Baruch de Spinoza: Heretic or Hero?


Spinoza (1632-1677)


Religious Jews revile him as the arch-heretic while secular Jews, from Yiddish Socialists and Bundists to liberal Zionists have celebrated him for more than a century as a precursor and hero. Was he a heretic, a revolutionary, or simply trying to reform European Christendom?


On March 15, McGill professors Carlos Fraenkel, Allan Nadler, and Professor Steven Nadler (visiting for the weekend from the University of Wisconsin at Madison), staged an open debate on the topic, putting forth three very distinct understandings of Spinoza’s ultimate role in Jewish history.

* * *

For Professor Steven Nadler – the author of the recently published book “A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age” – Spinoza was the progenitor of secular modernity, and as such, can be said to be the first true secular Jew.

"A Book Forged in Hell"

For Professor Allan Nadler, Spinoza’s place in the history of Judaism is very different. Citing various parts of Spinoza’s writings, Allan contended that Spinoza rejected Judaism entirely, and may have actually converted to Christianity. For Allan, Spinoza was assuredly not the first secular Jew, but rather a heretic who came to despise the religion of the Jewish community from which he was expelled.

Allan gives his part of the lecture as Carlos and Steven observe.

Professor Fraenkel, in a stark split from his colleagues, argued that Spinoza’s philosophy actually relies heavily on Medieval Jewish philosophy, and particularly the writings of Moses Maimonides (Rambam).

Carlos speaks on Spinoza's Medieval influences.


THE EVENT REMAINED PEACEFUL. No charems were issued.  Attendants left with a strong desire to read Spinoza.

But the debate continued the next day! Stay tuned for a filmed panel discussion in which Professors Nadler, Nadler, and Fraenkel provide summations of their various perspectives and argue their points further for the viewing public.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.