of its institutions than upon the character of its men. For the nation is only the aggregate of individual conditions, and civilization itself is but a question of personal improvement.

    National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy, and uprightness, as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice. What we are accustomed to decry as great social evils, will, for the most part, be found to be only the outgrowth of our own perverted life; and though we may endeavor to cut them down and extirpate them by means of law, they will only spring up again with fresh luxuriance in some other form, unless the conditions of human life and character are radically improved. If this view be correct, then it follows that the highest patriotism and philanthropy consist, not so much in altering laws and modifying institutions, as in helping and stimulating men to elevate and improve themselves by their own free and independent action.

    The government of a nation itself is usually found to be but the reflex of the individuals composing it. The government that is ahead of the people will be inevitably dragged down to their level, as the government that is behind them will in the long run be dragged up. In the order of nature, the collective character of a nation will as surely find its befitting results in its law and government, as water finds its own level. The noble people will be nobly ruled, and the ignorant and corrupt ignobly. Indeed, liberty is quite as much a moral as a political growth,—the result of free individual action, energy, and independence. It may be of comparatively little consequence how a man is governed from without, whilst everything depends upon how he governs himself from within. The greatest slave is not he who is ruled by a despot, great though that evil be, but he who is the thrall of his own moral ignorance, selfishness, and vice. There have been, and perhaps there still are, so-called patriots abroad, who hold it to be the greatest stroke for liberty to kill a tyrant, forgetting that the tyrant usually represents only too faithfully the millions of people over whom he reigns. But nations who are enslaved at heart cannot be freed by any mere changes of masters or of institutions; and so long as the fatal delusion prevails, that liberty solely depends upon, and consists in government, so long will such changes, no matter at what cost they be effected, have as little practical and lasting result as the shifting of the figures in a phantasmagoria. The solid foundations of liberty must rest upon individual character; which is also the only sure guarantee for social security and national progress. In this consists the real strength of English liberty. Englishmen feel that they are free, not merely because they live under those free institutions which they have so laboriously built up, but because each member of society has to a greater or less extent got the root of the matter within himself; and they continue to hold fast and enjoy their liberty, not by freedom of speech merely, but by their steadfast life and energetic action as free individual men.

    It has been said that Delhi was taken, and India saved, by the personal character of Sir John Lawrence. The very name of ‘Lawrence’ represented power in the Northwest Provinces. His standard of duty, zeal, and personal effort, was of the highest; and every man who served under him seemed to be inspired by his own spirit. It was declared of him that his character alone was worth an army. The same might be said of his brother Sir Henry, who organized the Punjaub force that took so prominent a part in the capture of Delhi. Both brothers inspired those who were about them with perfect love and confidence. Both lived amongst the people, and powerfully influenced them for good. Above all, as Colonel Edwardes says, ‘they drew models on young fellows’ minds, which they went forth and copied in their several administrations: they sketched a faith, and begot a school, which are both living things at this day.’ Sir John Lawrence had by his side such men as Montgomery, Nicholson, Cotton, and Edwardes, as prompt, decisive, and high-souled as himself. John Nicholson was one of the finest, manliest, and noblest of men,—’every inch a hakem,’ the natives said of him,—’a tower of strength,’ as he was characterized by Lord Dalhousie. In whatever capacity he acted he was great, because he acted with his whole strength and soul.

    All these men achieved distinction in their several walks under circumstances often of the most adverse kind. It was not by luck nor accident that they rose, but by sheer industry and hard work. Though some achieved wealth, yet this was never their ruling motive. Indeed, no mere love of money could sustain the efforts of the artist in his early career of self-denial and application. The pleasure of the pursuit has always been its best reward; the wealth which followed but an accident. Many noble-minded artists have preferred following the bent of their genius, to chaffering with the public for terms. Spagnoletto verified in his life the beautiful fiction of Xenophon, and after he had acquired the means of luxury, preferred withdrawing himself from their influence, and voluntarily returned to poverty and labor. When Michael Angelo was asked his opinion respecting a work which a painter had taken great pains to exhibit for profit, he said, ‘I think that he will be a poor fellow so long as he shows such an extreme eagerness to become rich.’

    There is a famous speech recorded of an old Norseman, thoroughly characteristic of the Teuton. ‘I believe neither in idols nor demons,’ said he, ‘I put my sole trust in my own strength of body and soul.’ The ancient crest of a pickaxe, with the motto of ‘Either I will find a way or make one,’ was an expression of the same sturdy independence and practical materialism, which to this day distinguishes the descendants of the Northmen. Indeed, nothing could be more characteristic of the Scandinavian mythology, than that it had a god with a hammer. A man’s character is seen in small matters; and from even so slight a test as the mode in which a man wields a hammer, his energy may in some measure be inferred. Thus an eminent Frenchman hit off in a single phrase the characteristic quality of the inhabitants of a particular district, in which a friend of his proposed to settle and buy land. ‘Beware,’ said he, ‘of making a purchase there; I know the men of that department; the pupils who come from it to our veterinary school at Paris, do not strike hard upon the anvil; they want energy; and you will not get a satisfactory return on any capital you may invest there.’ A fine and just appreciation of character, indicating the accurate and thoughtful observer; and strikingly illustrative of the fact that it is the energy of the individual men that gives strength to a state, and confers a value even upon the very soil which they cultivate. As the French proverb has it: ‘Tant vaut l’homme, tant vaut sa terre.’

    Mere wishes and desires but engender a sort of greensickness in young minds, unless they are promptly embodied in act and deed. It will not avail merely to wait, as so many do, ‘until Blucher comes up,’ but they must struggle on and persevere in the mean time, as Wellington did. The good purpose once formed must be carried out with alacrity, and without swerving. In many walks of life drudgery and toil must be cheerfully endured as the necessary discipline of life. Hugh Miller says, the only school in which he was properly taught was ‘that world-wide school in which toil and hardship are the severe but noble teachers.’ He who allows his application to falter, or shirks his work on frivolous pretexts, is on the sure road to ultimate failure. Let any task be undertaken as a thing not possible to be evaded, and it will soon come to be performed with alacrity and cheerfulness. Charles IX. of Sweden was a firm believer in the power of will, even in a youth. Laying his hand on the head of his youngest son when engaged upon a difficult task, he exclaimed, ‘He shall do it! he shall do it!’ The habit of strenuous continued labor becomes comparatively easy in time, like every other habit. Thus even persons with the commonest brains and the most slender powers will accomplish much, if they apply themselves wholly and indefatigably to one thing at a time. Fowell Buxton placed his confidence in ordinary means and extraordinary application; realizing the scriptural injunction, ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might;’ and he himself attributed his own remarkable success in life to his practice of constantly ‘being a whole man to one thing at a time.’

    There are many tests by which a gentleman may be known; but there is one that never fails—How does he exercise power over those subordinate to him? How does he conduct himself towards women and children? How does the officer treat his men, the employer his servants, the master his pupils, and man in every station those who are weaker than himself? The discretion, forbearance, and kindliness, with which power in such cases is used, may indeed be regarded as the crucial test of gentlemanly character. When La Motte was one day passing through a crowd, he accidentally trod upon the foot of a young fellow, who forthwith struck him on the face: ‘Ah, sire,’ said La Motte, ‘you will surely be sorry for what you have done, when you know that I am blind.’ He who bullies those who are not in a position to resist may be a snob, but cannot be a gentleman. He who tyrannizes over the weak and helpless may be a coward, but no true man. The tyrant, it has been said, is but a slave turned inside out. Strength, and the consciousness of strength, in a right-hearted man, imparts a nobleness to his character; but he will be most careful how he uses it; for:

    ‘It is excellent
    To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
    To use it like a giant.’

    Gentleness is indeed the best test of gentlemanliness. A consideration for the feelings of others, for his inferiors and dependants as well as his equals, and respect for their self-respect, will pervade the true gentleman’s whole conduct. He will rather himself suffer a small injury, than by an uncharitable construction of another’s behaviour, incur the risk of committing a great wrong. He will be forbearant of the weaknesses, the failings, and the errors, of those whose advantages in life have not been equal to his own. He will be merciful even to his beast. He will not boast of his wealth, or his strength, or his gifts. He will not be puffed up by success, or unduly depressed by failure. He will not obtrude his views on others, but speak his mind freely when occasion calls for it. He will not confer favours with a patronizing air. Sir Walter Scott once said of Lord Lothian, ‘He is a man from whom one may receive a favour, and that’s saying a great deal in these days.'”

    Seriously, this dude was all over the place. I’m beginning to think it’s more difficult to say what he *hadn’t* read than what he actually did! I don’t need a crystal ball to see that a Sammy-Freddy link has been done to death by scholars, but though I haven’t (yet) read what they have to say I don’t think I have to to see the writing on the wall.

    This passage is of special relevance to not just Freddy but may be of interest, independently, to someone else I know of:

    “Hugh Miller was a man of similar calibre, of equally simple tastes and observant faculties, who also successfully devoted himself to geological pursuits. The book in which he has himself told the story of his life, (‘My Schools and Schoolmasters,’) is extremely interesting, and calculated to be eminently useful. It is the history of the formation of a truly noble and independent character in the humblest condition of life,—the condition in which a large mass of the people of this country are born and brought up; and it teaches all, but especially poor men, what it is in the power of each to accomplish for himself. The life of Hugh Miller is full of lessons of self-help and self-respect, and shows the efficacy of these in working out for a man an honorable competence and a solid reputation. His father was drowned at sea when he was but a child, and he was left to be brought up by his widowed mother.”

    At any rate, I’m off to track down that essay of Rousseau. Farwell!

  8. gstally March 22, 2015 at 9:19 pm | #

    EDIT: *I was reading too long ago* should read *I was reading NOT too long ago*, damn negatives.

    • gstally March 22, 2015 at 9:31 pm | #

      PS: One last thing: ‘I believe neither in idols nor *demons*,’ said he, ‘I put my sole trust in my own strength of body and soul.’

      Though Smiles gives a new nuance to how I read him before, I stand by what I’ve said earlier. While he did take aim at idols, Kruger had a hella lot to say about demons.

      • gstally March 22, 2015 at 9:34 pm | #

        Edit: Damnit *Krueger*

  9. gstally May 3, 2015 at 5:43 pm | #

    Just another thought…

    “The seeds of liberty being thus sown throughout Europe: its growth was constant, though gradual. From kings, liberty spread to lords; from the lords to the gentry; from the gentry it came to the burghers; and shortly it was to become the possession of the whole people: and the whole of Christendom was to be free, and all the Christians, like brethren, equal among themselves.

    But the kings corrupted all.

    For the kings became evil and Satan entered into them and they said in their hearts: “Let us take heed: lo, the people are attaining understanding and plenty, and they live uprightly, so that we cannot punish them, and the sword rusteth in our hands; but the people are attaining freedom and our power weakeneth, and soon as they mature and become wholly free, our power will be at an end.”

    But the kings in so thinking thought foolishly, for if kings are the fathers of the nations, then the nations, like children, on coming of age go out from under the rod and guardianship.

    And yet if the fathers are good, children grown up and wholly free deny not their fathers; nay, when their fathers’ hair hath become gray they honor and love them the more.

    But the kings desired to be like savage fathers dwelling in the forests, who yoke their children to carts like beasts and sell them to merchants for slaves. So the kings said: “let us strive that the people may always be foolish, and thus not know their powers, and that they may quarrel among themselves and thus not unite with one another against us.”

    Then they called to the men of knightly rank: “Why do ye go to the Holy Land? It is far; fight rather one with another.” And the philosophers at once strove to show that it was folly to fight for the faith.

    The kings then, after renouncing Christ¸ made new gods that were idols, and placed them before the eyes of the people, and commanded them to bow down to them, and to make war for them.

    And thus the king made an idol for the French, which he called Honor; and this was the very idol the heathens had called the Golden Calf.

    Then their king made an idol for the Spaniards, which he called Political Preponderance; or, Political Influence; that is, force and power; and this was the very idol which the Assyrians worshipped, under the name of Baal; and the Philistines, under the name of Dagon; and the Romans under the name of Jupiter.

    And then their king made an idol for the English that he called sea power and commerce, and this was the same idol that of old was called Mammon.

    And an idol was made fro the Germans that was called Brotsinn or welfare, and this was the same idol that of old had been called Moloch and Comus.

    And the people bowed down to their idols.” – “The Books of a Polish Nation” Adam Mickiewicz 1832

    “My ancestors were Polish noblemen; the type seems to have been well preserved despite three generations of German mothers.” – Nietzsche

    • gstally May 3, 2015 at 6:14 pm | #

      “The names of these three rulers, Frederick, Catherine, and Maria Theresa, were thus three blasphemies, and their lives three crimes, and their memory three maledictions.

      Then this trinity, seeing that not yet were the people sufficiently foolish and corrupt, fashioned a new idol, the most abominable of all, ad they called this idol Interest, and this idol was not known among the pagans of old.

      And the nations became corrupt, so that among them was found only one man who was a patriot and a soldier… And he is the LAST MAN of the men of old in Europe in whom there still dwelleth the spirit of self-sacrifice, the remnant of the Christian spirit.

      Meanwhile all nations bowing down to Interest. And the kings said: “If we spread abroad the worship of this idol, then as nation fighteth with nation, so afterwards city will fight with city, and then man with man.

      And the people will again become savage, and we will again have such power as the savage kings had of old, idolaters, and such as the Moorish kings ad the cannibal kings now have, that they may eat their subjects.”

      But the Polish nation alone did not bow to the new idol, and did not have in its language the expression for christening it in Polish, neither for christening its worshipers, whom it calls by the French word egoists.”

      Just how deep does this rabbit hole go?

  10. gstally May 3, 2015 at 6:15 pm | #

    Edit: Meanwhile all nations *were* bowing down to Interest.

    • gstally May 3, 2015 at 6:16 pm | #

      Edit: *and* they called this idol Interest,

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