Hugo Grotius and the Jewish Questio – III Spinoza

Baruch (Bento) Spinoza (1632-1677), born in Amsterdam into a middle-class Portuguese Marrano family who had returned to Judaism, was a child prodigy. He was the star pupil in his Yeshiva, studied Torah and Talmud in great depth and mastered Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and later Latin as well as Hebrew. When he was 17, because of financial pressures on his family, he abandoned his formal studies and entered his family’s import/export business. Unlike most of the other figures we have or will discuss, though, as his intellectual fame rose, he was offered university positions, he never accepted one. For most of his life, he earned his money as a lens grinder.

Something happened over the seven years after he left school. What, we do not know, except in retrospect from his writings afterwards. At the age of twenty-four in 1656, his Sephardic synagogue issued a herem, a writ of excommunication that not only kicked him out of the Jewish community of Amsterdam, but ominously warned that anyone who seeks to contact him, either orally or in print, or do him any favour, or would “read anything composed or written by him, will suffer the same fate.” Shades of the Inquisition and Galileo! Luckily, the Amsterdam community was powerless compared to the Inquisition and Spinoza went on to write and publish his works and achieve international fame. In his own career, he gave witness to his heretical belief in the autonomy of the individual free from the chains of tradition.

Why? Spinoza rejected the idea of:

  • a transcendent divine being, though he was not an atheist
  • that such a God was merciful and providential
  • that the soul was immortal
  • that life was lived to ensure the immortality of the soul
  • that much of the authority of the rabbis was not only suspect but ungrounded
  • that the law as inherited by tradition was not binding and was certainly not handed down by God

Spinoza was prolific. However, the only book that he published under his own name during his lifetime was, Principles of Philosophy (1663), a critique of Descartes. Among his major works, he wrote:

(1661) Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect

(1667) On the Improvement of the Understanding

(1670) Theological-Political Treatise

(1675) Political Treatise

(1677) Ethics [Spinoza died that year.]

In this blog, I will primarily be concerned with his anonymously published 1670 volume, Theological-Political Treatise, a response to the threat to the principles of toleration that had been developed in Holland. However, I will also touch upon his Compendium to Hebrew Grammar probably completed in 1675, and, of course, his Ethics which also criticizes the traditional conception of God and of humans and their beliefs in its dedication to the life of reason.

This is not as simple to articulate as it sounds. For Spinoza, though less subject to persecution than Galileo or Grotius, did have to resort to some degree of subterfuge in his writing using ambiguity, contradiction and paradoxes as disguises. Did Spinoza write for the elite few or for the many? This and many other puzzles pervade his works. But it is unequivocal that Spinoza stood up for freedom of thought and expression, for the subordination of the clergy to the secular and the independent use of reason as a human right.

What did he have to say about God? Though Spinoza was never as blasphemous as I appear to be in a much more tolerant age when I opine that in parts of the Torah, God sanctioned genocide, Spinoza went much further than I ever had and held God to be responsible for all the cruelty, suffering and inhumanity in history. Perhaps it is there that the interpretive unanimity ends. There are those, like Goethe or Coleridge, who treated him as a God-intoxicated pietist in the life he led as well as in his philosophy, but a pietist of culture rather than traditional religion. Others, like the Huguenot, Pierre Bayle, denounced him as an atheist. So did Montesquieu and Hume. Or was he, as I had been introduced to his writings as an undergraduate, simply a pure and very unique metaphysical system builder? Or, as I consider him here, was he a pioneer in the Enlightenment in general and on the Jewish question more specifically?

How could Jews be entitled to equal rights with all other citizens? As individuals but not as a community as in France? As participants in a new emerging common culture? For with the emergence of the nation state as the dominant form of political organization, an emergence directly influenced by the precedent of the Israelites, a central unitary state of its citizens rather than an inherited authoritarian order ridden with divisiveness and conflicted loyalties, was envisioned as creating order and preventing chaos by being based on the rule of law. However, did this mean that Jews were to be given rights but Judaism was to be relegated to the private sphere of belief rather than the way of life of a community? Was this a Faustian bargain that Jews made to attain their freedom as equal citizens of the new emerging nation states? Did Spinoza give rise to what Yosef Yerushalmi called, “the psychological Jew,” where collective character traits displaced community – bookish, ambitious, possessed of a sense of community responsibility, intellectual and with a hypersensitivity to antisemitism? Was Spinoza the hero of this new point of view?

Divine election of a people – nonsense. No longer a Moses who spoke to God and led his people to create a nation in a conquered land, but a pioneering and very flawed nation state builder torn between authoritarian propensities and mystical convictions versus a determination to emancipate his people. In that interpretation, Spinoza was, as Emmanuel Levinas claimed, a defiler of Judaism and was justifiably excommunicated when portrayed as a key stage in the emancipation from religious authoritarianism and its replacement by a nation state governed by all its citizens in which each individual possessed equal civil rights. Did that mean relegating the Torah to an interesting literary work and substituting a new type of sacred text composed by humans, such as declarations of independence and constitutions as a foundation for a political society? Did the latter displace allegedly transcendentally-inspired sacred documents composed from divine sources?

To do that, the divine sources of inherited scripture, which gave religious authorities a dominant voice, had to be critiqued. Spinoza was your man. He did not use criticism to support scientific conclusions as Galileo did. Nor to support political conclusions as Grotius did. Rather, Spinoza pioneered in a new emerging higher criticism which rigorously applied reason to the inherited sacred textual materials, but not to undermine Judaism, but rather to demonstrate that Judaism contained the seeds of modernity in its conceptions of the rule of law, its portrait of a political identity and in the emphasis on history as a record of the revelation and instantiation of freedom over time, more specifically of a democracy of sovereign individuals where freedom rather than security and protection is the true measure of a successful polity, one in which each citizen is required to think for himself and contribute to the general will.

Thus, Jewish scripture, the Torah, must not only be emancipated from the conviction that it rests on divine authority and that it is, of necessity, a fount of eternal wisdom, but that it is a text that deals with conflicting political ideals and tensions and provides a record of their resolution. Further, the text itself has and must have multiple origins. However, inherent in the text was a conviction that there was a basis for certainty, that knowledge was, in the end, true and eternal rather than dependent on history and inherently flawed. The question then was what eternal truth did the text point to as it expressed the social and psychological needs of a people at different points in their history?

Thus, as with Galileo, as with Grotius, both the world (of nature) and the word were treasure chests of hidden secrets to reveal insights into what was eternal and true for all time. As in the examination of nature, the use of critical reasoning to unpack those truths was necessary. It would take a new era to determine that nature was to be approached as an object outside ourselves while history was to be approached as an empathetic reenactment of the thoughts of past agents and their intentions. Instead, Spinoza was the precursor of the positivists who would subsume historical studies as a department of science dedicated to finding explanations of the causes of all behaviour in tune with universal natural laws. Spinoza followed Galileo in holding that the revelation of the laws of nature could be found in Torah (such as Joshua’s claims about the sun stopping proving that the earth traveled around the sun), but went further and insisted that history, and hence scripture, was to be examined to reveal eternal laws of behaviour.

Contrast this with the effort of Grotius to uncover a pristine form of Christianity within the text, a very different humanistic enterprise than the scientific approach advocated by Spinoza. Contrast the views of Spinoza with those of Francis Bacon. Instead of a Spinozistic unitary one in which science was the result of the utilization of reason, Bacon offered a tripartite division of knowledge. Only science was the product of reason while creativity – such as the writing of poetry – was the product of the imagination and history was the result of the use of memory. For Spinoza, history had an emancipatory role in debunking superstition and fables that belong to the past in favour of timeless truths.

Yet all of these thinkers, Galileo, Grotius, Spinoza and Bacon, whatever their differences, opposed the Lutheran doctrine that one could only grasp the truth of scripture by opening oneself first to grace and surrendering oneself to the service of and trust in Jesus. But this process, that of Spinoza more particularly, was also opposed to the approach of the Kabbalists, who bracketed reason in order to grasp the hidden and symbolic meaning of the text. However, for these modern anti-Aristotelian anti-scholastics, this was perhaps a more honest option in opting for irrationality rather than using reason to distort and deform scriptural text to make it conform to a predetermined abstract ideology. Maimonides even more than the Jewish mystics was really Spinoza’s target in his critiques. In his Treatise, Maimonides is portrayed as a dogmatist who would twist and torture text to make it conform to principles purportedly derived from reason and, thereby, make reason and faith complementary.Like Rashi, Spinoza favoured pshat over drash, favoured detailed linguistic exegesis over imaginative reconstructions, favoured critique over a rationally structured guide to the perplexed, preferred innovative interpretations over confirming the conclusions of previous authorities, favoured close adherence to what the text said in contrast to treating the text allegorically to support pre-established rational dogma. Instead, Torah consisted of universal truths consistently repeated in the text (love the stranger) and binding on all of humanity. Anything else was superfluous.  

With the help of Alex Zisman


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