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Reviewed by:
  • Judaism and Enlightenment
  • Miriam Bodian
Judaism and Enlightenment, by Adam Sutcliffe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 314 pp. $60.00.

This volume deals with an important but neglected topic, namely (in the author's words), "the specific entanglements of Jewishness and Enlightenment rationalism" (p. 4). Addressing this topic is an enormous undertaking, and Adam Sutcliffe's book is an original, sophisticated, and sweeping attempt. Although it focuses primarily on the early decades of the Enlightenment, it includes a discussion of later developments as well. Sutcliffe's stated aim is to "focus on the intellectual dynamics of particular ideas as they unfold through time" (p. 13). The book is thus organized thematically and, in the venerated tradition of intellectual history, deals only tangentially with social, political, and biographical context.

The dynamics that most intrigue Sutcliffe are the struggles of Enlightenment thinkers to resolve the conflict between (a) persistent patterns of thought that led them to give the Jews and Judaism "mythic" status, and (b) a rationalistic, critical approach that required viewing Jews and Judaism as ordinary subjects of investigation. Sutcliffe dismisses the all-too-common tendency to label Enlightenment thinkers as either anti-Jewish (e.g., Voltaire) or philosemitic (e.g., Dohm), preferring to highlight the conflict and ambiguity present in the thinking of virtually all Enlightenment thinkers on the subject of Jews and Judaism.

The first section of the book deals with the vicissitudes of Christian Hebraism in the Enlightenment period. Sutcliffe argues that when scholars began to apply critical logic to the study of the Hebrew Bible, they increasingly lost confidence in the value of the enterprise. This is not the most persuasively argued point in the book. The author contrasts the "innocent straightforwardness" and "confidence" of Christian Hebraism at the start of the seventeenth century with the "increasing paradigmatic instability of" and "weakened confidence in" this activity in later years. A more precise description of the [End Page 184] impact of rationalistic thinking would be helpful, particularly since Christian Hebraism was never a simple matter.

More compelling is the discussion of shifts during the Enlightenment in what the author calls "Hebraic politics," that is, Christian identification with the governmental structures and political history of the ancient Israelites. For thinkers like Hobbes and Harrington, Sutcliffe argues, it was still possible (despite some strains) to integrate lessons drawn from sacred history with analytical reasoning about actual contemporary problems. With Basnage and Bayle, however, conflict between the demands of rigorous scholarship and the demands of theology was heightened. The tensions in their treatment of Judaism foreshadow an intellectual environment in which the sacred status of Scripture would be altogether rejected and things Jewish would technically lose their "privileged" status.

The second section, entitled "Judaism and the Formation of Enlightenment Radicalism," deals with Jewish involvement in the Enlightenment, primarily in the context of the Sephardi community in Amsterdam, and with the emergence of radical Enlightenment voices in Spinoza's circle. After summarizing the particular theological situation of the members of the Amsterdam Sephardi community, Sutcliffe moves to Uriel Da Costa and Spinoza, and then to non-Jewish members of Spinoza's circle. Such a structure misleadingly suggests (even if it is not the author's intention) that the radical Enlightenment had its deepest roots in the western Sephardi community. This structure also serves to keep Spinoza's identity fixed in the Jewish sphere, even though he severed his ties with the Jewish community in early adulthood. Sutcliffe reads the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus as the work of a "dissident Jew" who was "staking . . . a secular claim on Jewish memory and tradition" (p. 123)—surely a controversial understanding of Spinoza.

An unfortunate feature of the book is the ponderous writing. About Spinoza's image, the author concludes that "the complexity and the precariousness of [Spinoza's] idealisation highlights the ambiguities inherent in the universalistic aspiration of the Enlightenment, and their problematisation by the enduring presence of Judaism" (p. 147). That is, Spinoza may have succeeded in universalizing Jewish history, but his Christian colleagues adopted an "exceptionalist" view of him that had to do with his Jewish origins.

The second section also offers a brief but suggestive discussion of Enlightenment and Kabbalah. In...


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