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The Collected Works of Spinoza, Vols. I and II
edited and translated by edwin curley
princeton, 1,544 pages, $66

A prospective donor to Yeshiva University with whom I was once asked to meet was obsessed with one question: Did we teach Spinoza? He had not the least interest in discussing why Spinoza deserved our attention. The question in his mind was whether we qualified as a real university or were an old-country rabbinical school with a modern veneer. A few years later I received an inquiry from a fellow who could have been his great-grandson and was dying to know whether it was true that Spinoza had stolen all his brilliant ideas from Maimonides. When I invited him to inspect Spinoza’s criticisms of Maimonides for himself, he recoiled with imprecations at the suggestion that he open the forbidden book of the arch-heretic. The elderly American businessman and the fervent youngster share with many Jews and quite a few non-Jews a fascination with Spinoza that is out of all proportion to their interest in his actual ideas.

It is an odd fate for a seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher who adopted an impersonal more geometrico style in his writing, one determined by the accident of his Jewish birth and his exodus, as a young man, from the Jewish community of Amsterdam. The Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam were insecure in their Judaism. Descendants of the Iberian community of the fifteenth century that had been forcibly converted to Christianity, they had, after being given the opportunity to emigrate, resumed the religion of their ancestors. As a group their knowledge of Jewish law, text, and theology was as shaky as their consciousness of elevated status was keen, so that they regarded the German rabbis on whom they often depended as their social inferiors. Belated intellectual socialization into mainstream Jewry made the community susceptible to heresy. Its censorious leaders, meanwhile, were sensitive about how such freethinking would be judged by the Gentiles. In this context, on July 27, 1656, the elders of the synagogue of Amsterdam excommunicated Spinoza:

By the decrees of the Angels and the words of the Saints we ban, cut off, curse, and anathemize Baruch de Spinoza . . . with all the curses written in the Torah. Cursed be he by day and cursed by night, cursed in his lying down and cursed in his waking up, cursed in his going forth, and cursed in his coming in; and may the Lord not want his pardon, and may the Lord’s wrath and zeal burn upon him . . . and ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God are all alive today.

Spinoza exited Judaism while remaining outside Christianity. This is one reason that he is often called “the first modern Jew.” The other is the way he rejected a long tradition of thought. Harry Wolfson, the great historian of medieval philosophy, described a chain that began with Philo of Alexandria and linked Christians, Muslims, and Jews for almost two millennia. The premise of their enterprise was a faith in two sources of truth: universal reason and divine revelation, which they sought to synthesize. In his two major works, the posthumously published Ethics and the anonymously published Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza sought to break that chain, separating faith and reason.

Take the illustrious Maimonides, who was the particular target of Spinoza’s criticism. On the major questions of theological controversy—creation ex nihilo, individual providence, miracles, prophecy—Maimonides typically surveys the opinions offered by Aristotle and others alongside the Torah, in order to arrive at an interpretation of the biblical text that is religiously plausible and philosophically sound. Rigorously undertaken, such a procedure entails an understanding of the capacities and limitations of philosophical reasoning and the proper use of literary interpretation as it applies to Scripture.

In the Ethics, Spinoza charted a different course. On point after point, he chooses an alternative to the medieval synthesis, a rationalism based on a belief in necessity and determinism. Whereas Maimonides affirmed creation out of nothing, in which God freely created a world that is not identical with him, for Spinoza, God’s perfection rules out creation. Because God is the same as substance, the world must be perfect like God. It would be irrational for God to alter a state of affairs that is already perfect, and so Spinoza rejects the idea that God intervenes in the course of events or lives of individuals. Unlike the God of Maimonides, who honors human freedom while also playing a role in human lives, Spinoza’s God is indifferent to the unfolding of history.

This is why Spinoza valued the philosopher rather than the prophet. According to Maimonides, the prophet conveys particular laws that guide man to felicity and to the service of God. Whereas the religious life extolled by Maimonides and the rabbis emphasized the fear of God and repentance as an essential part of the good life, Spinoza, as a determinist, believed that fear and remorse were irrational.

This alone would constitute a coherent and impressive philosophical edifice, but Spinoza also wrote the Tractatus, a critique of historical religion and a prescription for a modern liberal regime. Spinoza begins by reading the Bible—not as a sacred text, but in the same way one would read any other book. Because it is exceedingly difficult, perhaps impossible, to trace the historical statements back to an eyewitness source, the veracity of Scripture is suspect. He refuses to use the interpretive methods employed by Maimonides. For Spinoza, if the literal text of the Bible depicts God as having a body, that is exactly what it means. To treat such terms as figurative, as accommodation to the recipient’s imagination, is dishonest.

Once the divine origin of biblical law has been dismissed, the laws of the Torah have no more authority than any human system of laws. Because he was not a philosopher and there are no prophets, Moses becomes a mere statesman, ministering to a rather primitive people. The implication for Jews is that the Torah is no longer binding and that Jewish identity, which seemed to have survived exile due to Jewish stubbornness and the distinguishing mark of circumcision, has no justification unless the Jews reconstitute their polity. This reflects Spinoza’s broader antipathy to independent ecclesiastical authority. As a rule, religion must be subservient to the ruler; its doctrines should be tailored to what the ruler deems useful to maintaining order.

Spinoza should have assessed Christianity by the same skeptical, literalistic standard that he applied to Judaism. Instead he interpreted the words of Jesus charitably, making the founder of Christianity into a philosopher. Judaism is materialistic and utilitarian and superstitious; Christianity is spiritual and universal (as if its insistence on particular dogmas were not a gross violation of Spinozistic rationalism). Whether he did this out of conviction, or for prudential reasons (after all, the civil religion he advocated had to be made palatable to Christian Europe), or out of odium for his original community is a matter of scholarly controversy. The distinguished historian of philosophy Emil Fackenheim, whose work as a post-Holocaust theologian led him to care deeply about Jewish peoplehood, writes bitterly of Spinoza’s slander of Judaism as a betrayal of his celebrated disinterestedness and nobility.

Unsurprisingly, not all Jews took to Spinoza’s approach. Moses Mendelssohn was notoriously opposed to his pantheism. Hermann Cohen’s neo-Kantianism, which emphasized divine separation from the scientifically knowable world and an understanding of ethics as the triumph of rationality over natural inclination, fueled an animus against Spinoza. This was largely in reaction to his pantheism and ethical naturalism (though Cohen, like Fackenheim a hundred years later, was outraged by Spinoza’s attacks on his people).

Paradoxically, the most sympathetic response to Spinoza among Jewish intellectuals was not in the liberal circles of Germany but in the traditional areas of Eastern Europe. German thinkers like Hegel and Goethe propagated a view of Spinoza that emphasized the religious resonance of his pantheism. Rather than reading his equation of God with nature as a reduction of the divine to the mundane, they saw it as a swallowing up of the world in God. Hence Novalis’s description of Spinoza: the “God-intoxicated philosopher.”

This accorded with the mystical a-cosmism, the denial that the world has any existence separate from God, characteristic of the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe. Populist and militantly hostile to worldly wisdom, the Hasidim were the natural bête noires of the Maskilim, the self-styled enlightened Jews, while the Maskilim by and large looked up to Spinoza as a heroic Jewish freethinker. Because the Hasidim stressed God’s overwhelming omnipresence, some mid-nineteenth-century Maskilim ventured to create a harmonistic bridge between Hasidism and their admiring construal of Spinoza’s theology.

When Abraham Kook, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi in Mandatory Palestine, commented on Spinoza, he was not unaffected by this irenic tendency. Rabbi Kook maintained that all great philosophical ideas contain some kernel of truth that must be uncovered and properly used, and the Spinozistic idea that all is contained in God appealed to the mystic in him. But there is something more than Kook’s usual broad-mindedness at play. One also has a sense that a subterranean negotiation is taking place in Rabbi Kook’s discussion of Spinoza. Despite it all, Spinoza was a Jew, and it might not be too late to come to an understanding with him. Other Jews have also sought to reclaim Spinoza for the community he rejected. One need only recall the dramatic scene at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s campus on Mount Scopus when Professor Joseph Klausner chanted ardently, “Our brother Baruch, our brother you are,” undoing the old ban.

Despite Spinoza’s aspirations to universal truth, what makes him perennially interesting is his very personal vision of rational thinking and living and liberal sovereignty. Where interest in a thinker is personal, one values not only the most cogent formulations of his maturity, but also the pathways that led to them. To me, for example, one of the most exciting recent developments in Spinoza scholarship is Carlos Fraenkel’s argument that Spinoza could have adopted a more conciliatory approach to biblical interpretation, one that would reinterpret the Bible in accordance with his teachings, thus mitigating their heretical tone. Fraenkel’s work demonstrates that Spinoza’s earlier writings in fact reflect that option. For that reason, it is good to have easy access to Spinoza’s oeuvre in its entirety, including minor works and letters. Edwin Curley, translator and editor of this double volume, has devoted fifty years to the study of seventeenth-century philosophy, with a particular emphasis on Spinoza. Though I lack the specialist’s expertise, I must commend the elegance of the production, especially Curley’s useful and concise multilingual glossary and index.

To get back to the donor’s question: The Yeshiva students in my modern Jewish intellectual history survey hear about Wolfson’s Spinoza, “the last medieval,” and Spinoza as the first modern secular Jew. On the bigger European stage, he plays a starring role as a founding father of Jonathan Israel’s “radical enlightenment.” He remains a staple of early modern philosophy courses, one of the post-Cartesian Continental rationalists arrayed against the British empiricists.

For me, however, what makes Spinoza the emblem of a fascinating but dubious outlook is his axiomatic belief that there is only one way for the world to be, namely, in accordance with absolute reason. His world is the best of all possible worlds, simply because it is the only possible world. Like William James, who was uncharmed by the virtues of the “block-universe,” I have difficulty grasping why the slightest trace of contingency, the faintest tremor of ambiguity about the future, would upset science and ruin everything. From this difference, I suspect, flows the other great differences between my religious, moral, and intellectual orientation and Spinoza’s: the sovereignty and mysteriousness of God; the enigmatic, tantalizing imprecision of religious language; the freedom of man; the fear of God and the value of repentance; the sheer particularity and fateful contingency of individual and historical existence.

To understand these differences is to understand much about the root opposition between those who live in the categories of revealed religion and those who do not. I wish I could explain all this to the elderly philanthropist or to the agitated inquirer. If only they had confronted Spinoza’s ideas instead of being provoked by his image.

Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.