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The First Modern Jew

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

Daniel B. Schwartz
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 296
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    The First Modern Jew
    Book Description:

    Pioneering biblical critic, theorist of democracy, and legendary conflater of God and nature, Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was excommunicated by the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam in 1656 for his "horrible heresies" and "monstrous deeds." Yet, over the past three centuries, Spinoza's rupture with traditional Jewish beliefs and practices has elevated him to a prominent place in genealogies of Jewish modernity.The First Modern Jewprovides a riveting look at how Spinoza went from being one of Judaism's most notorious outcasts to one of its most celebrated, if still highly controversial, cultural icons, and a powerful and protean symbol of the first modern secular Jew.

    Ranging from Amsterdam to Palestine and back again to Europe, the book chronicles Spinoza's posthumous odyssey from marginalized heretic to hero, the exemplar of a whole host of Jewish identities, including cosmopolitan, nationalist, reformist, and rejectionist. Daniel Schwartz shows that in fashioning Spinoza into "the first modern Jew," generations of Jewish intellectuals--German liberals, East European maskilim, secular Zionists, and Yiddishists--have projected their own dilemmas of identity onto him, reshaping the Amsterdam thinker in their own image. The many afterlives of Spinoza are a kind of looking glass into the struggles of Jewish writers over where to draw the boundaries of Jewishness and whether a secular Jewish identity is indeed possible. Cumulatively, these afterlives offer a kaleidoscopic view of modern Jewish cultureand a vivid history of an obsession with Spinoza that continues to this day.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4226-1
    Subjects: Philosophy, Religion, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Note on Translations and Romanization
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. Introduction Spinoza’s Jewish Modernities
    (pp. 1-13)

    Ask a Jew a question, the old joke goes, and he will answer you with another question. However trite, this saying seems particularly apt to the problem of defining Jewishness in the modern world, which has come to be identified with a question as terse as it is dizzyingly complex: “Who is a Jew?” While boundary questions have accompanied Jews throughout their millennial history of exile and dispersion, modernity has seen a dramatic increase in both their number and intensity. In premodern times, the near universal authority of Jewish sacred law (or Halakhah), combined with the near universal pattern of...

  7. CHAPTER 1 Ex-Jew, Eternal Jew: Early Representations of the Jewish Spinoza
    (pp. 15-33)

    The year 1670 had hardly begun before the first Latin edition of theTheological-Political Treatiseappeared anonymously and under false imprint in the Dutch Republic.¹ And this brief for the “freedom to philosophize” had hardly begun to circulate before word spread of what one objector memorably dubbed the “liber pestilentissimus” (or most pestilent book).² Here was a book that denied biblical prophecy was a source of truth, rejected miracles, read scripture as a human document, limited the role of religion to guaranteeing social obedience while relegating the pursuit of truth to philosophy, and argued for stripping religious communities of the...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Refining Spinoza: Moses Mendelssohn’s Response to the Amsterdam Heretic
    (pp. 35-53)

    Moses Mendelssohn is a watershed figure in both the German and the Jewish reception of Spinoza; he is also a deeply elusive one. In the history of the image of Spinoza, he looms large for several reasons. The first is his pioneering role in softening Spinoza’s heretical reputation in German thought and thus aiding his integration into the canon of modern Western philosophy. He opted for this role at the beginning of his career; toward the closing stages, he played it more by compulsion. Whatever the impetus, his two major engagements with Spinoza—in the anonymously publishedPhilosophische Gespräche[Philosophical...

  9. CHAPTER 3 The First Modern Jew: Berthold Auerbach’s Spinoza (1837) and the Beginnings of an Image
    (pp. 55-79)

    In September 1829, German Jews celebrated the hundredth birthday of Moses Mendelssohn.¹ The Enlightenment luminary known in his day as the “Socrates of Berlin” had long been eclipsed in German philosophy, yet he was still very much alive in the cultural memory of the German JewishBürgertum. In Berlin, Dessau, Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg, Dresden, and Breslau, Jewish communities observed the jubilee with secular commemorations that included speeches, toasts, poems, and even chorales composed in honor of Mendelssohn. At the Berlin gathering, in the “tastefully furnished hall” where Mendelssohn’s marble bust stood on display, illuminated and decked with flowers, the...

  10. CHAPTER 4 A Rebel against the Past, A Revealer of Secrets: Salomon Rubin and the East European Maskilic Spinoza
    (pp. 81-111)

    In 1856, exactly two hundred years after his excommunication by the Sephardic community of Amsterdam, Spinoza was reappropriated in Hebrew literature as the second coming of Maimonides. That fall, there appeared the first volume of a work namedMoreh nevukhim he-hadash[The New Guide to the Perplexed].¹ Its author was Salomon Rubin, a native of Habsburg Galicia and relative newcomer to the Hebrew Enlightenment. Fresh from translating Karl Gutzkow’s well-known dramaUriel Acostainto Hebrew, Rubin turned his attention inThe New Guideto the other legendary Jewish heretic of seventeenth-century Amsterdam. In two volumes of roughly thirty pages each,...

  11. CHAPTER 5 From the Heights of Mount Scopus: Yosef Klausner and the Zionist Rehabilitation of Spinoza
    (pp. 113-153)

    On February 21, 1927, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then in only its third year of existence, commemorated Spinoza on the two-hundred-fiftieth 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...

  12. CHAPTER 6 Farewell, Spinoza: I. B. Singer and the Tragicomedy of the Jewish Spinozist
    (pp. 155-188)

    Mention the making of Spinoza into a modern Jewish culture hero and the author most likely to come to mind is Isaac Bashevis Singer. Like dybbuk possessions and love triangles, Spinoza casts a long shadow in Singer’s vast oeuvre. He figures most conspicuously in “The Spinoza of Market Street,” a widely acknowledged masterpiece of Singer’s short fiction that portrays a would-be Spinoza in early twentieth-century Jewish Warsaw. Yet the Amsterdam philosopher is also a mainstay of several of Singer’s novels and of his copious autobiographical writings (the lines between which are often deliberately blurred), where an at least temporary veneration...

  13. Epilogue: Spinoza Redivivus in the Twenty-First Century
    (pp. 189-202)

    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...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 203-246)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-264)
  16. Index
    (pp. 265-270)