I have never read as much Spinoza as I feel I should have (and I thought about that again while in Amsterdam). I had a colleague at a previous institution who was a HUGE Spinoza fan. He was also very reformed and, as this piece points out, would portray Spinoza as the Patriarch of the Reform Judaism. I always thought this was odd since my reading suggested that …well, he wasn’t very Jewish at all. That is the argument of the article linked here and a book by Daniel Schwartz.
When I taught Intro to Judaism and Second Temple Judaisms on a regular basis I always started with the following question: “What makes someone a Jew?” Might be a good first question with which to begin many discussions on Spinoza as well.
Spinoza is hardly advocating [circumcision], or any, Jewish religious observance. He is, rather, coldly describing its primitive power as a key factor in the Jews’ survival, after having just blamed its victims for centuries of anti-Semitism. In fact, this entire chapter is a nasty polemic against the doctrine of the election of Israel, more congenial to an argument for the abolition of any special accommodations to be accorded the Jews by the modern state. The justices in Koln could have very convincingly deployed Spinoza in support of their decision to ban circumcision.
Sacks’s may be the most surprising, but it is far from the first misappropriation of Spinoza, as is made amply evident in a new book by Daniel Schwartz that documents how an idealized image of Spinoza served as inspiration for modern Jews. “The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image” is a scholarly overview of a judicious, if limited, selection of modern Jewish reclamations of Spinoza, from the 19th-century maskilim, the advocates of Jewish enlightenment, of Germany and Austrian Galicia, to contemporary Jewish studies academics who too often present Spinoza as the patriarch of today’s secular Jews.