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Spinoza and the Philosophical Impossibility of a Chosen People

Jewish chosenness is not a metaphysical reality. It derives from the conditions of a particularly prosperous period in Israelite history.

Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch Jew, is one of the most important figures in the history of philosophy. Today, he is a grand character in the Jewish historical narrative, but while he was alive, the Jewish community of Amsterdam excommunicated him for “abominable heresies.” Posted by permission from A People Apart: Chosenness and Ritual in Jewish Philosophical Thought, edited by Daniel H. Frank, the State University of New York Press, (c) 1993, State University of New York. All rights reserved.

The first philosopher of modernity to come to grips with the concept of chosenness was Spinoza. 

Chosenness is Philosophically Untenable

In his Theologico‑Political Treatise, he devoted a whole chapter (“On the Vocation of the Hebrews”) to the issue. There he tried to respond to the traditional arguments for the “eternal election” of the Jews. His conclusion is that any claim to election based on allegedly intellectual or moral superiority is philosophically untenable. Since Spinoza’s argument served as a paradigm for most further discussions on this issue, it seems useful to dwell on it more extensively.

His starting point is unmistakably ethical:

“Every man’s true happiness and blessedness consist solely in the enjoyment of what is good, not in the pride that he alone is enjoying it, to the exclusion of others. He who thinks himself the more blessed because he is enjoying benefits which others are not, or because he is more blessed or more fortunate than his fellows, is ignorant of true happiness and blessedness, and the joy which he feels is either childish or envious and malicious. For instance, a man’s true happiness consists only in wisdom, and the knowledge of the truth, not at all in the fact that he is wiser than others, or that others lack such knowledge: such considerations do not increase his wisdom or true happiness.”

The same idea is formulated in the Ethics much more outspokenly:

“If we think that someone enjoys something that only one person can possess, we shall endeavor to bring it about that he shall not possess that thing.”

But there is also a philosophical aspect of a more general nature to the problem. Nations can be set apart by their languages and social habits, but never by reason, the distinctive feature of man qua man.

Nature creates not nations, but individual human beings. From this angle, Spinoza anticipated [20th-century anthropologist Claude] Levi‑Strauss, who also advocated the universality of the human mind, rejecting very sharply any ethnocentric conception such as, for example, [another 20th-century anthropologist Lucien] Levy‑Bruhl’s notion of “pre-logical mentality [the idea that “primitive” people have irrational thought processes].” ([Jewish philosopher] Will Herberg, too, noted that the moral argument that “the doctrine of ‘chosenness’ is little better than ethnocentrism, in which a particular group regards itself as the center of the universe and develops doctrines that will flatter its pride and minister to its glory.”)

The Theological is Really Natural

In order to ascertain the reason for the belief in the election of the Hebrews, Spinoza first of all gives a secular explanation to some traditional theological concepts: “guidance of God” or “help of God” are, according to his philosophical view, synonyms of “the universal laws of nature.”

“We can now easily understand what is meant by the election of God. For since no one can do anything save by the predetermined order of nature, that is, by God’s eternal ordinance and decree, it follows that no one can choose a plan of life for himself or accomplish any work save by God’s vocation choosing him for the work or the plan of life in question, rather than any other.”

Now, there are, according to Spinoza, different forms of preserving a society:

“That society will be most secure, most stable, and least liable to reverses, which is founded and directed by far‑seeing and careful men; while, on the other hand, a society constituted by men without trained skill, depends in great measure on fortune, and is less constant.”

A Well-Run Society

From this, Spinoza reaches the following conclusion in regard to the chosenness of the Jews:

“Nations, then, are distinguished from one another in respect to the social organization and the laws under which they live and are governed; the Hebrew nation was not chosen by God in respect to its wisdom nor its tranquility of mind, but in respect to its social organization and the good fortune with which it obtained supremacy and kept it so many years.”

“This is abundantly clear from Scripture. Even a cursory perusal will show us that the only respects in which the Hebrews surpassed other nations are in their successful conduct of matters relating to government, and in their surmounting great perils solely by God’s external aid; in other ways they were on a par with their fellows, and God was equally gracious to all. For in respect to intellect…they held very ordinary ideas about God and nature, so that they cannot have been God’s chosen in this respect; nor were they so chosen in respect of virtue and the true life, for here again they, with the exception of a very few elect, were on an equality with other nations: therefore their choice and vocation consisted only in the temporal happiness and advantages of independent rule.”

I have quoted this passage at length because it is of great significance to the issue at hand. Spinoza’s exegetical examples from the Bible, which are not always very convincing, need not concern us here. They were meant to corroborate his claim, “that the Jews of that time were not more beloved to God than other nations… [and] the election of the Jews had regard to nothing but temporal physical happiness and freedom, in other words, autonomous government, and to the manner and means by which they obtained it.”

Spinoza thus describes the notion of election or chosenness as an historical necessity that separates the Jews from all other people, while for traditional Jews the belief in election represented a metaphysical privilege that distinguished the people of Israel from other peoples. Likewise, in the famous concluding passage of the chapter where Spinoza ponders the prospective renewal of the Hebrew state and even speaks about the possibility “that God may a second time elect them [the Jews],” he hastens to affirm:

“Lastly, if any one wishes to maintain that the Jews, from this or any other cause, have been chosen by God for ever, I will not gainsay him if he will admit that this choice, whether temporal or eternal, has no regard, in so far as it is peculiar to the Jews, to aught but dominion and physical advantages (for by such alone can one nation be distinguished from another), whereas in regard to intellect and true virtue, every nation is on a par with the rest, and God has not in these respects chosen one people rather than another.”

The Laws of Nature are Universal

What he is here suggesting is that the laws of nature (and also of history), which apply to every people, hold for the Jewish people as well. The possibility of reestablishing the Jewish state exists not on account of “divine election,” but rather on account of general historical laws.

Some scholars assume that these polemical passages of the Theologico‑Political Treatise were perhaps remnants of the “Apology,” which Spinoza had written to justify his rupture with the Jewish community following his excommunication. He clearly attacks here the particularist trends of Judaism for the sake of universalism. The deflation of divine election to favorable political circumstances perhaps expresses some resentment against the Jews who had expelled him from their midst.

Spinoza’s discussion of “election” comprises the principal elements of all subsequent discussions about the concept of the “chosen people.”

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