In considering the Jewish legacy of the great philosopher, who was formally expelled by the Sephardi community of Amsterdam in 1656, Steven B. Smith urges that we focus less on his attempt to undermine the authority of Jewish scripture as on his fundamental, and highly costly, ideas about religion and politics:
Spinoza’s critical analysis of Judaism [that he puts forward in his Theologico-Political Treatise] did not grow out of self-hatred or anti-Judaism, but as a part of a project of liberalizing reform. His defense of the liberal state requires a religion that is itself quite liberal. He believed that the price of admission to this state entailed a radical secularization of Judaism both as a body of revealed law and as a distinctive way of life. His purpose was to strip all religions—both Judaism and Christianity—of their claims to exclusivity and reduce them to a handful of tenets that could provide the moral foundation of the modern state. Spinoza’s religion of reason would be stripped of all metaphysical claims that might give rise to controversy or could be used as a pretext for persecution.
The cost of admission to Spinoza’s state has been high. There is, as a famous economist once said, no such thing as a free lunch. The chief cost of Spinoza’s bargain has been the assimilation of Judaism, not to Christianity, but to liberalism. Indeed, for many Jews, Judaism has become virtually synonymous with support for liberal social causes. Even the expression “Jewish liberalism,” rather than a paradox, has become a commonplace. The result of this identification of Judaism with liberal values such as autonomy and emancipation has been the loss of both religious identity and fidelity to an ancient way of life. The Theologico-Political Treatise, it seems, may have eloquently defended freedom for Jews, but at the cost of what was specific to Judaism.