“One should not silence those who speak against Judaism, for to do so is an admission of weakness. Tell your opponent: Speak up as much as you want, say whatever you wish” (the legendary Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loewe of Prague, 16th century, Be’er Ha-Golah, end of last chapter)
Aside from my teacher Rabbi Chaim Rodrigues Pereira, I am the last surviving Dutch-born Orthodox rabbi, descended from the same Amsterdam Spanish-Portuguese community as the famous Jewish ‘philosopher apostate’ Baruch Spinoza. Our families left Spain for Holland in order to avoid the persecution of the Inquisition.
I love Spinoza dearly and in addition to studying my great love, the Talmud (the unprecedented transcript of a seven-centuries-long stormy and sometimes outrageous debate between hundreds of the earliest and most remarkable sages), which even manages to put God in His place, I read Spinoza every day.
Two weeks ago, I traveled to the University of Amsterdam in Holland to participate in a conference on whether or not to remove the ban on Spinoza. This ban has been in place since July 27, 1656, when the Talmud Torah congregation of Amsterdam issued a writ of cherem, formally banishing Spinoza to a lifetime (and beyond) of excommunication from the synagogue, as well as obligating him to leave the city. This cherem was by far the harshest ever to be pronounced by a Jewish community on a fellow Jew.
At the symposium famous Spinoza experts such as Professors Stephen Nadler and Jonathan Israel debated the pro and cons of lifting the ban.
At this retrial, I argued for the formal lifting of the ban. As the Maharal so astutely observed, a ban is a sign of fear. And since when is Judaism afraid?
The majority of people know little about Baruch Spinoza or his philosophies. Most likely, they know him as the person who was excommunicated by the Jews. Yet Spinoza is considered to be one of the great rationalists of 17th century philosophy, having laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment, which was to come. German Enlightenment philosopher Hegel famously said, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.”
Spinoza’s philosophical accomplishments led 20th-century philosopher Gilles Deleuze to name him “the ‘prince’ of philosophers.”
Yet he was ignorant and dishonest regarding Judaism.
It was the ban, rather than his actual philosophy, that made him more famous beyond most other philosophers. It is time for the Jewish community to remove the cherem and say to the world, “Sorry, you’ve got it wrong. Judaism is far too big to be defeated by Spinoza.”
Spinoza managed to do great damage to Judaism’s reputation, by painting it as a dogmatic, small-minded religion, similar to the way the former Roman Catholic Church dealt with Galileo. Secular Princeton philosophy professor and renowned Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980) demonstrated the fallacy of this claim: “…no dogma could ever gain authority [in Judaism]…. Judaism never accepted them as sacrosanct…. Hence… tension between religion and the quest for truth is almost unknown in Judaism…. Indeed, in a very important sense it might be said that the search for truth was never esteemed more highly in any other religion not even among the Greeks.”
Emil Fackenheim (1916-2003), who was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and Hebrew University, and renowned expert on Hegel and Heidegger, challenged Spinoza, asking why he “the author of the Ethics who claims to rise above all bias and prejudice, to nothing less than eternity, resorts in his Theologico-Political Treatise to the grossest distortions of the minority religion which he has left, especially and above all whenever he compares it to the majority religion (Christianity) which he yet refuses to embrace.”
Spinoza claims that Judaism is particularistic, whereas Christianity is universalistic and therefore closer to the truth. In fact, the opposite is true. Judaism teaches that the righteous of all nations will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, whether they are Jewish or not. Christianity is particularistic, for it bars from the Kingdom all unsaved non-Christians, no matter how great their righteousness.
In a most damning way Spinoza conflates all rabbis of Israel with the wicked Pharisees, as stereotyped in the New Testament, one of the most notorious falsifications in history.
Spinoza not only writes falsely but does so against his better knowledge. Not for nothing does Fackenheim ask the obvious question: Does this of all philosophers act in bad faith? The lack of evenhandedness has far-reaching consequences. The great Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) accused Spinoza of advancing, anti-Semitism in intellectual circles, albeit unwittingly.
Spinoza did not defeat Judaism. He misrepresented it. The issue is not whether Judaism is right or wrong. The issue is about presenting an honest account of what Judaism stands for. Spinoza failed to do that, partially out of ignorance and partially against his better knowledge.
Historically Judaism has made use of bans, but very rarely, and mainly as a way to protect the Jewish community against Jews who brought the community into physical danger in a world that was still far from being willing to unconditionally accept Jews and Judaism in its midst.
This was probably also the case with the ban on Spinoza. The Jewish Portuguese-Spanish Community, which had just arrived in Amsterdam, was fully aware that it would be able to live in this city only by the grace of the Amsterdam city government magistrates. It had been made abundantly clear that no member of the Jewish community would be permitted to openly attack religion or the conventional understanding of God and the authority of the Bible, with the explicit warning that one could run the risk of being expelled, even from Amsterdam, the most liberal city in all of Europe.
Once the young and inexperienced Spinoza began to openly declare his heretical ideas about God and the Bible, there was little that the community could do to prevent a major clash with the city government of Amsterdam, and it decided to expel him by use of the most outrageous text of excommunication: Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up….
The ban was total overkill – not even one minor thesis by Spinoza had yet been published – which just proves what the level of anxiety was in this community. The Amsterdam Jewish community of the 17th century had experienced the greatest difficulties in creating a cohesive congregation out of all those wandering and battered Jews who had newly arrived in Amsterdam from Spain and Portugal, often via Italy. Many of the community’s Jews had been raised and educated under the confining influence of the Catholic Church, their (grand) parents having been tortured by the Inquisition. What seems to have most disturbed them was Spinoza’s betrayal of, and perhaps treason against, a community that was still freshly traumatized by the Spanish Inquisition, in which thousands lost their lives.
Profoundly shaped by the Catholic Church, Amsterdam’s Jewish leaders and congregants had little knowledge of Judaism when they arrived in Holland. Many still had strong ties to Christian beliefs, thinking that Judaism was similar to Christianity, albeit without the cross, and therefore bound by dogmas and unquestionable creeds.
The Ma’amad (laymen leadership of the Spanish-Portuguese community), having been accustomed to bans within the Catholic Church, used a similar method to keep their fellow Jews under constraint. They introduced their own minor inquisition, with the important difference that they would not burn people at the stake but would instead pronounce bans, expelling people from their community for longer or shorter periods of time.
In Spinoza’s case, the ban on him backfired and in fact increased his fame.
Spinoza is the philosopher of philosophers. He may not have been the greatest thinker of his time, but he was without doubt the most daring.
Still, it is abundantly clear that Spinoza’s observations about Judaism were rooted in great ignorance and deliberate misrepresentations. He never seriously studied the Talmud and had little understanding of Judaism’s intrinsic nature or of the spirituality of Halacha (Jewish ritual and law).
Judaism is not so much a religion as it is a rebellion. It referred to idol- worship as an abomination, an immoral act, and to the worship of man as a catastrophe. It protested against complacency and the negation of the spirit. Shabbat, the dietary laws and many other precepts are acts of disobedience against a world that believes our happiness depends on how much we produce or what we consume. Judaism asked for radical thinking and drastic action, even when it meant standing alone, being condemned and ridiculed.
It is high time to set the record straight so that philosophers and academics can no longer hide behind Spinoza and call Judaism a small-minded religion.
Instead, let us give him the honor he deserves as one of the greatest philosophers of all time. But we can only do that by making people aware of all his misleading exaggerations and caricatures of Judaism which undermine his lofty ideas.
Those rabbinical authorities who want to uphold the ban on Spinoza must be well aware of the fact that by doing so they make the impression that Judaism is afraid of Spinoza’s ideas. A ban is a sign of fear and since when is Judaism afraid? While the ban may have been necessary in the 17th century as a way to protect the Jewish community against forces which could undermine it or even expulsion from Amsterdam, the reinforcement of the ban today only embarrasses Judaism and turns it into a frightful religion which will cause many bright young people to utterly reject it instead of viewing it as a powerful religious ideology, build on courage of which our world is so much in need.
In the winter of 2012, the Rabbinate and the lay-leadership of the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam were once again asked to remove the ban. They refused. This was an act of great short-sightedness. Instead of removing all the distortion, they have enhanced it by keeping the ban in place.
Accordingly, an international panel of Jewish religious thinkers should do what the Dutch Rabbinate has not. After all, the issue in no longer a local Amsterdam affair but is one of global importance.
Who’s afraid of Spinoza?