Spinoza and the Election of the Hebrews

In Michael A. Rosenthal (ed.), Spinoza & Modern Jewish Philosophy. Palgrave (forthcoming)
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Spinoza’s interpretation of the election of the Hebrews in the third chapter of the Theological Political Treatise enraged quite a few Jewish readers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The rise of nationalism, and the demand of loyalty to one’s own genos brought about a certain style of patriotic writing aimed at Spinoza’s “betrayal.” In a series of lectures on the eve of the Great War, Hermann Cohen portrayed Spinoza as a person of “demonic spirt” and as “the great enemy who emerged from our midst.” In a stream of words more akin to shouting than to analytic discourse, Cohen protested against what he took to be the universal complacency regarding Spinoza’s treachery: “When Spinoza, with merciless severity, makes his own nation the object of contempt – at the time that Rembrandt lived on the same street and immortalized the ideal type of the Jew - no voice rises in protest against this humanly incomprehensible betrayal.” Cohen was right in identifying in Spinoza an absence of ethnic patriotism. I, for one, find this absence a virtue rather than a vice, and in this chapter I will argue, inter alia, that in rejecting ethnic normativity Spinoza was consistent with a dominant strand of rabbinic thought. What precisely was so offensive in Spinoza’s words in chapter three of the TTP? A common reading of this chapter suggests that Spinoza presents the election of the Hebrews as merely political and not spiritual in nature, thus downgrading the importance of the election. This reading is not absolutely groundless, but it is highly imprecise, for as we shall shortly see, for Spinoza, God’s (genuine) election of the Hebrews indicates the political weakness of their state, rather than its strength. Apart from pointing out this important corrective, I will also attempt in this essay to evaluate Spinoza’s critique of the election of the Hebrews, the result of which might lead us to some highly unexpected conclusions. In the first section of this chapter I present an outline of Spinoza’s interpretation of the connection between the Hebrews’ belief in being chosen, and the xenophobic nature of their ancient state. In the second section, I discuss Spinoza’s interpretation of the election of the Hebrews in chapter three of the TTP, and show that on Spinoza’s sardonic reading it was nothing but luck which allowed the Hebrew state to survive for a rather long time in spite of its poor political constitution. The third and final part provides a defense of Spinoza’s critique of the notion of chosenness. I will argue, first, that chosenness has never been granted the status of theological doctrine or principle of faith within rabbinic Judaism. I will then point out the significant religious problems with the notion of chosenness, suggesting however two exceptions in which belief in chosenness might still be defensible. I will conclude this section with a discussion of rabbinic views on the conversion of minors, arguing that according to the mainstream rabbinic view, being a Jew is a merit only on the condition that a person is pious, a view which is not far from Spinoza’s own claims in the third chapter of the TTP.

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Yitzhak Melamed
Johns Hopkins University


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