Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Daniel B. Schwartz's "The First Modern Jew"

Daniel B. Schwartz is assistant professor of history at George Washington University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image, and reported the following:
In July 1656, the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam excommunicated Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) for his “horrible heresies” and “monstrous deeds.” The ban expressly prohibited all contact with, as well as the reading of anything by, the future author of two of the most scandalous works of early modern rationalism, the Theological-Political Treatise (1670) and the Ethics (1677). Yet, today, streets are named after Spinoza in Tel Aviv and Haifa; conferences mark the anniversary of his birth, his death, even his excommunication; and plays about his rupture with the Jewish community pack the houses of Jewish repertory theaters. The First Modern Jew is the first book to recount how this pioneering biblical critic and pantheist philosopher went from being one of Judaism’s most notorious heretics to one of its most celebrated, if still highly controversial, cultural heroes, claimed by partisans of Jewish liberalism, nationalism, and socialism alike, and widely heralded as a “the first modern Jew.”

Page 99 stands at a crucial pivot of a chapter devoted to one of the many appropriations of Spinoza in modern Jewish culture, his reclamation in the Haskalah (or Jewish Enlightenment) of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. In 1856, exactly two hundred years after Spinoza’s excommunication, a little-known Galician maskil (Jewish enlightener) named Salomon Rubin (1823-1910) published a two-volume work that audaciously promised to flout the ban entirely by translating Spinoza’s Ethics and Theological-Political Treatise into the holy tongue of Hebrew. Yet the justification for this scheme was already inherent in Rubin’s title—The New Guide to the Perplexed—, which conferred on Spinoza the mantle of Moses Maimonides, the twelfth-century titan of medieval Jewish philosophy. Maimonides was arguably the Haskalah hero par excellence, and well into the nineteenth century his Guide to the Perplexed remained de rigueur reading for the would-be maskil. Page 99—a page that marks the end of a section devoted to the image of Maimonides and the Guide in the Haskalah, and the start of a section on Rubin’s “new guide” Spinoza—can thus be said to capture something very essential about my book, which is ultimately a story not only about Spinoza’s Jewish afterlives, but about how innovation is introduced in a traditional culture; how a renegade is rehabilitated by being represented in the light of classical ideal types; in short, how a heretic becomes a hero.
Learn more about The First Modern Jew at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue