Academic journal article Shofar

A Portrait of Spinoza as a Maimonidean Reconsidered

Academic journal article Shofar

A Portrait of Spinoza as a Maimonidean Reconsidered

Article excerpt

Over thirty years ago, Warren Zev Harvey wrote a bold and now famous paper entitled "A Portrait of Spinoza as a Maimonidean" in the Journal of the History of Philosophy, defending the dominant influence of the philosophy of the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides on the thought of Baruch Spinoza.1 Since then, he further developed his thesis by publishing numerous articles showing that Spinoza was not only developing the ideas of Maimonides, but that of the tradition of medieval Jewish philosophy more generally, and even of the occasional kabbalist. In this group, Harvey includes the writings of Abraham Ibn Ezra, Abraham Abulafia, Levi Gersonides, Joseph ibn Kaspi, Isaac Pollegar, Hasdai Crescas, and Abraham Shalom.2 According to Harvey, we should read Spinoza not simply as a modern critic of medieval Jewish philosophy (like Descartes's and Hobbes's critique of Aristotelianism), but as a student and innovator within that discipline. While Harvey often writes as a historian of ideas, showing the interplay of ideas through different thinkers, my article will seek to discern a common thread among his many disparate papers and to show how his writings represent a new development in the attempt to reconstruct the genealogy and the complexity of Spinoza's thought that also carries with it practical implications. In what follows I will seek to answer a few important questions about Harvey's reading of Spinoza. First, how does Harvey understand the place of Spinoza's thought within the tradition of medieval Jewish thought when referring to him as a "Maimonidean"? Second, what are the boundaries and limits of the category of "Maimonidean" itself? Is Spinoza merely completing the arguments that Maimonides did not take to their logical conclusion or is he also revising-and perhaps radically so-some of Maimonides's teachings? Lastly, why put a stronger emphasis on the "Jewish" side of Spinoza at the expense of his debt to seventeenth-century European philosophy?3 Harvey makes the case that Spinoza was not a radical heretic that rejected Judaism for a universal rationalism and liberalism, but a loyal member of a tradition of Jewish philosophical thinking who makes a distinct contribution to that tradition by both synthesizing and criticizing different facets of it. I suggest that his writings on Spinoza often emphasize the similarity of Spinoza's thought to previous medieval Jewish thinkers, while perhaps unfairly downplaying his innovation, in order to argue that the modern rationalism and liberalism is not in conflict with medieval Jewish thinking, but can be seen as a development of it, as exemplified in the thought of the often misunderstood Spinoza.

A NEW SPINOZA REVIVAL

The thought and character of Baruch Spinoza has been continually scrutinized and reinterpreted since his death.4 Examples include the first generation of Jews and of course also Christians in the seventeenth century who knew of Spinoza and rejected him as a heretic for critiquing the traditional concepts of God, prophecy, and scripture. There were many diatribes directed against him by his early Dutch readers, such as branding the Theological-Political Treatise as "a godless document" (Jacob Thomasius), an "atheistic book . . . full of abominations" (Willem van Blinjenburgh), and "a book forged in hell."5 Spinoza's thought took on a new life in eighteenth-century Germany, where German romantics interpreted Spinoza's identification of God and nature, not as a limitation or denial of the biblical God, but as a testament to and realization of the biblical God. Goethe referred to Spinoza as "most theistic, even most Christian," and the German poet Novalis famously dubbed him a "God-intoxicated man." German Idealists (such as Kant and Hegel) and liberal Jews in the nineteenth century also began to adopt Spinoza as a hero championing the values of individualism, freedom, and reason, which was done without converting to Christianity, a source of pride for liberal Jews. …

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