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).
In contrast to Jesus, who sought “solely to teach the universal moral law,” “the Pharisees [i.e., 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” (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 main purpose is to force people’s obedience to its demands and keep them under control?
In Covenant and Conversation (1), Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks brings a most remarkable midrash which I believe defies Spinoza’s critique while simultaneously proving his point.
Commenting on Noah’s reluctance to leave the ark after the flood, the midrash makes the following biting comment:
Once the waters abated, Noah should have left the ark. Noah however said to himself, I entered with God’s permission (and by His order), as it says, ‘Go into the ark’ (6:18); shall I now leave without permission? The Holy One blessed be He said to him, is it permission then which you are seeking? Very well, here is the permission, as it says [Then God said to Noah], ‘Come out of the ark’ (Bereshith, 8:16). 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. What the midrash seems to draw attention to is its lack of patience with submissive religiosity that deadens the need for human autonomy, action, innovation and responsibility. It warns against the type of religiosity which is self serving and dangerous, a concept well expressed in the untranslatable Yiddish/German word, frumkeit. This refers to an artificial and dangerous form of religious behavior, which in our days has become identified as the authentic way of Jewish religious living. Instead of concurring 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, telling himself 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 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 bring total havoc. It is the recipe for eternal flooding, terminating all human life thereby undermining the possibility for genuine religiosity. Above all, 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? Nothing! Why? Because Noah is very frum and won’t challenge God. Who is he to do so? And so he enters the ark with a good conscience. He is brave. He is obedient and feels very good about himself. No doubt Noah “prays shacharith, mincha and ma’ariv” daily. Surely he “eats kosher” and “observes Shabbath” But only because God tells him to do so. He keeps to the letter of the law and will never go beyond the Divine demand.
What Noah does not realize 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 is only obedience.
The ark is a marvelous place – it is comfortable, there is nothing to fear, and one does not even have to steer it. 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. There is nothing to worry about.
The ark is a ghetto, both physically and mentally. It has no windows other than one on the roof allowing a view of Heaven. (See Rashi and Bereshith Rabah on 6:16) One cannot even look outside, 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 ark 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 a great injustice to drown all of mankind. He would have contested God, as he did in the case of the evil men in Sedom and Amora. And when 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. True, 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 about 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 after God has supplied the ingredients at the time of creation. And when God destroys the world, it is man’s task to restore it. (2) He is obligated to storm out of the ark and start rebuilding.
But God demands even more of man; he is 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. The flour he cleansed, ground, kneaded and baked 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… (Seder Eliyahu Zutta 2)
Spinoza’s view is a dangerous and misleading caricature. It has done great harm to the image of Judaism. According to Herman Cohen, one of the great German Jewish philosophers of the 19th century, Spinoza is unwittingly responsible for much anti Semitism. (3) 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 only obedient 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 which even the most religious Jew encounters. (See Succah 52a) To identify Judaism as a kind of sacred rote behavior which does not require any autonomous human action is missing the point entirely. The enormous elaboration of the law in Talmudic tradition should not be confused with a simplistic conception of the human condition. Judaism constantly repudiates formalism which often leads to a perverse form of religiosity. In fact, it warns against becoming a degenerate within the framework of the Torah. (See Ramban on Vayikra 19:2)
Spinoza’s assessment of the Jewish religious personality is entirely mistaken but is clearly rooted in all the religious Noahs of our world. (4) 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. True, 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 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 my “Thoughts to Ponder” 250 and 251: God is Unjustifiable, parts 1 & 2. (www.cardozoschool.org/)
3. See Judische Geschriften, ed. B. Straus, Berlin, 1924, pp. 111, 290-372 (especially pp. 363 & 371), and Preface by Leo Strauss.
4. Spinoza’s attitude towards the Jewish religion may quite well have been influenced by the rabbis of the Spanish Portuguese Community in 17th century Amsterdam who expelled him. Their rigid understanding of Judaism, possibly influenced by the ideology of the Catholic Church from which they had just escaped, impelled the Ma’amad (the leadership of this community) to take drastic steps against Spinoza. Still, the ban was very mild compared to the auto-da-fes 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.