‘JEWISH PHILOSOPHY attempted to reconcile Judaism with the science and philosophy of the day. Spinoza had none of that’.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Cursed be he by day, and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in.”
The leadership of the Jewish community of Amsterdam imposed a severe ban on Baruch d’Espinoza. This Spinoza, the descendant of converses who left Portugal to reclaim their Jewish heritage in Amsterdam, threatened the integrity of the community and its leadership and its core mission to reintegrate Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism back into Jewish tradition and the Jewish community.
The July 27, 1656, ban on Spinoza must lead us to the question of Spinoza’s thought and its ramifications for Judaism and Jewish history.
Spinoza is unique in the history of Jewish philosophy. From Philo of ancient Alexandria through Saadia Gaon of Babylonia and Maimonides in the medieval period to Moses Mendelssohn in 18th century Berlin to modern figures like Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Jewish philosophy attempted to reconcile Judaism with the science and philosophy of the day.
Spinoza had none of that. Even though he was born a Jew, he identified truth solely in philosophy and rejected organized religion, especially Judaism. His pantheism – the equation of God with the natural law that governed the universe – was a decisive break with the traditional Jewish understanding of a God of history and was even rejected much later by Martin Buber who posited the “I-Thou” relationship between the believer and God.
Spinoza identified himself as a philosopher and not as a Jew. He was an iconoclast who deserves to be respected, but his Jewish identity was of no importance to him.
One could argue that the failure to reconcile Judaism with the thought of the time was an utter rejection of all of Judaism. In that respect, one can wonder if Spinoza was a “Jewish philosopher.” His pantheism conflicts directly with traditional Jewish understandings of God and the Covenant.
But there are a number of arguments that can be made that Spinoza’s philosophy was the outcome of a uniquely Jewish experience. While most descendants of the converses of Portugal – the forced conversion there took place in 1497 – were able to reintegrate into the Jewish communities of Italy, the Ottoman Empire and Amsterdam, perhaps the experience of a converso whose ancestors had lived openly as Catholics for almost a century weakened the ties of Spinoza to rabbinic authority.
Spinoza was not the only descendant of conversos who challenged the rabbinic authorities of Amsterdam. Spinoza was, however, most successful in living a life outside of the Jewish community and, by identifying himself as a philosopher, found a niche in which he was able to survive outside the framework of the Jewish community.
Perhaps this would lead back to the argument that Spinoza was not a “Jewish philosopher” because he turned his back on the Jewish community and abandoned it till his death. But his philosophy made it impossible for him to remain in the Jewish community.
In other ways that are quite paradoxical, Spinoza’s impact on Jewish modernity cannot be denied. By rejecting the divine origin of the Torah, he was a trailblazer in later academic study of the text of the Hebrew Bible using the methods of history, linguistics and archeology. The academic study of the Hebrew Bible owes a great debt to Spinoza, as well, and even more important, by rejecting rabbinic authority, Spinoza was a forerunner to the Socialist Bund and secular Zionism in breaking away from rabbinic hegemony and made possible modern Jewish political movements that fired the imagination of millions. The almost universal rabbinic rejection of Zionism – and there were rabbis who were exceptions in their support of the restoration of the Jews to the Land of Israel – led to the modern Zionist movement having to reject the rabbinic authority that forbade building a state in Israel before the coming of the Messiah.
While Spinoza lived long before the emergence of modern political Zionism, he could be seen as prefiguring later currents in Jewish modernity.
Baruch Spinoza’s rejection of a God of History is an abrupt break with most of the history of Jewish philosophy and is a strong argument that, despite being born a Jew, his thought was not intrinsically Jewish. He was a heretic. But it could be argued that he deserves a place in the pantheon of great Jewish thinkers in that he was a visionary in terms of how the Jewish people would make the transformation from the medieval world into modernity.
Eli Kavon is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.