Prof. Daniel Schwartz of George Washington University spoke about his book “The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image” last night at Congregation Tikvah Israel in a program sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Studies, attended by over 100 interested listeners.
Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza was born in and lived in Amsterdam in the 17th century. His family descended from Spanish/Portuguese New Christians (New Christians were the Jews of Portugal after they were forcefully converted at the end of the 15th century), his grandfather left Portugal and eventually settled in Amsterdam where the Spinozas could again openly practice Judaism. Young Baruch was given a traditional education, obviously proving himself very bright, but he left school at 17 after the death of his father, in order to help run the family business.
In fact, there is a lot scholars do not know about Spinoza. (In this, he parallels Christopher Columbus, among others, who has been studied and studied, but whose life story remains substantially unknown.) We do know that when he was 24, he was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam, although the precise reasons for his excommunication remain a mystery. We know that, rather than convert to Christianity and join the major part of society, he remained alone and unaffiliated. And of course we have some of the writing he did after the excommunication.
Jews living in 17th century Amsterdam did not have much in the way of religious, or lifestyle, freedom. The community (perhaps surprisingly for a community just freed from centuries of living underground) was tightly, and centrally, controlled.The concept of Spinoza as the first modern Jew is that he broke from tradition (or if not tradition, from the precise rules established for the community), something that the Amsterdam Jews could not tolerate (why they could not tolerate this is it seems also a matter of some speculation).
How did he break from tradition? In many ways, and in important ways. For example:
1. Spinoza did not believe in a personal God – he believed that God is present in everything in the world.
2. He did not believe that ritual was important in any way.
3. He did not believe that there was a God who listened to prayers.
4. He did not believe in the concept of Chosen People.
5. He did not believe in the concept of resurrection.
6. He did not believe that the bible was written by, or given to mankind by, God.
7. He believed that the bible was written by man, and should be studied as any man made writing.
8. He did not think that the Jews needed to exist as Jews – Judaism per se was an anachronism.
You can see where the Amsterdam Jews would be concerned.
For a long time, the works of Spinoza were purposely ignored. But in the second half of the 19th century, scholars began to study Spinoza, and some Jews began to cite his words for their own purposes. They looked at Spinoza as the first modern Jew.
Schwartz spoke about some of those who were influenced by Spinoza. First, there was Berthold Auerbach, German novelist, whose audience was non-Jewish as well as Jewish. He was an assimilationist, and he wrote the first novel based on Spinoza (the novel was called “Spinoza”), and relied on his writings and life to support the concept of Jewish assimilation.
There was Salomon Rubin, who wrote a new “Guide to the Perplexed” based on some of Spinoza’s concepts and who was determined to translate Spinoza into Hebrew (it took him some time, but he finally did translate the Ethics in the 1880s (some of Spinoza’s work was not translated into Hebrew until the 1960s.
And there was the artist Samuel HIrszenberg, who painted Spinoza being scoffed by the representatives of the community.
Then there was early 20th century thinker and critic Yosef Klausner, who at a speech at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the late 1920s and who was interested in the diversity of Jews settling in Palestine and spoke of Spinoza’s writing and life as the basis for declaring that there can be all kinds of Jews, with different beliefs. (He created quite a stir, said Schwartz, when he unilaterally declared that the excommunication of Spinoza was no longer effective.)
Finally, there was David Ben-Gurion, who relied on one sentence written by Spinoza, who said that Jewish law was no longer needed after the end of the Jewish commonwealth (at the hands of the Romans), but that one day the Jews might have their own country again. Ben-Gurion referred to Spinoza as the first Zionist (or at least proto-Zionist).
Schwartz’s talk was very stimulating, much more interesting and complex than I can make it in this brief post. He made Spinoza seem interesting on so many ways. It’s a wonder that we don’t study him more. Of course, it should be said that, from a religious context, there are many traditional Jews who would despise Spinoza and everything he stands for, and who believe that the excommunication was appropriate, and should be maintained today and in the future. And also that Christians can be interested in Spinoza. Perhaps this is why Jews tend to ignore Spinoza. Particularly in an age where religious Jews are becoming more observant and more opposed to liberalizing tendencies.