As I mentioned in my letter to my email subscribers on 11.5.2021, I will, aside from my weekly “Questions to Ponder” and/or “Thoughts to Ponder,” also continue with my “Faith and Defiance, the Journey of a Religious Rebel.” Thus far, I have written 10 chapters that I have shared with my readers. (See here for the previous essays) Here is Chapter 11.
My father constantly spoke about the famous, highly controversial philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza was born in Amsterdam and raised in the Portuguese Spanish Jewish Community whose members had fled from Spain and Portugal to the Netherlands after the Inquisition in 1492. My family had shared the same fate.
It is well known that Spinoza broke with Judaism, He was banned by his community (I have written about this extensively), left Amsterdam and wrote two masterpieces that laid the foundations of secular philosophy: the Ethics and the Tractatus Theologico Politicus wherein he also attacked Judaism and conventional religion. My father introduced me to Spinoza’s philosophy, clearly with the intention of distancing me from religious belief and impressing me with Spinoza’s sublime philosophy.
Paradoxically, my father loved the teachings of Spinoza, but he also loved the good life and surely was not prepared to live the simple, austere life this philosopher proposed and lived himself. Instead, we had a beautiful, luxurious, large home with a big garden in a small “aristocratic” town called Aerdenhout, 20 kilometers from Amsterdam. For my parents, this was the Garden of Eden, especially after years of hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam.
The strong attacks of Spinoza on Judaism made me wonder what Judaism was all about and why he strongly opposed it. So, I started to investigate what Judaism was really saying and I realized that Spinoza did not grasp Judaism properly, and at times deliberately misrepresented it. I have also written and spoken about this in great length. (See my lecture at Crescas-Amsterdam University).
My father also used to read to my brother and me from a children’s Bible, as he sat next to us under a special lamp to supplement the sunlight, which is sparse in Holland. He probably felt that as children of a Jewish father we should be aware of what the Bible was teaching, so as not to be completely ignorant of our heritage. These Bible stories deeply moved me and enlightened my soul.
Even more than this was our father’s enormous pride in being a Jew, although it held no religious significance for him. He probably realized that the Jews played an enormous role in world history, and because of anti-Semitism were constantly on the edge of being obliterated but miraculously survived – all this for thousands of years! As such, he was proud to be part of this nation, recognizing its uniqueness.
Furthermore, he was proud of being a Portuguese Jew. These Jews had served as magistrates and finance ministers in Spain before the Inquisition. They were of “noble” ancestry and had coats of arms, which we Portuguese Jews (till this day) wear on the corners of our tallitot, prayers shawls. That this was accompanied by a touch of arrogance should not surprise anybody – we, Portuguese Jews, are proud and a little arrogant. Spinoza was clearly guilty of this characteristic as can be seen in his works, and even more so in some of his letters. I must admit that I, too, inherited a good portion of this, which I’m sure may at times be irritating to others. But I plead not guilty; it’s in my genes!
Spinoza’s Chareidi world
When I wanted to really get a good understanding of Judaism, I left for the famous ultra-orthodox Gateshead Yeshiva in England. Rabbi Chaim Rodrigues Pereira and Rabbi David Brodman, both remarkable people to whom I owe a lot for having taught me so much, were serving in the Amsterdam Rabbinate and had fought for me to get into this illustrious yeshiva. After all, I did not have even the basic knowledge to become a student at this yeshiva, but somehow they managed to convince its famous rabbis to allow me to come and study under them.
But there was a lot of adjusting to do. Once I got in, I was not prepared for the shock I had to endure. It is as if I had entered the world of Spinoza with its austere environment and extreme, simple lifestyle, although it completely clashed with Spinoza’s ideas about Judaism!
I still remember that my father took me there, and once we entered this strange world we were overwhelmed by the kindness of the families who hosted us, but it was millions of light-years removed from anything we knew. Hundreds of bachurei yeshiva, all in black suits and hats, walking around nervously, shouting at each other while learning Talmud – this was not exactly what we were accustomed to. My father wanted to take me home immediately and rescue me from this obscure world. (I was only sixteen!)
I recall asking myself what made me want to be part of this insulated world, which seemed to have no connection whatsoever with the outside world, not even the larger Jewish world. However, I kept silent and asked my father to let me stay. He left a few days later with a heavy heart. This was one of the most difficult moments in his life, he told me later.
I threw myself into the deep waters of yeshiva life which was both very painful and wonderful. I missed my family and its comfortable lifestyle, and for many months I would write a letter to my parents weekly saying that I was coming home to attend university. But whenever I threw myself into the Talmudic studies I felt wonderful and would decide not to send the letter.
I forced myself to enter this fascinating world of chakirot and pilpulim (sharp Talmudic inquiries and argumentation) only to once again long for the “other” world. It was a strange situation that I never really got used to. I remained the insider-outsider, and I believe this is what I am even to this day. Today I watch myself watching myself. It makes little sense but is a great experience! It feels like watching yourself in a mirror while looking in a couple of mirrors one behind the other, so that you see yourself in multiple copies – each one is true but different.
Not Yeshiva University
What is very important to mention is that Gateshead Yeshiva was not Yeshiva University in New York. There were no secular studies, and there were no “enlightened” people in the conventional sense of the word. There was no place to go out for coffee in a kosher restaurant, and surely no opportunity to meet a girl. The girl who later became my wife, Freyda Gnesin, was also in Gateshead at the same time. She studied in the famous Gateshead Jewish Teachers Training College, known as Gateshead Seminary. There were several hundred girls there and its many buildings were only a few hundred meters away from my yeshiva. But that was an optical illusion. In truth, they were living on another planet, light-years away. There was no contact with this seminary’s inhabitants.
I knew Freyda from the Dutch town of Haarlem, where we used to meet at the synagogue and had become friends. Sometimes I wanted to speak to her, but how could I in Gateshead? My trick was to try to get her on the phone by pretending that I was her brother. The problem was that everybody knew she had no brother! However, it worked. We would also meet at the home of a Dutch-British family who was extremely nice to me and helped me through this difficult time at yeshiva. The wife was of Dutch origin and had some notion of a more secular Jewish community such as the one in Holland. So, their home became somewhat of an ir miklat (city of refuge) for me.
Ahistorical and Immutable
The fascinating thing about the yeshiva was that it existed outside any concept of time. Once you were inside, you couldn’t sense that it actually operated in the 20th century. It could have been the 12th or 17th century and no one would have been any the wiser. All external influences and surroundings disappeared. This was a world unto itself, made up of singularly focused people learning Torah in full force.
There was no walking out to the street for a few minutes to get some fresh air. Not only was it dangerous, since so many drunken people wandered around, but it was considered bitul zman (a waste of time). Only one thing mattered: to “throw oneself” into the Talmud. Nothing else. This wasn’t a Jewish university for religious studies; it was life in the messianic age. And that is its beauty but also its predicament.
I loved this world and lived in it like a fish in water, but subconsciously something kept on telling me that this was not the real Jewish world. It could not have been, because there was a huge gap between this world and what the Talmud told us about real Jewish life, thousands of years ago. Something didn’t make sense. We were reading texts that described the greatest of our sages as farmers and businessmen who discussed the financial world, interest, damages, sexuality, agriculture, and so on. But in our world, in the Gateshead Yeshiva, there were no farms, no animals running wild destroying a neighbor’s property, and no one among our rabbis was a farmer or peddler. All that existed were our shtenders (lecterns) on which our Talmud was placed so that we were able to study its fascinating text. But the distance between what the text described and what the yeshiva was all about was the difference between heaven and earth.
And that’s where I got stuck. It reminded me again of Spinoza, who in some respects was a bachur yeshiva. He lived in a small room in Rijnsburg and Voorburg, the Netherlands. That was his beit midrash, and, like the yeshiva students, he nearly never left it. There he built his universe and wrote his masterpiece, the Ethics. Just like the yeshiva, his deep thoughts, insights and noble feelings are timeless, not of this world, ahistorical, and that is exactly what makes them suspect. His ideas are so beautiful that for most people they’re totally unreachable. His famous sub specie aeternitatis, in which he tried to see everything from the perspective of eternity, is beautiful, but for the most part unreal.
Spinoza’s problem was perhaps that he did not marry, nor did he have any children, so he never had to deal with a crying baby in the middle of the night, nor stepping on a toy while looking for a pacifier! He remained aloof from day-to-day life.
The same problem existed in Gateshead Yeshiva. While the talmudic text was generally, although not always, very down to earth, the yeshiva’s rabbis and students lived in Spinoza’s universe. So, I kept asking myself how the Talmudic rulings and our teachers’ highly theoretical interpretation of them would be applied in real life.
Furthermore, what kept bothering me was whether the Talmud’s laws could be implemented in a sovereign, modern Jewish state. Social conditions have changed in the last sixteen hundred years since the Talmud was written. There was also a very different perception of religiosity then.
After all, Judaism was compromised tremendously when the Jews were forced to leave the land of Israel nearly 2,000 years ago. It became purely “religion,” only to be experienced in the synagogue or Jewish home. A large part of Judaism became inoperable. The Talmud was actually a product of the diaspora and deeply influenced by it, describing conditions of still earlier days. I kept asking myself: What if the Talmud had been written while the Jewish commonwealth was still fully functional? One can get a partial taste of this in the Jerusalem Talmud, which was written in Israel.
The truth is that this is a huge and complicated problem. The question that really needs to be asked is whether the Talmud requires an “upgrade,” since many of its presumptions are founded in a world that no longer exists. This is an issue of tremendous proportions that I address in my book: Jewish Law as Rebellion, A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage.
However, as mentioned before, the Yeshiva world in many ways, as no other institution, symbolizes Judaism’s capacity to lift itself beyond history into a framework where time does not operate, and thus Judaism becomes part of eternity.
As mentioned, the moment that the Jews entered the diaspora they could only ensure Judaism would survive by making it ahistorical and “timeless.” The Yeshiva world is the zenith of this; it finds itself on another plane where time is of no consequence. Whether one walks into a yeshiva in the twelfth century or the twenty-first century, it is the same. Time has vanished. Herein lies its power, but also its weakness.
It is remarkable that Spinoza demonstrates the same characteristic in his philosophical writings. It is as if he uses the same method as the yeshiva world. To make his philosophy eternal, he had to disconnect it from the element of time. As such it became unworldly but also very powerful. Did Spinoza adopt this from his (limited) study days spent in the “Talmud Torah” school of the Portuguese Jewish Community in Amsterdam? Was it owing to this that his philosophy became so attractive and noble, and simultaneously unfeasible?