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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.