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

Princeton University Press  2012

 

Baruch (Benedictus) Spinoza, who was known as The Heretic of Amsterdam in his time, has come to be thought of today as a great thinker and forerunner of modern Jewish philosophy. This book by Professor Schwartz is not a biography of Spinoza, but a history of how Spinoza’s writing and ideas came to be received over a period of four-hundred years.

In his own time Spinoza was vilified and eventually cut off from his community. Baruch changed his first name to Benedictus after the ex-communication and never again had any dealings with the Amsterdam Jewish community. What did Spinoza do that caused such a drastic action from his fellow Jews? The writ of excommunication stated that the community has “long since been cognizant of the wrong opinions and behavior of Baruch d’Espinoza.” We do not know which “wrong opinions and behavior” but we do know that Spinoza’s writings challenged the Torah concept of God. Briefly, Spinoza supported the ideas of what modern scholars call panentheism , that God and nature are one, thereby challenging the concept of a separate, all powerful God, and the authority of the Mosaic Law.

This book is a finely detailed study of how the thinking and writing of Spinoza, initially spurned, came to be thought of today as a modern and legitimate view of the Divine and the human relationship with the Divine. Professor Schwartz develops his history over the centuries by highlighting key philosophers who became more supportive of Spinoza in each successive generation until we now come to think of Baruch Spinoza as one of the great modern philosophers.



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