Spinoza And His Jewish Influence Essay Research

Spinoza And His Jewish Influence Essay, Research Paper

Spinoza is considered one of the critical foundations of modern western thought. However, since he was of Jewish background and sought to expand on what he was taught by Jewish tradition, it is safe to say that much of modern western thought is based, partly, on Jewish ideas through Spinoza. Though there is not a whole lot written in English covering exactly what Spinoza learned and thought during his early years, a comparison of Spinoza s writings with Jewish writings offers a great deal of insight into how he was influenced by those ideas.

From all accounts, Baruch Spinoza, who later changed his name to the Latin equivalent Benedict Spinoza, was a shining light in the Jewish community. He quickly mastered Hebrew and studied at quite an early time the Talmud. His teachers, among them Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira, had great hopes for him. Though Spinoza did not wish to follow his successful father s footsteps as a merchant, Spinoza s father grew proud that his son showed such inspiration in Jewish thought and was on his way toward becoming a rabbi. It is said that the study of the Talmud trained his intellect, particularly through reasoning by analogy, and that his study of the Haggada had a great and permanent influence upon his code of living. (Knight 1) Indeed, when people looked back on his life, the peasants loved him for his good nature and the learned respected him for his intellect. He never accepted more money than he needed, and he was generally reverent toward others.

Though a modest man, his critique of the scriptures did not sit well with his teachers. Spinoza noted more the problems the scriptures created than the solutions they tried to propose. For Spinoza, it seemed the more he studied and thought, the more the Jewish doctrine turned into questions. After studying the Bible, then moving on to the Talmud, Spinoza looked into the writings of Maimonides, Levi ben Gerson, Ibn Ezra, and Hasdai Crescas, then to Ibn Gebirol and Moses of Cordova. In regard to Moses of Cordova, Spinoza was interested in his idea of God and the universe and looked to ben Gerson who taught the eternity of the world. (Durant 149) He read in Maimonides a discussion of the doctrine of Averroes, which said that immortality is impersonal, but when he read the Guide to the Perplexed, he found more confusion than answers. According to Durant, Spinoza found the contradictions and improbabilities of the Old Testament lingering in his thought long after the solutions of the Maimonides had dissolved into forgetfulness. In the writings of Ibn Ezra, the problems of the old faith were more directly expressed and sometimes declared unanswerable.

He began to wonder what Christians had to say about the questions he raised. He soon started to study Latin under Van den Ende; a Dutch scholar who was considered to some degree a bit of a heretic himself. Described as adventurous, Van den Ende criticized creeds and governments and even joined a conspiracy against the King of France, though was hung in 1674. In addition to teaching Spinoza Latin, he had a pretty daughter who found interest in Spinoza, though she quickly lost it when another suitor came around bearing expensive gifts.

Around this time he truly became a philosopher and studied Socrates, Plato, Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. From these he took their terminology and geometrical explanation using axioms, definitions, propositions, proofs, scholiums, and corollaries. (Durant 150) From Bruno he took the idea of unity: that all is contained within one substance and is unified in cause and origin. It seems from Bruno Spinoza gets a great deal of the basis of his later writings, notably that mind and matter are one and linked with everything. Of course, more than anyone else, Descarte, known as the father of the subjective and idealistic, influenced Spinoza. However, Spinoza was much more interested in Descarte s idea of one substance, which underlies all forms of matter, and another that underlies all forms of mind versus the epistemology that Descarte as well as many other philosophers get lost with. However, since Spinoza had that great idea of unity, two substances did not sit well with him. What also attracted Spinoza was Descarte s attempt to explain the world, aside for the concepts of God and the soul, through mechanical and mathematical laws. Where Descarte would not talk about God, Spinoza wanted to; and where Descarte spoke of two supreme substances, Spinoza wanted a better explanation.

By this point, Spinoza crossed the fine line of the pursuit of knowledge to sounding like a heretic. Spinoza was called before the elders of the synagogue to answer charges of heresy. According to Durant, he was asked if it was true that he told his friends that God might have a body- the world of matter; that angels might be hallucinations; that the soul might be merely life; and that the Old Testament said nothing of immortality? His answer was not recorded, but in some way he must have not taken back his words because he was offered an annuity of $500 and at least outwardly remain loyal to the Jewish faith. He refused the offer and was subsequently excommunicated, a practice extremely rare, though understandable given the situation of the Jews in Europe at that time. Spinoza was now separated from the whole Jewish community, sent away by his father, and his sister tried to take his inheritance. Though he won that inheritance back in court, like so many other things, he gave it back to his sister. On top of all this, he was attacked on the streets, after which he decided to move to the outskirts of Amsterdam on Outerdek road. There a poor Christian family let him live in their attic, and when they moved a few years later to Rynsburg, he moved with them. When someone told Spinoza that he should trust in revelation, referring to religion, he answered: Though I were at times to find the fruit unreal which I gather by my natural understanding, yet this would not make me otherwise than content; because in the gathering I am happy, and pass my days not in sighing and sorrow, but in peace, serenity and joy. (Willis 72)

Though he attempted to teach for awhile, he settled on lens grinding to earn enough to live on, though devoted much of his money toward books and spent a great deal of his time on scholarly work. The fact that he knew about the optical trade comes from Jewish tradition that every student learns a trade in addition to his studies. In effect, the very community that trained this young scholar, then ousted him, once again came in handy since they had ensured that he would know something to survive with other than philosophy.

While Spinoza gathered much of his basic ideas from western thinkers, his Jewish studies also show up largely in his writing. Rather than going against what he was taught, he more so adds to it and attempts to answer many of the questions that religion cannot. In this way, religions may view him as a heretic because his ideas are different, though similar to an extent. First and foremost, Spinoza acknowledges that there is a God, though he differs with Jewish faith only in exactly what God is. Where Jewish faith rarely, if ever, offers proof of God, Spinoza shows that God is here, simply because he makes up everything. Like his former faith, he does not offer explanation to how God was created, but he goes on past that to say that there is nothing outside of God, so nothing could have created God, so he must always have been. Judaism sees the existence of God as necessary for the existence of the universe, the universe being the proof that there is a god. Though sounding similar to Spinoza, this ideology places God as separate to the universe. Judaism also says that there is only one God. Likewise, Spinoza agrees that there is no substance outside of God, therefore essentially only one God. Also like Jewish thought, Spinoza agrees that God is a unity; a whole complete, indivisible entity. Though Spinoza would argue that many attributes and modes of the one substance exists, he agrees that the one substance cannot be broken into separate parts and described separately without reference to the one substance. Jews would say that no one could describe in a set number of ways what God is. Though Spinoza fully describes God, he does so in a way to include all the infinite attributes, again somewhat concurring with Jewish thought. True, Spinoza would not likely be seen praying to God, but in a way he does. Jews are taught that only the one God should be praised. For Spinoza, God encompasses all things, so when he shows kindness to all people, his acts are parallel to a religious person praying, because he is showing, in effect, praise to a part of what he believes to be God.

Deeper into the idea of there being only one God, Judaism teaches that God is the creator of all things. Jews reject the dualistic idea of a separate entity such as the devil that creates all evil. Consequently, evil as well as good comes from God. Once Again, this idea fits nicely with Spinozan thought. Although many places in scripture analogously describe God in terms of a body, Jewish thought maintains that God is incorporeal. Spinoza acknowledges that much of scripture was written to get across to the masses, but he would argue that god is corporeal and, in effect, incorporates all matter within himself. If posed the question of whether god is sentient or not, Spinoza would argue that God is not a separate sentient entity, however contains within himself all thoughts and ideas, for he is not merely matter. In this respect, Spinoza splits from Descarte s philosophy because for Spinoza, mind and matter run together versus separate and meet somewhere. For Jews, the idea of God as physically represented brings to mind the golden calf, but since Spinoza is not worshipping God, his part physical view of God does not represent idolatry. Since God is not material in Jewish tradition, he cannot be either male or female. The pronoun used is just to represent him as a higher form versus just a thing. Spinoza agrees that God is neither male nor female, but would probably contend that he is both since he encompasses all things, including male and female. Both Spinoza and Jews agree that God is omnipresent, however different ways they may see God as around at all times. To an extent they both agree that God is omnipotent, but where they differ is that Spinoza would say that God can do anything as long as it is within his powers. He cannot, for instance, defy the laws of nature for a miracle. For the Jews, the only thing that is outside of God s realm is fear of him, and ultimately, free will. Spinoza might argue that free will is not actually outside of God since what makes up choices is within God, and when all factors are taken into account, no force outside of God, since there is none, can cause something, namely a choice, to occur. In accordance to a degree with the Jews, Spinoza would say here that all things have a reason because of God, even if God is not actively doing the reasoning as a separate, higher power.

For Jews, God is omniscient. He knows all things past, present, and future. For Spinoza, this is true only in that the one substance encompasses things past, present, and future. Moses reply to the name of God as I am who am is purposefully ambiguous to mean I am what is, I am what will be and likely, I am what was. This describes God s eternal nature, one who has no beginning and no ending. Spinoza agrees, since matter cannot be destroyed, therefore God can never be destroyed, and justifiably always was. Spinoza might disagree with the Jewish idea that God is both just and merciful. For Spinoza, God is actively neither, though equilibrium would lead one to believe that forces of nature balance each other out and through nature; mercy and justness may be implied, though never actively carried out by a higher power. For Jews, God is also holy and perfect. For Spinoza, God may not be necessarily holy, though he might argue that it would be nice if people would respect all things. Of course, he probably would not go to the trouble, since that would imply that people would be appeasing some higher force. As for perfect, Spinoza would go only as far as to say that in regard to laws of nature, and in understanding that all things happen because of such laws and the many intricate interactions of things, perfection can only describe that one substance as how close it comes to fulfilling those laws. Since the laws are unable to be broken, it seems relevant to declare that all is perfect because there is no other possibility, let alone a better one. Spinoza would strongly argue against the idea that the one substance is our king, though he would agree that we are bound by it. He would also agree to a certain extent that God is our father, merely because we are within God and here only because of God.

Spinoza Clearly starts at his Jewish origins and attempts to go beyond what he was taught through studying other philosophers and trying to answer questions that his former faith created. Though his ideas are also based on those not of Jewish descent, what he does write still has many facets of his original thought. The best short description of what he writes would be one part Jewish, one part not Jewish, one part his own thoughts, all combined together in logical progression similar to geometry.


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