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!
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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.
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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