The First Modern Jew

modern jew

The First Modern Jew – Spinoza and the History of an Image
By Daniel B. Schwartz
Princeton University Press – £16.95

         Spinozism was not a break from Judaism, but its truest expression.

Regardless of where one stands so far as Baruch Spinoza being The First Modern Jew is concerned, many readers might consider this altogether valiant and at times audacious book, more of a contentious exploration than that of an enlightening one. Although, need we remind ourselves of the Romanian, Moshe Idel, who, with regard to the mystical study of Judaism, once wrote: ”the history of misunderstandings is as important as theories of understanding.”

So suffice to say, there’s a colourful abundance of ”literary and cultural topos” within these 201 pages (excluding Notes, Bibliography and Index). The sort of which is more than adept at triggering a trajectory of theological thought in each, and every wayward direction.

To be sure, as David N. Meyers of the University of California is quoted as saying: ”In this daring and outstanding book, Schwartz does a superb job of bringing Spinoza back to life in a number of diverse and intriguing historical contexts. A full-bodied cultural history, attentive to the various settings in which Spinoza was rediscovered and revivified.”

Such a fine if not plausible clarification being: ”The year 1670 had hardly begun before the first Latin edition of the Theological-Political Treatise appeared anonymously and under false imprint in the Dutch Republic […}.” A humanistic document that ”limited the role of religion to guaranteeing social obedience while relegating the pursuit of truth to philosophy, and argued for stripping religious communities of the right to coercive authority separate from the sovereign power. In short, here was a book that sought to displace once and for all organized religion as a bedrock of state and society” (my italics).

My italics indeed, as herein lies the fundamental reasoning as to why so many of us still feel the pressing need to find out just who and what Spinoza actually was; especially in relation to the all circumnavigating Calvinist theologians of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Such a ”frivolus bird,” (a so-called ”sodomizer” no less), of whose aforementioned, inflammatory work, the Theological-Political Treatise, an anonymous Dutch Collegiant once wrote: ”These are the horrid teachings, the repulsive errors, that this impudent Jewish philosopher (to put it nicely) has shit into the world.”

Absolutely not my italics!

But do you see what I mean about every wayward direction? We’ve only just reached page sixteen of The First Modern Jew – Spinoza and the History of an Image, and already, there’s a veritable cascade of former idiosyncratic insult. That place, where all reasoned calibration – by, and on behalf of the so-called learned-classes – has long since left the alter.

David Marx

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