I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Spinoza had met the Kotzker. Both were obsessed with truth, but each approached it from a different point of view. In Spinoza’s pantheism, there is a strong Kabbalistic element but, simultaneously, a denial of a personal (biblical) God. However much some Spinoza scholars want to claim that all of his philosophy was based on pure reason, it is very clear that there are elements in his philosophy that reveal aspects of mysticism. Both were searching for God and knew no compromise.
What is holiness? It has something to do with the constant awareness that God is to be discovered in all that one does, speaks, thinks, and feels. But that’s nearly unattainable. How does one live up to this?
How much might Judaism have benefited from people like Jesus, Elisha Ben Avuyah and Spinoza, had they not been rejected and had they contributed to the tradition in which they were raised?
When Orthodox rabbis are told that they are no longer able to speak their minds, offer new insights into Orthodox Judaism, or try to find solutions to serious problems by using innovative ideas, we are faced with a rabbinical world that is wearing blinders, is comprised of yes-people looking over their shoulders, and is generating a hazardous small-mindedness that has far-reaching effects.
We need to ask ourselves a pertinent question: Is our aversion to sacrifices the result of our supreme spiritual sophistication, which caused us to leave the world of sacrifices behind us? Or, have we sunk so low that we aren’t even able to reach the level of idol worshipers who, however primitive we believe them to have been, possessed a higher spiritual level than some of us who call ourselves monotheists?
Religious condemnations, whether by bans or by other means, reflect negatively on those who issue them. Truth will not be served by imposing bans and issuing condemnations, but only by honest investigation and dialogue.
In his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza accuses Judaism of demanding obsessive and outrageous obedience. Parashat Noach teaches us that while Spinoza’s assessment is entirely mistaken, it is a warning to many religious Jews who know nothing other than “negative” obedience as opposed to positive obedience. Judaism teaches us to stand on our own feet and make our own decisions.
The Judaism of today is a concession to human weakness, but at the same time a belief in the greatness and strength of man. It calls upon man to do whatever is in his power to climb as high as possible, but warns him not to overstep and fall into the abyss. Judaism asks man to be a magnificent being, but never an angel – because to be too much is to be less than.
But Judaism also believes that man may one day reach the point where what is impossible today may be possible tomorrow. What ought to be may someday become reality. It is that gap that Halacha tries to fill. Indeed, a mediator.
A harsh approach to those who are on the verge of leaving the fold has caused much damage. Sadly, this phenomenon seems to repeat itself in every generation. Whenever people quarrel over matters related to ideology and faith, and a person discovers that his more lenient opinion is in the minority, all too often—although his original view differed only slightly from the majority—the total rejection he experiences pushes him over the brink. Gradually, his views become more and more irrational and he becomes disgusted with his opponents, their Torah and their practices, forsaking them completely .
In his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Benedictus Spinoza (17th century), the famous Jewish ‘philosopher apostate’, launches one of his most outspoken attacks on Judaism. Not mincing words, he accuses it of demanding obsessive and outrageous obedience:
“The sphere of reason is…. truth and wisdom; the sphere of theology is piety and obedience” (XV). “Philosophy has no end in view save truth: faith… looks for nothing but obedience and piety” (X1V). “Scripture … does not condemn ignorance but obstinacy” (X1V).