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

By Daniel B. Schwartz | Go to book overview

Epilogue
Spinoza Redivivus in the Twenty-First Century

I.

Six weeks before he died, Irving Howe (1920–1993) delivered his last lecture in front of an audience at Hunter College. Fittingly, it was a eulogy, albeit one he had been giving, in one form or another, for nearly two decades, starting with his magisterial history of the East European Jewish immigrant experience, World of Our Fathers (1976). In this talk, entitled “The End of Jewish Secularism,” the renowned critic, editor, and socialist paid final respects to Yiddishkayt, that amalgam of Yiddishism, leftism, and this-worldly messianism that had flourished in the heyday of East European Jewish immigration to America but that, two generations later had largely run its course. “I think,” he lamented, “we are reaching a dead end.” With Yiddish culture, the Jewish labor movement, and socialist politics in terminal decline, secular Jewishness in America had lost its moorings, and what had emerged in the postwar era as substitutes—the memory of the Holocaust and solidarity with Israel—would not be enough to sustain it. The one task left was to “say farewell with love and gratitude” to the “world that made us,” Howe claimed—to give the remains not of Judaism, but of Jewish secularism, a decent burial.1

Howe's eulogy was focused on North America alone, but late twentiethcentury pessimism about the future of cultural Judaism was hardly limited to the Jewish Diaspora. Within the State of Israel as well—the “grandest creation of nineteenth-century Jewish secularism,” in the words of one scholar—its prospects were in doubt.2 By the 1990s the foothold that the Labor party—the founding party of the state—had long held in Israeli politics was a thing of the past, the hegemony of its socialist-Zionist ethos an even more distant memory. The old spiritual Zionist ideal of a Hebrew culture that would be at once universal and yet affirmatively and knowledgably Jewish, expressed through words, concepts, and symbols originating in the Jewish tradition but transposed to a secular key, was falling victim, in the eyes of many, to a pincer movement. On one flank it was threatened by a re-

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