By Steven B Smith, Commentary Magazine, May 2016
Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) was born in Amsterdam, the child of recent immigrants who had fled the Portuguese Inquisition for the relative safety and tolerance of the Dutch Republic. Holland had just achieved its independence from Hapsburg Spain and had become a haven of both religious and commercial liberty. Spinoza was descended from Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism before reclaiming their ancient faith upon their arrival in Holland. His father, Miguel, was a well-to-do merchant in this new émigré community and a member of the parnas, or governing body, of the synagogue and the school that his son attended. The young Spinoza received a traditional Talmud-Torah education, in addition to which he immersed himself in the classics of medieval Jewish philosophy. Like most in his circle, Spinoza was multilingual. Portuguese was the lingua franca of the Sephardi community, although he also knew Hebrew, Spanish, Dutch, and Latin, the language in which he wrote his philosophical works.
At the age of 24, and for reasons that remain shrouded 400 years later, Spinoza was expelled under a writ of Herem (excommunication) from the Jewish community of Amsterdam. After an attempt on his life, he left Amsterdam and lived first in a suburb of Leiden and then outside The Hague. He earned his living as a lens grinder and turned down a professorship at the University of Heidelberg because he thought it would interfere with his independence of mind. His motto was Caute—be careful, never say exactly what you’re thinking. Spinoza died of consumption at the age of 44; his greatest philosophical work, the Ethics, was published posthumously.
Spinoza occupies a central place in the development of Jewish history. He exemplified a distinctly modern form of Jewish identity. Yet even today, more than 300 years after his death, the question remains: What kind of Jew was Spinoza? What was the relation between Spinoza and Judaism, and how did he transform the Jewish tradition? And what was the influence of Spinoza—for better or worse—on modern Jewish life? Spinoza was without doubt the first to put what later became known as the Jewish Question at the center of modernity.
The Expulsion of Baruch Spinoza
Let us begin with what is always taken as Exhibit A in the Jewish case against Spinoza. On July 27, 1656 (6 Av 5416), the elders of the synagogue of Amsterdam pronounced the following Herem, or edict of excommunication, on the young Baruch Spinoza:
By the decrees of the Angels and the words of the Saints we ban, cut off, curse, and anathemize Baruch de Spinoza . . . with all the curses written in the Torah. Cursed be he by day and cursed by night, cursed in his lying down and cursed in his waking up, cursed in his going forth, and cursed in his coming in; and may the Lord not want his pardon, and may the Lord’s wrath and zeal burn upon him . . . and ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God are all alive today.
What was the offense that led the elders of the synagogue to level this harsh edict? It is well known that Spinoza had begun to associate with certain freethinking Sephardi intellectuals such as Isaac de La Peyrère and Uriel de Costa, as well as a defrocked Jesuit priest named Van den Enden at whose house he learned Latin. The text of the Herem preserved in the municipal archives of Amsterdam is notoriously short on reasons. There are vague references to certain “horrible heresies,” “awful deeds,” and “evil opinions” said to have been practiced or held by Spinoza. Indeed, the Herem concludes with the ominous warning that anyone who seeks to aid, comfort, or abet Spinoza, or “read anything composed or written by him” will suffer the same fate.
Fourteen years after the writ was issued, Spinoza published an anonymous work in Latin under a fictitious imprimatur that constituted his settling of accounts with Judaism and the Jewish people. The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus or Theologico-Political Treatise (henceforth TTP) provides all the evidence necessary for a judgment on the justice of Spinoza’s excommunication. For some, this work more than fully justifies the ban on Spinoza, which has not been lifted even today. For others, the treatment of Spinoza puts him in a long line of martyrs from Socrates to Jesus to Galileo who suffered persecution for the cause of freedom of thought and opinion. The legacy of Spinoza remains a hotly contested one.
Some of the most powerful voices within modern Judaism have agreed that Spinoza fully warranted the ban against him. Hermann Cohen (1842–1918), one of the great founders of the neo-Kantian movement in Germany, denounced Spinoza as a “renegade to his people” and an “apostate” who slandered Judaism before an anti-Jewish world. The French philosopher and Talmudist Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) was no less severe in his judgment. “Spinoza,” Levinas wrote, “was guilty of betrayal. . . . Thanks to the rationalism patronized by Spinoza, Christianity is surreptitiously triumphing, bringing conversion without the scandal of apostasy.”
At the same time that Spinoza was anathemized by some, he was rehabilitated by others. In his 1862 tract Rome and Jerusalem, Moses Hess (1812–1875) signed his name “a young Spinozist” and treated Spinoza as a prophet of Jewish national aspirations for a homeland in Palestine. George Eliot began a translation of the TTP, and in her 1876 novel Daniel Deronda the character of Mordecai regards Spinoza as a proto-Zionist who “saw not why Israel should not again be a chosen nation.”
From time to time, petitions have been made to rescind the ban on Spinoza. At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1925, the Hebraicist and historian Joseph Klausner denounced the ban on Spinoza as a historical anachronism.Spinoza showed what it was to be a new kind of Jew. “The ban is revoked,” Klausner declared —on whose authority no one knew—and then proceeded to proclaim three times, “Baruch Spinoza, you are our brother.”
Is he? Was he?
The Psychological Sources of Religious Belief
The first sentence of the TTP reads as follows: “If men were able to exercise complete control over all their circumstances, or if continuous good fortune were always their lot, they would never be prey to superstition.” The key word here is superstition. Spinoza proposes a far-ranging statement about human psychology and the origins of our beliefs that sets the stage for everything that follows. He here helps launch what the historian Jonathan Israel has called the Radical Enlightenment’s war on religion—what would later become Voltaire’s famous rallying cry, écrasez l’infâme (“crush the infamous thing”). The aim of the book is to explain the origins of superstitious beliefs and therefore to liberate the reader from them. Its task is both diagnostic and emancipatory. But what is a superstition, a term that Spinoza nowhere exactly defines?
A superstition is a species of false belief. I say a species because it is obvious that not all false beliefs are superstitions. Many false beliefs are based simply on factual misinformation or faulty perception; they are subject to falsification in the light of empirical evidence. Superstitions, by contrast, are beliefs that defy evidentiary claims.
Spinoza offers a psychological analysis of why superstitions have such a lasting hold on the mind. Superstitions are, for Spinoza, rooted in the passions. As human beings, we are prone to diverse passions—hope and fear being the two most powerful—depending on our condition of life. We are said to “waver” between these passions and let them determine our beliefs. The passions are not sources of intellectual creativity, but of error and confusion.
Based on his psychology of the passions, there may be any number of superstitions, but the greatest one—the mother of all superstitions, as it were—is the belief that God is an intending being, like us but infinitely more powerful, who can be influenced to act on our behalf or to benefit our situation through prayers and supplications. This belief has created an immense superstructure of habits, institutions, and rituals—the totality of organized religion—that has led in turn to the enslavement of the human mind.
But for Spinoza, superstitions are not simply forms of deception and false belief, although they are surely that; they are also tools of political control and persecution. By persecution, Spinoza means the use of force or coercive power to control the mind. A central paradox the TTP seeks to unwrap is how Christianity, which began as religion of love and peace, became a religion of persecution and intolerance. He determines that it is ultimately fear of the unknown—fear being the dominant passion—brought about by ignorance of scientific causation that leads some to believe the future can be determined not through the study of nature, but by consulting shamans, fortune tellers, and other charlatans who prey on human gullibility. Spinoza traces the source of intolerance back to the weakness and gullibility of human beings who are willing to cede their powers of reason and self-legislation to power-hungry priests and kings. Most dangerously, the church in alliance with the state has made use of popular credulity to control not only the actions but the minds of their subjects.
It is because of his opposition to all forms of censorship and mind control that Spinoza has entered the liberal tradition as one of the great champions of freedom of thought and opinion. The intention of the TTP is to liberate the mind from scriptural and ecclesiastical supervision. He proposes what would become a classic liberal theme: the separation of the spheres of reason and revelation. The sphere of reason pertains to the operations of the mind and its ability to grasp factual and necessary truths, while the sphere of revelation pertains to right conduct and acts of piety and obedience. This was revolutionary, because the question for Spinoza is not how to reconcile faith and reason, the dilemma that preoccupied the greatest Medieval thinkers, but the preeminently modern one of how to separate them.
In Spinoza’s view, reason and revelation are not so much in competition as they are incommensurable. They speak different languages, operate on completely different assumptions, and therefore occupy their own distinct spheres of operation.
Spinoza’s Critique of Judaism
Every reader of the TTP is confronted with the question of Spinoza’s own faith tradition and its relation to the work as a whole. To whom is the book addressed? The preponderance of the work deals with Jewish materials and sources; it cites almost exclusively Jewish authorities and precursors. Some readers have concluded that Spinoza’s biblical criticism is a criticism of the Hebrew Bible only, while others have argued that he criticizes the Hebrew Bible in order to launch a more far-ranging attack on the power of revealed religion in general. It is unquestionable, however, that Spinoza sets out to undermine systematically the three pillars of Jewish faith and life: the revealed character of the Torah, the status of the prophets, and the divine “election” of the Jewish people. I want to consider each of these in turn.
The fundamental principle of Spinoza’s biblical criticism can be summed up as a variation of the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura—namely, that the Bible should be read by itself alone without the use of historical commentaries or the intervention of priestly or rabbinic authorities. The central principle of this method is that the method of studying Scripture should be no different from the study of any other historical artifact. Thus, the “book of nature” and the “Book of Books” should be subject to the same causal laws and processes. Rather than approaching the Bible as a repository of revealed truth, it must be viewed in the same value-neutral manner as a scientist’s when investigating the natural causes of things.
There is no reason to believe, Spinoza argues, that prophets who claim to speak for God had great speculative powers or were bearers of profound philosophical truths.
For Spinoza, this means undertaking a kind of natural history of Scripture, reasoning about the Bible solely in terms of the time, place, and circumstance in which the text was written. A biblical scholar must therefore have a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew language, note down all passages that seem obscure or inconsistent with one another, and relate the contents of each book to its subsequent reception. Spinoza initiates a method that would today be called “canon formation,” showing how the many diverse works that make up Scripture came to be unified in a single body and accepted as a sacred text.Spinoza uses this method of sola Scriptura to cast doubt on the truth of Scripture because it contains a host of fallacies and historical anachronisms. For example, he takes elaborate pains to deny that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. He makes much of the fact that Moses could not be the sole author of the work for the reason that the last chapters of Deuteronomy record his death and funeral. He points to repeated references to Moses written in the third person as sufficient evidence to conclude that the work must have been written by someone else. And he concludes that the work could have been compiled only by later redactors several centuries after the events it related, most likely the scribe Ezra.
In addition to the problems of disputed authorship, Spinoza argues, the Bible is a text that contains outright contradictions. Spinoza’s proof text here is Samuel’s denial that God ever repents of his decisions and Jeremiah’s affirmation that He does (1 Samuel 15:29; Jeremiah 18:8–10). Spinoza attributes these contradictions not to any attributes of God, but to the different psychological states and dispositions of the prophets whose judgments they express. There is no reason to believe, Spinoza argues, that prophets who claim to speak for God had great speculative powers or were bearers of profound philosophical truths. To the contrary, they were simple men with powerful imaginations whose prophecies varied according to their individual temperaments and prejudices.
But the most durable illusion of Scripture, Spinoza says, has been the belief in the divine election of the Jews. In the third chapter of the TTP, Spinoza argues that the category of divine election or chosenness is not a theological designation, but a political one. Chosenness, he argues, applied only to the period of the ancient Jewish commonwealth and then only so long as the Jews maintained their national sovereignty. The entire Torah—the law of Moses—was nothing more than a political legislation of the Hebrew state that ceased to be binding with the destruction of the Temple. Taking a cue from Machiavelli, Spinoza maintains that the ancient Hebrews were “chosen” only with respect to their mode of social organization and military success.
In suggesting that the belief in divine election applies only to the limited period of national sovereignty, Spinoza does much to undermine the traditional belief that the Jewish people have a special mission to live as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). He is a moral universalist and maintains there is simply no such thing as a people chosen in respect of their moral and intellectual qualities. Since these qualities are more or less randomly distributed among the human race, it is sheer arrogance to believe that they can reside particularly in one people. Regarding their moral and intellectual qualities, Spinoza avers, the Jews were on a par with other nations, for “God is equally gracious to all.” To say that one nation is chosen over others is simply a way of expressing the desire for that nation to be superior to or rule over others. The belief in divine election is nothing more than a mark of vanity or national superstition.
Spinoza ridicules the idea that Jewish survival over the centuries of Diaspora had anything to do with God’s favor. It had less to do with divine providence than the hatred of the gentiles—which hatred, more than anything else, preserved the Jewish people intact. Indeed, so effective have these ritual forms (he mentions circumcision) been in inciting the hatred of the nations that Spinoza suggests that they will cause the Jews to exist in perpetuity. The conclusion to which the TTP leads is that the Jewish election is not a metaphysical privilege, but a political curse. Spinoza’s advice is that the Jews should abandon this dogma as quickly and as painlessly as possible. If anti-Judaism is the result of religious arrogance and aloofness, then the Jews should abandon this belief in order to avoid what would today be called “discrimination.”
Spinoza’s Double Standard
Of the 20 chapters that comprise the TTP, three-quarters are devoted to strictly theological concerns—and only one is devoted to problems specific to the New Testament. It is for this reason that many readers have regarded the TTP as an attack on the Hebrew Scripture alone. Spinoza explains this disparity in his treatment of Judaism and Christianity on the grounds that his knowledge of Greek is not adequate to the task and that criticism of the Christian Bible has already been carried out by other unnamed authorities. This is transparently disingenuous, for Spinoza’s apparent philological modesty does not prevent him from systematically presenting the New Testament as morally superior to the Old and the Christian apostles as superior to the Hebrew prophets. Most notably he presents Jesus—invariably referred to as “Christ”—as the Messiah and, as such, the successor to Moses.
Here the case against Spinoza is the strongest. Spinoza continually asserts that the Mosaic prophecy was a purely political legislation. Moses is the model for the legislative founder. The sovereignty of Moses was thus accomplished because “he surpassed all others in divine power which he convinced the people he possessed.” Accordingly, Moses is said to have brought only a legal code instilled, not through reason and argument like a philosopher, but as a result of compulsion and command.
Spinoza not only politicizes Judaism, he materializes it. He plays dangerously to certain anti-Jewish stereotypes, especially the one that suggests that Jews are concerned only with material well-being and success. The carnal character of Judaism is expressed by Spinoza in the fact that Moses was said to have spoken with God “face to face,” while Jesus communed “mind to mind.” Likewise, the “Pharisees”—a longstanding term of Christian opprobrium for Jews—taught that the laws of the Jewish state constituted the sole ground of morality.
While Moses was concerned with founding a commonwealth, Spinoza says Jesus expounded his views as a philosopher teaching people to think for themselves.
Finally, Spinoza treats the Mosaic prophecy as coercive and paternalistic. Moses is said to have treated his fellow Jews the same way as parents teaching children who have not learned to reason for themselves. The commandments are presented as given by a lawgiver and judge, with penalties established for nonobservance. The various ceremonies and ritual practices of the Jewish state thus had no other function than reinforcing coercive authority. Moreover, the ceremonies Moses prescribed are said to be of no aid to blessedness and contributed only to the temporal prosperity of the state.One might expect Spinoza’s excoriating attack on Judaism to be complemented by an equally vitriolic assault on Christianity. It is not, to say the least, self-evident that Judaism is more particularistic or parochial than Christianity. Spinoza’s own approving references to the universalism of Isaiah would seem to indicate this. Nor is it obvious that Christian ethics appeal to love while Judaism rests on law and coercion. While Spinoza says that the Jews “despised” philosophy, he refers to Solomon, “who possessed the natural light of reason beyond all men of his time,” by the term “philosopher.” Despite these crucial admissions and in full awareness of what he was doing, Spinoza goes on to depict the prophecy of Jesus as the virtual antithesis of Moses and Christianity as the successor to Judaism.
The prophecy of Jesus is presented not as political, but moral. Unlike Moses, Jesus prophesied without the aid of imagination. God is said in the TPP to have revealed himself to Christ directly without the medium of words and images. Christ was not so much a prophet as the veritable “mouthpiece of God.” He came not as a legislator, but as a teacher concerned with purifying morality. Thus, while Moses was concerned with founding a commonwealth, Spinoza says Jesus expounded his views as a philosopher teaching people to think for themselves.
He also presents the teachings of Jesus as universal rather than parochial or exclusionary. The Hebrew prophets, he writes, operated under a “specific mandate” to preach only to a specified nation, but the apostles “were called to preach to all men without restriction and to convert all men to religion.”
Finally, Spinoza argues that the preaching of Jesus and the apostles appealed to reason rather than fear and coercion. While the book of Moses presented God in figurative terms, the apostles appealed to “their own natural faculty of judgment.” Thus Jesus and Paul “philosophized” when speaking to the Gentiles, but they had to change their tactics when speaking to the Jews, who, Spinoza gratuitously adds, “despised” philosophy.
The Hebrew Theocracy
Despite Spinoza’s often-unconscionable denigration of Judaism, he argues that while the teachings of the Tenach may not be a source of scientific or metaphysical truth, they nonetheless contain important political lessons. Beginning in chapter 17 of the TTP, he presents the biblical account of the exodus from Egypt as the archetypal story of political founding. In so doing, he makes use of the modern conceptions of the state of nature and the social contract. Contrary to what we have been led to believe, he writes, the covenant in Sinai between God and his chosen people is the paradigm for the creation of political legitimacy.
Spinoza begins his case by arguing that after Moses led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, they found themselves in both a literal and figurative state of nature. Being under no obligations to any human ruler, they were free to establish new laws and institutions of their own. Spinoza treats the covenant between God and the Hebrews as the creation of a new form of government: theocracy. What distinguished this theocracy from all other regimes was the aspiration to be ruled directly by God with no human intermediaries. By giving the people over to God alone, theocracy was also the most democratic form of government that ever existed. No individual or group was authorized to speak for God, but each retained the right to interpret God’s law and share equally in the powers of the state. The de jure theocracy was a de facto radical democracy.
Yet no sooner had the original contract between God and the Hebrews been established than it was almost immediately abrogated. Finding the voice of God too threatening, the Hebrews declared “all that the Lord hath spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8) and consequently handed their rights of sovereignty over to Moses. The transfer of right to Moses effectively turned the theocracy from a democracy to a monarchy.
In Spinoza’s account, no sooner had the Hebrews transferred their rights to Moses than they lost the right to choose his successors. The subsequent failure of Moses to appoint a successor resulted in a division of power between Aaron, the high priest, and Joshua, the commander in chief. This left a period of weakened authority that was the first step toward the degeneration of the state into rule by priests. The establishment of a dual sovereignty between the priests and the military commanders created a dangerous precedent with far-reaching consequences.
The degeneration of the Hebrew polity from a theocracy to a monarchy to a loose federation in which power was divided among the various tribes is described as swift and irreversible. The fundamental feature of the post-Mosaic constitution was the separation of authority between kings and priests. One might think that this divided authority would be welcomed, but Spinoza regards it as the source of instability and civil war. In his view, the unity of politics and religion in the theocracy gave the ancient Hebrews their political strength and military greatness. It was only later during the period of the Judges that this happy unity of politics and religion fell apart, when there was no king in Israel and “everyone did as he pleased” (Judges, 21:25). This seems to describe a return to the state of nature endured after the flight from Egypt.
Spinoza was clearly drawing lessons that had immediate application to the politics of his era. He was following the “Erastian” doctrine (named after the Swiss theologian Thomas Erastus) that the sovereign should have supreme power over matters of religion. He opposed the idea of splitting religion off from the state in large part because he distrusted the ambitions of clerics, especially the Calvinists of his own time. Since he viewed religion as crucial to the peace and well-being of the commonwealth, it was simply too important to be given over to the priests; only religious laws promulgated by the sovereign should be valid.
The second lesson is that religion pertains only to practice and outward behavior. Here is the core of Spinoza’s claims for the freedom of thought and conscience. The task of religion, as Spinoza sees it, should be to reform character, not to compel belief. The danger with turning religion into a creed or a doctrine is that it tends to take on the character of a pseudo-philosophy. The result is inevitably a tendency toward persecution for heresy or apostasy for holding false beliefs. Spinoza condemns any law that would criminalize opinion rather than reforming conduct. Religion remains a matter of law that by its very nature cannot affect the inner chamber of the mind.
The New Jerusalem
The question for any reader of the TTP is how to explain these evident disparities in Spinoza’s treatment of Judaism and Christianity. For many, Spinoza’s strategy of knowingly demeaning Judaism before Christianity was and remains an unforgiveable sin. As the contemporary theologian Emil Fackenheim (1916–2003) asked: “Why does the author of the TTP resort to distortions and discrimination against the minority religion which he has forsaken, especially and above all when compared to the majority religion he has yet refused to embrace?” Did Spinoza decide that the best strategy for promoting toleration would be to make a conscious and misleading appeal to anti-Jewish bigotry?
His invocation of certain prejudices and stereotypes has been marked down to political sycophancy and a desire to curry favor with the Christian authorities whose approval he sought. But if this had indeed been Spinoza’s strategy, it backfired. The TTP was greeted with equal hostility from Jews and non-Jews alike.
It is possible to argue that Spinoza’s argument was not grounded in any anti-Jewish animus but was rather part of a rhetorical strategy in which he sought to accommodate his rhetoric to his audience to win their understanding and sympathy. This project of accommodation was intended to gain a hearing for his larger project of promoting a liberal state and a policy of religious toleration. The philosopher Leo Strauss (1899–1973) went so far as to suggest that Spinoza was animated by a profound sense of “sympathy” for his people, even though it is a sympathy that is well hidden. “Spinoza may have hated Judaism,” Strauss avers, “but he did not hate the Jewish people. However bad a Jew he may have been in all other respects, he thought of the liberation of the Jews in the only way in which he could think of it, given his philosophy.” This sentence, so full of ambiguity and qualification, was not intended to excuse away the danger of Spinoza’s trying to appeal to the prejudices of his audience, a strategy Strauss admits was “Machiavellian” in the extreme. Spinoza plays, in Strauss’s words, “a most dangerous game,” even an “amazingly unscrupulous” one, but one that was “humanly comprehensible” nonetheless.
One can argue that the purpose of Spinoza’s double standard was to prepare the way for a new kind of Scripture, a “universal religion” that would be, strictly speaking, neither Jewish nor Christian but an amalgam of both. This new dispensation is presented in the TTP as a democratic civil creed composed of seven tenets or dogmas to which all citizens must adhere. These seven dogmas are as follows:
1. God, the Supreme being, exists;
2. God is one;
3. God is omnipresent;
4. God has supreme right and dominion over all things;
5. Worship of God consists entirely of acts of justice and charity or love of one’s neighbor;
6. All who obey God are saved;
7. God forgives repentant sinners.
Spinoza represents his universal or “catholic” (small c) religion as nothing less than a new theology for a new age that would supersede the earlier dispensations of Moses and Jesus. The essence of this new moral theology is an unprecedented teaching of toleration and noninterference with the beliefs of others. This new theology was intended not only to lay the basis for civil peace, but to foster a new regime of toleration that would gain the assent of both Jews and Gentiles. Thus he can confidently maintain that there are no dogmas of this new universal faith that would give rise to conflict among “decent men.” Rather, this new liberal theology would be tolerant to the varieties of religious experience so long as they accepted the norm of toleration in return. This means, among other things, the right of the individual to think and judge for him or herself in matters ecclesiastical.
The liberal society for the sake of which Spinoza has composed his new religion is to be neither specifically Jewish nor specifically Christian, but presumably neutral to any specific faith. The Spinozist sovereign serves as a kind of a baseball umpire.
The idea that the state should be neutral with respect to the different religions, while a staple of contemporary legal theory, was virtually unprecedented in Spinoza’s time. The TTP sets out to demonstrate that “not only can freedom be granted without endangering piety and the peace of the commonwealth,” but that “the peace of the commonwealth and piety depend on this freedom.” This new regime, a first in history, would be neither the virtuous city of classical antiquity nor the holy city of the Bible, but the commercial metropolis of modernity.
Spinoza remains a recognizably and unmistakably Jewish figure. To put the matter a different way: The entire structure of modern Judaism would be unthinkable without him.
Spinoza concludes the TTP with a patriotic tribute to Amsterdam, where “a man is free to think what he likes and say what he thinks.” He believed Holland could serve as a model for a peaceful accommodation that could put an end to religious persecution. Amsterdam’s commercial republic was the “European miracle” of the 17th century that Spinoza hoped to promote and export. One can say with only slight exaggeration that Amsterdam represents for Spinoza the new Jerusalem, an open society based on freedom of trade, freedom of religion, and freedom of opinion. Such a regime, he reasoned, would be of great benefit for the Jews.Spinoza’s Bargain
Should the ban on Spinoza be lifted? The question is unanswerable in part because there is no one with the authority to do so. More to the point, would Spinoza himself want it lifted? Contrary to Cohen and Levinas, Spinoza was not, in fact, an “apostate.” He did not convert to Christianity but rather showed what it was like to live a life apart from the dominant religious communities of his age. Despite his attack on the Hebrew Scripture as a collection of ancient prejudices, despite his denigration of Moses and the prophets in comparison to Jesus and the apostles, and despite his attacks on the ceremonial laws of Judaism as an instrument of worldly well-being, Spinoza remains a recognizably and unmistakably Jewish figure. To put the matter a different way: The entire structure of modern Judaism would be unthinkable without him.
Indeed, he is the founder of two of the most distinctive forms of modern Judaism.
He was the first modern thinker to advocate the restitution of Jewish sovereignty and a Jewish state. In what has become, at least in Zionist circles, the most famous sentence of the book, we read: “Indeed, were it not that the fundamental principles of their religion had effeminated their minds, I would not hesitate to believe that they will one day, given the opportunity—such is the mutability of human affairs—establish once more their independent state, and that God will again choose them.”
On the basis of this statement, the TTP was read as a work of proto-Zionism in the 19th century by Moses Hess and in the 20th by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who even sought to have the ban on Spinoza officially lifted (he was unsuccessful). Note that in Spinoza’s reckoning, the foundations for any future Jewish state would no longer be placed in God’s providence but in the actions and arms of Jews themselves. Spinoza does not even say that such a state would have to be founded in the historical land of Israel. He attaches no particular significance to the land or language of Israel, although he was working on a Hebrew grammar at the time of his death. A Jewish state could, from his point of view, just as easily be located in Canada or Katmandu.
Spinoza’s proto-Zionism does not, however, absolve him or give one reason to canonize him as a secular saint. To the contrary, this passage in many respects confirms the negative judgments on Spinoza held by his critics. It offers a confirmation of the view that it is not the corruption of Judaism over the millennia but its very foundational beliefs that are the cause of Jewish passivity and weakness. These fundamentals caused the Jews to be “effeminate,” such that they had lost their taste for political freedom and consigned themselves to an impotent longing for a messianic world to come. Spinoza’s advice is, then, to cease passively waiting for a messiah to deliver them from their woes and to take affairs into their own hands.
Spinoza’s ideas helped shape a new kind of psychological Jew who seeks liberation from tradition and dependence on external authority, who wishes to think for himself, and who values independence, self-mastery, and courage as the highest human virtues. Centuries before Marx or Freud, Spinoza was the prototype of the emancipated Jew. The idea of the emancipated Jew turned Spinoza into a philosophical, even a literary, hero from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Nachum Fischelson, in The Spinoza of Market Street, to Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, whose protagonist leaves his shtetl not with the Torah but with a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics, to David Ives’s recent play The New Jerusalem, which treats Spinoza as the prototype of the free man.
Unlike the German poet Heinrich Heine, who converted two centuries later so that he could enjoy the benefits of full membership in the culture he wished to help shape and form, Spinoza did not believe the baptismal certificate was the “passport” to Western civilization. Spinoza’s emancipated Jew need not convert because he will be liberated from an ancient tradition that has been the cause of Jewish weakness; will live under a new, rational theology that provides for civil equality in place of the Mosaic law with its promise of special providence; and will be proffered a new promised land based on freedom of religion, commerce, and inquiry. The new type of Jew who is to inhabit this land will not only value his own freedom, but will also identify with certain liberal values such as love of social justice, a support for the underdog, and the universality of human rights. These are the values, as Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher has noted, of a new kind of individual, “the non-Jewish Jew.”
Spinoza’s critical analysis of Judaism did not grow out of self-hatred or anti-Judaism, but as a part of a project of liberalizing reform. His defense of the liberal state requires a religion that is itself quite liberal. He believed that the price of admission to this state entailed a radical secularization of Judaism both as a body of revealed law and as a distinctive way of life. His purpose was to strip all religions—both Judaism and Christianity—of their claims to exclusivity and reduce them to a handful of tenets that could provide the moral foundation of the modern state. Spinoza’s religion of reason would be stripped of all metaphysical claims that might give rise to controversy or could be used as a pretext for persecution.
The cost of admission to Spinoza’s state has been high. There is, as a famous economist once said, no such thing as a free lunch. The chief cost of Spinoza’s bargain has been the assimilation of Judaism, not to Christianity, but to liberalism. Indeed, for many Jews, Judaism has become virtually synonymous with support for liberal social causes. Even the expression “Jewish liberalism,” rather than a paradox, has become a commonplace. The result of this identification of Judaism with liberal values such as autonomy and emancipation has been the loss of both religious identity and fidelity to an ancient way of life. The TTP, it seems, may have eloquently defended freedom for Jews, but at the cost of what was specific to Judaism.
The idea of an emancipated Jew has struck many people, both Jew and Gentile, as a contradiction, an enigma, and a paradox. How does one account for Jewish survival outside the context of authoritative Jewish texts and traditions? What becomes of Jewish continuity when ritual practices cease to have the force of law and are confined to the precinct of private conscience? What kind of Judaism is it that would be willing to readmit an avowed heretic like Spinoza?
Most pressing for us is this question: Is the offer to exchange an ancient heritage for a modern secular identity a real bargain or something like an offer to buy the Brooklyn Bridge? To recognize a paradox is not to resolve it. It would take another Spinoza to do it justice.