Jewish Studies Baruch Spinoza
by
Daniel B. Schwartz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0054

Introduction

As one of the pioneers of modern Western philosophy and Bible criticism, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (b. 1632–d. 1677) is generally considered the greatest philosopher of Jewish origin since Maimonides, though whether he should also be considered a Jewish philosopher is an age-old debate. Born into the Sephardic community of Amsterdam, Spinoza was excommunicated in 1656 for his “horrible heresies” and “monstrous deeds.” For the rest of his life, he made no effort to reconcile with his native community, and although he never converted to Christianity, it is hardly a given that he continued to consider himself a Jew either. From this foundational rupture in Spinoza’s life—one that would lead many in retrospect to label him the first modern Jew—myriads would follow in his thought. In the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, published anonymously in 1670, Spinoza broke with the premise that the Bible, in its entirety, is the word of God, a move that led him famously to spurn the Maimonidean practice of reading scripture allegorically, all so as to assure its agreement with philosophical and scientific truth. In its place, he called for a hermeneutic that would distinguish between the meaning of scripture and the matter of its truth, thus anticipating the historical-critical method of modern biblical criticism. In his magnum opus, the Ethics, which first appeared as part of his Opera Posthuma (Posthumous Works), in 1677, Spinoza broke with the very idea of an irreducible break between God and the world, arguing instead for a metaphysics of immanence in which only one substance, God-or-Nature (Deus sive Natura), could and did exist. Much has been written about Jewish aspects of Spinoza’s life and thought, especially by Jewish scholars seeking to determine to what extent, if at all, Spinoza belongs to the history of Jewish philosophy. The literature on this subject can be divided into three main categories that are distinguished by how they come at this problem. The first and most well-trodden approach investigates putative Jewish sources and contexts of Spinoza’s philosophy, from medieval Jewish rationalism to Kabbalistic literature to the Marrano background of his native Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam. The second focuses on Spinoza’s concept of and attitude toward Judaism, especially in comparison to his evaluation of Christianity. The third examines the ramifications of both Spinoza’s philosophy and personal example for modern Jewish thought and identity. This article is limited only to those aspects of Spinoza that touch on his Jewish identity, sources, and influence and thus does not include general philosophical studies per se.

General Overviews

There are a few article-length works that provide an excellent introduction to the Jewish dimension of Spinoza’s life, thought, and intellectual legacy. The best option for the beginning student might be Feldman 1997, which surveys all three in impressive detail in a mere twenty-four pages. Walther 2000 explores the place of Spinoza in debates over the place of Judaism and Jewish identity in Modernity, while Nadler 2009 offers a survey of the history of scholarship on, and a critique of recent assessments of, Spinoza’s Jewish sources and contexts.

  • Feldman, Seymour. “Spinoza.” In History of Jewish Philosophy. Edited by Daniel Frank and Oliver Leaman, 612–635. New York: Routledge, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    A relatively brief yet insightful overview of Spinoza’s upbringing, excommunication, mature philosophy, and influence on modern Judaism, by a leading scholar of medieval Jewish philosophy. The section on Spinoza’s Jewish reception is especially strong.

  • Nadler, Steven. “The Jewish Spinoza.” Journal of the History of Ideas 70.3 (2009): 491–510.

    DOI: 10.1353/jhi.0.0044E-mail Citation »

    A review essay of some relatively recent works on Spinoza’s relationship to Judaism. Nadler indicates his general agreement with the argument that medieval Jewish rationalism was a formative context for Spinoza’s thought, along with his skepticism of the attempts of scholars like Yirmiyahu Yovel “to ‘marranize’ Spinoza’s experience.”

  • Walther, Manfred. “Spinoza und das Problem einer jüdischer Philosophie.” In Die philosophische Aktualität der jüdischen Tradition. Edited by Werner Stegmaier, 281–330. Frankfurtam Main: Suhrkhamp, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive overview of the history of Spinoza’s Jewishness as a topic of discussion and debate, which is shown here to stretch back to the very beginnings of his reception. Reveals how bound up the Jewish response to Spinoza has been with the construction of modern Jewish ideologies and identities, especially if not exclusively in Germany.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down