spinoza and secular jewish culture

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 Spinoza and Secular Jewish CultureI can’t resist the pleasure of finding myself a student again, particularly one attending the superior kind of undergrad lecture. This feeling kicked in as soon as Yirmiyaho Yovel stood up. I think everyone was soothed by his poise and gentle approach, but his erudition and deep sympathy with his subject quickly became clear too.

It’s hard to imagine Spinoza today, to reconcile the hardline philosopher who willingly accepted his expulsion from the Amsterdam Jewish community with the everyday Jew, the lens-grinder who spent his life interrogating God and deism, history and salvation, to settle ultimately on his own ‘rational’ religiousness. In a very short hour, Yovel sketched the trajectory of an uncompromising yet profoundly humane life, giving key moments but not too many dates, more often emphasising salient points of thought than historical events.

An exception to this was the French revolution. Yovel returned several times to this critical period, calling it the catalyst for the beginning of Jewish modernity. I was surprised, but should not have been. For Yovel, had Spinoza lived after this crisis, there would have been no need to expel or demonise him.

I wish we had had more time to hear about the changes wrought by the Revolution. As it was, 17th-century Christians reserved for Spinoza the most damning epithets they had at hand, dismissing him, paradoxically, as both “Jew and atheist”. Despite today’s admiration for his philosophical positions, the Jews of the 17th century hardly thought any better of him. He went further than Descartes, ousting God from his position controlling history and morality – of course this was hard to accept. But we listening students were happy to think back through the centuries, to times of ignorance and extremity, and to rest easy thinking of ourselves as far more liberal and enlightened.

Then Yovel surprised even his contemporary audience with the vehemence of his existential, voluntary position as a Jew explicitly following Spinoza’s lead. Asked: if we reject all the customs, rituals and beliefs of traditional Judaism, what remains that will unite us as Jews? – the answer came back ‘nothing’! It was a brave statement, a brave moment, and one that caused a genteel stir. Yovel’s insistence that all who call themselves Jews are Jews, regardless of their way of life and beliefs, regardless of their acceptance by other Jews, retains a fair degree of the radical impact of Spinoza’s ideas, first set out four centuries ago.

Sophie Lewis is the first UK director of American publishing house Dalkey Archive Press, seeking out great literature to publish from all over the world. She also translates French literary fiction and prose into English.

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