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Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632-1677) was one of greatest of philosophers. Not only, but he was possibly the most honest and moral of them all. He was a gentle, if prickly, principled human being who led an ethical, modest life unaffected by money or fame. He won a court decision over his father’s estate and promptly handed it all over to his estranged sister. He turned down an offer of a professorship and life pension from a German prince, because he feared he might not be able to say what he thought.

He was born Jewish and had a good Jewish education. Technically, Spinoza remained Jewish even though he was put under a ban (Cherem) by the Amsterdam Jewish community. He never converted to another religion, but he was given a Christian burial, and his remains are buried in the churchyard of the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague.
What led to his ban (Cherem is not strictly the same as Excommunication, which has very specific Catholic theological ramifications) were his views on the Bible, on God, and on religious authority. They were as much a threat to the Catholic Church and Protestantism as they were to Judaism. There is some dispute as to how much pressure from the church was brought to bear on the Jewish community in Amsterdam to disown him. All his writing was put on the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books.

In the religious and political turmoil of the Netherlands of the day, Spinoza courted the opposition of all religions. The so-called Eighty Years’ War, from 1568-1648, was an attempt by Catholicism, in its struggle with Protestantism, to retain its grip over Northern European countries. The Netherlands ended up being divided into a Protestant North and a Catholic South. It was still divided over religion in Spinoza’s day, and the Enlightenment was only beginning to sprout its controversial shoots. Only a handful of freethinking intellectuals, such as his teacher Van den Enden (another one whose books were banned by the church) and the brothers Johan & Cornelis de Witt, supported him. Even then the situation was so tense and volatile that the much respected Johan de Witt was lynched by a mob of religious fanatics.

The case for Spinoza is that he came from Marrano stock and was subjected to all kinds of alien ideas, and the family had only recently reentered the observant Jewish community. But he had been taught by several distinguished and actually open minded rabbis, including the great Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, a friend of the legal giant Grotius and the artist Rembrandt. Spinoza’s scandalous views included denying the Mosaic single authorship of the Bible, rejecting theological ideas of life after death, and describing God as the sum of the universe (an idea that can be found in the Kabbalah, too). These are the sorts of ideas that nowadays can be found as topics of debate and discussion in more open Orthodox circles. But it is true that if the Amsterdam community was the equivalent of the Charedi community today, he would certainly have been branded a heretic.

Spinoza did not initially intend to leave the Jewish community. He recited kaddish for a year for his father. He donated to the Amsterdam Talmud Torah and other charities. It was only when he was driven out of Amsterdam that he cut his ties with the Jewish community altogether. If his philosophy in general is controversial, he frankly disliked all religious authority, all blatant exercises of political power, and was very much attuned to the new intellectual world that wanted to separate state and religion, enthroning reason above all else. So the case for his defense is that he was a reluctant rebel and simply alienated by intransigent communities, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

But there is another angle. In his great religious polemic the Tractatus Theologicus-Politicus, he questions the Mosaic authorship of the Torah, and he claims that it is no longer binding on Jews. It is true that he denigrates all religions as having failed their founders. But he sees the prophecy of Moses as being of an inferior level to that of Jesus. He considers the meeting of minds that characterized the relationship of God to Jesus (as described in Christian theology) as being of a higher and purely intellectual order. It has been suggested that he said this only to curry favor with the Christian authorities and try to gain the support of the church. But if we assume that these were really his views, then I can perfectly understand not only the offense taken by the Amsterdam community but by Jews nowadays too. So those who might argue for his posthumous reinstatement are just wide of the mark and clearly have not read his philosophy.

A criterion for belonging to the Jewish religious community is to regard the Torah as the ultimate prophetic communication, whether it was “face to face” or “mouth to mouth” or indeed symbolically. This is what differentiates the Jewish religion from the other monotheistic religions. To deny this is to “deny the rock from whence you were hewn.”

In the enlightened world we inhabit, we do not insist on people having to belong to one religion or another. If we are enlightened practitioners of our own religions, we will not object to people finding their points on its spectrum. We approve of freedom of thought and mind when it comes to making personal choices. But we cannot expect the sort of relativism that considers all views of equal significance or all Jews as being an integral part of the Jewish people regardless of what they think or how they behave. Sadly, Spinoza ended up not only rejecting Judaism, but giving up any attachment to his people.

I can certainly sympathize with his sense of alienation, and this is consistent with his philosophy. But you can no more call Spinoza a great Jew than you can Karl Marx. They might be great people who happened to have been born Jewish, but that is a different matter altogether. If the Cherem in Amsterdam was based purely on his theological views, and given that in those pre-emancipation years it was only religion that defined a Jew, then clearly Spinoza belonged and belongs to the rarefied world of philosophy. He is not a proponent of religion in general or Judaism in particular. Quite the contrary.

Were he alive today I would like to think he would have been head of the philosophy department at the Hebrew University where, I am delighted to say, religious parties exercise no influence whatsoever. However, it is much more likely that he would have joined Noam Chomsky!

11 thoughts on “Spinoza

  1. Such an interesting post, Jeremy. We are lucky that we live in different days and can (more or less) voice our opinions with impunity.

  2. I read one book about Spinoza his philosophy and why they excluded him from the community and Jewish life. I also understand why he was put off. I could imagine him joining Masorti or the Reconstructionists in the USA if he were alive nowadays. I am glad we can have different opions nowadays and have free speech. Nobody has to believe anything nowadays. It is all about practice. Even then nobody is doing or able to do everything.

    1. Yes I certainly believe in freedom of thought and action but then you must accept that your choices may alienate you from some people and certain types of communities. I think Spinoza accepted this. You can't run with foxes and chase with the hounds.

  3. Surely one has to understand the response of the Amsterdam Jewish authorities in the context of the time. In some ways the Amsterdam community was similar to the baalei t'shuva movement today in that a large number of the community did not have the knowledge / learning that other communities had and therefore there was something of an inferiority complex e.g. the need to look to rabbis in Venice for respona – and as usual that led to the a desire to prove themselves by being "holier than thou" which in turn led to intolerance of different views.

    Spinoza was certainly a genius – even of his philosophical ideas have been superseded he was a very original thinker and asked questions others did not although he of course built on Descartes work.

    Three things in the article trouble me:

    1. The idea that one has to believe on original divine revelation either face to face or word byh word at Sinai in order to be accepted in the Jewish community. That is simply NOT an an original authentic idea. It dates from Rambam's huge error in setting out Articles of the Faith (in which one can argue he was aping Xtinaity and Islam). I maintain that no intelligent person who seriously thinks about it can hold that the entire Torah was given at Sinai word for word unless one is willing to delude oneself as to the evidence (and yes, I think lots of observant Jews are self-deluded in this respect) – to take one example: we are told that the form of the words is exactly the same in a Torah scroll as were given at Sinai (and even if some hold this only applies to the aseret dibra'ot the point still applies); and yet it is accepted that our current block script, k'sav ashri, is an Assyrian script adopted many hundreds of years after the exodus – reflecting its derivation from carving on clay tablets rather than writing ion parchment (Judea) or papyrus (Egypt), whereas the Israelites at the time of the exodus used k'sav Ivri. So how can the original Torah be written in a script that did not evolve for several hundred years (a Lubavitcher told me that Hashem foresaw the evolution of the later script – but if he needs to use some convoluted explanations, I suspect he could believe almost anything)?

    2. The claim that 1. above is what distinguishes Judaism from other religions. That is not the principle distinction by any stretch. I would argue the main difference is that Judaism is a religion of deed not of faith. It is our deeds that are weighed in the balance, not our faith (cf. Xtianity). As R Wein quoting S R Hirsh ( I think) puts it, "The Talmud has almost nothing to say about theology or the nature of God. This is different from Xtian commentaries which are full of discussions as to God's nature. Arguably this reflect the fact that 'Xtianity is a religion created by Man to define God; whereas Judaism is a religion created by God to define Man.

    3. Jewish communal authorities never seem to learn. If they dislike heretical views so much then they should simply ignore them rather than take action such as Cherem. Such actions create publicity for the heretical views and thereby undermine the objective of the authorities. A good parallel can be made with the Louis Jacobs affair in the 1960s by which the United Synagogue effectively gave the Masorti movement the leg-up it needed to get going in the UK. While one might argue that the Amsterdam community was concerned with the view of the Dutch civil authorities who tasked the community with ensuring its members conformed to Jewish law, this need not have led to drumming Spinoza out of the community.

    1. I don't think I say anywhere that questioning or challenging traditional tenets of Judaism places you outside the community or beyond the pale. And I for one do not consider belief in God to be a sine qua non. Neither do I think that challenging the law in origin or development puts you out either. That is certainly not my position for if it were I would be a candidate for excommunication. Neither did I challenge Spinoza's intellectual or ethical standards.

      What I do say is that if claim that the Mosaic revelation ( and indeed the rabbinic tradition) is not binding and should be scrapped, if you consider Jesus to be the summit of Divine revelation then you are putting yourself beyond the Jewish religious pale ( and obviously I am not including Reform Judaism). Your parallel with Louis Jacobs is false because he was always committed to living a halachic life.

      If Torah is irrelevant to you, you may be a perfectly good human being, better than most religious ones, but you cannot claim to be part of a traditional Jewish community. Spinoza was asked by the Ma'amad to assert his commitment or to retract or to modify his views and he refused.

      I agree that current Orthodox communities are excessively conservative, narrow minded and read anything other than the party line as heresy. But Spinoza certainly did not even want to be part of that community, in that pre modern community there were no other options and therefore that community did not want him.

  4. Neil, I agree with your post, but I'd add a couple of points.

    Regarding 1: I may have misunderstood R. Rosen's point, but the way I interpreted it was that he was referring to expectations from the Jewish community in Amsterdam (and other areas). There's precedent among rishonim and earlier to not have to believe every word was transmitted to Moses from God, so one can be traditional, but perhaps not "Orthodox" (which didnt really exist in Spinoza's day anyway), to deny that tenet.

    Regarding 2: that is a more classical understanding of Judaism too. Or atvleast Rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud was always treated more as a legal work for the most part; at least among the Andalusian traditions and by rationalists.

    Regarding 3: There's also another problem with herem. When someone returns, the way they get treated is sometimes worse than if they had never sought to rejoin the community. Uriel de Costa is a perfect example

  5. Reform Judaism is OK with the notion that the Mosaic revelation might be fictitious or nonbinding, but is certainly not OK with considering "Jesus to be the summit of Divine relevation." Even Reform has its boundaries.

  6. Now I get it. Yes I should apologize for the silly comment about Reform. It didn't comer out the way I intended it. It should have come directly after the revelation bit.

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