Spinoza, the First Secular Jew?

by Yirmiyahu Yovel

"How goes it with our Jew from Voorburg?" Christian Huygens, the great Dutch scientist, asks his brother in a letter from France, referring to the latest advances of their competitor in lens-grinding. By posing this question, Huygens not only throws light on Spinoza's preoccupation with avant-garde technological research but, indirectly, on Spinoza's existential situation as a Jew. Banned from the Jewish community by official decree in 1656, indifferent to Jewish law, and abjuring the God of Israel—along with the gods of every other historical religion—Spinoza nonetheless is regarded as our Jew from Voorburg," even after he had joined the international community of scholars.

Spinoza thus exemplifies the situation of the modern Jew—secular, assimilationist, or national—without himself falling neatly into any of these categories. Countless Jews in the coming centuries were to find themselves in a similar predicament. The secular Jews tried to define their Jewishness in terms of the Jewish people (or nation); and the assimilationists tried to leave the people and merge into gentile society. Most often, however, they were thrust by the attitudes of the gentiles (or by what Sartre calls their "look") back into the existential Jewish situation they tried to escape. Spinoza himself perceived the Jew's inability to escape his condition, but was unable to offer an alternative.

That the world regarded him as a Jew was one of the hallmarks of Spinoza's loneliness. He refused to identify with any of the cultural or religious associations of his day. Intellectually he was a loner, the individual par excellence who demands to be defined solely in terms of his private being and beliefs, not in terms of any social or historical framework supposed to provide him with the essential ingredients of his identity. The only affiliation Spinoza accepted, at least theoretically, was political. He regarded himself as a citizen of the Netherlands Republic, which he even referred to as his "homeland." Nevertheless, in several respects (ethnic, linguistic, and partly also political), he lived as an alien in that country. He was the son of recent immigrants—his family had its origins in Spain and Portugal, the archenemies of the Netherlands. In terms of religion, his family had been Jewish, then for several generations officially Catholic (Marrano), and subsequently became Jewish again; both poles of this religious duality were at variance with the dominant Calvinist culture of the young Netherlands Republic.

Nor did Spinoza enjoy the full civil status that was accorded to Christians from birth. Born into the relatively foreign milieu of the Jewish-Portuguese quarter of Amsterdam, he was probably not entirely fluent in the language of the country. In fact, it is unclear which, if any, of the languages he knew was predominantly his own. As a child, he evidently spoke Portuguese at home; at the same time he learned Spanish, which as an adult he liked to use for his casual reading (travels, drama,. history, and so on). He later learned Latin, which he adopted for his philosophical studies. He knew Hebrew from an early age, but as the scholarly language of the classroom and the yeshiva, not as a living tongue; and he seems to have picked up Dutch "by osmosis," learning enough for all practical purposes without making it his truly active language. Only one of his essays—The Short Treatise, discovered some two hundred years after his death—is in Dutch; but some scholars believe that it is actually someone else's translation of Spinoza's Latin.

[40 TIKKUN VOL. 5, No. 1 ]

What, then, was Spinoza's language? He had none. Like many Jews, he was a polyglot, lacking a single language in which he was exclusively and genuinely at home and which dominated his life and semantic universe. Nor was there a single society to which he belonged. Having left the Jewish congregation, he was never fully integrated within the Dutch republic. His belonging to it was more an abstract political stance than a living experience. Spinoza regarded the state as the individual's direct frame of reference without the mediation of religion, church, corporation, or any other body which claims to be "a kingdom within a kingdom." Yet such an intellectual position is importantly different from an existential sense of belonging.

The difference evolved into a real breach with the overthrow of the government in 1672 and the murder of Johan de Witt, leader of the republic and its ruling oligarchy, whom Spinoza had supported and perhaps befriended. "Ultima barbarorum!" ("The height of barbarism!") Spinoza cried out when de Witt and his brother were butchered by a mob in the center of the Hague—just a few blocks from where Spinoza lived—while the guardians of law and order looked on. Spinoza's reaction was not just a momentary one. The knife that dissected the murdered republican ruler also lacerated Spinoza's body politic. The return of the monarchy was accompanied by an increase in mob rule, as the House of Orange owed its strength to the popular masses which supported it against the liberal bourgeoisie. Monarchy and mob—these were two loosely related political forces of which Spinoza had been apprehensive all his life. With the liquidation of the republican regime, Spinoza's attachment to his homeland was presumably attenuated not only (or not necessarily) because of his origins or his nonconformist thinking, but also because of his inability to rediscover himself and acquiesce in the country's prevailing political practices and values.

In an era when it was virtually impossible for anyone to exist and find his identity other than from within a recognized religious framework, Spinoza, the typical individual, left the Jewish synagogue but did not enter any church. He refused to be baptized, nor did he join any of the radical sects that flourished in the Netherlands: neither the Mennonites nor the Remonstrants, though he agreed with some of their political positions; neither the Quakers, in whose service he might have earned his living for a time following his excommunication, nor the Collegiants, among whom he resided for a period in Rijnsburg, finding among them friends and disciples.

Even among rationalist philosophers, Spinoza was unique to the point of solitariness. He transcended the conceptual universe of Descartes and of Leibniz, and also of skeptical deism, no less than the world of traditional faith. These other thinkers postulated a "God of the philosophers" as part of their rational systems, but preserved his extraworldly role as Creator and First Cause. Spinoza alone refused to assign God such a role. Rather, he identified God with the totality of the universe itself. His conception, indeed, remained sui generis in the annals of philosophy. As a result, Spinoza was rejected and despised not only by the traditional philosophical establishment but also by the Cartesian innovators and revolutionaries.

The identification of God with the world implies a more profound rejection of Judaism and Christianity than ordinary atheism. Spinoza does not contend that there is no God, or that only the inferior natural world exists. Such a contention is itself steeped in a Christian worldview. Spinoza contends, on the contrary; that by virtue of identifying the world with God, immanent reality itself acquires divine status. Only Christianity considers the world of the here and now so base and so insignificant that denial of the transcendent divinity which gives it meaning robs the world of any significance whatsoever. The problem and anxiety of modern skeptics and atheists is usually Christian at root and subject to the categories of Christianity. Spinoza is far more radical in rejecting Christian (and Judaic) categories than the ordinary atheists—and as such is exceptional even among them.

Indeed, Spinoza's espousal of secularity makes him a true harbinger of modernity. Yet the new principle he enunciated could not change his own life as an individual, because that principle was as yet untenable in the social reality. A single individual exemplifying it was fated, in a crucial sense, to suffer an alienated existence. Religious affiliation was the individuaPs passport to social acceptance. It was possible to abandon Catholicism, but only by taking up Protestantism (Lutheranism, Calvinism, and so forth), or, in exceptional instances, Islam or Judaism. But to renounce all historical religions was tantamount to opting for social and existential isolation. Membership in the secular body politic alone was not yet a viable form of social identity, as Spinoza was bound to discover. Nevertheless, he articulated and exemplified in his person what was to emerge in time as the overriding principle of modern life.

The same may be said with regard to Spinoza's relation to his own people and what we may term the secularization of Jewish life. Alone and alienated, he prefigured what later generations would call "Jewish secularism."



Spinoza's image of Judaism is anchored in a thesis which proved useful to later Jewish reformers and anti-Semites alike. For Spinoza, Judaism is fundamentally a political religion that was designed specifically for the ancient Hebrews as the basis for a theological regime. When the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were deprived of their political existence, their religion also lost its meaning. Judaism became historically obsolete and self-contradictory because the political nature of the Jewish religion no longer corresponded to the nonpolitical existence of the Jews in the Diaspora. In the absence of a Jewish body politic, Jewish religion is superfluous. To sustain this view Spinoza must turn to a sociohistorical analysis, showing that the essence of the ancient Jewish religion was theocratic, that is, a political regime where the laws of God are also the supreme civil authority.

Of course, Spinoza's main interest is in the present—with his analysis of Jewish existence in exile, from which he also projects back into the Jewish past. The Jews in Palestine never lived under an absolute theocracy. The almost full coalescence of law and religion emerges only in the phantom state Spinoza criticizes—and with which, we may add, he had an existential clash. Only in exile is it possible to say as Spinoza says in painful reproach that "everyone who fell away from religion ceased to be a citizen, and was, on that ground alone, accounted an enemy" In this type of reality, a critic of religion like Spinoza was forced to relinquish his membership in the Jewish community In the ancient Jewish states, however, both in the First and the Second Temple periods, there were many Jews who disavowed religious authority or transgressed against its laws without being considered enemies; or who took issue (like the Sadducees) with the Oral Law and with the very principle of theocracy, and yet were legitimate, even influential, citizens of the polity A person like Spinoza would conceivably have been better off, certainly less alienated, in ancient Israel. And it is quite probable that in depicting the idealized and somewhat imaginary theocracy of the ancient Israelites, Spinoza is projecting a negative print of what he considers the distorted life of the Jewish exile.

But even if Judaism as a religion has lost its raison d'être with the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish people continue to survive. For centuries they zealously preserve their phantom "homeland," rooted, as it is, in religious superstition. Moreover, like Spinoza's own parents and fellow Marranos, they prevail even in the face of forced conversion and cruel persecution, returning openly to Judaism after generations of secret practice. From a logical point of view, there is something incomprehensible in all this, a kind of theoretical scandal; and empirically, at least prima facie, this poses a riddle.

Thus Spinoza, in his own way, faces the same problem that has perplexed Jews and Christians alike: that amazing survival of the Jewish people. The Jews maintain that they are God's chosen people who, even though sinners, yearn for redemption. Christians, on the other hand, maintain that the Jews were God's chosen people who, because they rejected Jesus as the Messiah, are themselves rejected by God.

Spinoza, not surprisingly, must dismiss both explanations as transcendent. What is demanded is a purely natural explanation, based upon social and psychological causes. Significantly, the twofold explanation Spinoza offers is drawn in part from his Marrano background. What preserved the Jews, he says, was gentile hatred of the Jews from without and the power of their religious faith ("superstition") from within.

Gentile hatred of the Jews, in Spinoza's view, enhances their survival. So intensely do the Jews differentiate themselves from other peoples that they cannot help but arouse animosity and revulsion. As a result, even if many individuals are ostracized and lost to their people, the external pressure reinforces the Jews' survival as a group. This is a modern, essentially secular, explanation which has by now become banal (the last important writer to use it was Sartre). Spinoza, however, was among the first, if not actually the first, to express it so succinctly.

As Spinoza knew from his own experience and from Marrano history, the external factor may remain effective long after the internal factor has lost its validity For this reason, apparently, Spinoza believed that even if the Jews became wholly secularized individually, they would still exist as Jews (and be called by that name) collectively; from that point of view, gentile hatred would preserve them in perpetuo.

It was, therefore, particularly ingenious of Spinoza to choose the Marranos, rather than ordinary Jews, to illustrate his theses. The Marranos suffered from a

(Continued on p. 94)

[42 TIKKUN VOL. 3, No. 1]

(Continued from p. 42)]

unique brand of anti-Semitism several hundred years before the onset of modern anti-Semitism. For the first time in Jewish history, anti-Semitism stemmed not from opposition to the Jewish religion but from a hostility to Jewish existence itself: it was existential anti-Semitism. The converso who disavowed the Jewish religion and sincerely sought to assimilate into Christian society found that he was still discriminated against because of his ancestry and his blood. This existential anti-Semitism reemerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and was given its most inexorable expression in the crematoria of Auschwitz; but the earlier version is to be found in Iberia in the waning days of the Renaissance. The concept of "racial purity" adduced by modern anti-Semites, and that of "blood purity" propounded by their Iberian predecessors, are two sides of the same coin: hatred of the Jew no longer depended on his religion but was anchored in his very being. There is something tainted, contemptible, and abhorrent in the mere existence of the Jew per se. The Jew can convert to Christianity or (like Spinoza) disavow all religion; yet, willy-nilly, he will continue to be subsumed under that "universal name of the class or nation" and remain, thereby, an object of loathing.

[p. 94]

Auschwitz is the logical conclusion of this type of anti-Semitism; for if the stigma inheres in the Jew's very existence, it can only be expunged by physical extermination. But the Iberian Inquisition never dreamed of going as far as that. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, exile was the common practice for getting rid of the Jews. Only the "enlightened" modern era made physical extermination possible. Yet through Marrano history Spinoza could have peered into a deep structure of Jewish existence: he made the discovery—to which he was still unable to give conceptual atticulation—that Jewish existence was broader in scope than Jewish religion, and the two could not be simply identified.


Was Spinoza then the first secular Jew? What can be said confidently is that Spinoza took the.first step in the eventual secularization of Jewish life by examining it empirically as a natural phenomenon subject solely to the forces of secular history In doing so he opened a breach between the Jewish religion and traditional community, on the one hand, and the broader totality of Jewish life on the other. Yet the question remains of how to interpret this new Judaism. A multiplicity of alternatives, some (but not all) of them contradictory, present themselves, all contained as logical possibilities in Spinoza's position though he himself was historically unable to choose from among them.

1. Assimilation, which would place the individual directly within the universal dimension of society; his link to the state, as the political sovereign, would then be his only binding affiliative relationship.

2. Religious reform, which would sever Jewish attachment to an autonomous political authority and make of its believers, say, German, French, or U.S. citizens "of the Mosaic faith."

3. Secular nationalism, stressing the concept of the Jewish people (independently of religion and of political citizenship), as the basic existential and collective dimension of Jewish identity.

4. Zionism, entailing the renewal of Jewish political existence within an independent state, a possibility that Spinoza actually foresaw (in a famous and often-quoted passage of his Theologico-political Treatise, which fired the imagination of many modern Zionists from Moses Hess to David Ben-Gurion).

These alternatives are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, and each entails several nuances. Nor are they equally inferable from Spinoza's position. Assimilation, in Spinoza's theory, may solve the problem for individuals but not for the entire people, since gentile hostility alone will preserve the Jewish people forever. Religious reform within Judaism, though not incompatible with his views, was not on Spinoza's agenda; the only reform he envisaged went in the direction of a popular universal religion. As for the renewal of the Jewish state, Spinoza could not recommend its theocratic form, and its secular variety was still devoid of meaning for him. Although he knew that Jews, Marranos, and a nonbeliever such as himself were referred to as belonging to the same nation (and suffered similar conditions), the notion of Jewish national existence, as separate from religion, did not yet exist for him as a defined theoretical concept. Had Spinoza claimed for himself the right to disavow religion yet remain within the congregation, we might have been able to view him as, consciously, the "first secular Jew."

But he did not. That title belongs, if to anyone, to Spinoza's older and less gifted (if more complex) friend, Dr. Daniel de Prado, a former Marrano and secret Judaizer in Spain. Shortly after emigrating to Amsterdam and openly returning to Judaism, Prado expressed his doubts about all historical religions, became friendly with Spinoza, recanted, relapsed, and was excommumcated about a year after Spinoza; yet unlike Spinoza he insisted on his right to remain within the community while rejecting the commandments of halakha.

Imbued with broader intellectual interests, Spinoza's message of secularity was meant for the world as a

[TIKKUN VOL. 5, No. 1 95]

whole. He evidently assumed (correctly, at the time) that within Judaism this struggle was hopeless. What trapped him tragically at the personal level was this lack of perspective for change within Judaism. On the one hand, he knew he could not escape his Jewish condition, nor did he seek to do so; yet neither did he attempt to rehabilitate himself as a Jew (not even in the explicit direction of secular Judaism). Thus he was caught up in a double negation, rejected by the gentiles as a Jew and by the Jews as a heretic.

Because the concept of secular Judaism is a modern one, and has an inevitable social dimension, it cannot be realized by the traditional congregation. The Jewish body to which the secular Jew wishes to go on belinging as a "citizen" is no longer the autonomous medieval congregation but the Jewish people. In Spinoza's time, however, only the medieval community structure could offer an expression of Jewish affiliation. The very concept of secularity was not yet established, let alone the more complex idea of Jewish secularism. People were identified above all by their religion—and this applied especially to the Jews. To belong to a particular society one had to belong to the religion it confessed. True, Spinoza used his critique of Judaism to fight against this linkage of "citizenship" and religion. Yet whereas he offered a clear secular message to society at large, he had no solution for Judaism as such. Spinoza fought for the secularization of individuals and of states, but he lacked the modern concept of a nonpolitical secular Jewish nation.

Marrano history and his own fate as a "Marrano of reason" provided him with an optic fiber, penetrating into the depth of the Jewish situation and distinguishing between the religion of the Jews and their actual, more fundamental existence. But Spinoza did not develop this insight beyond the theory that gentile hostility preserves the Jews and will do so forever. While offering Western society a clear, positive doctrine of secularity, for his own people Spinoza had only a cry of protest. He could neither accept nor find a way to sever the link in Judaism between "citizenship" and religious observance.


From time to time, petitions are made to have Spinoza's ban revoked. in 1925, the late Israeli historian, Joseph Klausner, stood on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem and proclaimed: "Baruch Spinoza, you are our brother." In the early 1950s, Israel's prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, conducted a campaign to have the ban lifted. And in 1953, the then Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yizhak Halevi Herzog, replied to an application from the late G. Herz Shikmoni, director of the "Spinozaeum" in Haifa, asking him if the excommunication was still in force from the point of view of halakha. In reply to the question of whether the excommunication was intended to apply only to Spinoza's lifetime or also to future generations, Rabbi Herzog did not rule, leaving the matter open to further consideration. But with regard to the ban on Spinoza's works, the rabbinical ruling was clear:

I have examined the text of the proclamation [the writ of excommunication] and I have found ... that the intention is not specified for future generations, but only for the period of Spinoza's lifetime. . . . It seems that the ban on the reading of Spinoza's books and compositions no longer stands.

Yet all these attempts to have the ban revoked are really beside the point. Spinoza does not need certification by any authorities, whoever they may be, and one cannot but be struck by the astonishing discrepancy between his actual impact on intellectual history and the attempts to grant him belated institutional legitimization. The ban was significant because it isolated Spinoza from the actual Jewish community of his day, and whoever wishes to revoke it today is three hundred years late. The demand to revoke the ban would escape its anachronistic quality only if it were to have some symbolic meaning—national, perhaps, or ideological—rather than purely religious. Such a case, however, would entail the contradiction of both adopting the religious concept of the ban (as implied in the demand to revoke Spinoza's) and at the same time rejecting it (by changing its meaning).

Lastly, and this is perhaps the crux of the matter, who in the Jewish world today might be authorized to accept Spinoza back into the Jewish fold? The Lubavitcher Rebbe? The prime minister of Israel? The board of the Jewish Theological Seminary? The B'nai B'rith? There is no longer a single normative Judaism today—a development of which Spinoza himself was a harbinger.

In abandoning the observant Judaism of his day but refusing to convert to Christianity, Spinoza unwittingly embodied the alternatives which lay in wait for Jews of later generations following the encounter of Judaism with the modern world. As a result of this encounter, there is no longer one norm of Jewish existence today There are Orthodox and secular Jews, Conservative and Reform Jews, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews, and nuances and subcategories within all of these; in fact, Judaism today is determined by the way actual Jews live it, and not by any one compulsory model. In his life, if not his work, Spinoza himself foretold this development, and so he remains central to contemporary thinking about Judaism and the complexities of its existence and survival.

[96 TIKKUN VOL. 5, No. 1]

(Yirmiyahu Yovel is a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University and founder of the Jerusalem Spinoza Institute. This text is adapted from his two-volume Spinoza and Other Heretics, which will be published by Princeton University Press in February.)

SOURCE: Yovel, Yirmiyahu. "Spinoza, the First Secular Jew?" Tikkun, vol. 5, no.1, pp. 40-42, 94-96.

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