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. (chap. XV). Philosophy has no end in view save truth: faith…looks for nothing but obedience and piety. (chap. X1V). Scripture…does not condemn ignorance, but obstinacy. (chap. X1V).
In contrast to Jesus, who sought “solely to teach the universal moral law….the Pharisees (who were the Sages of Israel), in their ignorance, thought that the observance of the state law and the Mosaic law was the sum total of morality; whereas such laws merely had reference to the public welfare, and aimed not so much at instructing the Jews as at keeping them under constraint” (chap. V).
These are serious words from a great thinker and we need to ask ourselves whether his observations are correct, or not. Is Judaism indeed a religion whose primary purpose is to force people’s obedience to its demands and keep them under control?
England’s former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks cites a most remarkable midrash, which I believe challenges Spinoza’s critique while simultaneously proving his point. (1)
Commenting on Noah’s reluctance to leave the ark after the flood, the midrash makes the following biting comment:
Once the waters had abated, Noah should have left the ark. However, Noah said to himself, “I entered with God’s permission, as it says, “Go into the ark” (Bereishit 7:1). Shall I now leave without permission?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Is it permission, then, that you are seeking? Very well, then, here is permission,” as it is said: [Then God said to Noah] “Come out of the ark” (Bereshit 8:15). Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai said: If I had been there, I would have broken down the ark and taken myself out.
There can be little doubt that this midrash confronts Spinoza’s critique head-on. It seems to express a lack of patience with submissive religiosity that stifles human autonomy, action, innovation and responsibility. It warns against the type of religiosity that is self-serving and dangerous, a concept best described by the untranslatable Yiddish/German word frumkeit. This refers to an artificial form of religious behavior, which in our days has become synonymous with the authentic way of Jewish religious living. Instead of agreeing with this sort of piety, the midrash bitterly attacks it as an escape mechanism and lack of genuine religiosity.
In our story, Noah is described as a man who lives in self-deception, believing that he has reached the pinnacle of religiosity while in fact he is unknowingly pretending. There is nothing dishonest about him. Noah, in all sincerity, believes that no man should make a move unless God tells him to do so. There is no place for religious initiative. There is only obedience. What he does not realize is that this attitude will lead to total havoc. It is the recipe for continued flooding, the termination of all human life, and consequently the elimination of the possibility for genuine religiosity. More to the point, it is exactly what God does not want. The great biblical message is that God wants man to be His partner in Creation, not His robot.
What does Noah say when God informs him that He will destroy the world? What does he say when God commands him to build the ark and then enter it together with his family and the animals?
Why? Because Noah is very frum, religious, and won’t challenge God. Who is he to do so? And so he enters the ark with a clear conscience. He is brave, obedient, and feels very good about himself. No doubt Noah prays Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv daily. Surely he eats kosher and observes Shabbat but only because God tells him to do so. He obeys the letter of the law and will never go beyond the Divine demand.
What Noah does not grasp is that he is hiding behind his own misplaced religiosity. It is most convenient and carries no responsibility. All is in the hands of God. His argument is straightforward: If God decides that the world has to come to an end, how can man dare to interfere? Who is he to know what is right or wrong? There must be only obedience.
The ark is a marvelous place – it is comfortable, there is no need to steer it and nothing to fear. It floats on its own; one need not know where it is going. It has no sails for man to adjust to the winds. He just sits on his deckchair and waits for what will come.
The ark is a ghetto, both physically and mentally. It has no windows other than one on the roof allowing a view of Heaven. (2) One cannot even look outside to see what’s going on around it and hear the cries of millions who are drowning and desperately crying for help. No, the walls are too thick to hear any noise coming from outside. The ark is a highly secure place – an oasis in the storm of human pain and upheaval. True, inside the ghetto man has his tasks. Noah has to look after his family as well as feed the animals and take care of them. But that is all because he is commanded to do so. Nothing is done beyond his religious obligations. Noah is the homo religiosus par excellence. His is the ark of total obedience, and it is against this type of religious personality that Spinoza correctly protests.
But this is not the authentic religious Jewish personality. What would Avraham, the first Jew in history, have done? From reading his life story, it is clear that he would have refused to go into the ark. He would have fought God telling Him that it is unjust to drown all of mankind. He would have contested God’s decision, as he did in the case of the evil men in Sedom and Amora. And if God would have forced him into the ark, he would not have waited an extra moment to get out. He would have stood at the edge and destroyed the ark as soon as he saw land, just as Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai would have done.
Avraham, like Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai, proves Spinoza wrong. Noah does not represent genuine religiosity. Yes, many religious Jews believe that it is only in obedience that one must live one’s religious life. But that is not what the first Jew and authentic Judaism are all about. Judaism is a covenant between man and God, in which man is co-creator. God orders him to take action beyond His commandments. He is asked to build the world with the ingredients that God supplied at the time of creation. And when God destroys the world, it is man’s task to restore it. (3) He is obligated to storm out of the ark, protest and start rebuilding.
But God demands even more of man; he is also asked to be a partner in the creation of the Torah:
Once I was on a journey, and I came upon a man who went the way of heretics. He accepted the Written Torah but not the Oral Torah. He said to me: The Written Law was given to us from Mount Sinai; the Oral Law was not given from Mount Sinai. I said to him: But were not both the Written and the Oral Torah spoken by the Almighty? Then what difference is there between the Written and the Oral Torah? To what can this be compared? To a king of flesh and blood who had two servants and loved them both with perfect love. And he gave them each a measure of wheat and a bundle of flax. The wise servant, what did he do? He took the flax and spun a cloth. Then he took the wheat and made flour. He cleansed, ground, kneaded and baked the flour, and set it on top of the table. Then he spread the cloth over it and left it until the king would come. But the foolish servant did nothing at all. After some days the king returned from a journey, entered his house and said to them: My sons, bring me what I gave you. One servant showed him the wheaten bread on the table with a cloth spread over it, and the other servant showed the wheat still in the box, with a bundle of flax upon it. Alas for his shame, alas for his disgrace! Now, when the Holy One blessed be He gave the Torah to Israel, he gave it only in the form of wheat for us to extract flour from it, and flax to extract a garment… (4)
Man, then, is asked to be the constant co-creator of the Torah, making it more and more beautiful.
Spinoza’s view is dangerous and misleading. It has done great harm to Judaism’s image. According to Herman Cohen, one of the great German Jewish philosophers of the 19th century, Spinoza is unwittingly responsible for much anti-Semitism. (5) Many Jewish sources prove beyond doubt that Judaism imposes great responsibility on the religious Jew. There is no hiding behind obedience. The truth is that those who are exclusively submissive are only partially in control. Obedience means taking action; it is not merely subjugation.
Judaism is fully aware of the fact that no law can prevent the enormous difficulties that even the most religious Jew encounters.(6) To identify Judaism as a kind of sacred rote behavior, which does not require any autonomous human action, is missing the point entirely. The detailed elaboration of the law in Talmudic tradition should not be confused with a simplistic conception of the human condition. Judaism constantly repudiates formalism because it often leads to a perverse form of religiosity. In fact, it warns against becoming a degenerate within the framework of the Torah.(7)
Spinoza’s assessment of the Jewish religious personality is entirely mistaken but is clearly rooted in all the religious Noahs of our world.(8) It is a warning to many religious Jews who know nothing other than what we may call negative obedience as opposed to positive obedience. Instead of asking great rabbis to solve all our problems, we should never forget that Judaism teaches us to stand on our own feet and make our own decisions. Of course, living one’s religious life in this manner is not without risks, but there is no authentic life choice that is risk-free. Religion, said the Kotzker Rebbe, is warfare. It is a fight against indolence and callousness that stifles personal responsibility.
Our religious lives should be inspired by the spirit of the Torah, but it should never develop into an obsessive form of subjugation, which the Torah abhors. We must make sure we do not turn into ‘ark-niks,’ getting drunk from guilt once we leave our ark and see the havoc we have created. We should rather be proud and sober Abrahamites.
1. Covenant & Conversation, A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings (Maggid Books & The Orthodox Union, 2009) pp. 43-47.
2. See Rashi and Bereishit Rabbah on Bereishit 6:16.
3. See my Thoughts to Ponder 250 and 251: “God is Unjustifiable,” Parts 1 & 2. (www.cardozoschool.org/)
4. Seder Eliyahu Zuta, 2.
5. See Jüdische Geschriften, ed. B. Straus (Berlin: Schwetschke & Sohn, 1924) pp. 111, 290-372 (especially pp. 363 & 371), and preface by Leo Strauss.
6. See Sukkah 52a.
7. See Ramban on Vayikra 19:2.
8. Spinoza’s attitude toward the Jewish religion may quite well have been influenced by the teachers of the Spanish Portuguese Community, in 17th century Amsterdam, who expelled him. Their rigid understanding of Judaism, possibly shaped by the ideology of the Catholic Church from which they had just escaped, impelled the Ma’amad (the lay leadership of this community) to take drastic steps against Spinoza. Still, the ban was very mild compared to the auto-da-fé of the Inquisition. See Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. Dutch translation: Het Gelijk van Spinoza, Wereld Biblioteek (Amsterdam: 2004) Page 222.
Questions to Ponder from the David Cardozo Think Tank
1. What are the limits of obedience to divine will? Both the midrash about Noah’s passivity before God and the story of Avraham’s argument with God seem to point to a clear limit to obedience: when God’s command runs counter to our moral compass, Jewish tradition seems to rule in favor of standing up to God. How has this idea played out in the evolution of Jewish Law? Can you think of laws from the Torah that have been nullified by later authorities on the basis of moral considerations?
2. A guiding principle in the development of halacha is the notion of sayyag—a fence or “buffer zone” around a possible source of transgression. This has been extended to the point that much of modern halacha aims at distancing the observant Jew from any possible situation in which he or she might transgress. Do you think this is a healthy thing? How might this tie into the debate raging in educational circles about “helicopter parenting” and its impact on a child’s resilience?