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The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image [Hardcover]

Daniel B. Schwartz

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Book Description

Feb. 26 2012

Pioneering biblical critic, theorist of democracy, and legendary conflater of God and nature, Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was excommunicated by the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam in 1656 for his "horrible heresies" and "monstrous deeds." Yet, over the past three centuries, Spinoza's rupture with traditional Jewish beliefs and practices has elevated him to a prominent place in genealogies of Jewish modernity. The First Modern Jew provides a riveting look at how Spinoza went from being one of Judaism's most notorious outcasts to one of its most celebrated, if still highly controversial, cultural icons, and a powerful and protean symbol of the first modern secular Jew.

Ranging from Amsterdam to Palestine and back again to Europe, the book chronicles Spinoza's posthumous odyssey from marginalized heretic to hero, the exemplar of a whole host of Jewish identities, including cosmopolitan, nationalist, reformist, and rejectionist. Daniel Schwartz shows that in fashioning Spinoza into "the first modern Jew," generations of Jewish intellectuals--German liberals, East European maskilim, secular Zionists, and Yiddishists--have projected their own dilemmas of identity onto him, reshaping the Amsterdam thinker in their own image. The many afterlives of Spinoza are a kind of looking glass into the struggles of Jewish writers over where to draw the boundaries of Jewishness and whether a secular Jewish identity is indeed possible. Cumulatively, these afterlives offer a kaleidoscopic view of modern Jewish cultureand a vivid history of an obsession with Spinoza that continues to this day.

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Co-Winner of the 2012 Salo Wittmayer Baron Prize, American Academy for Jewish Research

Finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award in History

"We have long needed a thorough and careful study of the various ways in which Spinoza has been appropriated by Jewish causes and movements. Daniel Schwartz's welcome book takes a close look for the first time at what the author calls 'the rehabilitation of Spinoza in Jewish culture.'"--Steven Nadler, Times Literary Supplement

"Whether Baruch Spinoza was 'the first modern Jew,' as the title of this outstanding volume suggests, has been a subject of continuing debate. . . . Schwartz displays admirable versatility in tracing the idolizations, disputes, and ambivalences evoked by Spinoza in Germany (Moses Mendelssohn and Berthold Auerbach) and eastern Europe (Salomon Rubin), within Zionism (Yosef Klausner), and in Yiddish literature (Isaac Bashevis Singer). . . . Essential."--M. A. Meyer, Choice

"[P]assionate arguments, of the kind now richly documented by Schwartz, about Spinoza's Jewishness and his relevance to our times, still enrich and enrage . . . and probably will continue to do so--without end."--Allan Nadler,

"This is the first full-scale history of Spinoza's reception among Jews. . . . [I]t clearly demonstrates how this excluded philosopher could be viewed as religious or secular, as more Baruch or more Benedict, but almost necessarily as a touchstone in defining Jewish identity in the modern age."--Choice

"With extensive and helpful notes, an index and a bibliography, this work is highly recommended for all academic collections that deal with Jews and Judaism in the modern age."--Marion M. Stein, Classical World

From the Inside Flap

"This is a spectacular book, deeply researched and brilliantly written, on a riveting subject--the historical reception of Spinoza from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Schwartz demonstrates his command of European philosophy, modern European Jewish history, Hebrew and Yiddish literature, and Zionist culture. A tour de force."--David Biale, University of California, Davis

"In this daring and outstanding book, Schwartz does a superb job of bringing Spinoza back to life in a number of diverse and intriguing historical contexts. A full-bodied cultural history, attentive to the various settings in which Spinoza was rediscovered and revivified, this is the most wide-ranging, historically grounded, and illuminating book that has been written on the subject."--David N. Myers, University of California, Los Angeles

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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spinoza and Jewish Culture April 14 2012
By Robin Friedman - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The philosophy and character of Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza (1632 -- 1677) have inspired a growing number of popular and scholarly studies in recent years. Much, but not all, of the attention given to Spinoza focuses upon his relationship to Judaism, the religion of his birth, and to subsequent developments in Judaism. In 1656, Spinoza was excommunicated, in a document of unusual harshness, by the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam. Following the excommunication, Spinoza wrote two seminal philosophical works: the "Theological-Political Treatise", which includes a strong critique of revealed religion, and the "Ethics" which sets forth Spinoza's own detailed and difficult metaphysics.

Daniel Schwartz' new and first book, "The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image" is the most recent study that examines the relationship of Spinoza to Judaism. More precisely, as the subtitle of the book points out, Schwartz is concerned with the history of studies of Spinoza in the Jewish community over the years, more than with Spinoza himself. Schwartz, an Assistant Professor of History at George Washington University argues that Jewish students of Spinoza have projected their own questions and thoughts about the relationship between Judaism and secularism upon the elusive 17th Century philosopher. The natures of both "Judaism" and "secularism" are both notoriously difficult to pin down. Schwartz identifies two broad understandings of secularism which run through his study. The first sees secularism, and a this-worldly orientation as a rupture from and a decisive break with a theological understanding. The second understanding sees secularism as evolving from religious sources and as developing, without necessarily fully repudiating, a religious outlook.

As Schwartz shows, the two understandings of secularism can be seen in interpretations of Spinoza, whose "Ethics" almost can be seen to straddle them. The first sees Spinoza in modern terms, as a philosopher of immanence or of single substance metaphysics. The second sees Spinoza as a Neoplatonist whose philosophy expresses a certain mystical non-Aristotelian pantheism. Both these views are found in the way non-Jewish and Jewish writers approached Spinoza. Schwartz wants to show, however, that Jewish consideration of Spinoza involved an engagement with Judaism and Jewish texts, that did not occur, or at least received little attention, in the broader approach to the philosopher.

Schwartz displays a great deal of learning and offers many insights into Jewish readings of Spinoza and into ever-present questions about the nature of Jewish identity. Each of his chapters involves different eras and thinkers but with a focus on one centralizing, representative individual. In his first chapter, "Ex-Jew, Eternal Jew" Schwartz offers a summary of biographical information on the philosopher and on his early reception. The remainder of the book examines Spinoza through the prism of Jewish thinkers over the years.

The second chapter of the book focuses on Moses Mendelssohn (1729 --1786), who sometimes is mentioned as a rival to Spinoza for the somewhat hyperbolical title of first modern Jew. Mendelssohn aimed to reconcile Judaism with modern thought and he had a conflicted, ambiguous relationship to Spinoza. According to Schwartz, Mendelssohn tried to present a refined view of Spinoza, retaining its insights and eliminating its disregard for Jewish law.

The following two chapters were the most interesting in the book because they discuss figures I knew little or nothing about. In chapter 3, Schwartz focuses on the now largely forgotten German novelist Berthold Auerbach (1812 -- 1882) who rejected the religious Orthodoxy of his childhood and, in 1837 wrote an influential novel about Spinoza, subsequently revised in 1854. According to Schwartz, Auerbach's novel struggles with ambiguities in seeing Spinoza as an entire break with Jewish tradition or as, somehow, modifying it and bringing hidden strands to light. In the following chapter, Schwartz examines East European Jewish Enlightenment in the figure of Salomon Rubin (1823 --1910), the first person to translate the Ethics into Hebrew. In 1856, Rubin wrote a book called the "New Guide to the Perplexed" ostensibly designed to displace the earlier "Guide" by Maimonides. The key figure in Rubin's "New Guide" is Spinoza, as the author again couches Spinoza's departure from Judaism in terminology derived from Jewish sources. It would be valuable to have both Auerbach and Rubin available in English.

In his fifth chapter, Schwartz examines Zionist engagement with Spinoza. He focuses upon scholar and literary critic Yosef Klausner (1874 --1958) who in 1927 in Palestine famously called for a revocation of the excommunication of Spinoza. Schwartz examines different forms of "political" and "cultural" Zionism to show the different and conflicting ways that Jewish secularism developed, reflected in the way they viewed Spinoza. In the final chapter of the book, Schwartz offers a close reading of I.B. Singer's famous story, "The Spinoza of Market Street" and of his novel, "The Family Moskat" to show how this famous Yiddish writer (1904 -- 1991) became a serious critic of Spinoza (something readers often overlook.)

In an all-too-brief but important Epilogue, Schwartz examines even more current attempts to place Spinoza within a secularized Jewish tradition, including the Israeli philosopher Yerimahu Yovel's "Spinoza and other Heretics" and the American philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein's short study "Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew who Gave us Modernity". He opposes their readings in part to the work of other scholars, including Jonathan Israel and Steven Nadler, who argue strongly that the view of Spinoza as the "first secular Jew" rests in large part upon historical anachronism. Schwartz ends the book with some brief comments on his own views. Schwartz sees the current Jewish interest in Spinoza as showing a revitalized interest in Judaism and perhaps not a secularized Judaism at that.

Schwartz has written a thoughtful scholarly book that will have limited appeal to the Spinoza neophyte. Readers with a passion for Spinoza and readers who have struggled with questions of Judaism and secularism will learn a great deal from this study.

Robin Friedman
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent read Jan. 30 2014
By Helen Ritman - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Daniel Schwartz did an excellent job. Highly readable and informative. First class work about Spinoza and his influence on modern Jewish thought.

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