Spinoza, Liberalism, Science, and Contemporary Judaism

By Boyd, Mark | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Spinoza, Liberalism, Science, and Contemporary Judaism


Boyd, Mark, Shofar


For centuries Benedict Spinoza has been regarded as everything from an antisemite to anti-Biblical. These and similar charges are not supported by recent analyses. Spinoza was an intellectual figure who believed deeply in a Deity while opening up the Torah to the same kind of criticism that would be seen in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Not a "liberal" in the modern political sense, he expressed a passionate faith in freedom of conscience. Not a modern epistemologist, he built his knowledge theory on intuitive reasoning which is similar to that of contemporary physicists. Spinoza is a unique figure in Jewish intellectual history and deserves to be seen as a Jewish philosopher who anticipated biblical criticism by two centuries.

Introduction

There are valid reasons why 350 years of Spinoza critics have differed greatly in their judgment of his philosophy.(1) Spinoza has been accused of being a violent antisemite. Spinoza has been considered a significant Jewish philosopher. Spinoza was an atheist. Spinoza was a pantheist. No, not at all; he was a monist. Perhaps even a panentheist. Attracted to Cartesian mathematics, and indeed becoming expert at it, Spinoza appreciated the intellectual effort Descartes expended in his efforts to develop a scientific epistemology. However, he rejected both Cartesian theology and, eventually, Cartesian scientific theory, eventually thinking his way through to a conception of science that had much in common with the intuitive-empirical approach of great 20th century physicists.

Some of these indictments are wildly far off the mark. Some are reasonable, though wrong-headed. Some can be supported by evidence. But all of them are rooted in diverse but understandable readings of his works. In this paper we shall examine many of these accusations, stripping away some as unconsidered gut reactions, e.g., the charge of atheism: a man who believed passionately in the unity of God could not be reasonably considered an atheist. We shall also point out that he brought some of the accusations on himself by being unnecessarily abstract and arcane, and even by ignoring the contradictions in his language.(2)

Purpose and Rationale. The purposes of this paper are (1) to provide an explanation for the continued interest of philosophers, political theorists, and theologians in Benedict, né Baruch, Spinoza; (2) to argue that Spinoza is a pivotal figure, a bridge between medieval philosophy and the Enlightenment; and (3) to support the claim that, even though Spinoza was excommunicated from the Amsterdam synagogue in 1656, never thereafter identifying himself with the Jewish community, his philosophy has an inherent connection with Judaism.

Biography and Context

Baruch Spinoza, who practiced business under the name of Bento Spinoza, and then changed his name to the Latin Benedict Spinoza, was born in 1632, the descendant of a Marrano family named d'Espinosa, which had fled from Portugal to the more tolerant Amsterdam. (There are variations on Spinoza's name and that of his ancestors, e.g., D'Espinoza, D'espinosa, De Spinoza, etc.) While we know next to nothing about Spinoza's early life, most assume that he received a conventional Jewish education.(3) He had early displayed extraordinary brilliance and was apparently regarded as a future leader of the Jewish synagogue. He and his brother helped run their father's business. When his brother died, the teenaged Bento Spinoza found himself an important manager, apparently destined to a life in commerce and leadership in the Amsterdam synagogue. But for reasons that are not clear, he rejected this future.

In addition to four languages that he spoke or read -- Hebrew, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese -- Spinoza began to study Latin with a former Jesuit priest named Van Den Enden. We speculate that this contact with the culture which Latin reflected, and a growing discomfort with commerce, wealth, and power, created a crisis for the young man. …

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