My father constantly spoke about the famous, highly controversial philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza was raised in the Portuguese Spanish Jewish Community whose members had fled from Spain and Portugal to the Netherlands after the Inquisition in 1492, a fate shared by my own family. Spinoza’s attacks against Judaism made me wonder what Judaism was all about and why he so strongly opposed it. Thus, paradoxically, it was Spinoza who set me on the road to Judaism.
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.