Spinoza, Kant, Solomon Maimon & Jewish Secularization In 18th Century Europe

‘The Road to Modernity’ by Gertrud Himmelfarb, the wife of Irving Kristol and mother of Fox News contributor and founder/editor of Washington’s ‘The Weekly Standard’ William Kristol is the most significant public contribution to any understanding of the European Enlightenment available to non-specialist readers.  In that book she outlines the details of two different Enlightenments:  Scottish/English (mercantile, natural law advocates) vs. French (utopian, militant positivists).   Missing from her expose is the impact that the Enlightenment had on Jewish intellectuals throughout Europe.  Jonathan Israel has also established publications along this line of thinking for those interested in Jewish intellectuals.

This is significant for two reasons:  Kant’s slumber may have been awoken by Hume, but his critics had nailed a significant analysis only recently retrieved, so damaging was Kant to metaphysics.  That man was Salomon Maimon, heir to the life and thought of Spinoza.  Secondly, the Catholic Church remains the only refuge left to enjoy metaphysics.  Most academics don’t even bother to engage the Jesuits and Dominicans that helped shape a lasting response to modernity with the Second Vatican Council (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri De Lubac, Yves Conger, Romano Guardini and others).  In fact, it was the above named authors who labored in total obscurity to effect the impact that we enjoy today under John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

It is for this reason that I enjoyed Shmuel Feiner’s “The Origins Of Jewish Secularization In 18th Century Europe” translated by Chaya Naor, University of Pennsylvania Press.  For it is here that we can enjoy a look at many erudite thinkers of Jewish realist, idealist mold that did not shy away from advancing adequate criticism of Kant and others.

Although Maimon’s critique of Kant is quite useful, a more sincere look at the moral and ethical qualms that Maimon never quite shook off would perhaps be a bit more useful.  More personally successful than Maimon was Moses Mendelssohn and Naphtali Hertz Wessely, both orthodox Jewish intellectuals that never wavered from practicing an orthodox faith, but was held in deep suspicion by the rabbinic establishment.

The Hebrew word for Enlightenment is ‘Haskalah’, but it is generally applied to a more moderate position for those who combine their Judaism with a passive acceptance of gentile specialization.  These people are referred to as ‘Maskilim’.  This is the approved title for both Wessely and Mendelssohn.

The Enlightenment also found deep resonation with other less noble idealists like Jacob Frank, who founded a sect that predated the Marquis de Sade.

Shmuel Feiner’s book will help those pious Jews throughout both America and Israel that struggle to find a way through secularization, religiosity, identity, progress and the orthodox constraints of modernity.

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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