To the Editor:
I must take exception to Milton Himmelfarb’s view that Spinoza was an ex-Jew [“Spinoza and the Colonel,” March]. The fact that the great philosopher of Amsterdam became a “citizen of the world” did not in the least diminish his Jewishness; nor did the ban pronounced against him by the leaders of the Amsterdam congregation which forced him to live outside the ghetto mean that he was not a Jew. Spinoza was as Jewish as Maimonides, Don Isaac Abravanel, Moses Mendelssohn, and Martin Buber, and he never forswore or renounced his Jewish faith.
Mr. Himmelfarb falls victim to a fallacy common to Jewish scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuries which, strangely enough, was never shared by their non-Jewish colleagues. George Santayana, for example, speaks of the “genuine Hebraism” of Spinoza. . . .
The confusion about Spinoza’s attitude toward Judaism stems from a widespread misconception about its genuineness. Following the lead of the German-Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz, rabbis, scholars, and historians shunned and despised the Kabbalah, the significance of which has been rediscovered only in the last two decades, mainly through the studies of Gershom Scholem. Now, Spinoza’s concept of God is based primarily on kabbalistic ideas. . . . Ironically enough, the close relationship between Spinoza and the Kabbalah was recognized very early. Leibnitz mentioned it in his Theodicy as early as 1708, thirty-one years after Spinoza’s death. . . . As is widely recognized by now, the pantheistic suggestions of the first and third book of the Zohar were of the highest significance for Spinoza. . . . The most striking resemblance, if not complete identity, between the theories of the Ethics and the doctrines of the Kabbalah occur in the area of body-mind relations. Even the mysterious concept of Spinoza’s, amor Dei intellectualis, stems from the second book of the Zohar. Moreover, Spinoza shares the idea of the intellectual union with God with Maimonides, who anticipated the philosopher of Amsterdam in proclaiming the intellect the highest good.
It follows, then, that Spinoza was never an ex-Jew but rather the most Jewish of philosophers. He proclaimed what we have learned today to consider the genuine character of Judaism. . . .
Henry Walter Brann
Tacoma Park, Maryland
Milton Himmelfarb writes:
In Spinoza’s time Judaism was not yet a multifarious, subjective thing, or things. There was no liberal Judaism, no secular Jewishness, no being a Jew culturally or sentimentally or metaphorically. Nowadays most Jews think of Judaism as the civilization of the Jewish people, and of the Torah as a cultural creation of the people. What Spinoza knew to be the undisputed Jewish doctrine was, in Saadya Gaon’s formulation, that we are a people only by virtue of the Torah. That is to say, the Torah created the Jews, and not the Jews the Torah. Of course it was also the undisputed Jewish doctrine that the Torah was divine, not human.
In Jewish law and in the eyes of the Jewish community a Jew who denied this did not cease to be a Jew, he was only a bad or sinful Jew. In his own eyes the Jew who denied this had necessarily ceased to be a Jew. Spinoza treated the Bible as a human document (and is therefore the founder of modern Bible criticism). Nowhere does Spinoza say what liberal or secular Jews were to say after him, that the old Jewish self-definition was wrong, and in any event we must learn to live with new ones. He could have said this if he had wanted to. Excommunicated, he need no longer fear excommunication.
In recent years the late David Ben-Gurion was only the most prominent of many calling for the rehabilitation of Spinoza the Jew. A generation earlier German Jews had called for it. Hermann Cohen, philosopher, liberal Jew, and adherent of Bible criticism, said no. He denied that Spinoza was a good Jew.
Kabbalah is mystical interpretation of the Torah. There can be no mystical interpretation of human documents: the Declaration of Independence, or the Code Napoléon, or Byron’s poetry, or the collected addresses of Felix Adler. However far kabbalistic readings may go in the direction of heterodoxy, they always take it for granted that the Torah is a divine document. For Spinoza the Torah was not only human, but also human of a rather inferior sort. Even granted, arguendo, that he was influenced by Kabbalah, that does not make him a Jew. There were Christian kabbalists—Pico della Mirandola, for one.
With Santayana, was “genuine Hebraism” an unambiguous compliment? He did not mean to compliment Morris Raphael Cohen when he called him an Oriental philosopher. A prudent man will hesitate to bet that a reference to the Jew Karl Marx or to the Judaism or Jewish emotion of Karl Marx is friendly.
The great philosopher Spinoza was an ex-Jew of singular courage and probity. Why should we ask for more? Why must we also have it that he was as Jewish as Maimonides or, as if that were not enough, the most Jewish of philosophers?