Goodbye, Spinoza

By Yoram Hazony, January 13, 2010

It is difficult today to remember that Judaism was once considered one of the most impressive systems of thought and ways of living available to mankind. In the Greek and Roman world, interest in Judaism—both positive and negative—was intense. In the wake of the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, Judaism won thousands of converts in Alexandria, Damascus, Antioch, Athens and Rome, and its laws and thought were imbibed by many others who did not formally convert. Indeed, so great was the popular interest in Judaism that in the first century, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, an advisor to the Emperor Nero, wrote that “The customs of this accursed race have gained such influence that they are now received throughout the world. The vanquished have given laws to their victors.”[1]

And while Judaism never possessed this kind of magnetism again after its eclipse by Christianity, the Jewish option nevertheless remained a formidable one for many centuries. In the medieval and Renaissance worlds, Jewish scholars and texts and ideas were often recognized as an intellectual force to be reckoned with. And in 17th century Europe, thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Grotius, Milton, Selden, Newton, and Leibniz consulted with the Hebrew Scriptures and an astonishing range of rabbinic texts in the effort to gain a better understanding of metaphysics, ethics, political theory, law, and history, not to speak of theology.

I think you can more or less pinpoint the moment when the view of the Jews as having something potentially important and unique to say to the world began to collapse. This moment came with the publication of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise in 1670, the first systematic effort by a Jew to persuade an educated European audience that there is little or nothing to be gained from reading the Hebrew Scriptures.

Spinoza’s argument was straightforward: He says that everything worth knowing about the “true life” or “sublime ideas” can be known by every individual by means of “the natural light of reason” (a phrase borrowed from Scholastic and Cartesian philosophy). According to Spinoza, this natural light is innate and universally distributed among the nations, all of whom had their own prophets and wise men, just as the Jews did. Thus the writings of the Hebrew prophets, gathered in the Bible, can be said to contain only two kinds of material: (i) Universal truths that are accessible by reason to all nations at all times, whether they have the Bible or not; and (ii) material that reflects the parochial, particularistic concerns of the Jews of antiquity, which can have no relevance to later generations.[2]

As it turned out, this argument—that the Jews never did have anything of special importance to say to the nations—became an immensely popular doctrine in the latter part of the 18th century. French philosophers and German professors leaped on this universal theory of Jewish irrelevance with gusto, embellishing it and making it the cornerstone of a historical understanding that was openly eliminationist with respect to the role of the Jews in the history. More than a century before the Nazis reached for the physical annihilation of the Jews, post-Christian European philosophers and scholars sought the spiritual annihilation of the Jews by eliminating the memory of the Jewish part in the discourse that had created the West.

Although this kind of frank anti-Semitism is no longer part of our daily lives, the reputation and standing of Judaism has never recovered from this assault. Today, we live in open societies in which everyone is free to examine Jewish ideas and ways as much as they like. Yet the fact is that the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic tradition command exceedingly little interest among educated people. At most universities, an undergraduate interested in taking an introductory course on the ideas of the Hebrew Bible—I mean a course like those offered by philosophy or political theory programs, in which classical works are studied in the hope of gaining insight on subjects of importance—will find that no such thing is even in the course catalogue. And while rabbis and Jewish scholars may be included in discussions of certain narrow ethical issues, overall the idea of turning to the Jews for the insight and wisdom they may possess is nearly as foreign today to an educated Western man or woman as if we were the Aztecs.

The low estimation of Judaism in contemporary discourse is, as I’ve suggested, part of the Enlightenment heritage. And so long as the universities and other institutional purveyors of knowledge continued to adhere to the Enlightenment prejudice against the possibility of finding anything of value in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Talmuds and Midrash, you could be certain of courting derision and professional isolation if you saw fit to mention them as being worthy of serious consideration.

But that day, it seems, is long gone. We now stand at the far shore after generations of withering attacks on this Enlightenment heritage. And while the post-modernists have not themselves emerged victorious from these engagements, the followers of Spinoza have been so badly battered that in lots of places, there’s just no one to man the barricades anymore.

To see this, just ask yourself the following question: How many academics do you know who can now, without wincing, say something like “The Bible contains nothing but universal truths that could as easily be gotten elsewhere; and parochial concerns of the ancient Hebrews, which can have no relevance for later generations?” Even thirty years ago, this kind of thing was ubiquitous. But educated persons have to a significant degree stopped talking this way. The watchword at the universities is now respect for the identities and traditions of others. And while we may be concerned that this new thinking has brought with it a disturbing tendency to embrace the daft and the deadly, the upshot with respect to Judaism is worth attending to.

Unanticipated though it may be, we seem to have entered a moment in the history of the West in which the lowly status of Judaism is not, any longer, a given. For the first time in perhaps 250 years, the texts and traditions of the Jews are not just tolerated, the way one tolerates something that is in any case on the verge of extinction. The door is actually open: Judaism can now make its way and win a renewed respect in many circles. And if it does not, this may well be due to confusion on the part of the Jews themselves, who have been trained to expect disinterest and rejection, and conduct themselves accordingly.

All this is new, and it requires us to reconsider much that we’ve taken for granted. What does it mean to say that the categorical rejection of Judaism that was so central a part of the Enlightenment has spent much of its force? And what would it mean for the Jews to shake off their confusion and begin speaking clearly to those others who might take an interest in what we have to say? To whom would we speak? And what would we say? Or should we, perhaps, just keep quiet—whether out of a preference for the old intellectual order, or from fear of drawing undesired attention to ourselves?

I’m not going to try to answer these questions now. They’ll be the subject of these Jerusalem Letters. In upcoming letters, I’ll try to share with you some of my thoughts on these questions. I’ll tell some personal stories that will shed light on how I’ve come to the conclusions I’ve reached (where I’ve reached any), and I’ll try to direct you to books and essays, new and old, and an occasional film, that I think may be helpful in understanding where we’ve been and where we should go.


[1]Quoted in Louis H. Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World (Princeton: Princeton, 1993), p. 491, n. 40. 
[2] Spinoza’s argument is presented over the course of chapters 3-5 of his Theological-Political Treatise. Among other things, he writes that: “The Hebrews were not chosen by God before others for the sake of the true life or sublime ideas.… Inasmuch as their election has regard to true virtue, it is not to be thought that it was promised to the Jews alone to the exclusion of others, but we must believe that the true gentile prophets… promised the same to the faithful of their own people…. At the present time, therefore, there is absolutely nothing that the Jews can arrogate to themselves beyond other people…. [Divine law] is universal or common to all men…. [I]t does not depend on the truth of any historical narrative whatsoever…. [It] does not demand the performance of ceremonies…. Such things as are good simply because they have been commanded or instituted, or as being symbols of something good, are mere shadows which cannot be reckoned among actions that are the… fruit of a sound mind and intellect…. [E]veryone can by the light of nature clearly understand the goodness and the eternal divinity of God, and can thence deduce what they should seek for and what avoid….” Benedict de Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise, R.H.M. Elwes, trans. (New York: Dover, 1951 [1670]), pp. 44-68. 
Spinoza’s thought is obviously a bit more nuanced than these passages suggest. I think a strong case can be made, for example, that Spinoza believed the Hebrew Bible was in fact an important source for sound political theory (as opposed to metaphysics or ethics). But even if this is right, it doesn’t affect the overall gist of his argument or the way it was received historically.

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