Pariah to Messiah: The Engineered Apotheosis of Baruch Spinoza, Part 2 of 3

Andrew Joyce, Ph.D.


Go to Part 1.

The Jewish Reclamation of Spinoza

To understand the shift in Jewish attitudes to Spinoza, one must take into account the birth of the concept of the ‘secular Jew,’ and the corresponding development of surrogate intellectual and cultural movements in which ‘Jewishness’ was divorced from Judaism and yet survived and thrived post partum. Prior to and throughout the Enlightenment, Jewry in the West remained separate and distinct in patterns of settlement, custom, language and dress. Judaism remained the only avenue for the expression of ‘Jewishness.’ Only at the end of the eighteenth century, as modernity began to encroach upon them, and “to remedy the inferiority of the Jews,” did Jewish intellectuals in Germany begin to make attempts to represent Judaism as an entirely rational belief system, and to justify the continued existence of Jews as a separate people.[1]

The earliest proponents of this attempt to reframe Judaism were a group of German Jewish intellectuals known as the maskilim, and they first began to rise to prominence, both inside and outside Jewry, in the 1780s. It is noteworthy that some of the earliest works produced by the maskilim, the most famous of whom was Moses Mendelssohn, were built around the reclamation of Spinoza. Mendelssohn was the author of Jerusalem (1783), probably the most important 18th-century text arguing the case for pluralism, and putting forth the contention that Judaism was compatible with the precepts of the Enlightenment.[2] Daniel Schwartz writes that Mendelssohn was also a “watershed figure”[3] in softening Spinoza’s image both for Jews and for non-Jews. He played a major role in overturning the prevailing apathy towards Spinoza’s works in the German Academy, and was pivotal in aiding Spinoza’s “integration into the canon of modern Western philosophy.”[4]

Although outwardly, Jewry appeared to be undergoing great change, at heart the real change it sought was in the non-Jewish world. Rather than adapt to modernity and wider society, Jewry sought a means of justifying its continued isolation. At first, the case that Judaism was inherently rational was argued by the maskilim, but it increasingly failed to convince non-Jewish intellectuals or the non-Jewish society as a whole. At the beginning of the 19th century, Jews were coming under intense scrutiny for their seeming unwillingness to enter the modern age. In the French Republic, Napoleon had halted moves towards the political emancipation of the Jews after hearing about extensive Jewish usury in the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Napoleon subsequently convened a ‘Grand Sanhedrin’ of notable Jews at Hotel de Ville in Paris in July 1806.[5] All of the twelve questions posed by Napoleon to the notables cut to the heart of Jewish group cohesion as being incompatible with the Enlightenment. They concerned, “Jewish clannishness, divided loyalties, intermarriage, and usury.”[6] Napoleon asked: “Has the law ordered that the Jews should only intermarry among themselves?” and “In the eyes of Jews are Frenchmen considered as brethren or strangers?”[7] Rather than tell the truth and abandon the push for political power for their group, the notables believed they could succeed through crypsis and resorted to evasion and lies, telling Napoleon among other things that “the law does not say that a Jewess cannot marry a Christian, nor a Jew a Christian woman; nor does it state that the Jews can only marry among themselves.”[8]

Napoleon took them at their word, even trusting the notables with the writing of reforms necessary to bring about the political emancipation of the Jews. As Esther Benbassa noted in her The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present, while the notables were willing to tinker slightly with religious organization, they utterly refused to move “on the questions of usury and exogamous marriage.”[9] Emancipation proceeded regardless.

In Germany too, the pressure was increasing. Schwartz writes: “Within German Idealism, it was more or less a consensus that while a reformed Christianity could serve as a basis, or at least a vehicle, for a modern religion of reason, Judaism could not provide such a foundation. As the religion of a single people, it was seen as intractably chauvinist and exclusive, and with its strict legal character, it seemed totally at odds with a modern ethos stressing human autonomy.”[10] For Hegel and others, there was a belief that Jews could be granted civil rights, but there was real doubt about whether Jews could long survive an encounter with modernity.

These doubts were shared by Jews. Attempts to convince non-Jews of the rationality of Judaism, through projects such as the Wissenschaft des Judentums, had evidently failed, and what was now sought was a kind of intellectual-philosophical ‘life raft’ that could support a secular, more cryptic, Jewishness.

One of the ‘life rafts’ was found in Spinoza. In his novel Spinoza: A Historical Novel, German Jewish author Berthold Auerbach (1812–1882), presented Spinoza as part of a long rationalist tradition in Judaism. His Jewish origins and learning were emphasized and exaggerated, and his interactions with Christians were omitted. Spinoza’s Jewishness alone was said to have moved him and motivated his writings. It was conceded that this Jewishness was different from, even antagonistic to, Judaism. However, to Auerbach, Judaism could change and adapt, and it “can and will satisfy all the higher needs of mankind for all time.”[11]

This statement has a remarkable resonance with Macdonald’s statement that “the central pose of post-Enlightenment Jewish intellectuals is a sense that Judaism represents a moral beacon to the rest of humanity.”[12]Auerbach’s opinion that Judaism could adapt and survive, along with his belief that Spinoza had remained quintessentially Jewish despite his break from Judaism, is significant: his belief that even in other guises Judaism could serve a messianic function for all of humanity is one of the founding blocks of the modern Jewish intellectual movement.

It was a short step from there to the Jewish adoption of the notion that Spinoza’s philosophy had created a ‘novel conception of God,’ and a utopian vision of a world cured of all ‘evils’. To Auerbach and the later maskilim, it was Spinoza’s Jewish origins that paved the way for his leadership of a “new Church” that would embrace mankind and yet leave Jewry separate, and it “was of the utmost importance to that Church that its father was not a Christian but a Jew.”[13] These ideas would have an important and lasting legacy for the future direction of Jewish intellectual movements. Notably, the Spinoza cult had a marked impact on Freud, who referred to Spinoza as his “brother in nonfaith.”[14] Freud, as is well known, had an intense Jewish identification despite his lack of belief in religion.

By the mid-19th century, “the celebration of Spinoza had become equally necessary on purely Jewish grounds.”[15] The emphasis had “shifted from the Torah to the Jewish nation,”[16] and Jewry now openly emphasized its existence as a people over a religion. As a barrier between Spinoza and the tribe, the former’s atheism was now neutralized. When the process of Jewish emancipation allowed Jews into all walks of life, many Jews believed that Spinoza’s ideas, particularly his advocacy for the weakening of the Church-State relationship, had been instrumental in facilitating their advancement. By 1856, “Spinoza was reappropriated in Hebrew literature as the second coming of Maimonides.”[17]

Accompanying this was an increasing conceit about the supposed world-importance of Judaism. It is significant that around the same time that the Spinoza cult was gaining momentum, Heinrich Graetz and Abraham Geiger were claiming that all of Christianity’s accomplishments were due to its supposed links to Judaism.[18] Spinoza was seen increasingly as a genius and a prophet. By the birth of Weimar Germany, as Jews “rose to an unprecedented level of cultural, even political, public prominence,”[19] Spinoza was celebrated for his “assumed merit about the Jewish people and only secondarily about mankind.”[20] Leo Strauss, who was a leading Weimar Spinozist, wrote in the 1930s that contemporary Jews not only “rescinded the excommunication which the Jewish community in Amsterdam had pronounced against Spinoza” but even “canonized him.”[21]

David Wertheim, in his Salvation Through Spinoza: A Study of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany, argued that “Spinoza was one of the major heroes of the Jewish cultural Renaissance in Weimar Germany,” and that Weimar Jewry’s “infatuation” with Spinoza “was manifested in scholarship, the popular press, and novels.”[22] Discussion of Spinoza was now “saturated throughout with religious rhetoric.”[23] In some cases, “Spinoza became nothing less than a substitute for the messiah as a focus for Jewish hopes.”[24] Importantly, while Jews could differ on “the nature and relevance of their religion … they hardly differed in their admiration of Spinoza.”[25]

The shared enthusiasm for Spinoza thus came to be an important conduit for the promotion of Jewish group cohesion. Daniel Schwartz writes that Spinoza became a “surrogate father” for secular Jews.[26] Wertheim has a fascinating section on the level of media saturation devoted to Spinoza in 1930s Germany. The Zionist Judische Rundschau, with a readership of over 20,000, often carried more than four articles on Spinoza per issue.[27] Even the newspaper of Berlin’s largest synagogue, Judische Gemeinde zu Berlin, with a readership of over 90,000, “participated enthusiastically in the Spinoza celebrations.”[28] There were increasing numbers of Spinoza lectures, exhibitions, and study groups.[29]

In addition to assisting the formation of secular Jewish identities and the enhancement of group cohesion, the promotion of Spinoza to non-Jews as the purveyor of a universalist ideology served to aid the deconstruction of cohesion in the non-Jewish majority. Macdonald has pointed out that, faced with the threat of majority group strategies, Jews have often sought to “actively promote universalist ideologies within the larger society in which the Jewish-gentile social categorization is of minimal importance.”[30] Spinoza’s philosophy is really so abstract that anything can be deduced from it, but it is notable that Jews have seized upon what they see as Spinoza’s advocacy for the destruction of theocracy as represented in the Christian state, the promotion of secularity, and the tolerance of aliens and outsiders—all fundamental Jewish interests and the focus of Jewish communal activism in the Diaspora West. Thus David Wertheim notes that enthusiasm for Spinoza in Germany peaked at the same time as “the message of tolerance” — a message rooted in moral universalism—became so important to secular Jews that “it almost served as a compensatory religion.”[31] The Spinoza cult could therefore simultaneously maintain Jewish cohesion while providing the philosophical basis for the acceptance of this cohesion among non-Jews.

There was one further important element in the reclamation of Spinoza. Daniel Schwartz writes that Spinoza was used by early 20th-century German Jewish intellectuals to assist the process of “Judaizing secularity,” by “defining values such as ‘the freedom to philosophize,’ the questioning of authority, the embrace of reason, science, and even universalism itself as distinctively ‘Jewish’.”[32] This theme — Judaizing secularity — has been one of the most prominent and prolific features of the Spinoza cult since its inception, and it neatly encapsulates the thesis of Jonathan Israel and his intellectual antecedents: the ‘Radical Enlightenment’ was directly brought about by Spinoza’s ideas, and it was composed of elements of thought which were fundamentally and exclusively Jewish.

Although clearly understating the problem, Schwartz writes accurately that every Jewish attempt to reclaim Spinoza has been accompanied by “the hope of finding intellectual lineages of modernity and our ‘secular age’ that are, to some degree, Jewish, or at least not solely Christian.”[33] As Spinoza was Jewry’s only (though tangential) stake in the Enlightenment, he has been seized upon as the only possible avenue for the Jewish effort to ‘Judaize secularity’, and claim credit for modernity. Or as Schwartz would have it: “From Berthold Auerbach, the nineteenth century German author, to the American Jewish writer Rebecca Goldstein today, laying claim to Spinoza has been tantamount to laying claim to a Jewish role in the shaping of the modern and the formation of the secular.”[34]

Although predominantly based in Germany, when the National Socialists came to power, the nexus of this Jewish worship of Spinoza was transplanted to the English-speaking nations, as leading Weimar Spinozists like Leo Strauss moved westwards. Once in the United States, and during stints at New York’s New School for Social Research and later at the University of Chicago, Strauss was able to combine his love for ‘Spinozism’ with his decisive role in the founding of neo-conservatism.[35] His disciples and former students include Lewis Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, John Podhoretz (son of Norman), Abram Shulsky, William Kristol and Susan Sontag.[36] Macdonald has noted that “Strauss’s political philosophy of democratic liberalism was fashioned as an instrument of achieving Jewish group survival in the post-Enlightenment political world.”[37] To this I would add the suggestion that ‘Spinozist Judaism,’ as conceived in Weimar Germany, was an important component in the formation of Strauss’s political philosophy.

Go to Part 3.



[1] S. Feiner, The Jewish Enlightenment, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), p.375.

[2] P.R. Mende-Flohr, The Jew in the Modern World, (Oxford University Press, 1980), p.62.

[3] D.B. Schwartz, The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image, (Princeton University Press, 2012), p.35.

[4] D.B. Schwartz, The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image, (Princeton University Press, 2012), p.35.

[5] P.R. Mendes-Flohr, p.113.

[6] E. Kessler, A Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations, (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.396.

[7] Ibid, p.114.

[8] P.R. Mendes-Flohr, p.117.

[9] E. Benbassa, The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present, (Princeton University Press, 2001), p.89

[10] Schwartz, p.68.

[11] Ibid, p.70.

[12] K. MacDonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth‑Century Intellectual and Political Movements, Westport, CT: Praeger (1998). Revised Paperback edition, 2001, (Bloomington, IN: 1stbooks Library), p.208.

[13] Strauss, Ibid, p.17.

[14] Y. Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics, (Princeton University Press, 1989), p.136.

[15] L. Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, (New York: 1965), p.17.

[16] Ibid.

[17] D.B. Schwartz, The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image, (Princeton University Press, 2012), p.81

[18] S. Herschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (Chicago University Press, 1998), p.132.

[19]D. Wertheim, Salvation Through Spinoza: A Study of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany (Brill, 2011), p.x.

[20] L. Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, (New York: 1965), p.15.

[21] Ibid.

[22] D. Wertheim, Salvation Through Spinoza: A Study of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany (Brill, 2011), p.15.

[23] Schwartz, p.7.

[24] Ibid, p.ix.

[25] Ibid, p.x.

[26] Schwartz, p.7.

[27] Ibid, p.3

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid, p.5.

[30] Macdonald, p.209.

[31] Wertheim, p.90.

[32] Schwartz, p.7.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid, p.8.

[35] S. Halper and J. Clarke, America Alone: Conservatives and the Global Order, (Cambridge University Press, 2005) p.67.

[36] Ibid. See also K. Gay, American Dissidents, (ABC/CLIO, 2012), p.572

[37] Macdonald, p.223.

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