One of the most significant figures in the history of philosophy, Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community.

Print this page Print this page

Ostens sent Spinoza Velthuysen's letter for comment. Spinoza, in his reply, rejects vehe­mently the accusation that he is an atheist and that he teaches atheism: "For Atheists are wont to desire inordinately honors and riches, which I have always despised, as all those who know me are aware." It appears that in Spinoza's day the atheist was viewed with the strongest re­probation. Certainly the charge of practical atheism, with its association of a loose and reprehensible life, cannot be leveled against Spinoza, whose personal life was devoted to what he calls "the intellectual love of God."

But on the theoretical level, Spinoza's identification of God with the universe does seem to amount to atheism.

All this obtains if Spinoza really teaches pantheism, as he seems to do, though some scholars prefer to think of Spinoza's philosophy as panentheism, the doctrine that all is in God, a philosophy held particularly by Shneur Zalman of Liady and the Habad movement in Hasidism which he founded. The Habad philosophy was indeed seen by the mitnagdim [those who opposed Hasidim] as heresy but there are a number of differences between pantheism and panen­theism, so that while the former is undoubtedly false according to Jewish teaching, the latter is not necessarily so.

Spinoza's Place in Jewish History

From time to time attempts have been made to reclaim Spinoza for Judaism. If this means that Spinoza was a Jew and an admirable person who did not deserve to have been placed under the ban, many Jews would go along with it. But if it means that Spinoza's philosophy is compatible with Judaism, Spinoza himself would have rejected any such claim.

Spinoza is generally seen by Jews as outside the religion and as therefore posing no threat to the religion. That is why nowadays religious Jews usually view the whole Spinoza question in a detached way and even feel proud of Spinoza's influence on world philosophy--one of "us" extending such a great influence on "them." In a Hasidic tale, a Rebbe was told by one of his follows that, in Spinoza's view, there is no basic difference between humans and animals. The Rebbe replied: in that case, why have animals never produced a Spinoza?

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.