Don’t fall off your chair, but I’ve recently had to admit I was wrong about something.
My list of the individuals whose thoughts form the top three most lamentable cultural influences in modern times needs to be amended. This realization, in turn, raises a question about the influence exerted by a larger group of people: Jews.
My top three used to be Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin. But after discovering novelist Rebecca Goldstein’s readable, sensitive and entertaining new biography, “Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity,” I’ve dropped Darwin from the list and replaced him with the Jewish-born 17th-century philosopher Benedictus Spinoza.
Why Spinoza, best known for having been excommunicated by Amsterdam’s Jewish community in 1655 for his heretical beliefs? When I say that he makes the cut for the Big 3, I don’t mean he was among the worst people in recent history, as measured by his behavior. On the contrary, he lived an exceptionally harmless personal life. I mean that he, along with the Marx and Freud, did more than anyone else to produce the atmosphere of moral confusion that afflicts Western culture today.
You can generally categorize the influences that shape people under three headings: material, moral and spiritual.
Marx shaped, or rather warped, our ideas and attitudes about a person’s proper relationship to material things. He made it harder for us to have the right attitudes about respecting other people’s wealth and belongings.
Freud, for his part, warped our thoughts about moral matters, notably about sex, by transforming the way we understand the moral laws that once governed the way people go about seeking sexual intimacy and fulfillment. Those laws used to be pretty universally understood as expressions of God’s will. Now we are constantly tempted to conceive of them more as human-generated forces of repression.
I used to think Darwin was the person responsible for misshaping our conception of man’s spiritual place in the universe, our relationship or non-relationship to God. Darwinism, the idea that God need have played no role in bringing our bodies and souls into existence, is a crucial support to secularism, which itself is the notion that a society can get along very well in the absence of belief in a transcendent deity.
But I now see that two centuries before Darwin, Spinoza had already been there, done that. Not that he was a biologist, but he extolled the worship of a “God” that was more or less interchangeable with nature.
God, in Spinoza’s philosophy, is the logic that determines the way the world and the rest of reality unfolds. This “God” doesn’t love, doesn’t care about us, doesn’t personally make demands, isn’t a personality at all. Spinoza’s “God” is the only deity recognizable by a culture of secularism — an idea that he invented. As Goldstein puts it, he “insisted on secularism at a time when the concept of it had not yet been conceived.”
“The world,” she writes, “has been transformed (though not enough) by a long and complicated chain of causes and effects that reaches back to Spinoza’s lonely choice to think out the world for himself.” Yes, Goldstein is a fan of the Saint of Secularism.
Once Darwin has stepped down from the ranks of the pantheon, do you notice anything in common about the Big 3? Naturally, they are all Jews.
Is this column an antisemite’s dream come true? Not at all. Just as Jews appear to have a disproportionate ability to demoralize the culture we live in, we also have an equal power to moralize it. The Torah recognized this long ago.
The Jews are the “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) and priests have the power to bless. The text of the famous priestly blessing, given by Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons, is specified in the book of Numbers. It is threefold: “May the Lord bless you and safeguard you. May the Lord illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious too you. May the Lord lift His countenance to you and establish peace for you” (6:24-26).
In the ancient midrashic understanding, these three blessings each signify one of the three positive influences referred to earlier, which a person or group may confer on others. The first designates a material blessing: May God magnify and safeguard our wealth. The second designates a spiritual blessing: May God illuminate us with the light of his Torah. The third designates a moral blessing: When we sin, may God be merciful and thereby establish peace for us.
Jews have a remarkable power to bless the culture we live in — materially, spiritually and morally — by exerting a positive and godly influence. But every phenomenon in God’s creation has its mirror opposite. He created everything in pairs: female and male, day and night, good and evil, heaven and earth. For our power to moralize, there is a precisely corresponding power to infuse the culture around us with ideas that lead others astray about right and wrong.
Sometimes it seems we Jews would like to believe that our impact is only for the good, and anyone who doubts this is an antisemite. That’s not so, however, as the cases of Marx, Freud and Spinoza demonstrate.
David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is author of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).