The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image

The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image

The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image

The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image

Synopsis

Pioneering biblical critic, theorist of democracy, and legendary conflater of God and nature, Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was excommunicated by the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam in 1656 for his "horrible heresies" and "monstrous deeds." Yet, over the past three centuries, Spinoza's rupture with traditional Jewish beliefs and practices has elevated him to a prominent place in genealogies of Jewish modernity. The First Modern Jew provides a riveting look at how Spinoza went from being one of Judaism's most notorious outcasts to one of its most celebrated, if still highly controversial, cultural icons, and a powerful and protean symbol of the first modern secular Jew.


Ranging from Amsterdam to Palestine and back again to Europe, the book chronicles Spinoza's posthumous odyssey from marginalized heretic to hero, the exemplar of a whole host of Jewish identities, including cosmopolitan, nationalist, reformist, and rejectionist. Daniel Schwartz shows that in fashioning Spinoza into "the first modern Jew," generations of Jewish intellectuals--German liberals, East European maskilim, secular Zionists, and Yiddishists--have projected their own dilemmas of identity onto him, reshaping the Amsterdam thinker in their own image. The many afterlives of Spinoza are a kind of looking glass into the struggles of Jewish writers over where to draw the boundaries of Jewishness and whether a secular Jewish identity is indeed possible. Cumulatively, these afterlives offer a kaleidoscopic view of modern Jewish cultureand a vivid history of an obsession with Spinoza that continues to this day.

Excerpt

I.

Ask a Jew a question, the old joke goes, and he will answer you with another question. However trite, this saying seems particularly apt to the problem of defining Jewishness in the modern world, which has come to be identified with a question as terse as it is dizzyingly complex: “Who is a Jew?” While boundary questions have accompanied Jews throughout their millennial history of exile and dispersion, modernity has seen a dramatic increase in both their number and intensity. In premodern times, the near universal authority of Jewish sacred law (or Halakhah), combined with the near universal pattern of Jewish self-government, made for near universal consensus on the religious, ethnic, and corporate determinants of Jewish identity. Being Jewish meant that one was either matrilineally a Jew by birth or a convert to Judaism in accordance with Halakhah; it also meant that one belonged to the autonomous Jewish community, membership in which was compulsory for all Jews. The challenge to traditional rabbinic norms that began with the Enlightenment's critique of religion eroded the halakhic parameters of Jewishness; the leveling of the ghetto walls as a result of Emancipation did the same for the physical barriers; and, for all the new boundaries that have been erected in the past three hundred years (in the case of the State of Israel, actual political and territorial boundaries), the situation that prevails today is one of definitional anarchy, where not only who or what is Jewish, but to an even greater extent the criteria for exemplary Jewishness, are bitterly contested. The crack in what was once more or less united in Jewish life—religion and ethnicity—has resulted in infinite permutations of Jewish identity where one or the other is primary, and at the extremes, to the prospect (if rarely the plausibility) of Judaism without Jewishness and Jewishness without Judaism. All the above have conspired to make “Who is a Jew?” a conundrum for which, indeed, there is no simple answer. We might even say that the hallmark of modern Jewish identity is its resistance . . .

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