Marriage and Divorce in Judaic Law
John Selden. Uxor Ebraica: seu De nuptiis et divortiis ex jure civili, id est, divino & Talmudico, veterum Ebraeorum, libri tres ; ejusdem De successionibus ad leges Ebraeorum in bona defunctorum liber singularis,in pontificatum, libri duo. New edition. Frankfurt am Oder: Sumptibus Jeremiae Schrey, excudit Andr. Becmanus, 1673.
Religion: “Religion is like the fashion, one man wears his doublett slashed, another lac’d, a third plaine, but every man has a doublett. Every man has his Religion, wee differ about the trimming.” Table-Talk.
Despite the theological quarrels consuming the seventeenth century, Selden took a more detached view on religious faith. Although he wrote extensively about the history of religion over the years, he did so for the same reason he wrote about history generally—to discern past precedents for the composition of society in the present.
Selden continued to write until the end of his life. Among the titles issued in this later period are a series examining ancient Jewish law. In Uxor ebraica, completed by the early 1640s, Selden investigated the nature of marriage and divorce as explicated in the Torah, Talmud, and a variety of Jewish scholarly commentary. Interestingly, he concluded that these earlier systems had allowed for divorce when there was a reasonable cause and it was only later Christianity that introduced unprecedented stringency. Selden did have not a personal stake in this matter—he himself never married—athough there were rumors of a secret marriage to his patroness, the dowager countess of Kent. Assuming he did remain single it was perhaps for the best, since he is reported to have said, “Tis reason, a man that will keep a wife should bee att the charge of all her Trinketts, & pay all the scores she setts him on; hee that will keep a Monkey tis fitt hee should pay for the glasses she breakes.”
Uxor ebraica proved to be influential to John Milton, best known for his poetry, but also the author of such tracts as The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643). Though a generation younger, Milton knew Selden. Milton’s own works arguing for a liberal basis for divorce were suppressed, a shared setback that may have prompted a closer affinity to Selden. When Milton wrote Areopagitica, his storied defense of a free press, he proclaimed Selden “the chief of learned men reputed in this land.”