Judaism and Enlightenment (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Adam Sutcliffe. Judaism and Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xv + 314. Cloth, $60.00.

Adam Sutcliffe's detailed and wide-ranging historical study of the image of the Jews and of Judaism in the minds of Enlightenment thinkers very broadly conceived might better be [End Page 343] titled Enlightenment Myths of Jews and Judaism. Sutcliffe admirably captures the consistently mythic portrayal of Jews and Judaism mostly offered as interpretations of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) rather than with reference to actual living or historical Jews. Although not explicitly acknowledged, what Sutcliffe offers the reader is a comprehensive catalogue of Enlightenment ideology or, better, theologizing about Judaism and the Jews. I say theologizing because the ubiquitous stark ambivalence toward the Jews that Sutcliffe argues Enlightenment thinkers to a person harbored, from the early Christian Hebraists and Kabbalists to the deists, to Voltaire and beyond the Enlightenment proper even to Freud (whom Sutcliffe not completely in jest regards as the last philosophe) echoes and reconfigures the quintessential Christian ambivalence toward Jews as both God's chosen and God's rejected. Christianity's need to legitimate the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament stands in perpetual conflict with its need to de-legitimate the Jews as its rightful owners and heirs. Sutcliffe is utterly convincing that the Enlightenment conception of the Jews has irreducible mythic and conflictual aspects.

The author's intended purpose, however, which is to convince the reader that Judaism and the Jews are the paradigmatic crux of the unassimilability of the mythic and particular by Enlightenment reason and hence to bring into question Enlightenment ideals themselves, is less convincing. Instead the data Sutcliffe amasses seem to point to the conclusion that Enlightenment thinkers were deeply imbued with mythic categories and ancient prejudices not easily sloughed off by mere protestations of rational autonomy and commitment to universal ideals.

Sutcliffe's mistake is to grant to the Enlightenment thinkers their ground on both their self-valuation as exemplars of the deployment of universal reason or rational universalism and also their classification of Judaism as particularist mythos in opposition to just such reason. What Sutcliffe's carefully collected and exhaustively presented data suggest, instead, is that when it came to Judaism, the Enlightenment thinkers were neither rational nor universalist but instead culture bound and impassioned. The book's great strength is its admirable and exhaustive scholarly grasp of European Enlightenment works and its systematic presentation of the Jews in the imagination of these Enlighteners. Nevertheless, missing from this book is a scholarly understanding of Jewish sources both biblical and post-biblical and especially of Jewish philosophy. As a result, Judaism (and even the Hebrew Bible) signify to the author what Enlighteners mistakenly and prejudicially cast it as, namely, Europe's quintessential mythic particularism. But this caricature ignores the reality of rabbinic Judaism's profoundly rationalist tendencies and also the universalist aspirations and claims of the Jewish philosophic tradition whose deep roots go back to the Hellenistic era, let alone the universality of the Bible which is hardly less than that of Shakespeare. Hence Sutcliffe perpetuates a negative (and false) stereotype in the name of valorizing it. In this he is persuaded by a post-modernist agenda suggested, but not generally intrusive, throughout the book and made explicit at the end.

Particularly jarring is Sutcliffe's inclusion of Spinoza in his catalogue of Enlightenment villifiers of Judaism as a form of unassimilable particularism and mythic primitivism. Spinoza instead clearly and repeatedly argues in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus that biblical Judaism is exemplified par excellence by its universalist ethics and hence it is the Ancient Jewish Commonwealth that ought to serve as an exemplar for the Dutch republic and all modern polities, as Michael Rosenthal has admirably shown in several essays. Spinoza draws this conclusion from the deployment of what he explicitly develops as his scientific method of reading texts, a method he argues is the same as the scientific method of amassing the data of nature and systematizing it in order to let its explanatory categories emerge therefrom (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, vii). The central result of using the scientific method on the Bible is Spinoza's...