Baruch Spinoza Goes Into Rehab at Yivo Institute

I’ve spent a lot of time critiquing an event at Yivo Institute last week, well I must praise the all-day conference Yivo put on Sunday, to mark the 350th anniversary of the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza by Jewish religious authorities in Amsterdam. A wonderful event.

I almost didn’t get in. The conference was sold out, there were scores of people waiting for an extra ticket on 16th St. I of course played the press card, but happily for all of us, Yivo lowered the screen in its main hall, allowing the overflow to watch the event on simulcast.

In 1656, when he was excommunicated—”By the decrees of the Angels and the proclamation of the Saints, we hereby excommunicate, ban, and anathematize Baruch d’Espinoza”!—Spinoza was just 23 years old. He had formed many heretical thoughts; and there’s evidence that the Amsterdam rabbis sent some informers to draw him out on these ideas. One of the speakers, Steven Nadler of UWisconsin, said that religious authorities regularly excommunicated Jews at the time, for say, theft; but the thief could get back into the community by paying a fine. (And Yivo’s executive director noted that Jews in Spain were excommunicated for having relations with non-Jewish women. Ouch).

In this case, the writ of excommunication had been in the Dutch authorities’ hands for 60 years, sent to them from Venice, but never used; it was the blackest of curses. Spinoza would be cursed when he went to bed and when he got up in the morning, all others should avoid him and put so many cubits between themselves and him. No one was to read anything he wrote. This last was the least effective of the bans: Spinoza wrote several texts that while banned by non-Jews too were passed around eagerly, and are seen as precursors of the enlightenment and modern philosophy.

Allan Nadler (Stephen’s cousin) led the conference with a nice dose of Borscht belt humor and said it was an event of “celebration.” Though long viewed “in Jewish history as a tragic mistake,” the excommunication had probably freed Spinoza, he said. The philosopher was beatified by Goethe and Novalis (who called Spinoza a “God-intoxicated man”); and in the last century, there have been many efforts to welcome Spinoza’s ideas back into the Jewish community. The most famous of these, Nadler said, was at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (in 1923, I believe), when the historian Joseph Klausner cried out “the ban is lifted,” and then said three times, “Baruch Spinoza, you are our brother.” Big news in the Palestine press.

Steven Nadler laid out four grounds for the excommunication: 1, Spinoza had denied the existence of a supernatural and providential god, a god capable of forming plans and making judgments—although it was perhaps true that Spinoza was a pantheist and saw god as coextensive with nature, and worthy of awe. 2. Spinoza denied that Jews were the chosen people; they were no different from other people, and if they had had a good run in early history, it reflected their wise laws; that was their (timely) godliness. 3, He saw the Bible as a work of human literature, compiled by a number of writers, during the second temple period. It contained many wise insights by some very smart people, but it wasn’t inherently divine. 4, He denied the 613 halachic laws of Judaism, saying they had lost their raison d’etre in the 17th century.

Nadler said that the excommunication might have had a political flavor. Spinoza’s ideas were heterodox not just for Jews but for Christians. The Jews of Amsterdam may have been trying to demonstrate to the Christian community, “We can keep our house clean.”

The next speaker, Steven Smith of Yale, talked about Leo Strauss and Spinoza. This was a beautiful talk and I wish could convey it fully. I can’t; it was over my head. But here are some points from it.

Spinoza was distanced from both Jews and Christians. The writings were aimed at “enlightened gentile rulers… a deliberate strategy to appeal to Christian rulers who would be able to bring into effect the kind of changes he sought…. Broadly speaking, his goal was to try to move European states toward a more broadly secular, more tolerant form of political culture…. He was a man with a big agenda.”

Yes, Smith said, the last century has seen Spinoza’s Jewish rehabilitation. Throughout Europe and Palestine, Jews have welcomed Spinoza back into the fold and tried to right what they regarded as a grave historical injustice. Spinoza has been claimed by many different scholars: as a socialist, a Zionist, and a liberal.

But Strauss— the UChicago political philosopher who himself is of course claimed by the neocons—did not see Spinoza as a Jewish hero. Smith described the young Strauss in Berlin, studying Spinoza at the Academy of Jewish Studies in the 1920s and publishing his first important work on Spinoza, before he fled the Holocaust. I’m afraid I’m going to get some of this wrong, but Smith seemed to say that Strauss justified the excommunication. In Strauss’s view, Spinoza “hated Judaism but did not hate the Jewish people.” Spinoza was calling for the abandonment of the legal and institutional apparatus of Judaism, which he saw as archaic and totally without relevance to the modern world. Spinoza wanted Judaism to be irrelevant. He was a “prophet of the modern liberal state.” He wanted to have a society that was open and tolerant of both Jew and gentile. Where people would be free “to think what they like and say what they think.”

Leo Strauss did not endorse these views. He had been raised an Orthodox Jew and Zionist and he himself was conflicted between “Jerusalem and Athens,” between religion and philosophy, Smith said. On the one hand he saw Spinoza’s modern state that was neither Christian nor Jewish as being “necessary to philosophy.” On the other he regarded the creation of the Jewish state as a great thing. Israel was “a profound modification of the messianic tradition”: Jews remained in exile despite its creation, and in Israel, they would have to learn to act as other nations did if they were to “regain their sovereignty.” And yet, Strauss said, “The creation of Israel is a blessing for all Jews everywhere, whether they admit it or not.” Huh.

Being between Jerusalem and Athens, and part of neither: that homelessness is how Strauss said we should remember Spinoza.

That’s my best effort at conveying the richness of the conference. I’m afraid I had to run out in the afternoon session.