The Ever-Lasting Presence of the Magnes

Posted by Eva Gurevich on Thursday September 22 2011

Written by David Puyandayev, Kohn Intern, Summer 2011
During my two weeks of staying in New Jersey, I enjoyed delicious kosher food and engaged in intense philosophical discourse. I also had been thinking about the Magnes. Why, in this intellectual and unfortunately humid paradise of Princeton, did the Magnes ever come to mind? It was precisely when I got the opportunity to ask enduring human questions in a Jewish context that the ever-lasting presence of the Magnes really dawned on me.

As part of the 2011 Tikvah summer seminar, I, along with undergrads from all over the world, examined great Jewish thinkers under the caring guidance of world-class professors at the high caliber academic institution of Princeton. My peers and I covered interesting topics like Love and Death, Justice and Injustice, and Hope and Redemption. The last two days, we discussed the topic of God and Politics. In examining the radical thought of a great Jewish thinker, Baruch Spinoza, the Magnes came to mind.Who would have ever thought that there is a direct connection between Baruch Spinoza’s philosophical work, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, and the mission of the Magnes?

For those who are unfamiliar with Spinoza’s important treatise: in it, Spinoza criticizes organized religion and does so by placing Judaism as the object of his attack. Condemning a fear-driven religion based on blind faith, Spinoza advocates for a universal religion governed by reason. In part, this is why for Spinoza the Torah is a document with the sole purpose of making the Jewish people obedient. Rather than functioning as a sacred text from which we can derive philosophical meaning as Maimonides would argue, it is merely a political constitution of an ancient, common people. According to Spinoza, we are the “chosen” people not because God has chosen us, but because, in order to survive, we had to declare ourselves “chosen” and celebrate this separateness through the mark of circumcision. I would like to acknowledge that, of course, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus can be read in different ways. Another interpretation of this influential work is that Spinoza really used the Jews only as a scapegoat in order to reform the Christian society of his time for the purpose of creating a more democratic state, a state that is tolerant of different religions. My discussion of Spinoza’s work in this blog will rely mostly on the commonly accepted interpretation, so having said that, here is the important question I would like to ask you: if Spinoza’s radical thinking is, by many Jews, not considered good for Judaism, then why does the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life preserve Isaac Lichtenstein paintings of Spinoza? In other words, why preserve an artwork depicting someone who challenges Judaism? – Someone who asks us to join a universal, superstition-free religion of reason at the expense of a 5000-year-old tradition?

The lecturing professor even suggested Spinoza might have supported the ban on circumcision here in San Francisco. What does this say about the Magnes if the Magnes preserves and showcases a painting of an individual who dreamed of a world without “choseness,” in essence, a world without Judaism? In remembering this great Jewish thinker, the Magnes acknowledges the diversity of the Jewish tradition and the diversity of its communities. By holding on to this Lichtenstein painting of Spinoza, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life proves itself to be an eclectic and inclusive institution; it exists to forever preserve the constantly changing life of the Diaspora Jew. As Mordecai M. Kaplan observed, Judaism is “an evolving civilization,” and the Magnes is here to record an “evolving” people. After all, without change, we would never collect, showcase, and reflect.

It is for a good and glorious reason that the Magnes is moving into a bigger and more beautiful home. So do pay a visit on January 22, 2011 to celebrate the grand opening – to celebrate human experience, Judaism, and an ever-changing world.

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