Spinoza: The First Secular Jew? by Bennett Muraskin

Soon after the establishment of the State of Israel, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, a secular Jew, urged the chief rabbi of the new Jewish state to lift the excommunication or herem on Spinoza. The answer was negative. Rather, the ban imposed in 1654 was reaffirmed. Nothing has changed since then. Spinoza remains the ultimate Jewish heretic. Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, Holland in 1632. His parents were Portuguese Jewish marranos, forced converts to Catholicism who practiced their Judaism in secret. They fled to Holland, a Protestant nation that won its independence from Spain in 1579, because it allowed Jews religious freedom. Spinoza’s father, a merchant, became active in the Amsterdam Jewish community.

Spinoza received a standard Jewish education and excelled in his studies. His first language was Portuguese, but he also spoke Spanish, an imperfect Dutch and read Hebrew. He left school in his teens to go into his father’s business, but continued his Jewish education as a young adult. Well versed in traditional religious texts, he also studied with liberal non-Jewish scholars and learned Latin.

Influenced by Christian humanists and freethinkers, he gradually became disenchanted with rabbinic Judaism. Descartes (1596-1650), the French rationalist philosopher, had the most impact on his thinking, but he also owed an intellectual debt to the French Jewish philosopher Gersonides aka Levi Ben Gerson (1288-1344), who valued reason over revelation and posited a God who was remote from human affairs.

Although young Spinoza took no steps to formally break with the Jewish community, his heretical ideas came to the attention of the Jewish authorities. He apparently was overheard denying God’s authorship of the Torah, the immortality of the soul, the existence of the afterlife and divine rewards and punishments. After he refused to disavow these views, he was summoned before a Jewish court. Failing to appear, he was excommunicated on July 27, 1656. At nearly the same time, his friend, Juan de Prado, a Jewish refugee from Spain, suffered the same fate.

Other excommunications took place during this period as well, attesting to both the prevalence of subversive currents among Amsterdam’s Jews and the dogged intolerance of the Jewish communal leadership. Most excommunications were of limited duration, but Spinoza’s heresy was considered so profound that his was permanent and irrevocable.

Excommunication was not merely a religious disenfranchisement. It meant that Spinoza was officially cut off from all dealings and relationships with other Jews, including his family. He may still have maintained low level contacts with a handful of Jews, including some dissidents like de Prado., but for the most part, he lived the rest of his life in the company of humanist Christian intellectuals. He never converted, but did assume the Latin name Benedict in place of the Hebrew Baruch.

In 1677, Spinoza died at age 45 from tuberculosis, an occupational hazard of his later work as a highly skilled lens grinder for microscopes and telescopes. Since his ties with the Jewish community were irrevocably severed, he was buried in a church cemetery.

Spinoza developed a political philosophy that laid the foundation for representative government, democracy and the separation of religion and the state. Spinoza’s advocacy of freedom of thought and conscience had enormous influence on Western intellectual history. For example, Spinoza’s thinking directly influenced John Locke, the famous English political philosopher, considered by many to be an intellectual author of the American Revolution.

Spinoza favored republican government in Holland, but eschewed political activism. He was a philosopher, first and foremost, and tried to avoid public controversy. He declined a prestigious appointment to the University of Heidelberg in order to preserve his intellectual freedom.

Can Spinoza be properly described as the founder of Jewish secularism?

If we relied only on the testimony of secular Jewish intellectuals who emerged in Eastern Europe in late 19th century and early 20th century North America, the answer would be a resounding “yes.” They praised Spinoza for freeing Judaism from the shackles of religion and proving that the Bible was a human creation, full of contradictions and prejudices. They also honored Spinoza as a victim of rabbinic persecution and an inspiration for their own rebellion against Jewish tradition. In a phrase, Spinoza was declared the patron saint of secular Jews.

Many works in Yiddish were devoted to Spinoza. In Europe, the first article on Spinoza in Yiddish was published in St. Petersburg Russia in 1886 in a Yiddish newspaper. Nine years later, the first Yiddish article on Spinoza in the USA appeared in the socialist journal, Tsukunft. In 1899, a translation of a German novel based on Spinoza’s life appeared. In Poland, an entire issue of the Warsaw Literary Review was devoted to Spinoza in 1927, the 250th anniversary of his death. Joel Shatsky (1893-1956), a founder of YIVO, wrote the first volume of a biography in Yiddish during the 1930s. (He never completed the second.) In 1961 the Warsaw Yiddish Theater produced a play about Spinoza, based on a book by Chaim Sloves, a Russian-born Jew from France. Yiddish poet Melech Ravitch (1893-1976), who lived all over the world before settling in Montreal, composed a cycle of twenty encomiums to Spinoza. Yiddish speaking Jewish artists painted many portraits and representations of Spinoza.

Today’s secular Jewish movement can still profit from Spinoza’s critique of the Jewish doctrine of the “Chosen People,” his analysis of the origins of the Bible and his conclusion as to its ultimate purpose.

On the doctrine of the Chosen People:

A man’s true happiness…lies simply in his wisdom and knowledge of the truth and not in the belief that he is wiser than others or that others lack true knowledge…Accordingly, when Scripture tries to encourage Jews to obey the law by saying that God has chosen them as his own before all other peoples (Deuteronomy 10:15)…, that he is close to them and not to others…and finally, that he has revealed himself to them alone, preferring them to the rest (Deuteronomy 4:32), the words are merely a concession to the understanding of the Jews who knew nothing of true blessedness. For would they have been less blessed themselves had God called all men equally to salvation…Would their laws have been less just and they themselves less wise had such laws been given to all…And, finally, would the Jews have been less bound to worship God if he had provided these gifts to all alike?

On the origins of the Bible:

He who accepts everything in Scripture indiscriminately as the universal and ultimate teaching about God…will inevitably…hail the arbitrary inventions of men as the precepts of God…The fact is that the sacred books were not written by one man only, or for the common people of a single age, but by many men of different temperaments and periods…

And its ultimate purpose:

…The chief object of Scripture as a whole…was simply to inculcate obedience…Moses, for instance, did not seek to convince the children of Israel by reason, but to bind them by a covenant, by oaths and by gratitude for services. Besides, he threatened the people with penalties for disobeying his laws, and held out rewards to encourage them to observe them. All these devices are means of inculcating obedience only, and not knowledge…

What, then, does Judaism have to offer in a positive sense? Spinoza argued that it was not only excessively irrational and ethnocentric, but also utterly obsolete. When Jews were sovereign in ancient Israel, ruled by a theocracy, the Bible served as their constitution. Once Jews became a people in Diaspora, Judaism ceased to serve any useful purpose. On the contrary, Judaism was harmful, because it encouraged Jews to segregate themselves, which naturally engendered Gentile hostility. The best thing Jews could do was to abandon their antiquated religion and assimilate.

Spinoza studied Maimonides and rejected the Spanish Jewish philosopher’s attempt to reconcile revelation with reason. He insisted that the two are incompatible and that Maimonides, by claiming to find deeper meaning in the Bible that ordinary Jews could not comprehend, was “introducing a new form of ecclesiastical authority…which the multitude would mock rather than venerate.”

Spinoza came perilously close to blaming Jews for provoking anti-Semitism, but from his knowledge of the marrano experience, he knew that anti-Semitism could also be rooted in race hatred. In Spain and Portugal, Jews who converted to Catholicism faced persecution nevertheless, merely because of their Jewish origins. It was Spinoza’s hope that tolerant nations like Holland and secular democratic republics of the future would allow Jews to assimilate in peace.

Spinoza had a more favorable view of Christianity. He found the New Testament as flawed as the Old, yet he accepted Christian claims of universality and expressed admiration of Jesus as a teacher of morality.

If we apply the standards of contemporary secular Judaism, Spinoza’s cannot be viewed as the first secular Jew. The essence of secular Judaism, in all its varieties, is that Jews are a people with a shared history and cultures that can sustain a viable Jewish identity independent of religion. For Spinoza, Judaism was purely a religion that he rejected.

After his excommunication, Spinoza no longer considered himself a Jew. Neither Jewish nor Christian, he became a pantheist. God does not exist apart from the natural world, he maintained. Rather God and the world are one substance, governed by immutable scientific laws. One does not pray to such a God or expect Him to intervene in human affairs. The function of religion, therefore, is to inspire moral conduct. Man’s highest calling is to treat others with justice and charity, as they would wish to be treated themselves. Within this framework, people should be free to profess their beliefs and to practice any religion or no religion.

In fairness, it must be said that Spinoza lived in an era when religion was the exclusive form of identification. Nationalism, as a secular ideology either in its political or cultural form, was unknown. It is entirely legitimate to celebrate Spinoza as the first modern secularist and an exemplary humanist. But it would not be for more than another century after Spinoza’s death that the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, ushered in the age of secular and humanistic Judaism.

Spinoza’s critical assessment of Judaism and revolutionary conception of God influenced one of the most influential figures in modern history, the great Jewish humanist Albert Einstein. Einstein revered Spinoza’s philosophy and adopted his conception of God. A.M Klein (1909-1972), one of Canada’s greatest poets, also marveled at his genius.

In October 2006, on the 350th anniversary of his excommunication, YIVO sponsored a national symposium on Spinoza “From Heretic to Hero,” that attracted more than three hundred people, including prominent Jewish scholars. Earlier in the same year, a new biography appeared, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity by Rebecca Goldstein. Avishai Margalit, a leading Israeli scholar from Hebrew University, in reviewing Goldstein’s and another new book on Spinoza, describes him as “the ethically serious man with whom Jews, or at least secular Jews, can and should identify in feeling, in thought and in action.”

The apostate Jew from Amsterdam is still making waves.