November 2013

Spinoza, the Modern-Day Radical

Written by Jon Catlin

You probably already know that 17th century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza was radical for his time—from his notorious excommunication from the Amsterdam Jewish community at age 23 to his proclamation of "the end of Jewish politics," in his 1677 Theological-Political Treatise, which was written in Latin rather than vernacular Dutch to avoid censorship by Dutch authorities. But University of Chicago political scientist Julie Cooper recently extended Spinoza's rebel status into the present, defending the radical implications of his thought for Jewish identity and politics today at a lecture held earlier this month at the University of Chicago.

Spinoza remains, to this day, one of the most radical thinkers in Western philosophy and political theory. Condemning the religious superstition and government censorship of his time, Spinoza issued one of the earliest philosophical calls for freedom of thought and an ensuing emancipation from medieval tradition in a move toward liberal democracy. Even in his native Amsterdam—one of the most prosperous, enlightened and cosmopolitan cities in the world at the time—Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community for "holding evil opinions," a charge often read as an accusation of atheism. Yet, in her talk, Cooper explained that it was actually relatively easy and common to repent and be readmitted to Jewish society. But Spinoza never even tried, nor did he convert to another religion. He was, as was almost unheard of in his day, a man free from religious and political association—a rebel.

In her talk, Cooper characterized Spinoza as the "theoretical harbinger of modern alternatives to rabbinic authority," who first proposed the two models of Jewish political organization still dominant today:

1) equal citizenship for Jews in secular democracy
2) a Jewish state. But Spinoza's radical argument is that neither of these options—the only options Jews have today—allows for "Jewish politics," which Spinoza deemed defunct.

But what would Jewish politics then look like? In the 17th century, most Jews in Western Europe lived in semi-autonomous Jewish quarters, which featured their own courts and leaders, and collected their own taxes—all in accordance with rabbinic law. This theocratic governance is, for Spinoza, the only kind of authentically "Jewish" politics, in that it maintains a Jew's status, qua Jew, as a political agent (which is lost in secular democracy in which he is equal to all others) and maintains rabbinic law (which he argues is lost under Jewish nationhood).

Spinoza's radical conclusion in the Treatise comes fundamentally from his reading of the Bible as a historical document, which he thought should be analyzed more like a natural artifact than a sacred message given at Sinai. By this interpretation, he saw the Bible's accounts of Jewish law and political history as historically relative—nothing more than the opinions held by its Jewish authors in the biblical era and no longer applicable to Jews living in later times. Spinoza then concludes on philosophical grounds (much like 20th-century figures like Emmanuel Lévinas) that the only binding Jewish obligations are those of morality and reason, thus declaring all other political and religious laws illegitimate. In proclaiming rabbinic law non-binding, Spinoza essentially wiped out the need for a rabbinic class of rabbis and judges— also the authorities of the Jewish polity. In turn, his view allowed, and even demanded, that individuals make moral and legal decisions for themselves.

While Spinoza praised Jewish leaders like Moses, he did so not for their status as religious figures, but out of respect for their political abilities. By Spinoza's reading, Moses masterfully used religion as a means of uniting the Israelites, then largely an uneducated lass having been enslaved in Egypt, by appealing to their sense of wonder and organizing them around devotion to God, rather than fear of punishment. And so while earlier figures like Maimonides revered Moses for his spiritual or philosophical insight, Spinoza saw him primarily as an inspirational figure for Jewish politics. Similarly, Spinoza identified the Jewish people as
"chosen" not in a metaphysical sense, but only insofar as they were politically successful. After the diaspora, this chosenness abated, though Spinoza envisioned the restoration of the Jewish state that would constitute its return.

Cooper noted that early Zionists held rallies at Hebrew University in honor of Spinoza—even going so far as to call him the first Zionist. But the implications of  Spinoza's writings for Jewish nationhood are mixed. While the return of Jews to political autonomy in a sense constituted a return to chosenness, Spinoza, ever wary of belief in the supernatural, made clear that the reestablishment of the Jewish state would have to be an entirely practical endeavor of human political and military means—thus making the state of Israel a nation just like any other and subject to the same political forces and moral laws. In this respect, Israel is only a Zionist state, not a Jewish one.

Ultimately, Spinoza's preferred option was Jewish assimilation into liberal democracy, for several reasons. First, he felt that Jewish self-imposed isolation provoked anti-Semitism and was ultimately self-defeating. Second, he had almost an unshakable Enlightenment-era hope that, under conditions of free speech, democracy and philosophy would be mutually reinforcing and ensure the most stable and natural form of organization for human beings. He envisioned liberal democracies like Amsterdam allowing Jews a safe space on account of their freedom of speech and religious expression. Furthermore, their egalitarian political representation also allowed Jews to participate in civil society as full citizens. Yet, despite these benefits, assimilation also spelled the end of Jewish politics.

Spinoza's radical thought anticipated for Jews an approaching fork in the road between democracy and Jewish politics that still remains to be confronted today. Alas, the vexed question of whether a Jewish polity can be both Jewish and democratic is older than you thought.

Jon Catlin
Jon Catlin studies modern Jewish thought at the University of Chicago. He is Editor of The Midway Review and a regular contributor to TheAir-space.net and Makom, a journal of Jewish studies.
jUChicago was original publisher of this article. www.juchicago.tumblr.com (Treatise: A systematic, usually extensive written discourse on a subject.)