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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What seems to have been lost on Ben-Gurion and a cadre of other prominent Zionists was Spinoza’s deep sarcasm in his speculation that God might once again choose the Jews. According to Spinoza, God never chose them in the first place. Moreover, God, as defined in Spinoza’s “Ethics,” is totally bound by the laws of nature, and thus can make no choices of any kind.

This great enthusiasm to restore Spinoza to the bosom of his people was hardly limited to the maskilim and Zionists treated by Schwartz in his book. There were many more Spinoza enthusiasts on the opposite side of the Jewish political spectrum. A host of non- and anti-Zionist Yiddish ideologues, from Bundists to Communists, embraced Spinoza, whom they considered the first “Godless Jew” as well as the founder of materialist determinism. Schwartz limits his treatment of Eastern European Jewish literature to an analysis of the image of Spinoza in the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer, but scores of less famous Yiddish writers were charmed by Spinoza. The list of Yiddish Spinozists reads like a who’s who of 20th-century Yiddish literature and culture.

The Jewish infatuation with Spinoza wasn’t even limited to Europe or to Hebrew and Yiddish intellectuals. Canada’s greatest Jewish writer, A.M. Klein, wrote “Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens,” one of his most powerful poems, as a sort of tribute to Spinoza. New York City’s Lower East Side was a veritable hub of Spinoza mania. It was led by Warsaw-born historian Jacob Shatsky, who operated the Yiddish Division of the Spinoza Institute of America, a branch of the Societas Spinozana, based in The Hague. Shatsky coordinated a dazzling number of Spinoza classes, all in Yiddish. Spinoza even became a stage star in both the Hebrew and Yiddish theater.

Lest one think that only secular Jews were involved in this loving obsession with Spinoza, and that Sacks is the first rabbi to have enlisted his support, it is important to note that numerous rabbis feted him, too. In 1891, as part of a lecture series titled “Jewish Converts, Perverts and Dissenters,” Joseph Krauskopf, radical rabbi of Philadelphia’s Kneseth Israel, cleared Spinoza of any suspicion of being a pervert, instead proclaiming, “The whole history of Israel shows no truer, purer, nobler Jew.” More than 40 years later, Rabbi Samuel Schulman of Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El welcomed Spinoza back to Judaism, declaring: “The synagogue loves him…. [W]e love and revere his memory. May Baruch ever be blessed.”

In 1956, at a major commemoration of Spinoza’s yahrzeit in The Hague, a monument was consecrated in his honor, bearing the simple inscription, “Amcha.” Thus was carved in granite the widespread sentiment among modern Jews that Spinoza deserves recognition as a full and honored member of his tribe, his oft-expressed disdain for Jewish tribalism notwithstanding.

Even today, many passionately affirm the sentiment set in stone in The Hague. Just this past December, at an international Spinoza conference in Jerusalem, chaired by eminent historian and Spinozist Yirmiyahu Yovel, I found myself unwittingly inducted into the two-century-old internecine Jewish debate about the Amsterdam apikores, heretic, after being scolded publicly by Yovel for having dared refer to Spinoza as the “quintessential non-Jewish Jew,” rather than the first modern Jew. So, passionate arguments, of the kind now richly documented by Schwartz, about Spinoza’s Jewishness and his relevance to our times, still enrich and enrage, the Jews, and probably will continue to do so — without end.

Allan Nadler is professor of religious studies and director of the Program in Jewish Studies at Drew University, currently serving as visiting professor of Jewish studies at McGill University and interim rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Montreal.


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