Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632, the son of Portuguese Marranos (or conversos, or crypto-Jews) who had fled the Inquisition. A prodigy at Amsterdam’s Etz Chaim Yeshiva, he was widely expected to become a rabbi. As rumors of his heretical ideas spread, he was denounced by his yeshiva teachers, and in 1656 he was excommunicated by the Mahamad (Jewish Community Council) of Amsterdam. He lived in several small Amsterdam towns, most notably Rijnsberg, before settling in The Hague, where he died in 1677.
While his writings are notoriously dense, the central doctrines of Spinoza’s philosophy are eminently clear and stunningly sweeping. In “Tractatus Theologico-Politicus” he openly questions the divinity of Scripture and assails the authority of the church. In place of the first, he offers a “natural,” critically historical and philological reading of the Bible; in place of the second, a secular state in which religious authorities would enjoy no power.
Two days before the world was to end, as calculated by engineer and prophet Harold Camping, seemed as good a time as any to find answers to eternal questions about human life and meaning. Thus I joined “What’s on your Mind? ” an “International Philosophy Festival” in Jerusalem that ran from May 18 to May 20 as part of this year’s Jerusalem Season of Culture. The city where more philosophers, prophets and messiahs roam than on any other place on earth, and in which the momentous events of the Apocalypse will unfold, was the obvious locale. The festival was held in a large tent erected at the beautiful cultural center Mishkenot Sha’ananim, a stone’s throw from the walls of the ancient city and facing Mount Zion.
The sessions included “Old Man, What Is His Life,” about modern medicine’s growing ability to extend life, with the participation of a gerontologist, a jurist and 80-year-old novelist Yoram Kaniuk; the impact of social networking on the concept of friendship, led by Web editors and a professor of management; the ways new discoveries in brain research impact the concept of free will and whether it exists, with talks by an Israeli clinical psychologist and by Princeton philosophy professor and author of the best selling study “On Bullshit,” Harry Frankfurt; “The Sexual Revolution — What Next?”; and “Man in the Role of God,” examining scientific innovations in the field of human reproduction. Well Known Israeli law professor Ruth Gavison, philosophy teacher David Heyd, and progressive Orthodox rabbi Yuval Cherlow debated such issues as “improving” the human race.
In celebration of Jewish Book Month, The Arty Semite is partnering with the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) and the Jewish Book Council to present “30 Days, 30 Texts,” a series of reflections by community leaders on the books that influenced their Jewish journeys. Today, Ari Weiss writes about “Nine Talmudic Readings” by Emmanuel Levinas.
I went book shopping during my first week of college in 1999. I had already bought the necessary books for my classes; my goal during this outing was to find new books and new ideas. Wandering through the aisles of the book store, I surprisingly came across a Talmud book in the philosophy section: “Nine Talmudic Readings” by Emmanuel Levinas. In 14 years of day school and yeshiva education, I had not heard of this Talmudical philosopher (or, perhaps a philosopher of Talmud). In the 10 years since, these nine postmodern readings of the Talmud have been central in thinking about the world, justice and Judaism.
Although her centenary is not until July 13, the Swiss Jewish philosopher Jeanne Hersch (1910-2000) is already being remembered as a gimlet-eyed defender of freedom.
Born in Geneva to a Polish Jewish statistics professor and his doctor wife, Hersch studied with the philosopher Karl Jaspers, whose career suffered in Germany after 1933 because his own wife was Jewish. Hersch and a fellow student, Hannah Arendt, were among Jasper’s most devoted disciples. Hersch later taught philosophy and worked at UNESCO, and though she remained less famous than Arendt outside of academic circles, she could make waves.
Philosophy is what matters most to George Soros, I learned the other day after an elegant party at Soros’s duplex Manhattan apartment (I was invited by a mutual friend) celebrating the latest recording of Bartók by Angela & Jennifer Chun, a Korean-born sister team of violinists.
I shared a cab on the way home with the veteran dance legend Jacques d’Amboise, a longtime Soros chum, who explains that despite the concert which Soros presided over in a room subtly decorated with American Impressionist paintings, music does not rank highest among his passions. “Not economics, either, certainly!” continues the ever-ebullient d’Amboise, who was seen in 2008 in an HBO Documentary “Jacques d’Amboise in China.” Philosophy is what Soros, son of the Hungarian Jewish doctor and author Tivadar Soros (1894–1968), prizes the most.
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