We’re off and running with our discussions surrounding NEW JERUSALEM–and it seems there is much to be said about the man and the mind of Baruch de Spinoza. This past Sunday Rabbi Tamara Miller was joined onstage by Jerome Copulsky, the Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Director of Judaic Studies at Goucher College. Professor Copulsky spoke with humor and authority of the enigmatic philosopher, enjoying a Yuengling all the while (as a tribute to Spinoza–who was apparently a big fan of beer and was occasionally even paid for his services with the frothy stuff).
Would Spinoza have considered himself a Jewish philosopher; or a philosopher who happened to be Jewish?
Spinoza probably did not think of himself as a Jewish philosopher–it wouldn’t make sense, to put the “Jewish” before the “philosopher” for Spinoza would have been meaningless. You’re a philosopher or you’re not a philosopher. And the idea that there would be something Jewish, something either theologically Jewish or ethnically Jewish about his work—for Spinoza–would have been absurd.
We do know that there are a lot of Jewish influences on Spinoza’s thought. I mentioned Maimonides; Spinoza himself mentions Ibn Ezra for his biblical commentaries; other scholars would argue that there’s a kabalistic influence to his thought. Now what happens is, Spinoza is cast out of the community and for the next hundred or so years he is “verboten”, he is banned by the Jewish community. Moses Mendelssohn in the late 18th Century tries to revive Spinoza a bit, this causes a bit of a controversy, and it’s really not until the mid-19th and 20th century where Jewish thinkers among them Martin Buber, try to reclaim Spinoza as a particularly Jewish thinker. Martin Buber does this in his work and, to go from another angle, David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of the state Israel, back in the 1920s tries to convene a group to revoke the cherem, to bring Spinoza back into the fold.