To the Editor:
Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza is a brilliant book, though one would never know it by reading Alan Nadler’s discussion of it in “Romancing Spinoza” [December 2006]. Mr. Nadler seems unsure whether to laugh or cry at the spectacle of a Jewish writer like Goldstein celebrating a figure like Spinoza; he should do neither.
Goldstein’s account shines not only for its beautiful prose but because it is a philosophical book that manages to be a historical and imaginative one as well. Taking Spinoza as a partner in philosophical conversation, Goldstein has incisive things to say about his thought and even finds grounds for an imaginative rendering of his life. Mr. Nadler would have benefited from joining in the enterprise that Goldstein represents. Instead, he invites the reader to laugh at her work, as people supposedly laughed at Joseph Klausner in 1927 when he publicly celebrated Spinoza at an event in Jerusalem.
Had Mr. Nadler engaged in philosophical conversation, he might have been less tempted to reduce Spinoza to a prized ancestor of American liberalism or a cold progenitor of secular totalitarian politics. Philosophy tends to force a quick retreat from categorical positions more easily assumed in the midst of harsh and unjust polemic.
Why the animus against Goldstein? Why is Mr. Nadler determined to demean those Jews—including not only Goldstein but Steven Nadler, Steven Smith, and Yirmiyahu Yovel—who take Spinoza the Jew seriously? Is the secular-religious dialogue among Jews dead today?
Newton Centre, Massachusetts
To the Editor:
In presenting Spinoza’s view of nature, Allan Nadler makes the philosopher’s argument for him quite effectively: “[Nature] alone is self-caused, absolutely determined, and uncontingent upon the existence of any other thing.” This is in fact how reality presents itself to most people who have ceased believing in things supernatural.
Mr. Nadler criticizes Spinoza for holding that man is no different in principle from any other existing thing. Man, Mr. Nadler objects, was created in God’s image to “enjoy dominion over all the inferior species of the earth.” Spinoza also argued, according to Nadler, for “state regulation and control of all religions and their institutions.” This might not be so bad; religions, when left to themselves, have a tendency toward fanaticism and authoritarianism. A secular state works against such excesses while at the same time allowing believers the freedom of worship.
All in all, Spinoza comes off as a remarkably modern and independent thinker in Mr. Nadler’s article, and mankind would do itself a service if it adhered to the former’s principles. Mr. Nadler is right, however, in claiming that Spinoza is not qualified to be readmitted into the tradition of Orthodox Judaism.
Helge Normann Nilsen
University of Trondheim
To the Editor:
I was reading Allan Nadler’s essay with much interest, appreciating its primer-like account of Spinoza’s thought and its debunking of various “romantic” efforts by Jewish thinkers to reclaim him. But then I encountered the following phrase, which stopped me in my tracks: “Spinoza, whose most pernicious heresy was to deny the immortality of the human soul . . .”
I reread the sentence to see if Mr. Nadler was speaking for himself—and he was. What enlightened Jew in the 21st century speaks of Spinoza or any other Jew as a heretic, much less a pernicious one?
To the Editor:
I have often wondered about Spinoza’s inner life after his excommunication. Did he cast Judaism aside completely? Allan Nadler quotes Richard Popkin on this score: “Spinoza showed practically no interest in his Jewish past. He lived his entire life in the Netherlands and does not seem to have been infected by anything concerning his Jewish background. . . . [T]he fact is that Spinoza was essentially stone deaf to Jewish reactions and attitudes.”
Well, perhaps this is true with respect to the community he left behind. But intellectually, nothing could be farther from the truth. Mr. Nadler himself cites Harry Wolfson’s The Philosophy of Spinoza: Uncovering the Latent Processes of His Reasoning. This book shows deep philosophical relationships between Spinoza and his Jewish medieval predecessors, particularly Maimonides, Gersonides, and Crescas. To cite just one example, Spinoza likely took his notion of determinism from Crescas’s work The Light of the Lord.
Does this constitute a connection to the Jewish tradition that should warrant a reconsideration of Spinoza’s status as a heretic? I will leave that question to my betters. But to assert that Spinoza had nothing to do with the Jews of his day does not mean that he had nothing to do with Judaism. Intellectually, he was undoubtedly Jewish.
Rabbi Phil Cohen
Temple Beth Zion
Buffalo, New York
To the Editor:
Thanks to Allan Nadler for his enlightening (and devastating) review of Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza. I have one minor quibble with his essay.
Mr. Nadler’s statement that Spinoza strips the Deity of “all of the anthropomorphic, moral, and psychological attributes through which He has always been conceived in traditional monotheistic faiths” is not completely correct. Maimonides, in the Guide for the Perplexed, argues that it is a mistake to conceive of the Creator anthropomorphically. For Maimonides, opposing anthropomorphism does not entail denying God’s existence or transcendence.
George Washington University
To the Editor:
In his otherwise excellent article, Allan Nadler errs when he writes, countering Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza, that “there exists no custom, in any version of the Jewish liturgy, of reciting Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith on [Yom Kippur].”
In fact, a summary declaration of Maimonides’ principles has long been included in prayer books, with the intent that it be recited at the end of the weekday morning service. The liturgical poem Yigdal, another expression of the principles, appears at the beginning of the morning service. Yigdal is also traditionally recited at the conclusion of Sabbath and festival evening services, and most certainly on Yom Kippur evening.
Hillel M. Jaffe
Bronx, New York
To the Editor:
I greatly appreciated Allan Nadler’s essay criticizing attempts to read Spinoza as a good liberal or a good Jew. I recently encountered a young Spinoza scholar, and asked him why Spinoza scholarship was enjoying a boom period today. He replied with a grin, “Because we can no longer appeal directly to Marx.” Indeed, insofar as there is anything philosophical in Marx, what is there that was not argued in a more sophisticated fashion by Spinoza?
Taking this colleague’s candid remark to heart, I suspect that Mr. Nadler is right to remind us that not every Jewish-born emancipationist, however clever or celebrated, should be interpreted and claimed as a friend of Judaism or liberty. After all, the cenotaph in Santa Croce does not turn Machiavelli into a good Catholic.
Travis D. Smith
Allan Nadler writes:
Avi Bernstein-Nahar mistakenly takes my criticism of Betraying Spinoza to reflect some personal animus against not only its author, Rebecca Goldstein, but also Spinoza scholars like Steven Nadler, Steven Smith, and Yirmiyahu Yovel. I do indeed take issue with Yovel’s notion that Spinoza is best understood as a product of his conflicted Marrano-Jewish heritage, but the case he makes (in Spinoza and Other Heretics) is at least a cogently argued and scholarly one. I wish I could say the same for Goldstein’s book, which, as I pointed out in my essay, is carelessly conceived and filled with errors in both textual interpretation and historical fact.
Moreover, neither Steven Nadler nor Steven Smith engages in anything resembling Goldstein’s romancing of Spinoza as a Jewish thinker and figure. The most they argue for—and only occasionally—is understanding discrete doctrines in Spinoza’s philosophy as arguments against, and thus a kind of (negative) engagement with, aspects of rabbinic thought and medieval Jewish philosophy. The same is largely true of Harry Wolfson’s erudite, but by now long obsolete, two-volume study of the allegedly medieval-Jewish “latent processes” of Spinoza’s reasoning, mentioned by Rabbi Phil Cohen in his letter.
Mr. Bernstein-Nahar is free to proclaim his positive response to Betraying Spinoza. But I must question the coherence of his assessment that it is “a philosophical book that manages to be a historical and imaginative one as well.” That Goldstein’s work is imaginative, there can be no doubt; but it is precisely her “imaginative rendering of Spinoza’s life” that is historically and philosophically untenable. Those who find the blurring of fact and fiction enjoyable are certainly entitled to their pleasures, as I am to my criticisms of it.
Which brings me to the concerns expressed by Helge Normann Nilsen and Itzik Basman. Both seem to have misread my discussion of the irreparable divisions between traditional Jewish thought and Spinoza’s philosophy as constituting a personal endorsement of the former. In describing Spinoza’s radically anti-Jewish way of thinking, I thought it needless to clarify, for example, that it is not I who invented the notion that man is enjoined by God in the Book of Genesis to “enjoy dominion” over all the inferior species of the earth. (As it happens, the reading of that passage that I prefer calls humankind to be good stewards of nature, not careless dominators.) At any rate, I am gratified that Mr. Nilsen is sufficiently impressed by my summary rendering of Spinoza’s thought to conclude that he was a progressive and brilliant thinker. Of this I have never had any doubt.
I have no quibble with Shmuel Ben-Gad’s brief description of the radically transcendent theosophy in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, but I do not see how that in any way contradicts my assertion that Spinoza’s understanding of God is totally at odds with “all of the anthropomorphic, moral, and psychological attributes through which He has always been conceived in traditional monotheistic faiths.” Although Maimonides left God’s morality more or less intact, he departed radically from classical Jewish monotheism in insisting that God cannot be conceived as having any positive attributes at all. That is one of the many reasons that the Guide was banned numerous times by the rabbis, and why this radical philosophical work is not today, and has never been, part of the traditional Jewish canon.
Hillel Jaffe is correct that the popular liturgical song Yigdal, which is indeed loosely based on Maimonides’ thirteen principles, is sung at the conclusion of Sabbath and holiday evening services—most commonly by an underage child. But this quaint custom is no more an endorsement of Maimonides’ principles than the similar recitation of the mystical Shir Ha-Kavod (“Song of Glory”)—which portrays God in grossly anthropomorphic terms that would have deeply offended Maimonides—is a congregational endorsement of its strain of mysticism.
In any case, my objection was to Rebecca Goldstein’s assertion that these radically rational philosophical principles, whose original formulation is not found in any prayer book but in Maimonides’ (Arabic) commentary on the Mishnah, became fully ensconced in the “mainstream” of Jewish thought. The evidence she rallies for this—that “they are recited on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish Year”—is at best deeply misleading. As I noted in my article, I suspect she confused the thirteen principles—which are not recited at any time during that holiest day—with the recitation of the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy that form a centerpiece of the penitential Jewish liturgy.
Yom Kippur aside, the Israeli scholar Menachem Kellner, among others, has exhaustively demonstrated in his many Maimonidean studies that the thirteen principles were never widely accepted by later Jewish philosophers, to say nothing of the kabbalists who rejected Maimonidean rationalism tout court.
I am grateful to Travis D. Smith for his pithy and amusing observation.