Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The broad influence wielded by Rousseau (1712-1778), whose philosophy and thinking marked the end of the Age of Reason and the birth of Romanticism, was unequaled in European history until Karl Marx a century later. He dramatically shifted political and ethical thinking into an entirely new direction, transforming music and the arts and, perhaps most famously, advancing a philosophy pursuant to which emancipation and freedom are attainable goals for the masses. His works, which abound with references to the Hebrew Bible, include The Levite of Ephraim, essentially a free adaptation of the last three chapters of Shoftim (Book of Judges).

In the 1746 handwritten manuscript exhibited here, Rousseau discusses Christian commerce with Jews and examines a 1363 Ordinance by Marechal D’Audeneham concerning the business of Jewish men or women to whom Christians must pay money. Portraying the Jewish treatment of women in a very positive way, he concludes that Jewish women were on equal terms with Jewish men in transacting business. He made these notes while gathering information for Madame Louise Marie Dupin for her influential book On the Equality of Men and Women.



Famous for her intellect and beauty, the aristocratic yet much-beloved Madame Dupin (1706-1795) ran a prestigious Parisian salon attended by the great luminaries of French society, which included some of the best known writers, poets, and philosophers of the Renaissance, including the young Rousseau, whom she hired as her personal secretary but who later became her close friend, adviser, and protégé. Rousseau, who was also hired by Dupin to tutor her son, Jacques-Armand, wrote Emile (1762), one of his most famous – and, as we will see below, one of his most pro-Jewish – works for the boy.

French thinkers of the Enlightenment were generally not pro-Semitic, to say the least. For example, Voltaire, the alleged “champion of Enlightenment,” attacked the “raging fanaticism” of the Jews and called them “in many ways the most detestable nation ever to have sullied the earth.” However, Rousseau’s political philosophy contributed in large measure to the emancipation of the Jews, first in France and later across Western Europe, and his education theories had a direct effect on the 19th century Haskalah movement. He not only demanded equal civic rights for Jews but he also, uniquely among French writers and thinkers of the Enlightenment, expressed Zionist-like beliefs, hoping that the Jews would be restored to a country of their own.

For example, in Emile, Book 4, Rousseau wrote: “I do not think that I have ever heard the arguments of the Jews as to why they should not have a free state, schools, and universities where they can speak free and argue without danger. Then alone can we know what they have to say.” Remarkably, his solution to the “Jewish Question” was Zionism, and he attributed the Jewish problem, in part, to the Jews’ separation from Jerusalem: “they were punished, dispersed, oppressed, enslaved…none of them comes near that city anymore.”

Moreover, Rousseau was very forthright about his admiration for the qualities of the “eternal people;” the Jews, a “unique marvel,” the “divine or human causes of which deserve the study and admiration of wise men.”


The Jews present us with an outstanding spectacle: the laws of Numa, Lycurgus and Solon are dead; the far more ancient ones of Moses are still alive. Athens, Sparta, and Rome have perished and all their people have vanished from the earth; though destroyed, Zion has not lost her children. They mingle with all nations but are never lost among them; they no longer have leaders, yet they are still a nation; they no longer have a country and yet they are still citizens…


Rousseau viewed Judaism as surpassing Christianity in its emphasis on compassion and justice, in effect urging modern nations to become more Jewish, as in his Considerations on the Government of Poland:


Moses formed and executed the astonishing project of instituting as a national body a swarm of wretched fugitives…. Out of this wandering and servile horde Moses had the audacity to create a body politic, a free people; and while they were wandering in the desert without a stone on which to lay their heads, he gave them that durable set of institutions, proof against time, fortune, and conquerors which five thousand years have not been able to destroy or even to weaken and which even today still subsists in all its strength, although the national body has ceased to exist…

To keep his people from dissolving among foreign peoples, he gave it morals and practices incompatible with those of other nations; he overburdened it with distinctive rites, ceremonies…and all the bonds of fraternity that he placed among the members of his republic were so many barriers which kept it separate from its neighbors…. That is how this singular nation, so often subjugated, so often dispersed and apparently destroyed has nevertheless preserved itself up to our times and how its morals, its laws, its rites, continue to exist and will endure as long as the world does.


This passage is comparable to the more famous quote by Mark Twain in Concerning the Jews (Harper’s Magazine, 1899), which, God willing, will be the subject of a future column.


Previous article‘Putin Is Scared Of An Uprising’: An Interview With Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi, Rav Yaakov Dov Bleich
Next articlePA Gets $100 Million from Qatar
Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].