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

By Daniel B. Schwartz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
From the Heights of Mount Scopus
Yosef Klausner and the Zionist Rehabilitation of Spinoza

I.

On February 21, 1927, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then in only its third year of existence, commemorated Spinoza on the two-hundredfiftieth anniversary of his death. Its afternoon assembly was one of several tributes held around the globe to mark the occasion, the grandest of which was clearly a four-day conference in The Hague, the city where Spinoza had died in 1677. Modest in comparison, the Jerusalem event nevertheless packed the main auditorium on Mount Scopus with an audience that, in addition to the expected mix of students, lecturers, professors, and university officials, contained many leading figures in the Jewish community of Palestine (known as the Yishuv). Sitting at the dais next to Rabbi Judah L. Magnes, the American-born chancellor, were the acclaimed Hebrew poets Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Ya'akov Cahan, as well as the veteran Russian Zionist Menahem Ussishkin, a member of the Executive Committee of the university.1 It was Magnes who opened the event, by reading aloud a missive in both Hebrew and Latin that had been sent by the university to the gathering in The Hague. In the letter, he praised Spinoza as “a son of his people in both his religious enthusiasm and bold knowledge of God” and declared this day of remembrance a university holiday2

Next to speak was Professor Yosef Klausner, who recendy had been hired by the university to serve as the first chair of Hebrew literature. A longtime member of the Zionist intellectual elite, the Russian-born Klausner had three decades of Hebrew writing and editing behind him, and a litany of scholarly and publicistic works to his name—perhaps most germanely, his biography of Jesus of Nazareth, the first of its kind in Hebrew, and a subject of international controversy among both Jews and Christians from its publication in 1922.3 Over his career, he had written profiles of many past and present Hebrew authors, among them S. D. Luzzatto and Salomon

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