What would Spinoza do?

In Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Brought Us Modernity, author Rebecca Newberger Goldstein investigates the religious and historical context in which 17th century rationalist Baruch Spinoza formed his ideas. Spinoza was born into a Portuguese community in Amsterdam, a descendant of refugees of the Inquisition.  The Dutch tolerated the Jews as long as they kept to themselves.  Those whose families had converted to Christianity in Spain or Portugal struggled to reclaim their Judaism, much of which had been forgotten or altered under Christian oppression.  Many still had extended family at risk in Portugal. Goldstein reasonably suggests the combination of persecution and community tension propelled Spinoza toward a philosophy free of an identity imposed at birth.

Unlike the Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern Europe), who looked for revelations of God in Torah law, the kabbalists (Jews under Muslim rule during “the Golden Age of Spain”) were more inclined to speculate about the relationship between the Eternal and the temporal. Therefore, she concludes, it is no accident that the mysteries with which the kabbalists were concerned – why the universe exists, and why there is suffering – were also issues of great concern to Spinoza. He argued humanity is only free when it abandons arbitrarily acquired definitions of self for universal truths. For him, these truths were discoverable through the rigorous application of  logic. He equated God with nature. He believed the universe created itself. Superstition (his word for religion) makes us believe we are more cosmically significant than we are, and we hold to it in order to ward off our fear of mortality. He held that the elements of the world exist because logically, they must. Mathematical proofs uphold the universe – for him, this is the mind of God. Salvation occurs when we reject external definitions, identify with this Intelligence, and thus achieve a broad view that leads to recognition of immortality within the whole.

For these views he was excommunicated at the age of 23, but his Christian friends still considered him to be a Jew, which comes as no great surprise to any of us.  Goldstein reinforces the Hotel California Theory of Jewish Identity: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” What does it mean to be Jewish? Is it possible to stop being Jewish, even if one converts to another faith? She asks if a struggle with Jewish identity is itself an indicator of Jewishness. With these questions,  Goldstein implies a comparison of the Sephardic flight from the Inquisition to the state of Judaism today in the wake of the Holocaust, particularly within the dominant Ashkenazic community of the United States. Perhaps this offers some insight regarding the gray region in which we descendants of intermarriage often find ourselves precariously balanced.

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