Our Favorite Heretic

Misquoting, Misrepresenting, and Misusing Baruch Spinoza

Strange Bedfellows: Zionists, secular Jews and German romantics all claim Baruch Spinoza as their intellectual forebear.
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Strange Bedfellows: Zionists, secular Jews and German romantics all claim Baruch Spinoza as their intellectual forebear.

By Allan Nadler

Published August 13, 2012, issue of August 17, 2012.
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Romantic rehabilitations of Jewish history’s most notorious heretic, Baruch Spinoza, seem — like Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura (God or Nature) — to be without end. German romantics crowned this radical unbeliever a “God-intoxicated man.” Zionists claimed the excommunicant as an ideological ancestor of modern Jewish nationalism. The array of uses and misuses of Spinoza by those who seek in him a forebear is testimony to the boundlessness of the human imagination, ironically enough the very “affect” that Spinoza viewed as the cardinal enemy of reason and human happiness.

Having spent more than a decade investigating the many fanciful Jewish modern reinventions of Spinoza, I thought myself impervious to surprise by even their most outlandish iterations. Until, that is, I read a recent article by the British chief rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, railing against the decision of a court in Koln, Germany, to ban circumcision.

It is hard to think of a more appalling decision!” Sacks wrote. “Did the court know that circumcision is the most ancient ritual in the history of Judaism, dating almost four thousand years to the days of Abraham? Did it know that Spinoza… wrote that brit milah in and of itself had the power to sustain Jewish identity through the centuries?

Hard to think of a more appalling decision? It is hard to think of a more astonishing distortion!

Check out Spinoza for Dummies on the Arty Semite blog.

That Spinoza — who considered the ritual practices of Judaism entirely archaic and often barbaric — is marshaled by an Orthodox chief rabbi in the defense of any Jewish rite is quite incredible, especially given what Spinoza actually had to say about circumcision.

There is nothing whatsoever that the Jews today can arrogate to themselves above other nations,” Spinoza wrote in the third chapter of his “Theological-Political Treatise.” “As to their continued existence for so many years when scattered and stateless, this is in no way surprising, since they have separated themselves from other nations to such a degree so as to incur the hatred of all, and this not only through external rites alien to the rites of other nations, but also through the mark of circumcision which they most religiously observe and… by itself might preserve their nation forever.

Spinoza is hardly advocating this, or any, Jewish religious observance. He is, rather, coldly describing its primitive power as a key factor in the Jews’ survival, after having just blamed its victims for centuries of anti-Semitism. In fact, this entire chapter is a nasty polemic against the doctrine of the election of Israel, more congenial to an argument for the abolition of any special accommodations to be accorded the Jews by the modern state. The justices in Koln could have very convincingly deployed Spinoza in support of their decision to ban circumcision.

Sacks’s may be the most surprising, but it is far from the first misappropriation of Spinoza, as is made amply evident in a new book by Daniel Schwartz that documents how an idealized image of Spinoza served as inspiration for modern Jews. “The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image” is a scholarly overview of a judicious, if limited, selection of modern Jewish reclamations of Spinoza, from the 19th-century maskilim, the advocates of Jewish enlightenment, of Germany and Austrian Galicia, to contemporary Jewish studies academics who too often present Spinoza as the patriarch of today’s secular Jews.

As Schwartz recounts, an offhand remark by Spinoza inspired many Zionist thinkers to crown Spinoza the prophet of the modern Jewish state: “Indeed,” Spinoza wrote, “were it not for the fact that the central principles of their religion have so emasculated them, I would not hesitate to believe that they [the Jews] might one day… re-establish their independent state, and that God will again choose them.” David Ben-Gurion was so inspired by his literal reading of Spinoza’s deviously cynical observation that he sought the advice of Israel’s chief rabbi, Isaac Halevy Herzog, about how to rescind his excommunication.


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