Baruch Spinoza: The Last Medieval Heretic or the First Secular Jew?


David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of the forthcoming "Not in the Heavens: An Intellectual History of Jewish Secularism." Biale directs the program on Jewish secularization, and teaches “Secular Jewish Thinkers” and other courses.

More than 350 years after his excommunication, Baruch/Bento/Benedictus Spinoza continues to challenge our definitions of Jewish identity. Recent outstanding works by Steven Nadler and Rebecca Goldstein demonstrate that the petit juif d’Amsterdam, as the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine called him, still fascinates and mystifies us.[1] As the three first names given above suggest, Spinoza had—or has been given—several simultaneous identities: a Jew at odds with his religion, a member of the Portuguese expatriate community in Amsterdam, and the deracinated European philosopher who wrote in Latin, the scholastic language of his day. Depending on which of these one chooses, Spinoza emerges as either a heretic within the Jewish tradition, a product of Marrano identity (Marranos were Iberian Jews who converted to Christianity and secretly practiced Judaism), or the first secular Jew. It is not at all clear which of these, if any, Spinoza himself would have chosen. To judge by his philosophical writings, he abjured all particular identities and would have therefore rejected all of the above. Secular yes, but Jewish? Probably not.

Yet a full understanding of Spinoza does not end with his own probable self-definition. As the great historian of Jewish philosophy, Harry Wolfson, once wrote, “we cannot get the full meaning of what Benedictus says unless we know what has passed through the mind of Baruch.”[2] Rebecca Goldstein is convinced that it was the Kabbalah that furnished the problems to which Spinoza offered heretical solutions, but it seems much more likely that it was Abraham Ibn Ezra and Moses Maimonides, both of whom Spinoza read carefully and quoted extensively, as well as Maimonides’ disciples—especially Levi ben Gershon and Moses Narboni—who were his main interlocutors.[3] Spinoza took Ibn Ezra’s radical interpretation that the Bible does not contain all knowledge, and that Moses was not the author of parts of the first five books, to extreme and heretical conclusions. Maimonides, on the other hand, stood for everything that Spinoza rejected, especially his allegorical method of reading the Bible and his belief that Moses possessed a philosophical understanding of God. Yet the 12th-century philosopher took radical positions that his 17th-century successor could adopt and adapt for his own purposes.[4] The two were at once diametric opposites, but also dialectical twins, just similar enough to be two sides of the same coin.

At the same time that Spinoza can be seen in retrospect as a heretic within the medieval Jewish tradition, he also became the model for a secular Jew in the eyes of 19th- and 20th-century admirers. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s epic novel, The Family Moskat, published in English translation in 1950, the ambivalent hero is the heretical yeshiva student, Asa Heshel, who arrives in Warsaw and “in his pocket rested a worn volume, the Ethics of Spinzoa in a Hebrew translation.”[5] He ponders endlessly: “The eternal questions never gave him rest: Was there a God or was everything, the world and its works, mechanical and blind?”[6] Whether or not Spinoza was really so central for generations of yeshiva students on the road from religion to secularism, he served for Singer as the shorthand for the wrenching process of modernization.

The list of latter-day Spinozists is extensive: Heinrich Heine, Moses Hess, and David Ben-Gurion, to name but three. Albert Einstein described his own philosophy of the universe as equivalent to that of Spinoza. So, in 1929 when an American rabbi, Herbert S. Goldstein, sent him a telegram asking: "Do you believe in God? Stop. Answer paid 50 words." Einstein saved the rabbi half of his money by replying in only 25 words: "I believe in Spinoza’s God, Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind."[7] Throughout history, Einstein says elsewhere, “it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who are filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.”[8]

What Einstein suggested here is one of the reasons that Spinoza continues to hold so much fascination for us. He may appear to have been secular with respect to the Jewish religious tradition, and he was certainly usable to later thinkers as such, but there is also a deep religiosity to his secularism, if one may use an oxymoron. As the German Romantic poet, Novalis, said, Spinoza was that “God-intoxicated man.” His universe is the same as God. In banishing the utterly transcendent God of Maimonides, he did not banish God altogether, but found him instead in the beauty of the universe. Here was a God that a modern scientist might adopt as his or her own. Here was secularism with a soul, a universe that one might worship without reference to anything above or below. A medieval heresy, to be sure, but far from denying the sense of wonder that surely animates the most secular mind in thrall to the majesty of nature.

David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of California, Davis. He is author of Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol Between Jews and Christians (University of California Press, 2007), as well as the forthcoming Not in the Heavens: An Intellectual History of Jewish Secularism.

[1] Steven Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge, 1999) and Spinoza’s Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind, (Oxford, 2001); Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza (New York, 2006)

[2] Harry Austryn Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza (Cambridge, MA, 1934 and 1962), 1:vii.

[3] Here I follow Wolfson, although he probably assumes that Spinoza was more conversant with medieval Jewish philosophy than the evidence supports. See also Shlomo Pines, “Spinoza, Maimonides and Kant,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 20 (1968): 3-54 and idem, “Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and the Jewish Philosophical Tradition,” in Isadore Twersky and Bernard Septimus (eds), Jewish Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, MA, 1987), 499-521.

[4] Catherine Chalier, Spinoza, lecteur de Maimonide (Paris, 2006)

[5] Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Family Moskat, trans. A.H. Gross (New York, 1950), 20. The novel was serialized in Yiddish in the Forverts between 1945 and 1948. The image of Spinoza also figured importantly in his story “The Spinoza of Market Street” (1961).

[6] Ibid, 28.

[7] New York Times, 25 April 1929 quoted in Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times (New York, 1971), 413.

[8] New York Times Magazine, 9 November 1930, reprinted in Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York, 1954), 38.