Turning Around Spinoza’s Challenge

Spinoza meant it as a taunt. But it might hold one of the keys to Jewish survival.

Depending on where you sit, Baruch de Spinoza is either the founder of modern Jewish philosophy or Judaism’s deadliest critic.

Born in Amsterdam in 1632, Spinoza grew up in a tolerant Dutch society. He went to synagogue and observed Jewish law. His curiosity, however, led him outside of our tradition to the ideas of French philosopher Rene Descartes. He became known as an expert on Descartes.

Then, for reasons that even today are uncertain, synagogue leaders condemned and excommunicated him:

… having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, they have endeavored by various means and promises, to turn him from his evil ways. But having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds … they have decided … that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse, and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He …*

That’s pretty intense stuff, especially directed at someone who was observing the law and participating in the community. What could have prompted it?

Spinoza probably fell into the same snare that later caught Moses Mendelssohn, though the results for Mendelssohn were merely embarrassing, not cataclysmic.

In conversation, two students begged Spinoza to tell them his real beliefs. They promised to keep what he said confidential. Spinoza told them that he found nothing in the Bible about God being incorporeal or human souls being immortal. The students then broke their promise and told the Jewish leadership. Condemned for believing what he thought was the truth, Spinoza must have felt especially bitter about the students’ betrayal of his trust.

That pushed him away from Judaism. But at the same time, he was finding his way toward something else: a relentlessly logical, rationalistic view of the world. He was turning into “Maimonides on steroids.”

Spinoza pursued rationalism with fanatical zeal. He sounded at times like someone who had a religious conversion and “got saved.” In his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, he wrote of his disillusionment and redemption:

After experience had taught me that all the things which regularly occur in ordinary life are empty and futile … I resolved at last to try to find out if there was anything which would be the true good … if there was something which, once found and acquired, would continuously give me the greatest joy for eternity … I would be giving up certain evils for a certain good. **

Can I get a “hallelujah”?

Spinoza’s worship of reason, and the fact that he saw it as something that “would give him the greatest joy for eternity,” accounts for some of the aggressiveness with which he attacked the Jewish tradition.

But back to Spinoza’s taunt.

Spinoza thought the Bible was a book of myths and fables used by the religious hierarchy to control people: “ancient words which may well have been adulterated with malicious intent.” ***

He struck a pose of taking the Bible seriously, but only for sarcastic exegesis to find inconsistencies and absurdities. In the end, he claimed that the Biblical text is “erroneous, mutilated, corrupt and inconsistent, that we have only fragments of it, and that the original text of the covenant which God made with the Jews has perished.” ****

And then he made what he thought was his clincher argument: that to take the Biblical text seriously was to worship the words themselves. He said that his adversaries

… are converting religion into superstition, indeed verge, unfortunately, on adoring images and pictures, i.e. paper and ink, as the word of God. *****

Let’s ignore Spinoza’s inflammatory rhetoric. Instead, let’s ask what function is served by the text itself, independent of its interpretation. A few things are relevant:

  • Jewish sages such as Saadia Gaon and Maimonides tell us that we cannot comprehend God or form any mental concept of Him.
  • Since our minds cannot comprehend God, our beliefs about Him are formed mainly of speech and action: What we say, what we write, and how we behave.
  • We cannot know how anyone else mentally interprets the Biblical text. We can only know what they say and how they behave.

When we speak of God, we have words but we can have no mental concept that corresponds to His reality. When all we have are words and behavior, then it is the words and behavior that matter.

We can turn around Spinoza’s taunt by embracing the text and tradition as our own. Spinoza thought it was a devastating criticism, but it wasn’t: It’s how a transcendent and loving Creator communicates with His own people.

Our text, our tradition, and our history — however we interpret them — are part of what binds us together as a people and as a faith. We need not “worship” those things to find that they, themselves, are important. They are the visible signs of our commitment to God and to each other.

Works Cited

Della Rocca, M. (2008), Spinoza. Routledge Publishing, London.

Israel, J., editor (2007), Spinoza: Theological-Political Treatise. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Shirley, S., translator (1992), Spinoza: Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, and Selected Letters. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis.


* Della Rocca, M. (2008), p. 20.
** Shirley, S. (1992), p. 233.
*** Israel, J. (2007), p. 188.
**** Ibid, p. 163.
***** Ibid, p. 164.

About the Author
N.S. Palmer is a graduate student in Jewish Studies at Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He has degrees in mathematics, economics, and philosophy. He is currently writing a book about Judaism and the role of religious belief in society.
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