#84 A Journey Through Jewish Philosophy (6)

The sixth instalment of David’s Jewish Philosophy lecture series considers two renowned, sometimes controversial, philosophers living during the Enlightenment:

  • Baruch Spinoza, and
  • Moses Mendelssohn.

Watch the lecture here: https://youtu.be/IC_bZTM55yA

In the first part of this Zoom lecture, David examines the ideas and impact of Baruch Spinoza, including the ultimate cause of his excommunication from the Jewish community. He explores concepts developed by Spinoza in his books:

In the first part of this Zoom lecture, David examines the ideas and impact of Baruch Spinoza, including the ultimate cause of his excommunication from the Jewish community. He explores concepts developed by Spinoza in his books:

Tractatus Theologico–Politicus (Theologico-Political Treatise), which provides a defence of secular thought, and

Ethics, which discusses:

  • reality is God
  • the universe (God) is necessary and determined
  • miracles do not exist
  • there is no free will
  • the pursuit of reason leads to freedom.

For Moses Mendelssohn, David explains, the challenge was to reveal religion in the Age of Reason. Mendelssohn’s book, Jerusalem, explores:

  • the Torah as revealed law
  • differences in nature and the laws of the Jewish people
  • reason as the true religion of humanity
  • the test of religious truth and its effect on conduct.

As with previous lectures, David provides historical context for both philosophers, describing their 17th and 18th century worlds. He also tackles some of the beliefs and misconceptions about these figures, many of which have carried through to today.



Today’s talk is not a simple talk. As some of you may have guessed, we are progressing through the journey of Jewish philosophy at a pace. And I’ll remind us that last week we looked at two important thinkers sitting at the end of the Middle Ages, at the end of the medieval period who are developing new ideas about ways of looking at Jewish thought and philosophy but still really belong in a medieval mindset. What we are going to look at today are the thinkers that are the hallmark of a completely new paradigm of thought in the world.

I know that with this learned audience, I don’t need to explain basic concepts, but it’s worth just reminding ourselves that the enlightenment was not simply just another idea. It was a ground-breaking shift in human thought that produces the world we live in today.

The two thinkers I’m going to look at today, I’m going to be looking at Spinoza and I’m going to look at Moses Mendelssohn. What I want to do is ground those historically and to see everything that is going on around them in terms of what we call the Enlightenment. there are many, many different views on exactly what constitutes the Enlightenment, what its span is, and what it is. I’m going to spend just a minute or two explaining that while I wake up and have another sip of coffee. I’m going to climb into consciousness, so I’m going to have my own personal enlightenment here. 

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is a ground-breaking shift that, if we were to summarise it in any way, we could say that the grounding of knowledge in philosophy, in politics, in a great many different fields of human thought, one way in which we can put it is that revealed truth is replaced by, in a sense, a truth that grows up from human observation. The word of God is replaced by mathematics. This is a shift that is so huge it’s almost difficult to describe probably. 

The figure that is most associated with the beginning of the Enlightenment, and there are many views on this, would be someone like Descartes. Descartes attempts in the first half of the 17th century to deconstruct everything we know and to build it absolutely from scratch only on what I can absolutely know. And that’s where he starts with his famous cogito, I think therefore I am. And the whole of knowledge is going to be built up from that. 

By the end of the 17th century, we have already arrived at Newton. The publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica was a crowning achievement of the Enlightenment. It explained what was going to become the basics of the laws of physics. It was able to describe the motion of the planets. Newton didn’t discover gravity, but he was able to describe its principles. We had huge developments in political thought with Hobbes and Locke and so on. Leibnitz and Newton are both involved in the invention of calculus. This is setting the groundwork of modern mathematics, modern science, and the modern world. 

As you can imagine, people did not stop thinking about God and people did not stop thinking about metaphysical truths, and people did not stop thinking about Jews and what we’re going to do with Jews and Judaism as we move into the modern world. 

So that’s a very rough background to the period we’re talking about. The 17th century, which we’ve spoken about elsewhere in great detail, is a time of turmoil. But we are going to zoom in. Look, towards the end of the 18th century, the famous German playwright and novel and man of letters, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing – who we are going to talk about in a few minutes – on his deathbed admitted that if he believed in anything he was a Spinozist. What is a Spinozist? 

That’s a very telling statement because throughout the 17th and 18th centuries Spinoza’s name became identified with a type of atheism. We have to remember that in the 17th century and the 18th century, people found the idea of letting go of the medieval notions of God, of a personified God, very threatening and dangerous. And yet the modern world was pushing that idea upon us, pushing us to determine what we could know about God in any real sense.

Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza, as I don’t need to tell you, sits on the borderline of being a Jewish philosopher. Some people want to say he’s not really a Jewish philosopher at all, he is a world-level thinker, but he definitely emerges from a Jewish milieu, and the things he has to say have a huge impact on everyone, including Jewish philosophy. So, we are going to talk about him in that context. 

He was living in Amsterdam. Those of us who are familiar with the 17th century will know that Amsterdam is the place you want to be in the 17th century. Holland was effectively a world superpower, certainly in commercial terms. Amsterdam was a strong but self-protected Jewish community. And this young man is sitting up the back of the Portuguese synagogue reading my Maimonides, reading Crescas, but then starts to have ideas about reality that are too powerful, too strong for his community to contain. 

What inflamed Spinoza was his reading of Descartes and that was going to be something that he was going to spend the rest of his not terribly long life negotiating with in order to present probably the Enlightenment’s purest conception of God.

The Ex-communication of Spinoza

As you know, the Jewish community of Amsterdam put Spinoza in herem, they put him in ex-communication. There are different views as to why that was the case, but there’s no question it had to do with his incredibly radical views. The first thing we know of Spinoza’s writings is his famous Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Spinoza didn’t just write metaphysics, but he wrote also about politics and about what the ideal society should look like. But in the course of doing that, he was attempting to free the state, the new emergent ideal state, that was emerging from political discussions in the 17th century – to free that from the influence of religion. In order to do that, he launched himself into revealed religion and attempted to work out exactly what is going on. That was a very Enlightenment. But what was so threatening for people was that Spinoza was an extremely honest thinker and held himself to a very high ethical level. 

I’m not going to go too much into that right now. That’s a separate kind of topic, except that we need to understand that Spinoza sits like the granddaddy of biblical criticism. For Spinoza, the Torah was not written by God, the Torah was not even written by Moses, it was written by a whole lot of people that came after. This is a thought that is radical in the paradigms of Jewish thought. It doesn’t surprise us too much today, but in the 17th century these ideas were incredibly shocking, and they needed to be absorbed.

The Jewish community of Amsterdam could not absorb, and Spinoza was evicted. He didn’t become a Christian, he didn’t become anything else, he just went and lived in another part of Holland. We could almost say that Spinoza is the first secular Jew. In some ways, he’s like the first secular person, but certainly, in terms of the Jewish continuum, he is a paradigm of someone who didn’t have religion that we would recognize, except his own contemplative thoughts.

The book that really gives us an insight into Spinoza’s ideas is of course the book that was published just after he died, which is his Enlightenment masterpiece called The Ethics. I’m just going to talk about that for a few minutes because that’s really where I want to drive at, because I want us to be able to understand this shift. Some people will be upset that I’m spending this amount of time on Spinoza. He’s a very contentious figure because his thought is so profoundly different from anything that had come before, and because it’s so difficult to refute, a lot of people find Spinoza very threatening.

But what is Spinoza telling us? Having come in this completely new era, after we’d gone right through the Middle Ages discussions of trying to establish through our own speculative introductions – what is philosophical truth, what is God, what is the relationship between God and the world, what is humanity, how does God know things, how do we know things, do we have free choice, and so on. All of those discussions that were troubling the thinkers of the Middle Ages who were trying to establish, particularly the ones we’ve looked at, a place for revealed religion – such as Judaism – in the light of philosophical truth.

Once those philosophical truths started breaking down in the 17th century, once people realised that Aristotle was no longer representative of the world as they knew it, then it was only a matter of time before we started to investigate what it is we know about God. So, let’s dive in and have a look at the essence of what Spinoza is saying, because there are many, many different views about what are the main features of Spinoza’s thought – some of it’s very famous – but we need to look at this just to isolate the key points that are going to affect Jewish thought as well. 

Spinoza and God

The first thing that we know about Spinoza famously – if you were to ask any taxi driver, what does Spinoza say? – he’ll tell you that in the Ethics what Spinoza is concerned about, certainly in the first part, is the notion of God. It’s not the case that Spinoza is denying the existence of God – so to equate it with atheism is a little bit of a subtle perspective. What Spinoza is telling you is that reality – all of reality – is God. There’s only one substance that can possibly exist. If we are going to say that God is infinite, and if we’re going to say that God is the only self-caused substance that can exist, then the only thing that can exist is God. There’s no distinction within that reality between a God that sits above it and a humanity that sits below and an Earth that is created by a God that sits outside. Everything that exists is God. God is all that exists. Why this is regarded as an atheistic concept is, of course, because there is no vertical relationship whatsoever – no idea of a personal God, no idea of a God that is concerned with a moral program, with humanity specifically, or even with specific elements within humanity – everything is God. And, of course, nature is the manifestation of God. And that is what leads some people to think that Spinoza, at the end of the day, is a pantheist because he identifies nature with God. 

It is hard to describe just how profound the impact of these ideas was. The universe is completely necessary and determined. There are no miracles. There is no free will. In fact, not only are you not free – because the entire universe is determined – but God is not free. God is simply a necessary existence – a predetermined, necessary existence – and you, as part of that reality that is God, have no more freedom than a rock being thrown in a particular direction, will feel that it wants to go in that direction. But everything is fully determined. 


However, Spinoza tells you during The Ethics – and The Ethics is a book that is constructed with axioms and propositions because what Spinoza wants to do is take the geometry of Euclid in the way that Descartes had done and build up a picture of reality and metaphysics and truth and knowledge purely on a logical and mathematically based system – that we discover that the contemplation of reason ultimately leads to freedom. The true, or the truest, or the most fulfilling mode of a human being’s existence is to contemplate reason and to understand the causes behind things and why they happen, and what’s going to become what we’re going to call scientific observation and understanding reality and to live a life that is devoted to that is the highest ideal that Spinoza can espouse.

And what’s fascinating about. Is that if you read documents written by the Rambam, written by Maimonides – for example, I was studying with someone last night, chapter five of the Rambam’s Shmoneh Perakim, the eight-chapter introduction to Pirkei Avot and my Maimonides’s description of what a person should be spending their time doing is extremely, almost word for word, something that Spinoza could have signed off on.

There’s a massive difference between how the Rambam views God and the world and the Jewish people to the way that Spinoza does, but the end result is the contemplation of reason, the contemplation of God, which provides a person with the greatest level of inner harmony and peace, and really freedom as Spinoza understood it – free from the passions that can shift a person and blow them about from place to place. But if we contemplate the grounding of all being and realise that we are part of an inevitable unfolding reality that we can call God, which is the only substance going on – it’s very similar to other eastern forms of thought as well – but that allows a person to sit, in a sense, in passionless bliss and contemplation. This is Spinoza’s idea of how we can arrive at this.

Now, is Spinoza of kofer baikar? Is Spinoza a complete heretic? According to the paradigms that we laid down last week that we looked at with Albo, and unfortunately for Baruch Spinoza, we would have to say yes. Spinoza makes an enormous contribution on a world level because he is attempting to free Western thought from the encumbrances of dominating religion, which had influenced politics and influenced philosophy in every single way, but within the continuum of Jewish thought, it’s one thing to have a conception of God that is total – and we have seen that and will see that later in other systems – but the denial of miracles, the denial of supernatural intervention into history, which Judaism is kind of predicated upon (is another). 

For Spinoza there’s no such thing as the supernatural or that exists is the natural and all that exists is God. God is reality. So, there’s no such thing as God intervening to provide some kind of plan. There’s no such thing as God intervening to affect miracles for Spinoza. And also, there’s no such thing as free choice – we’ve talked about that – but there’s also no such thing as reward and punishment. There’s no afterlife. There’s no plan that we’re following. There’s just God and you are a part of it. And as soon as you realise that and remove your passions of day-to-day life in order to contemplate that reality, which is pure reason unfolding itself, then the happier you will be. God is the only possible stuff. 

In doing that, he kind of resolves a dualism that Descartes had left us with about mind and body. How do the mind and the body work in sync? Spinoza says that there are only two things that we’re accessing – one is thought, and one is extension. These are the only two things, and those things are modes of an infinite God that has an infinite number of attributes, and we are just accessing thought and extension and that’s all. We’re just a part of the mind of God unfolding itself. As you can imagine, that didn’t go so well, that didn’t go down so well in Jewish thought. And Spinoza was excommunicated, and his name became a byword for atheism, not just within the Jewish community, but in European society at large. 

Moses Mendelssohn

But I’m going to jump now about a century to look at Mendelssohn because Mendelssohn’s another thinker that is clouded in a lot of misapprehension within the Jewish world. By the time we get to the second half of the 18th century in Germany the Enlightenment has taken hold in a great many places and is developing into what they called and what we call the Age of Reason. The idea of reason, the idea of rationality, grounded up from human observation – not from some kind of speculative, philosophical truth as we saw in the Middle Ages – but from the elements of what’s going to become science of the modern era – is almost now at the level of a religion for a lot of people. The Age of Reason takes the concept of reason and places it as the ultimate summation of human thinking. 

The challenge, however, is what are we going to do with Jewish thought in the face of these incredible challenges? The Enlightenment is so profound a shift that it’s going to take some very serious efforts to set up a thought paradigm as part of the Enlightenment for the Jewish world. And that had not yet happened. The main reaction of the Jewish world to the Enlightenment was simply to block it out and shutter it. Jews were not trying to absorb that into the Jewish world. Nor were Jews being pressured to do that – either internally or externally – because in the 17th and 18th centuries Jewish communities are still in a sense on the outer of the intellectual buzz and life of Europe. That’s going to change during the 18th and 19th centuries with emancipation. But emancipation has not happened yet. And also, because philosophy is being dominated in the 18th century, mostly by English and French thinkers, and Germany is only just starting to come into itself in that in that respect. The 19th century is going to be a masterpiece for German philosophy, but we’re still only climbing into that in the 18th. 

Moshe of Dessau

Moses Mendelson, Moshe of Dessau, was born in the 1720s. At the age of 14, he follows his teacher from Dessau to Berlin. And he learns German, and he studies philosophy. As a young man in a chess salon, he meets (Gotthold Ephraim) Lessing and people are astonished because he is a Jew from the shtetl, effectively, sitting in a cafe playing chess, able to speak German, having discussed philosophy. This is an amazing thing for people to see a Jew who can do that. Jews were considered exotic beings that didn’t really get involved in philosophy and letters and so on. But Mendelssohn was a very different kind of figure. And in fact, Mendelson’s big name came about when he won an open essay competition in Germany on metaphysics and that secured his fame. The runner-up in that essay competition was none other than Immanuel Kant. 

During the 1760s and 1770s before Kant’s rise in influence, Mendelssohn was regarded as the primary philosopher in Germany. He was called the German Socrates. It’s not just a case that he was a Jewish guy, and he did well, he was the biggest philosopher in Germany for much of the second half of the 18th century. People are coming to Mendelssohn – and here’s Mendelssohn’s challenge – and saying: oh, your Mendelssohn, we’re very impressed, but how is it that despite being a great exemplar of the Age of Reason in your thoughts, you are still adhering to this book of the ancient world called the Torah? Because Mendelssohn kept the mitzvot, kept halacha, kept Jewish law and Jewish ritual all of his life. He never gave it up. 

This was very troubling to people. How do we reconcile this? I’m not talking about other Jewish people because other Jewish people weren’t even coming near the Enlightenment, but I’m talking about Mendelssohn’s contemporaries. So, on the one hand, his fellow thinkers from the Age of Reason were wanting to know why he was still involved in the Jewish religion and why he was still adhering to the tenets of the Torah when he was talking about universal truths both politically and philosophically.

Pressures to convert

He was also under tremendous pressure from Christian thinkers. Because Christianity itself in the 18th century was the dominant religion of Europe, but nevertheless a revealed religion, was itself attempting to reconcile with the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was extremely challenging for Christianity, and once again, the church, the Roman Catholic Church, didn’t want to know about it. But much of Germany and Holland and England – these places were Protestant – they were happy to try and come to terms with the Enlightenment. But it wasn’t a simple business. And Christianity was, in a sense, seen by a lot of people as a step on the way to enlightenment. So even if you wanted to try and reconcile the Enlightenment with Christianity, Judaism was going to be left far behind.

So, Mendelson was astonishing to them – that he wasn’t at least prepared to become a Christian and recognise the truth of Christianity, which was so much more universal and in line with the Age of Reason. 

As a result of all those pressures and a result of all those challenges, Mendelson ended up writing a book – he wrote a number of books, but this particular book is just one of the greatest statements of Jewish philosophy. In fact, it is the Jewish philosophical text of the 18th century and, in a way, sets the whole tone of Jewish thought going into the modern era as to how the Jewish people are going to account for themselves in the course of modernity and in the post-Enlightenment age. 

I don’t know if this is obvious to you, but I’m going to say it anyway, that it’s not going to be the case that the Jewish people are going to say: oh, an Enlightenment! Well, that’s good. I think now that we’ll turn off the lights, we’ll pack Judaism up in a cupboard and we’ll just go, and all become enlightened universalists. That’s not going to happen. The Jews are going to be around till the end of history I’m here to tell you – as was promised to their ancestors. But they live in a world that is real and a world that they have to absorb and that needs to absorb them, and Judaism is very capable of accommodating different ways of looking at the world and changing in accordance with that. 


So how are we going to count with the Enlightenment? Mendelssohn writes Jerusalem. He writes the book Jerusalem. A lot of people have read Jerusalem, but they haven’t paid attention to its subtitle, because the subtitle of Jerusalem is On Religious Power and JudaismJerusalem is a political manifesto as much as it is a philosophical one. When I say a political manifesto, we immediately go: Oh! (because we are sitting in the 20th and 21st centuries) Jews, political manifesto, does that mean he’s talking about Israel? Does that mean he’s talking about a Jewish state? No, no, no, no, no. We’re not anywhere near a Jewish state just yet with Mendelson.

In fact, the idea of a Jewish state to Mendelson would have seemed completely out of left field. The Jews were still not even emancipated within the countries that tolerated them, let alone being able to think about some kind of national political entity. And nation-states are a product of the 19th century following Napoleon and so on. Mendelssohn’s living in an age where we are talking about enlightened despots – that is kings who have absolute power, but who have nevertheless read a couple of books in the Enlightenment so they feel that they can be enlightened despots and so on. Political systems are under threat in the 18th century, which is going to end with a bunch of revolutions, but we are not yet at the level of a nation-state. 

When Mendelson provides a political platform for Jews, he’s talking about justifying the existence of Judaism within the modern world and within the modern nation-state as it’s emerging in the 18th century. And particularly the intellectual challenges that are coming to Jews, such as those coming to Mendelssohn when they are asking him why adheres to the Torah. And one of Mendelson’s big ideas that is very important for us to understand going forward is this: the Torah, says Mendelssohn… 

Here, just before I make this point, I wanted to contextualise this properly. A lot, a lot of people are troubled by Mendelson. I’ve got in trouble in the religious world for speaking about Mendelssohn because Mendelson is misunderstood by a lot of religious people. They think that he is the father of Reform and the granddaddy of the Haskalah. It’s true (that) he’s the father of the Haskalah, what we call the Jewish Enlightenment – which is a terrible term. He’s not the father of the Reform movement and he’s not the father of modern Jewish political systems, but he is the father of the Haskalah because he does have a view that Jews need to broaden their understanding of the world – in line with Enlightenment – and become a part of the society in which they live intellectually as well as politically. 

But Mendelssohn tells you, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, that for him the Torah is not coming to tell him metaphysical truths. The Torah is not a book of philosophy. The Torah is revealed law. Every nation has its laws. The enlightenment still believed in nature, and it believed that different nations had different types of characteristics and therefore had different types of legal systems. And this is the legal system pertaining to the Jewish people. The Jewish people are a distinct entity in the world, whether you’d like it or not. We don’t have a country and a state at the moment -that’s what Jerusalem is based on and what that state might look like or entail. But differences exist in nature, and these are the laws of the Jewish people. The book, the Torah, is a book that tells me how to live. 

Rationality and reason

However, says Mendelssohn, no one can tell me how to think. This is a very, very important point that is reflecting Spinoza as well. No one can interfere in my private belief systems. Now, ultimately the true religion of humanity, Mendelssohn would tell you, is reason. There’s no question about it. Rationality and reason, and we’re in the Age of Reason, that’s the true religion of humanity as a whole. But individual nations have their own particular frameworks of law and behavior. The test of those individual revealed religions, which a person should be completely free to pursue privately – So leave me alone, says Mendelson, to be a Jew – but the test of any individual or particular spiritual system is of course its effect on conduct. You will know it by the conduct of the person who follows it and believes it.

That, of course, was the idea behind Lessing’s famous play, Nathan the Wise which was based on Mendelssohn that the truth is revealed by those who have it in their conduct and their behavior. But everybody should be entitled to their own religious beliefs. I happen to believe that there are better ways of believing than Christianity, says Mendelssohn. But if you want to privately believe that and don’t disturb the civic harmony in your beliefs, then you should be allowed to believe it. And similarly with Judaism, and similarly with any individual belief system. We are all members of a wider civic society, but our beliefs are private.

This might seem like a very obvious thing for us to realise today, but in the 18th century, this was regarded by many people as radical. The idea that we had some kind of civic secular persona, but privately we had belief systems that were particular and based on revealed truth. As it happens, says Mendelson, the Jewish people exist to remind humanity of this freedom of belief. That’s a massive point that I don’t think a lot of people have absorbed – that the whole function of the Jewish people in the world is to, in a sense, be allowed the freedom of their beliefs and to follow the Torah, even in a world of universal reason and nationalism, precisely to preserve the concept of the freedom of belief.

freeDOM of religion

So, in a sense, if Spinoza in the Tractatus and in his other writings was attempting to free the state from the control of religion, Mendelssohn was trying to free religion from control of the state. And this is a very important time to be doing this, because we are going to see over the next century or so, the rise of nation-states, and Mendelson is concerned that religious belief is able to maintain its own integrity and to maintain its own corner and that individuals have the right to the freedom of belief – so long as they are contributing in a harmonious way to the civic society around them and not disrupting it. 

And that also is a doorway into Mendelson’s idea about how Jewish people should be learning science, they should be learning German, they should be reading literature, philosophy, and so on. That’s why he translated the Torah into German in order to give an entirely new generation access – not so much to the Torah, but to German and to German literature and so on. That’s the idea behind his famous biur. So, Mendelson is like the granddaddy of the Haskalah – of the Jewish world’s attempt to come to terms with the Enlightenment on the concrete level – but he also sets its philosophical tone.

And in many ways, those ideas have been absorbed into our understanding of how we are as a Jewish people in the modern world. In other words, we go about, we’re part of a society and we respect the universal aims of that society, but we fully expect that we are going to be respected within the corner of our own religious beliefs within that society and that we will be allowed those beliefs without interference. These are very, very important points within the construction of a political framework that can allow particularities to exist in the Age of Reason.

And there’s more than a small amount, in my opinion, (but we would need to come back and talk about that) of self-criticism in Mendelssohn as well, where some of his criticisms against the community or against the society at large are aimed perhaps more at the Jewish community. It is true as the Kuzari had already pointed out in the 12th century, that Jews struggle with power when we have it. That’s a whole other subject, but Mendelssohn was more keenly aware of that. He believed, of course, in the universality of humankind, but no Jew will ever get escape velocity from the fact that they are part of a unique nation that has a continuum in history, and that God is involved in that continuum.

All right. Spinoza is a world philosopher who happens to come from a Jewish environment. Mendelssohn is a Jewish philosopher who is looking at the world – at the big universal picture – but his primary concern is going to be with how that picture can be absorbed by the community from which he’s come.

Moving forward we will see that in light of that, the 19th and 20th-century figures we’re going to look at over the next couple of weeks will all be working off that background, so it was important to cover it and I thank you for following that.

For a historical overview of the period, listen to:

#44 Communities in Search of Meaning: Jewish History of the 17th Century (4)

#76 Revelation & Revolution: Jewish History of the 18th Century (3)

This is the sixth talk in David’s eight-part series, A Journey Through Jewish Philosophy, delivered on Zoom for Caulfield Shule in 2020.