Books in Review

Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 79 (January 1998): 49-52.

Spinoza's Project

Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity. By Steven B. Smith. Yale University Press. 270 pp. $30.

Reviewed by Alan Mittleman

Spinoza has had an umistakable appeal for free thinkers—Jewish and gentile—over the past two centuries, and his appeal seems greatest when a rigorous institutionalized faith collides with a secular fervor. Thus, in the tense atmosphere of Israel’s culture wars, Spinoza has emerged as something of a hero figure for secularists. Such philosophers as Gershon Weiler and Yirmiyahu Yovel have claimed Spinoza as the first modern Jew, the first theorist of a secular Jewish state, and the first Jew to intuit the possibility of a wholly secular Jewishness. Insofar as Spinoza worked out his theory of a liberal society in terms of a struggle with the political claims of Jewish law he seems oddly contemporary. At least in Israel. At least for secularists.

For all that, it is odd that even Israeli secularists should embrace Spinoza, since he had such harsh and contemptuous things to say about Judaism. His criticisms are standard tropes in the "recurring pattern," as Nathan Rotenstreich put it, of philosophical anti-Semitism. At the end of the day, a thorough and truly radical critique of most of what Jews have held sacred should not appear, even to Israeli secularists, as entirely sanguine.

American Jews, with little experience of either the fierce anti-clericalism that Israel inherited from Europe or state-established Jewish religion, can afford to treat Spinoza with the ambivalence he deserves. An uncompromising advocate of freedom of opinion and one of the first of the great modern political theorists to argue for the superiority of democracy, Spinoza offers much to be esteemed. But he also offers much to be deplored, advocating in somewhat encrypted fashion the dismantling of revealed religion and its replacement by a positive, secular civil religion. From Spinoza’s elevated metaphysical point of view, all revealed religions are sects. In the seventeenth century in which he wrote, when the wars of religion were not a distant memory, debunking and controlling sects seemed a small price for a rational, educated, strife-free civil society. At the end of the twentieth century, however, the problems in Spinoza’s settlement of religion and politics are far more apparent.

Steven Smith’s new study of Spinoza’s political teaching reflects more enthusiasm than ambivalence, but ambivalence is not lacking. Smith wants to present a Spinoza equal in stature to his great contemporaries, Locke and Hobbes, and to establish him as a primary figure in democratic theory. He also wants to show that it was crucial to that theory to settle the question of religion in the modern polity, especially for Jews. Spinoza is the truly towering figure here, for (as Leo Strauss argued many years ago) modern Jews have never been able to free themselves from Spinoza’s framing of the fundamental issue.

That fundamental issue is the question of revelation. Spinoza is radically opposed to the concept of revelation—to the idea that reason requires guidance from beyond its ken and to the claim that Scripture is the record of this gracious, divine guidance. Spinoza’s Theological-Political Tractate is an assault on the Mosaic authorship, indeed, the divinity of Scripture.

The first half of Smith’s study is a close and expert reading of Spinoza’s scriptural interpretation. Spinoza was concerned to avoid both what Smith terms a "skeptical" and a "dogmatic" reading. ("Skeptical" in this context means skeptical of reason.) We ought not, on Spinoza’s account, to suspend our rational knowledge of the world and take, for example, biblical miracles at their face value. But neither should we follow Maimonides (a "dogmatist") and assume that Scripture always conforms to reason if only we interpret it allegorically. Spinoza does not want Scripture to be either a scandal to reason or an encoded philosophical text. He proposes, rather, a naturalistic hermeneutic through which the meaning of Scripture is allowed to emerge in its original setting. This is, essentially, the stand of modern hermeneutics: not truth, but meaning—text-in-historical-context—is what counts.

Convinced that Scripture is not about truth, Spinoza argues that it is instead the cultural product of the ancient Hebrews. Its "meaning" (Spinoza, like Kant who follows him on this score, believes that Scripture has an essential, overriding meaning) is moral: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Almost all the rest is historical-cultural detritus to be jettisoned.

Nearly all the political thinkers of the seventeenth century read Scripture as a political text. But Spinoza went far beyond, for example, John Locke in his First Treatise or The Reasonableness of Christianity. Initiating the project of higher criticism, Spinoza inserted the Bible into the dimension of secular history, and ever since, few Jews, other than the most orthodox of the Orthodox, have managed to regain their confidence that the words of Torah are the words of God. But Spinoza not only framed the problem, but claimed to have found the solution in the liberal Jewish compensatory mechanism: the eternal commands of conscience, the moral law speaking through the text, are, as it were, the voice of God.

One of the merits of Smith’s Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity is that it brings out clearly the political aim of higher criticism in its Spinozist incarnation. Higher criticism is meant to reduce the authority of competing sects and clergies by reducing the authority of Scripture. In place of a scripture, contention over which foments civic unrest, the modern society proposes a rational religion that promotes civic peace.

Spinoza, like Rousseau who follows him, is convinced that civil society requires civil religion. He arrives at this conclusion in part for "Judaic" reasons. His critique of Scripture required a critique of prophecy, particularly of that philosophical version of prophecy promoted by Maimonides and other medievals. Spinoza had to argue that revelation (via prophecy) was not a higher form of knowledge, but an inferior (because imagination-driven) expression of natural knowledge. Revealed religion makes no defensible cognitive claims. Prophecy has more to do with the prophet’s passional psychology than with objective reality. With Scripture thus severed from truth (or theoretical reason), what is left is a connection of Scripture with law and ethics (or practical reason). Scripture’s main purpose was to stipulate moral and civil law for the ancient Israelite polity, and Judaism is thus a religion of law, its faith simply a posture of obedience to law.

By claiming that the emerging modern civil society requires a civil faith whose content is primarily a moral law inculcating obedience to the state, Spinoza turns civil religion into a caricature of Judaism, in effect turning all modern people into Jews: their "faith," whatever significance it may have for them on a personal level, is in fact merely a matter of obedience to the civil sovereign. This faith, like the faith of biblical Israelites, does not per se bring happiness. It does, however, secure civil peace within which individuals can work out their happiness. For Spinoza, the best civil state is a democratic, commercial republic where citizens have access to education and commercial opportunity against a background of legally secured liberty. And civil faith is a foundation of this civil society.

Spinoza places an extraordinary value on the freedom of the autonomous individual. He is the true prophet of the liberated, modern self. For this reason, as Smith points out, Spinoza endorses democratic republicanism more fervently than earlier contract theorists. Spinozist politics is not simply about the avoidance of civil strife, as Hobbes had argued. Politics has a positive role to play. But insofar as Spinoza has broken with the Jewish political tradition (best represented by Maimonides) and its adaptation of the Greek virtuous republic, what is left to him is an endorsement of the modern commercial republic with its mass society, privacy, and individuality. Spinoza endorses democracy because he believes that it affords the best environment for freedom of thought, and thus for individual perfection.

But because Spinoza breaks with the tradition of virtue, he denies politics a role in the achievement of perfection. Politics creates conditions of freedom such that individuals who are interested in perfection, namely philosophers, can pursue their project of a rational life. As to everyone else, politics creates freedom for them as well, but it also imposes strict limits through a powerful sovereign and the civil religion of obedience to him.

Spinoza’s vision of freedom is thus circumscribed for the masses and unbounded for the philosophers. In the end, his vision of human perfection (as a perfectly rational life focused on a God who is identical with nature) is deeply apolitical. His task was to convince society that it had nothing to fear from those who would pursue such a life.

Toward the end of his book, Smith does for Spinoza’s politics and controverted image of Judaism what the Israeli philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel has done for Spinoza’s metaphysics, tracing their impact on the great thinkers of the European enlightenment. Smith shows how Spinoza’s construction of Scripture and Judaism, and its role in the economy of the emerging liberal political theory he teaches, both endures in and is transformed by such figures as Lessing, Kant, and Hegel.

Somewhat less successful is Smith’s effort to translate Spinoza into the American context. The influence and utility of his thought as an analytic and descriptive framework for American politics is open to doubt. Spinoza exemplifies a tradition of strong or unified sovereignty that is relatively foreign to American federalism. His distrust of revealed religion as a political force, whatever sense it had in Europe, is also not entirely at home in a country where Tocqueville described religion as the first of political institutions.

On the other hand, Smith makes a good case for Spinoza’s ongoing pertinence. The issue he so powerfully framed—a universal common and civil faith versus competing particular loyalities—has surfaced again in the "identity politics" of modern multiculturalism. Arguing that he would be as critical of the race-sex-gender crowd as he was of the synagogue and the Protestant theocrats, Smith provocatively presents Spinoza as a critic of multiculturalism.

But perhaps Spinoza’s lasting legacy is as a diagnostician of the condition of the people whose midst he left. Modern Judaism has never really escaped the horns of Spinoza’s dilemma. While Jews followed Spinoza’s advice and assimilated to a shared culture, Judaism transformed itself into an Enlightenment artifact that sought to give no offense. But this process of which Spinoza was herald and high priest is now in decline. Those Jews who refused the Spinozist offer seem resurgent. The question remains whether they can pursue a theology and a politics of revelation without the superstition, obscurantism, and theocratic authoritarianism that Spinoza rightly decried. And though Spinoza diagnosed the problem, he cannot provide a compelling contemporary solution. He does, however, offer a clear picture of the issues and stakes involved.

Alan Mittleman is Professor of Religion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.