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

By Daniel B. Schwartz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
The First Modern Jew
Berthold Auerbach ‘s Spinoza (1837) and the Beginnings of an Image

I.

In September 1829, German Jews celebrated the hundredth birthday of Moses Mendelssohn.1 The Enlightenment luminary known in his day as the “Socrates of Berlin” had long been eclipsed in German philosophy, yet he was still very much alive in the cultural memory of the German Jewish Bürgertum. In Berlin, Dessau, Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg, Dresden, and Breslau, Jewish communities observed the jubilee with secular commemorations that included speeches, toasts, poems, and even chorales composed in honor of Mendelssohn. At the Berlin gathering, in the “tastefully furnished hall” where Mendelssohn's marble bust stood on display, illuminated and decked with flowers, the keynote address was delivered by Leopold Zunz (1794–1886), one of the founders of the recently inaugurated Wissenschaft des Judentums, the modern critical study of Judaism. Zunz referred to himself and all those assembled as “Mendelssohn's spiritual legacy,” adding “we belong to him like the student to the teacher who shows him the correct path.”2 In celebrating “the eternal Moses Mendelssohn,” Zunz and his comrades were in effect paying homage to the first modern Jew3

Three years later was the anniversary of another historic Jew and philosopher. November 24, 1832, was the bicentenary of the birth of Baruch Spinoza. Not surprisingly, those Jewish communities that had paid homage to Mendelssohn in 1829 remained mute with respect to the seventeenthcentury excommunicate. Yet the occasion did not pass entirely unnoticed. That fall, a sympathetic biographical sketch of Spinoza appeared in the reform-oriented German Jewish journal Sulamith.4 Though modest compared to the Mendelssohn festivities of 1829, this eulogy was itself a milestone, being the first article, laudatory or otherwise, ever to be devoted to Spinoza in an identifiably Jewish publication. Its author was a Jewish university student named Ludwig Philippson (1811–1889)—the same Philippson

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