Spinoza’s parents fled from Catholic persecution in Portugal and settled in Holland, where he was born in 1632. He was given an Orthodox Jewish education but his ideas alienated the Rabbinate and he was excommunicated from the Jewish community at the age of 23. A gentle soul, he led a modest lifestyle and pursued his philosophical studies in solitude, dying at the age of 44 and leaving behind a storm of controversy and the reputation of a Jewish renegade. However, he opened the floodgates of new thinking on the fundamental questions of existence.
I was drawn to him by a chapter devoted to him in a book by Israel Levine, ‘Faithful Rebels: A Study in Jewish Speculative Thought’, (1936), which reclaims him for Judaism on the basis that ‘his motivation was ethical and religious’ and that ‘he retained Jewish Monotheism and the Unity of God as his central doctrine.’
I am no philosopher, but I am immediately in sympathy with his rebellion against Orthodox teachings which, as I understand them, centre on Revealed Truth as an explanation for the problems of existence rather than evidence gathered from under the lens of scientific observation, using the principles of logic and reasoning.
Spinoza was no cold-blooded logician or mad scientist bent on sacrificing compassion on the altar of Reason. He reminds me of another Jew who began life in an Orthodox community and left for the world of science, the psychologist Kurt Lewin. In the 1940’s, Lewin demonstrated that therapeutic groups which are run along democratic lines (i.e. drawing on the strengths of the group members to find mutually beneficial solutions to life’s problems) achieved better results than groups run along autocratic lines in which the group members were told by a dominant leader how to tackle their problems, or a third type of group in which members were left to their own devices by a relatively absent leader (so-called ‘laissez faire’ leadership.) From his experiments, Lewin extrapolated to the viewpoint that democracy, however flawed, is a better system of government than dictatorship or anarchy.
Like many of his ilk, Lewin had to flee the Nazi menace, taking his ideas from Germany to the United States, where he cultivated his scientific approach to mind and society. Among his contributions to the science of communication was his view that psychological dynamics, like physical dynamics, could be conceived of in spatial and mathematical terms. His desire to test his ideas by means of observation and experimentation rather than by having to rely on the repetition of ancestral wisdom resonates with that of his fellow Jewish rebel from three centuries earlier. Both aimed to solve life’s problems by observing the world and drawing conclusions from their observations.
Spinoza evolved an ethical doctrine compatible with his belief in an ordered universe governed by principles which are independent of God’s will. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are relative concepts, he maintained, depending on which way you look at it. He argued that there was no such thing as free will, that God exists, but not the all powerful God of the Old Testament, rather, a more elusive unifying spirit, following rules waiting to be discovered and organised. Both Spinoza and Lewin are remembered today for their scientific perspective as well as for their compassion for their fellow human beings. Perhaps the seeds of their learning and humanity were planted by their early orthodox upbringing but the one was driven out of that world and the other chose to distance himself from it.
Orthodox Jewry still holds fast to its original beliefs, reinforced down the generations by means of custom, ritual and strict adherence to ancient texts. In the eyes of the seventeenth century Orthodox community, Spinoza, despite his belief in God, was expelled as a transgressor. I wonder what the present-day Orthodox community would make of him and of Kurt Lewin. Would their Jewish origins be enough to safeguard their Jewish identity?