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

Aprospective 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.

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