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

Daniel B. Schwartz
  • Review
By – June 21, 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.

Bar­bara Andrews holds a Mas­ters in Jew­ish Stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, has been an adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion instruc­tor, and works in the cor­po­rate world as a pro­fes­sion­al adult educator.

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