But reading Spinoza today, it seems very religious, there's a lot of talk about God.
But it's not in any way a personal God. Spinoza's God is logic, basically. It's the sum of all the reasons for everything. But it's not a God whom one can pray to, and certainly not a God who would enter into a special relationship with a people.
And Spinoza was intent on disproving any sense of a special relationship or chosen people. Why?
For Spinoza, being a Jew is a problem to be solved. The continued identification of this people and their stubborn insistence on their difference has only brought woe on them, and the best way to solve this unbearable suffering that the Jews have been subjected to is to cure them of their beliefs in a difference. When he was a boy, there were stories of people who had gone back to Portugal and who were burned in the auto-da-fé—an ongoing calamity, the worst calamity of the Jewish people until the Holocaust. These stories clearly made an impression.
Spinoza's rationalism is a kind of answer to this tragedy, to the tragedy of all racist hatred—and the Inquisition wasn't just religious hatred but racial. It's saying that, to the extent that we're rational, none of the differences between us matter. To the extent that we're rational we actually share the same identity. Part of our salvation—our secular salvation, as he sees it—is to deconstruct one's own identity. I believe that somehow he had indicated this even at an early stage of his philosophy, that being Jewish is not the essence of one's identity for those who are Jews; it's not ethically essential. That's a viewpoint I don't think that Judaism could tolerate—not in his time, not in ours. Rebecca Goldstein AUDIO Rebecca Goldstein talks with Sara Ivry about philosophy and betrayal Listen >> These are mp3 files. What's a podcast? >> Betraying Spinoza