Skip to navigation

YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Support YIVO
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research » Video Archives » 2006 Programs » Oct 29 2006

Search YIVO

2015 Programs

2014 Programs

2013 Programs

2012 Programs

2012 Jews and the Left Conference

2011 Programs

2010 Programs

2009 Programs

2008 Programs

2007 Programs

2006 Programs

2005 Programs

YIVO on Facebook
YIVO on Twitter

Newsletter Sign-up

From Heretic to Hero
A Symposium on the Impact of Baruch Spinoza
Oct 29 2006


A one-day symposium dedicated to exploring the historical reasons, and current implications, of what many scholars consider the most notorious and ultimately influential excommunication in all of Jewish History : the banishment of Baruch (Benedictus) Spinoza from the Jewish Community of Amsterdam in 1656.

On July 27th, 1656, the Jewish Community of Amsterdam pronounced the harshest version of the Talmudic edict of excommunication on twenty-three year old Baruch "Bento" Spinoza, citing, but not specifying, his "evil opinions and monstrous deeds." After his excommunication, Baruch (Benedictus) Spinoza went on to become Europe's most famous and radical proponent of a secular, democratic state and the first advocate of complete freedom of thought and expression in Western history. Spinoza's highly-influential critique of the political powers of organized religion, The Theological-Political Treatise, published in 1670, articulated an unprecedented polemic against religious fundamentalism and included the first rigorous advocacy of modern Biblical criticism, rooted in a rigorous historical and philological analysis of Holy Scripture.

As the Symposium's Keynote Speaker Professor Jonathan Israel of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study has shown in his seminal and encyclopedic study, Radical Enlightenment, it was Spinoza - not Hobbes or Descartes – who was the true father of the European Enlightenment, as his writings constituted the first comprehensive critique of organized religion and thorough vision of a truly democratic secular society whose primary purpose is the provision of human rights to its citizens and their protection from religious intolerance and totalitarian political rule. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Spinoza was rediscovered, and embraced as a role model, by Jewish thinkers who were championing the modernization of Judaism and the integration of Jews into the broader European society. Spinoza was claimed as a forerunner of virtually every modern Jewish ideology, from Marxism and labor socialism to Zionism and secular Yiddish culture.

The Symposium explores the history of Spinoza's unfortunate experiences with religious authorities, both Jewish and Christian and, despite his excommunication, the enduring popularity and influence of his writings today, three and a half centuries since he was banished. The speakers provide valuable historical perspectives on the dangers of religious intolerance and the vitally important role that political philosophy plays in articulating and protecting human liberties and liberal social and political principles.
null Dr. Carl J. Rheins Opening Remarks
null Prof. Allan Nadler First Panel : Introduction
null Prof. Steven Nadler Why Was Baruch Spinoza Excommunicated?
null Prof. Steven Smith How Bad a Jew Was Spinoza?
null Dr. Paul Glasser Second Panel : Introduction
null Prof. Allan Nadler The Jewish Reincarnation of Spinoza in the Yiddish Imagination
null Prof. Daniel Schwartz Spinoza the First Modern Jew
null Brad Sabin Hill Keynote Introduction
null Prof. Jonathan Israel A Retrospective View 350 Years Since the Cherem

Jonathan Israel (DPhil. Oxford), of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, is widely recognized as the world's leading authority on Dutch history and central European religious and political thought in the early modern era. Professor Israel is the author of ten seminally influential books including the 1,400 page The Dutch Republic and the Hispanic World (Oxford, 1982) and the 1,000 page Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (Oxford, 2001), the most comprehensive history of Spinozist thought ever written.

biography : ALLAN NADLER
Allan Nadler (PhD. Harvard) professor of religion and director of the Jewish Studies Program at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey and author of The Faith of the Mitnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) which focuses on the excommunication by the leading Orthodox rabbis of the Russian Empire of late 18th century Hasidic kabbalistic thinkers largely on account of their popular preaching of alleged pantheistic heresies, and the forthcoming book, From Heretic to Hero: Spinoza in the Modern Jewish Imagination.

biography : STEVEN NADLER
Steven Nadler (PhD. Columbia) is a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of Spinoza's Heresy : Immortality and the Jewish Mind (Oxford University Press, 2001), Rembrandt's Jews (University of Chicago Press, 2003) and Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge University Press, 1999), which is widely recognized as the most authoritative English language biography of Spinoza.

biography : STEVEN SMITH
Steven Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Yale University and the author of "Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity" (Yale University Press, 1998) "Spinoza's Book of Life: Freedom and Redemption in the Ethics" (Yale University Press, 2003) and "Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism" (University of Chicago, 2006) Aside from his published works on Spinoza and Leo Strauss, Professor Smith is widely recognized as one of today's leading experts on central European political philosophy in the modern period.

Matthew Stewart (PhD. Cambridge) author of the widely acclaimed The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God in the Modern World (W.W. Norton/Yale University Press, 2006), Monturiol’s Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor Who Wanted to Save The World (Pantheon, 2004) and The Truth About Everything: An Irreverent History of Philosophy (Prometheus Books, 1997).

Daniel Schwartz has just completed writing his doctoral dissertation in Jewish history at Columbia University: The Spinoza Image in Modern Jewish Culture, 1832-1932), which explores the re-discovery and rehabilitation of Spinoza's philosophy in modern European Jewish thought. He has presented major papers on the modern reception of Spinoza's philosophy during the past two years at academic conferences in Chicago, Washington and New York City.

This program is sponsored in part by the New York Council for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional Funding provided by Pamela Nadler Emmerich and Adam Emmerich.