1771 portrait of philosopher and “Jewish Enlightenment” proponent Moses Mendelssohn, based on an original by Anton Graff. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
In the absence of an alternative explanation, let me suggest that this sense of shame was due to an essential motive in the thought of the late Aufklärung (German Enlightenment): the hierarchy of “levels of acculturation” based on the distinction between those who do and do not have Bildung (the aptitude for self-cultivation). Indeed, Maskil philosopher Moses Mendelssohn speaks openly about the “levels of culture” of various nations; in notes drawn by Friedrich Nicolai following a conversation with Mendelssohn, the latter is quoted as suggesting that the Hebrew language was unfit for philosophy because of its oriental and uncultivated nature. (Let me note in passing that by 1781, the date of this conversation, Hebrew had a history of more than six centuries of philosophical writing, while German had hardly been used for philosophical writing before 1700.)
This hierarchy of cultures, which presented the traditional Jew as essentially inferior to the German/European, was immortalized sharply in the slogan of the nineteenth-century Haskalah: “Be a Jew in your tent, and a human being in the street.” The author of the saying, Yehuda Leib Gordon, seems to insinuate, unwittingly, that a Jew is not a human being, or at least not the paradigmatic human being. Being less cultivated than paradigmatic humanity, Jewishness was supposed to be restricted to the space of one’s tent (note well: tent, not house). Leaving the tent, the Jew must ascend to the rank of a human being–presumably, a white European, but clearly not a Jew.
Where should we locate Spinoza against this background of the Jewish Enlightenment and modernity? The Berlin Haskalah was not particularly fond of Spinoza. Spinoza was a radical, and the Berlin Maskilim were anything but radicals. Still, the Haskalah’s Biblicalism and Spinoza’s insistence that the Bible should be read literally might tempt one to view Spinoza as the precursor of the Jewish Enlightenment. Was Spinoza the Founding Father of modern Jewish Protestantism?
Spinoza was described by one of his contemporaries as a “Protestant Jew.” Yet a remarkable feature of Spinoza’s attitude to Judaism is the absence of any sense of shame. Was Spinoza free of the Haskalah’s sense of shame simply because he did not identify himself as a Jew, or was it instead Spinoza’s independence of mind that allowed him to be highly critical of several key aspects of traditional culture, while still presenting this culture as neither inferior nor superior to other cultures?
Yitzhak Y. Melamed is the Charlotte Bloomberg Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. He works on Early Modern Philosophy, German Idealism, Medieval Philosophy, and some issues in contemporary metaphysics (time, mereology, and trope theory), and is the author of Spinoza’s Metaphysics: Substance and Thought (Oxford University Press, 2013).
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