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  • Baruch Spinoza: Seine Aufnahme durch die jüdischen Denker in Deutschland
  • Manfred Walther
Baruch Spinoza: Seine Aufnahme durch die jüdischen Denker in Deutschland, by Ze’ev Levy. Stuttgart, Berlin, Cologne: W. Kohlhammer, 2001. 333 pp. Euro 25.00.

Given the fact that Spinoza is still persona non grata in Israel (pp. 11, 127), Ze’ev Levy addresses the question of “whether and in what degree Spinoza’s philosophy participates in modern Jewish intellectual life” (p. 19). His aim is to show that at least from the middle of the nineteenth century on, “most Jewish scholars regarded Spinoza as a legitimate, although controversial, part and parcel of the Jewish history of ideas” (p. 142). And as “Germany and the German cultural circle was the center of Jewish thought in modern times” (p. 271), it is quite natural that Levy deals nearly exclusively with, as he says, “Jewish thinkers in Germany.” He starts with Moses Mendelssohn (1728–1786) as the “turning point in the relation to Spinoza in Germany” (p. 21) and ends with Leo Strauss (1899–1973), “the last great Jewish scholar and philosopher in Germany who has contributed much to Spinoza research” (p. 247).

Levy discusses the various doctrines of Spinoza that caused him to be banned from the Jewish spiritual community and points out that only since the nineteenth century, when secular tendencies invaded Jewish life, has Spinoza’s philosophy been judged a part, although controversial, of the Jewish tradition which has left important traces in modern thought.

The authors Levy discusses can be arranged into four groups. First come those who argued against the ban on reading Spinoza. Moses Mendelssohn tried to show that Spinoza played an essential part in the history of modern philosophy and metaphysics, although not necessarily Jewish philosophy. Levy demonstrates that Mendelssohn was only interested in a “purified spinozism” that does not destroy the theistic foundations of morality; however, Mendelssohn was the first Jew to discuss Spinoza’s philosophy publicly. Also in this first group are Salomon Maimon (1753–1800), the first Jewish thinker who attributed an unbiasedly positive role to Spinoza in the development of modern philosophy; Berthold Auerbach (1812–1882), the poet who was the first to translate most of Spinoza’s works into German and who wrote a novel in which Spinoza’s friend Lodewijk Meyer stated that it was a Jew (i.e., Spinoza) who was the first “son of mankind,” the first truly universal thinker; and Julius Guttman (1880–1950) [End Page 171] and Leo Strauss, who also thought that Spinoza belonged to modern philosophy but not Jewish philosophy.

The second group would include, if Levy’s claim is well founded, a number of authors who held that Spinoza is not only a decisive figure in modern European philosophy but genuinely belongs to the Jewish history of ideas. Levy mentions two, Moses Hess (1812–1875) and David Baumgardt (1890–1963). Hess, the founder of socialism in Germany and of Zionism, always understood himself as a true disciple of “the master” Spinoza. His construction of world history placed Adam, Jesus, and Spinoza as the figures representing the three stages of history and thus revealed his Jewish inspiration. Baumgardt referred to Spinoza in support of his own hedonistically based philosophy because he thought that it was Spinoza who, by elaborating a utilitarian approach to human perfection that was rooted in Judaism, resisted Christianity’s attempts to overcome this world. Baumgardt, according to Levy, “became the first of the Jewish philosophers in the twentieth century . . . who was engaged in compensating the injury that had been committed to Spinoza by Jewish historiography and Jewish thought” (p. 213).

Levy finds a third group of authors ambiguous toward Spinoza. The historian of Jewish history, Heinrich Graetz (1817–1891), described Spinoza’s relation to Judaism as that of a “murderer of his mother”; on the other hand, he considered Spinoza one of the “greatest thinkers of his time, who brought with him a new salvation” (p. 147). Jakob Klatzkin (1882–1948), translated Spinoza’s Ethics into Hebrew and wrote a monograph on Spinoza in Hebrew. Levy calls him an “admirer and translator of the Ethics and an enemy of the TTP” (ch. 8...

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