Shalom Dhr. Baruch Spinoza,
I feel compelled to apologize to you. Those of us who have remained religiously committed centuries after your life have all too often failed to investigate our creed with adequate rigor. We have replaced inquiry with exclusivity. Rather than courageously interrogating and boldly inquiring of the most perplexing questions of the universe, we have alienated — all too often — those who have come to conclusions outside our conformed norms.
We will never meet. While we would perhaps disagree on many matters, I’d like to think we’d enjoy each other’s company. You were a bold pioneer ushering in Enlightenment and suffered for your intellectual authenticity. Excommunication from your Portuguese-Sephardic community when you were only a 23-year-old man must have been traumatic. In my time, being excommunicated is irrelevant for the majority of us, but in the seventeenth century, you had no real precedent. You had nowhere to go.
Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (yes, how foreign a concept of a national state founded on the notion of Jewish self-determination!) asked the Chief Rabbi of the Portuguese-Spanish community six decades ago to lift your cherem. He was unwilling. My revered teacher Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo asked the current Chief Rabbi this year to lift the ban. He was unwilling. One day, your ideas will, God willing, be understood and your legacy vindicated. Indeed, rather than shunning you, we should be thanking you. Referring to your scholarship, a great scholar in our time, Rabbi Cardozo, wrote:
I love heresy because it forces us to rethink our religious beliefs. We owe nearly all of our knowledge not to those who have agreed but to those who have differed… I consider him a secular tzaddik. He lived by his noble ideas, was dedicated to simplicity, and showed the most remarkable virtuous characteristics… He surely helped us to think more maturely about God, human nature, happiness, and the society in which we live.
If I believe your ideas did harm to Judaism, I believe the proclamation for your banishment did more. Those who don’t understand the subtle complexities of your ideas ban them simply for being foreign and threatening. But these individuals are spiritually xenophobic. Your philosophy must, at the least, be understood. For doesn’t Judaism thrive most amidst an open marketplace of ideas where critiques, protests, and counterpoints are not only to be welcomed but encouraged? Is not this the source of our intellectual sustenance? The ban on you has, for centuries, represented fear. And Judaism must embrace a bold and fearless journey forward.
Judaism shuns clinging to dogmas and the notions of religious exclusivity. Our normative practices reflect the intellectual ideals we hold dear. We must make clear, then, that the precepts of Torah embrace autonomy, open-thinking, hermeneutical diversity, and engaging with ideas that may be outside the comfortable framework that is all too prevalent in contemporary Jewish thought. Thus, defending you is defending the essence of Judaism itself.
May your neshama have an aliyah,
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.