May 25, 2006
The Spin on Spinoza—Rebel or Traitor?
"Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity" by Rebecca Goldstein (Schoken, $19.95).
In high school, I read and reread two fluent, erudite surveys of philosophy until the pages of the books fell to pieces. By the time the glue bindings cracked on Will Durant's "The Story of Philosophy" and Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy," I knew one thing for sure -- they both loved Baruch Spinoza.
For Durant, Spinoza was as close as philosophy could come to sainthood -- a life of austerity, rationality, independence, principle, rarefied thought. For Russell, the draw was not only Spinoza's devotion to reason, but his willingness to devote himself fully to the world of thought. For a philosopher to be excommunicated gave him intellectual street cred, a kind of cognitive cache. Spinoza was the real deal.
But I also grew up knowing what Rebecca Goldstein tells us again and again in her about-to-be-released speculative, digressive, charming and lucid book, "Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity": Traditional Judaism feared and distrusted this child of the enlightenment. Although prominent Jewish thinkers, from Moses Mendelssohn to Solomon Maimon to modern Zionists, have claimed him as their own, every deliberation on Spinoza wonders -- is he a Jewish thinker? Surely he does not believe in the chosenness of the Jews or the Divine authorship of Torah or the mandates of halachah -- does he even believe in God?
The prosecution has a formidable team. Although Goldstein does not speak very much about the reaction of Jewish scholars to their illustrious precursor, we recall that the great historian Heinrich Graetz, while insisting that Spinoza was one of the greatest thinkers of his time, also described Spinoza's relation to Judaism as that of a "murderer to his mother." Hermann Cohen accused Spinoza of "incomprehensible treason" and, needless to say, in more traditional circles Benedict Spinoza in Jewish history is seen with the same sympathy as Benedict Arnold in American history.
Who was this lovable genius and hideous traitor? Spinoza was born in 1632, one of five children. His mother died in his seventh year. He saw around him the multiple traumas that afflicted the Jewish community. Despite the relative tolerance of Amsterdam in that age (their libraries were famous throughout Europe for their extensive, uncensored holdings), there were persecutions of dissidents, excommunications in the Jewish community, vigilance and fear. The historical tidal wave of the Inquisition continued to ripple through Europe. Many Jews were at some stage of hiding: Jews who converted to Christianity and practiced Judaism in secret; Jews who remained sincere Christians but had close Jewish family; Jews converted and then returned to Judaism, weighed down by guilt. These and a thousand other permutations made identity, fidelity and individual contingency very fraught questions. One of the joys of Goldstein's book is to watch her briefly trace the historical patterns of the Inquisition -- work done so extensively in Yirmiyahu Yovel's admirable two volumes ("Spinoza and Other Heretics") -- and relate it to Spinoza's character and story.
Here is the "betrayal" of the title. For Spinoza was the most thoroughgoing depersonalizer in the history of philosophy. In the 20th century, existentialism sought to return philosophy to the "I." It was about my individual, free, personal orientation to existence and my acceptance of the reality of death. Spinoza is the anti-existentialist. The only universal quality that can explain the world is reason. You don't know my experience, but we can share a syllogism. It is emphatically not about me; a wise man, he wrote, thinks of nothing less often than death.
Spinoza was a monist, believing all things are composed of the same substance and all must have come to be the way they are. There is no room for individual variation, except as a manifestation of the same substance, the whole of which Spinoza called "god." The way to grasp the substance, and to transcend the false individuality that traps us is through reason. Logic, reason, thought are the tools of salvation and of goodness. To relate Spinoza's philosophy to the death of his mother or the status of the Jews was precisely to contradict his reigning insight -- it is all impersonal and about the austere, diamond-hard, cold and eternal realm of logic. The logical web fastens the universe, and it is our task to understand it better to expand our minds. The intellectual love of God, to know all through logic, is the highest human goal.
One friend of Spinoza's, quoted by biographer Stephen Nadler, said he never saw the philosopher sad or merry. We might call that a "flattened affect," but Spinoza would call it philosophical detachment and calm.
In Spinoza's world, there is no reward and punishment, immortality or freedom; there is the striving to use the mind to achieve union with nature, which is identical with God. We cannot change things, because everything is as it must be: "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, condemn or scorn human actions, but to understand."
Goldstein, who grew up in an Orthodox girls school and went on to write novels and become a professor of philosophy, traces many threads of influence on Spinoza: his excommunication, his shattered family life, the way Spinoza used kabbalistic questions in his philosophy, his mathematical aspirations (the "ethics" is laid out like a Euclidean geometry.) She also powerfully investigates the Jewish upbringing that not only led him to a book on the composition of the Bible, but, at the end of his life, to compose a Hebrew grammar.
Spinoza was convinced the Torah was the product of human hands. Although he did not invent biblical criticism, he was an early exponent of it. He was also an early supporter of the "this-worldly return" of the Jewish people to Israel.
Spinoza spent most of his adult life grinding lenses in his apartment. He had friends and acquaintances who testified to the gentleness of his character; he turned down academic offers and offers of stipends. Some have seen him as the first truly secular man -- he was excommunicated from the Jewish tradition and never became a Christian. But he could not reliably be called secular when he believed so deeply in a god -- albeit a God very different from the one he had known in youth. "God-intoxicated" the poet Novalis called him, and he was -- drunk with the Divine.
Spinoza died when he was 44 years old, with the herem -- excommunication -- still in effect. So can this gentle, heretical philosopher be legitimately included in Jewish history? In modern times, when our sense of Jewishness is broadened, it may be interesting to note which major Jewish figure called for repeal of Spinoza's herem -- David Ben Gurion.
David Wolpe is rabbi at Sinai Temple in Westwood.