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Jewish Social Studies 6.3 (2000) 31-51

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Can a Jew Be a Philosophe? Isaac de Pinto, Voltaire, and Jewish Participation in the European Enlightenment

Adam Sutcliffe

There was very little serious intellectual interaction between Jews and Christians in Western Europe during the eighteenth century. The debate--or self-styled "friendly conversation"--between the leading Dutch Remonstrant Phillip van Limborch and the Sephardic physician and polemicist Orobio de Castro, which took place in Amsterdam in the early 1680s, was the last prominent respectful theological encounter between a Christian and a Jew until the acceptance of Moses Mendelssohn into the circles of the German Enlightenment more than two generations later. 1 Textual scholarship, above all on the Hebrew Bible, remained an important field of contact between Jews and Christians. 2 In the fashionable intellectual circles of the Enlightenment, however, Christian Hebraist erudition no longer commanded the respect that it had widely held in the previous century. For many of the self-defined members of the Republic of Letters, it was a commonplace to adopt a denigratory attitude toward Jewish culture and learning, which was typically figured as the quintessence of pedantic insularity.

This abstract representation of Judaism, however, did not easily reconcile with the attitudes and behavior of those Jews who were most visible in polite circles in Paris, Amsterdam, or London. During the mid-eighteenth century, members of North-West European Sephardic [End Page 31] elites tended increasingly to loosen their community ties and to seek to augment their status in Gentile society. 3 The attempts of these Jews to gain entry into a cultural community that accepted them only with considerable ambivalence both foreshadows the predicament of much of nineteenth-century Jewry and highlights internal fractures within the Enlightenment itself.

Nowhere is this tension between eighteenth-century cultural exclusiveness and idealistic universalism more sharply illustrated than in the epistolary exchange of 1762 between Voltaire, the philosophe most notoriously hostile to Judaism, and Isaac de Pinto, the Amsterdam Sephardic writer and patrician. De Pinto's struggle to gain recognition as a philosophe in his own right underscores the exclusionary attitudes toward Jews that endured at the heart of Enlightenment culture. His personal negotiation of the complicated relationships between his Jewishness, his political and economic interests, and his cultural and intellectual aspirations also offers a valuable insight into the precariousness of Jewish identity at the threshold of secular modernity. De Pinto's Jewishness repeatedly marked him apart in the minds of those from whom he sought to gain acceptance as an equal. However, his status as a member of a transnational minority also inflected his intellectual relationship to the values of the Enlightenment. De Pinto's intense commitment to a transnational cosmopolitanism carried a very different weight than did the superficially similar invocations of inter-nationalist rhetoric by non-Jewish intellectuals whose interests and identities were securely identified with either of the rival nation-states of Britain or France.

The Shadow of Toleration: Voltaire and the Jews

Voltaire's extreme hostility toward Judaism and the Jews has been widely noted. 4 In a great many of his texts, he derides with wit and relish what he regards as the absurdities of the Old Testament and the legalistic sterility of the Jews' religious observance. A striking contradiction, however, runs through his treatment of Judaism: despite his avowed distaste for the subject, he repeatedly returns to it. In his Philosophical Dictionary, he asserts that "it is with regret that I discuss the Jews: this nation is, in many ways, the most detestable ever to have sullied the earth." 5 And yet this text, ostensibly a universalist philosophical handbook, is replete with repetitious polemical attacks on the immorality and depravity documented in the Old Testament. In a great many of his other writings, he dismisses the Jews in such terms as "an [End Page 32] insignificant Arab tribe" 6 and the Bible as a tissue of "absurd fairy tales," 7 expounding these arguments at length and simultaneously proclaiming them to be both unpleasant and uninteresting.