The First Modern Jew
Spinoza and the History of an Image
Princeton University Press 2012
New Books in BiographyNew Books in European StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Intellectual HistoryNew Books in Jewish StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books Network March 2, 2018 Moses Lapin
Benedito/Baruch/Benedict Spinoza (1623-1677) lived at the crossroads of Dutch, scholastic, and Jewish worlds. Excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam at 23, his works would later be put on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books. He was a heretic. And yet, he was and continues to be seen by many as perhaps the hero of the early modern period. A figure alienated by the structures that defined his life, Spinoza has been understood, by Jews and non-Jews alike, to have expressed a powerful self-definition that echoes to the present day, where biographies, plays, “guides”, and academic works continue to abound.
In place of a simplistic origin story or master narrative of a modernity that begins with Spinoza, The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image (Princeton University Press, 2012), tells the story of how Spinoza came to be understood as a cultural hero, a reception history of his image at many crucial junctures in Modern Jewish history. Rather than probing his philosophy or strictly philosophic influence, Schwartz studies a malleable “Spinoza” as a symbol that captures the ways in which Jews have sought to understand and define themselves. Beginning in 17th-century Amsterdam before moving to 18th-century Berlin, 19th-century Eastern Europe, and Israel and America in the 20th century, The First Modern Jew is a chronological narrative of modern Jewish history that moves seamlessly between a larger thematic thread and local histories of both the famous (Moses Mendelssohn, David Ben-Gurion, and Yitzhak Bashevis Singer) and the forgotten (Berthold Auerbach, Salomon Rubin, and Yosef Klausner). In so doing, it probes the porous boundary between history and memory: the history of Spinoza and the history of the memory of Spinoza. And thereby we can see Spinoza as the “first modern Jew,” both because he was often projected as such and because he was a means by which people have asked the quintessential modern question: what does it mean to be me?
Professor Daniel B. Schwartz is an associate professor of history and the director of the Judaic Studies program at George Washington University.
Moses Lapin is a graduate student in the departments of History and Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he is a crypto-Spinozist and his hero is Blinky the Ghost.