Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Spinoza and Adam Sandler’s Hannukah Song

with 4 comments

by weiner

In a recent issue of The Nation, Columbia intellectual historian Sam Moyn wrote an excellent and critical review of Jonathan Israel‘s Radical Enlightenment books, which argue for the importance of Baruch “Benedict” Spinoza in the development of modern democracy. I found Moyn’s review fascinating, though I must confess that I haven’t read a single one of the thousands of pages Israel has written on the subject. What interested me most, however, was Moyn’s observation that

Liberal secularists (notably Jews among them) have a long tradition of lionizing him; Lewis Feuer‘s Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism appeared more than a half-century ago.

Feuer was not the first. Horace Kallen, the subject of my dissertation, even more than Feuer, celebrated Spinoza not only as a father of liberalism, but as the embodiment of a distinctly Jewish philosophical spirit.

Of course, Kallen did not limit this praise for Spinoza. He also celebrated Henri Bergson, and was distraught to learn that Bergson drifted towards Catholicism at the end of his life. In a 1906 essay, “The Ethics of Zionism,” Kallen highlighted the Hebraic spirit’s ability to “express the moral law.” As exemplars of this ethical standard, he singled out the Biblical prophet Isaiah, but also Jesus and Karl Marx, two figures one wouldn’t necessarily describe as model Jews.

Something strange is going on here. It’s not unlike Jewish sports fans, who might not accept patrilineal descent but are delighted to claim any athlete for the Nation of Israel that they can: Mike Lieberthal, gold-glove Phillies catcher had a Jewish dad? We’ll take him! Rod Carew converted? That works (actually he didn’t).

The same goes for philosophers and intellectuals. Indeed, I can imagine an Adam Sandler-style “Hannukah Song” about “Jewish” thinkers going something like this:

Jesus loved his mommy, just like a nice Jewish boy is supposed to do

Spinoza was excommunicated though his ethical precepts still ring true

Trotsky wasn’t wearing a yarmulke, when he took an ice-pick to the head

but his real name was Lev Bronstein, a Jew-boy born and bread.

You’ll find a bunch of Rabbis, if you look up Karl Marx’s family tree

Good enough for Hitler well then it’s good enough for me!

Jewish intellectuals often take a strange pride in all the other intellectuals that are Jewish. We do this even if we don’t care for the Jews we’re celebrating. I have very mixed feelings about Noam Chomsky, but am very proud that he, like so many of Israel’s most strident critics, is Jewish (and the son of a Hebrew scholar to boot). This is about more than my taking pride in Jewish leftism, as Matty Yglesias does. I’m happy that New York Times columnist and Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman is Jewish, but I also take a strange satisfaction in noting that his and my ideological opponent, Milton Friedman, was also a Member of the Tribe.

So what makes these figures Jewish? Is it anything other than the arbitrariness of their births?

Isaac Deutscher posed such a question in his famous essay, “Message of the Non-Jewish Jew.” He listed “Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Freud.” In Deutscher’s words, they “found Jewry too narrow, too archaic, and too constricting.” And yet he mused:

HAVE they anything in common with one another? Have they perhaps impressed mankind’s thought so greatly because of their special “Jewish genius”? I do not believe in the exclusive genius of any race. Yet I think that in some ways they were very Jewish indeed. They had in themselves something of the quintessence of Jewish life and of the Jewish intellect. They were a priori exceptional in that as Jews they dwelt on the borderlines of various civilizations, religions, and national cultures. They were born and brought up on the borderlines of various epochs. Their minds matured where the most diverse cultural influences crossed and fertilized each other. They lived on the margins or in the nooks and crannies of their respective nations. They were each in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it. It was this that enabled them to rise in thought above their societies, above their nations, above their times and generations, and to strike out mentally into wide new horizons and far into the future.

Thus, it was their moderate marginality, their cosmopolitanism, their limited “otherness,” their insider/outsider status, their existence on the “bordelines” (or borderlands) that enabled particular (but not particularistic) Jews to strive for the universal. Deutscher here anticipates Tony Judt, who celebrated his status as one of the “edge people.” Judt is quick to insist that this is more than being, in Stalin’s words, a “rootless cosmopolitan,” for he finds himself “too well rooted in a variety of contrasting heritages.”

By celebrating “non-Jewish” Jews who rejected the particular for the universal, Deutscher naturally went on to champion Marxist internationalism over parochical, backward nationalism. Indeed, he argued that:

the nation-state is fast becoming an archaism—not only the nation-state of Israel but the nation-states of Russia, the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and others. They are all anachronisms.

Here again he anticipated Judt, who in his controversial article, “Israel: The Alternative:” rejected nationalism, and specifically Zionism, as a relic of the past:

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

Judt, though decidedly anti-Marxist, remains more comfortable with the universal than the particular, and has celebrated French universalist Jewish intellectuals, like Julien Benda and especially Leon Blum and Raymond Aron. Of course, Aron took a turn towards Jewish identity as the Arab-Israeli conflict heated up with the 6-day war in 1967. And shortly after publishing “Israel: The Alternative,” Judt admitted a fondness for his own Jewish heritage:

despite his transformation from teenaged Zionist activist to 50-something Zionist apostate [Judt] is still happy to be connected to the “annoying, burdensome, proud, difficult, unique, Jewish heritage”…. Still, Judt said, he considers himself a “proud Jew.” He said that he has every intention of providing his two young sons with a strong education in Jewish history and tradition, while also instilling a respect and understanding for the other religions in the Western world…..“I don’t see why my position on Israel should disqualify me as a good Jew in the Jewish community or Jewish literary circles.”

I don’t know if Judt still feels this way, but I don’t think he would call himself a “non-Jewish” Jew. I’ll admit to be proud that he is thoroughly engaged with Jewish history in a way that many of those who would make it onto the Jewish intellectual Hannukah song are not.

I’m not sure where this leaves us. I think Deutscher and Judt are right about Jewish status on the “edge” as a path to a more cosmopolitan, or universal (those aren’t always the same thing) outlook.

At the same time, I think the Jewish contribution to the world, if there is one, lies in the particular. Unlike the ancient Greeks who often celebrated abstract ideals, the Hebrew Bible is frequently rooted in the here and now, in the corporeal, in the practicalities of law and ritual. At a recent Association of Jewish Studies conference, Ruth Wisse, a scholar (and former professor of mine) I greatly admire despite our vast political differences, gave a plenary address. She argued that without a focus on the particular, there is no Jewish history. What makes Jewish history different, and unique, and indeed a distinct subject is that there has been something unique, different and distinct about the Jews. As a historian and a Jew, I have to agree.

I still love the Hannukah song though. And I’m really happy that Montreal Canadiens forward Mike Camalleri is Jewish.


Written by David Weinfeld

May 21, 2010 at 17:30

4 Responses

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  1. Some recent thoughts of Judt’s on being Jewish:

    Also big ups to the AJS.


    May 22, 2010 at 08:01

  2. Fans of Deutscher might like his older contemporary, Constantin Brunner. Brunner, a most non-Jewish Jew, was also invoked by Kallen in his Secularism Is the Will of God.

    Barrett Pashak

    May 26, 2010 at 17:45

  3. […] written about this before in regards to Judt, and I’m never quite sure what to make of his self-reflections, be they […]

  4. […] in the Diaspora, at least certainly not in North America. I’ve written about this many times before on this very blog. The real threat is assimilation, intermarriage, low birthrates. We all know […]

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