“Spinoza on the Ethics of Courage and the Jewish Tradition” by Alexander Green

Green, Alexander. “Spinoza on the Ethics of Courage and the Jewish Tradition.” Modern Judaism 33, no. 2 (May 1, 2013): 199–225. doi:10.1093/mj/kjt002.


Baruch Spinoza’s elusive statement at the end of the third chapter of hisTheological-Political Treatise has served as a source of inspiration for numerous thinkers, many of whom have used it in order to support their own disparate positions.1 Spinoza’s statement reads as follows:Indeed, I would absolutely believe that, unless the foundations of their religion were to make their spirits effeminate, they will someday, given the occasion—as human affairs are changeable—erect their imperium once more, and God will choose them anew [imonisi fundamenta suae religionis eorum animos effoeminarent, absolute crederem, eos aloquando, data occasione, ut sunt res humanae mutabiles, suum imperium iterum erecos, Deumque eos de novo electurum].2

Indeed, Jay Geller goes as far as to argue that this statement has “provided an optic through which leading Jewish and gentile writers and, more broadly, a variety of German (sub) cultures have seen Jewish-gentile relations and Jewish identity since the Enlightenment.”3 Of particular interest is the fact that two dominant streams of interpretation have regarded this statement as a paradigm of the modern Jewish approach to the virtue of courage. While Spinoza never explicitly utilizes the word courage (animositas) in this context, as he does in other parts of theTheological-Political Treatise and Ethics, some prominent interpreters have assumed that his denigration of effeminate spirits (animos effoeminarent) implies an absent courageous spirit. This verse became a clarion call for diverging approaches to modern Jewish courage, with the general goal being to audaciously overcome previously limited medieval boundaries. The meaning and limits of those boundaries and how they can be conquered depends on how one understands the nature of courage as a distinct virtue. Resulting from this, different meanings of sovereignty, election, and diaspora begin to emerge. Advocates of German enlightenment, such as Moses Mendelssohn, and proto-Zionist critics, such as Moses Hess, have both adopted Spinoza as their intellectual progenitor, finding their own position in this famous statement.4 Thus, in his Rome and Jerusalem (1862), Moses Hess interprets this line as prescriptive guidance, in which the “effeminate spirits” represent the deficiency of physical courage possessed by Jews in the Diaspora and the need to regain it to reclaim Jewish political sovereignty. In Hess’ restatement, “Spinoza conceived Judaism to be grounded in nationalism, and held that the restoration of the Jewish kingdom depends entirely on the will and courage (muthe) of the Jewish people.”5 In opposition to this Zionist interpretation is the liberal reading of the German Jewish enlightenment, as exemplified in the thought of Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn interprets Spinoza’s statement (without mentioning Spinoza’s name) in responding to a letter by an individual proposing the creation of a Jewish state.6 He begins by implicitly rejecting knowledge of physical or moral courage, restricting his knowledge purely to intellectual courage. He charges that “whatever intellectual boldness (kunheit) I may possess extends, however, to matters of philosophical speculation alone.”7 In restating Spinoza’s proclamation, he makes some subtle, but important changes. The inability to rebuild a state is not in his version a reflection of the qualities of Jewish religion, but of the harsh realities of the Diaspora. Mendelssohn’s reconstruction of Spinoza’s statement does not recommend a Jewish state, but instead absolves the Jewish religion of Spinoza’s charge and thus leaves it free to be reformed by Mendelssohn and others as an enlightened and universal religion.

  • 1. Jay Geller, “Spinoza’s Election of the Jews: The Problem of Jewish Persistence,” Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2005), pp. 39–63 and Warren Zev Harvey, “Spinoza’s Counterfactual Zionism,” Spinoza as Social and Political Thinker, Jerusalem Spinoza Institute, Jerusalem. 1 June 2007.

  • 2. Benedict Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, (ed.) Fokke Ackerman (Paris, 1999), pp. 56–57; and Theological-Political Treatise, trans. Martin D. Yaffe (Newburyport, MA, 2004), p. 42.

  • 3. J. Geller, “Spinoza’s Election of the Jews,” p. 40.

  • 4. It is important to note though that most of Mendelssohn’s debt to Spinoza is not officially credited. Julius Guttman, Alexander Altmann, and Shlomo Pines note the uncredited parallels. See: Julius Guttman, “Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem and Spinoza’s Theological Political Treatise,” in Studies in Jewish Thought: An Anthology of German Jewish Scholarship, (ed.) Alfred Jospe (Detroit, 1981), pp. 361–386; Alexander Altmann, “Moses Mendelssohn on Leibniz and Spinoza,” in Studies in Religious Philosophy and Mysticism, (ed.) Alexander Altmann (Ithaca, 1969), pp. 246–279; and Shlomo Pines, “Moses Mendelssohn in Relation to Maimonides and Spinoza: Two Notes,” Tarbitz, Vol. 51, No. 4 (1982), pp. 150–152. Our specific example is discussed by Pines on p. 152.

  • 5. Moses Hess, Rome and Jerusalem: A Study in Jewish Nationalism, trans. Meyer Waxman (New York, 1918), letter 4, p. 64. See also: W. Z. Harvey, “Spinoza’s Counterfactual Zionism,” pp. 4–6. For a more extensive description of how the image of Spinoza was received and used by Zionist thinkers, see: Jacob Adler, “The Zionists and Spinoza,”Israel Studies Forum, Vol. 24, No. 1 (2009), pp. 25–38.”