Was Spinoza a Victim of Cancel Culture?

Baruch Spinoza’s life was a product of paradox.
April 18, 2024

Baruch Spinoza’s life was a product of paradox. The 17th century, in Europe, was a time of both barbarous sectarianism and unprecedented human achievement. It was an era of new ideas — ideas that would come to fruition in the Enlightenment and which would, in the fullness of time, reshape the world. It was also a time when thinking or saying the wrong thing could destroy your very life.

His intention was never to shock. He was incredibly circumspect with his work, always careful to publish only what the public could handle, leaving the rest to be published after his death. 

Before reading Ian Buruma’s new biography, “Spinoza: Freedom’s Messiah” (Yale University Press), I only knew one thing about Spinoza, which was the story of his excommunication from the Jewish community for the crime of heresy. I had therefore always imagined him as a nose-thumbing renegade. Instead, I encountered a mild-mannered individual who was utterly averse to scandal and controversy. His intention was never to shock. He was incredibly circumspect with his work, always careful to publish only what the public could handle, leaving the rest to be published after his death. 

But whether he sought it or not, controversy was never far, and this seems to be at the heart of Ian Buruma’s affinity with the 17th-century heretic. That and the fact that they are both Dutch Jews. 

Buruma himself can be said to be a victim of cancel culture, a fact he alludes to but never mentions outright. In 2018, he left his position as editor of New York Review of Books after an uproar over his decision to publish a controversial essay. I won’t get into the details of the story, but many feel that Buruma was dealt with unfairly. 

Describing why he took on the project of writing a book about Spinoza, and why a new book on Spinoza is needed in the first place, he cites a crisis of “intellectual freedom” in the West, one for which Spinoza’s example might be instructive. 

In a recent New York Times essay promoting his book, Buruma was more explicit in his references to illiberal tendencies in modern society. “We see universities torn by ideological struggles that make free inquiry increasingly difficult. Once again there is a conflict between the scientific and the ideological approaches to truth. For example, the notion in some progressive circles that the teaching of mathematics is a form of toxic white supremacy …”

Again, he doesn’t mention what went down at the NYRB, but it seems to be the elephant in the room, and the question might be asked, does Ian Buruma feel that cancel culture amounts to a modern-day excommunication? 

The book he’s written — which is fascinating and engaging—does not support such a comparison. If anything, the travails of Spinoza are a reminder that we indeed live in a golden age of free expression, woke mobs and conservative school boards notwithstanding. We are, legally and actually, free to think, say, and publish what we want to an extent that Spinoza would have found difficult to imagine in his own benighted era. 

That we have made progress on these issues will be clear to Jewish readers, who will find little familiar in the descriptions of the inquisitorial Jewish community of 17th century Amsterdam.

Of course, in certain parts of the Jewish world, such attitudes toward heterodoxy still prevail. Perhaps the most surprising detail of the book was the fact that the excommunication of Spinoza has never formally been lifted. In fact, it was affirmed in 2012. Thus, Spinoza remains a proscribed thinker, writer, and human being according to Jewish law. 

Despite this, a great many modern Jews have posthumously welcomed Spinoza back into the tribe, as evidenced by the fact that Buruma’s book is part of Yale University Press’ “Jewish Lives” series. When I first moved to Israel in 2013, I worked as a teacher at a preschool on Spinoza Street in Tel Aviv. Naming a street in Israel after Spinoza is an honor that goes beyond the mere lifting of a ban. It suggests a desire to claim Spinoza as an important part of the Jewish story.

One wonders if Spinoza would have wanted this. Had he lived today, his beliefs would hardly raise eyebrows. Indeed, many of his most extreme ideas — pantheism and the human authorship of the Torah — are now commonplace in many synagogues. But this doesn’t mean that he would want to be part of the Jewish story. Perhaps he would want nothing to do with the Jewish community, let alone a street in Tel Aviv. 

Buruma notes that in his writings on religion, Spinoza was “much harder … on Judaism than on Christianity.” Spinoza, he writes, “attacks all the sacred tenets of Judaism. Not only were the Mosaic laws not written by God, but they were redundant … The idea of the Jews as a chosen people was nonsense. Sticking to Mosaic laws after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE was a useless and stubborn form of superstition.”

There are a few ways we can understand this. For one, Spinoza was not treated well by the Jewish community. If he bore a grudge, he was certainly entitled. We might also speculate that he was being tactful. If one wants to critique religion in a Christian society without getting into trouble, it is wise to use Judaism as the example instead of Christianity. 

Or perhaps — not to the exclusion of other theories — he was the type of Jew who ingratiates himself to non-Jews by disparaging his own people. The thought intrigued me. Was Spinoza the type of Jew who speaks “as a Jew” against the Jews? Was he the Jonathan Glazer of his day? The Judith Butler? 

It’s possible, but such a characterization is certainly more reflective of my own post-Oct. 7th preoccupations than it is of reality. 

Whether seeing him as an early prototype of the “as a Jew” Jew, or viewing his life as a parable about cancel culture, one thing is for sure, which is that it’s all too easy to project onto Spinoza. “Seen by many people, Christians as well as Jews, as Satan’s disciple during his lifetime, Spinoza has been regarded by many after his death as a saint. The question is, what kind of saint? A saint of rationalism or metaphysics, of atheism or pantheism, of liberalism or despotism, of Jewishness or antisemitism, as the father of democracy or totalitarianism? All these things have been said about Spinoza.”

Spinoza, however, was no one’s saint. He was not the leader of a movement. Though many of his ideas would come to be embraced by the radicals and revolutionaries of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, he himself was no radical and no revolutionary. 

His ambition was both smaller and grander than that. What he wanted was merely the freedom to think. It is a freedom that all Americans enjoy today. This is important to recognize. It would be a mistake to read Spinoza’s story and imagine that our culture is, in any way, as repressive as the one in which he lived.

I would suggest a different moral for the story. What’s lacking in our time is not the freedom to think, but rather the ability to think, which is under assault from our culture of distractedness.

I do not know what Spinoza would have thought about Judaism, Zionism, or woke ideology if he were around today. I feel rather certain, however, that he wouldn’t spend his days staring at a phone.

Matthew Schultz is a Jewish Journal columnist and rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (Tupelo, 2020) and lives in Boston and Jerusalem.  

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