Baruch Spinoza

Daniel B. Schwartz

in Jewish Studies

ISBN: 9780199840731
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Baruch Spinoza


As one of the pioneers of modern Western philosophy and Bible criticism, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (b. 1632–d. 1677) is generally considered the greatest philosopher of Jewish origin since Maimonides, though whether he should also be considered a Jewish philosopher is an age-old debate. Born into the Sephardic community of Amsterdam, Spinoza was excommunicated in 1656 for his “horrible heresies” and “monstrous deeds.” For the rest of his life, he made no effort to reconcile with his native community, and although he never converted to Christianity, it is hardly a given that he continued to consider himself a Jew either. From this foundational rupture in Spinoza’s life—one that would lead many in retrospect to label him the first modern Jew—myriads would follow in his thought. In the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, published anonymously in 1670, Spinoza broke with the premise that the Bible, in its entirety, is the word of God, a move that led him famously to spurn the Maimonidean practice of reading scripture allegorically, all so as to assure its agreement with philosophical and scientific truth. In its place, he called for a hermeneutic that would distinguish between the meaning of scripture and the matter of its truth, thus anticipating the historical-critical method of modern biblical criticism. In his magnum opus, the Ethics, which first appeared as part of his Opera Posthuma (Posthumous Works), in 1677, Spinoza broke with the very idea of an irreducible break between God and the world, arguing instead for a metaphysics of immanence in which only one substance, God-or-Nature (Deus sive Natura), could and did exist. Much has been written about Jewish aspects of Spinoza’s life and thought, especially by Jewish scholars seeking to determine to what extent, if at all, Spinoza belongs to the history of Jewish philosophy. The literature on this subject can be divided into three main categories that are distinguished by how they come at this problem. The first and most well-trodden approach investigates putative Jewish sources and contexts of Spinoza’s philosophy, from medieval Jewish rationalism to Kabbalistic literature to the Marrano background of his native Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam. The second focuses on Spinoza’s concept of and attitude toward Judaism, especially in comparison to his evaluation of Christianity. The third examines the ramifications of both Spinoza’s philosophy and personal example for modern Jewish thought and identity. This article is limited only to those aspects of Spinoza that touch on his Jewish identity, sources, and influence and thus does not include general philosophical studies per se.

Article.  7193 words. 

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies

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