Two weeks ago, a highly unfortunate incident happened at the Portuguese Spanish Synagogue in Amsterdam, the synagogue my family has been a member of for hundreds of years. Based on the ban on the famous philosopher Baruch Spinoza, pronounced by the leadership of the synagogue in 1656, the synagogue’s Rabbi refused Professor Yitzchak Melamed, an Orthodox Jew, entrance to the synagogue complex.
Professor Melamed is one of the leading authorities on Spinoza, and he wanted to do research for a film he is creating on Spinoza. After the Rabbi’s deeming Professor Melamed a “persona non grata” with respect to the synagogue, I wrote an “Open Letter” to the Rabbi in protest (see here). Since then, more protests throughout the world were conveyed to the rabbinate and the lay leadership of the Portuguese Spanish Synagogue, ultimately leading to the reversal of this unfortunate decision.
Many of my readers asked me to resend the text of the lecture that I delivered on December 6, 2015, at the University of Amsterdam and the Crescas Jewish Educational Center, in which I explained my views on the ban of Spinoza and Spinoza’s views on Judaism, and why I believe the ban needs to be lifted. (This ban is the most famous ban ever pronounced by Jews on a fellow Jew.)
Here is the text of my lecture as it appeared in the Jerusalem Post’s Friday Magazine on 25/12/2015.
It Is Time to Lift The Ban
On Sunday, the 6th of December, a symposium on Spinoza was held under the auspices of the University of Amsterdam and the Crescas Jewish Educational Center, initiated by Ms. Ronit Palache and Michel Waterman, and chaired by Professor Irene Zwiep. The symposium, at De Rode Hoed Cultural Center, featured international scholars who discussed the specific question of whether the ban on Baruch Spinoza should be lifted. Over 500 participants attended, including Dutch Government officials, academicians and leaders of the Jewish Community.
Spinoza, the celebrated seventeenth-century Amsterdam Jewish philosopher, is known as the father of the Enlightenment and has influenced generations of philosophers to this day. At the age of 23, he was excommunicated by the Portuguese-Spanish Jewish community of Amsterdam because of his heresies, which included his denying the existence of the Biblical God as well as the divinity of the Torah. The ban was by far the harshest ever to be imposed on a fellow Jew by a Jewish Community. Spinoza left Amsterdam and settled first in Rijnsburg, then Voorburg, and later in The Hague where he wrote his two most famous works, the Ethics and the Tractatus Theologico Politicus.
His life and works have lately become the center of much attention on the international scene, and the request to lift the ban has become a hot topic.
In 1957, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asked the Chief Rabbi of the Portuguese-Spanish community, Chacham Dr. Salomon Rodrigues Pereira, to lift the ban but was refused. In 2013, this request was once again made, but Chief Rabbi Dr. Pinchas Toledano also declined.
At this unique symposium, the first of its kind since the ban was imposed, Jewish and non-Jewish Spinoza scholars, together with Rabbi Toledano and myself, debated the pros and cons of lifting the ban.
Below is the revised text of the short lecture I delivered at this historic gathering, after showing a portrait of Spinoza painted by my father while he was in hiding during the Shoah.
My name is Nathan Lopes Cardozo and I am a former heretic, having come from a completely secular home in which Spinoza was the supreme authority – our house rabbi.
Today, I am an Orthodox rabbi, although I have no idea what this term means since there is nothing orthodox or conventional about Orthodox Judaism.
I love heresy because it forces us to rethink our religious beliefs. We owe nearly all of our knowledge not to those who have agreed but to those who have differed.
Doubt is the source of inquiry; yet large sections of religious Jews and gentiles live in self-assured ease and contentment. This is also true of many secular people. Secularity is part of their contentment.
But who wants to live in contentment?
Religion is used to comfort the troubled. But I think we should use it to trouble the comfortable.
Regarding the ban on Spinoza, I suggest that we immediately remove it. In my humble opinion, it is most shameful that the ban is still in place.
Spinoza’s philosophy is beautiful. The Ethics is a book filled with deep insights. While it is surely not the greatest work on philosophy, it is one of extremely noble feelings and ideas.
The fact that Spinoza was dead wrong about some crucial matters and that philosophy has moved far beyond his ideas does not detract from his or his books’ merits. I consider him a secular tzaddik. He lived by his noble ideas, was dedicated to simplicity, and showed the most remarkable virtuous characteristics. That these were accompanied by intellectual arrogance does not minimize his nobility. In many ways he reminds me of the great mussar personalities – Jewish religious and ethical teachers in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe.
In fact, I once wrote an essay asking why the Ethics was not given to Moses at Sinai, suggesting that Spinoza’s ideas are so noble that they surpass the moral ideas of the Torah (1). But for the Torah to be effective it could not be ahistorical and timeless truth as Spinoza’s ideas represented. His ideas are suspect, since they are unfeasible in day-to-day life for the vast majority of people. For the Torah to be a guide to human beings it must be pragmatic, so as to inspire man toward reaching even higher goals: from a feasible Judaism to a perfect Judaism. Spinoza’s ideas about man are very Jewish, although more messianic than realistic.
From a Jewish point of view, his ideas about God and the Torah are partially mistaken, because he did not understand that God and Torah belong to a totally different category than what philosophy asserts.
From a philosophical point of view, God, the ultimate Being, is like a hard disk in which nothing can be found that even alludes to the computer disk and the images on the screen. Not even the most advanced microscope will reveal them. The Jewish God, while rooted in the hard disk, appears on the screen as the God of history. Arguing that there is no historical God because there is no visible indication of Him on the hard disk is like arguing that the images on our screen have nothing to do with the hard disk (2).
Spinoza did not understand the élan vital and inner soul of the Torah. Not because he was wrong about the text as such, but because he approached the Torah as an autonomous work, a kind of Lutheranism and bibliolatry. From the perspective of Judaism, one should not read the Torah like one reads other great literature; rather, one must hear the Torah. And that is possible only when one is engaged in living it. There is an experiential difference between the secular act of reading a text and the religious act of listening to Torah.
There must be a personal encounter with the text through which the written word transforms into a living organism (3). It is a response to the search for meaning in people’s lives. The idea is to hear, and most important to receive and then respond in an active and productive way to the Divine call. The Torah must be heard from a perspective of muse and imagination. It is the flint that poets use to ignite sparks of creativity.
I owe a lot to Spinoza. It was he who inspired me to start studying Judaism carefully. I began to read his works when I was 15 and have never stopped. To this day, I study Spinoza’s Ethics frequently. I do it after I have come home from synagogue, after I have prayed.
But before I open the Ethics, I study the Talmud. It is my great love. The most outrageous text I have ever studied. An unprecedented transcript consisting of 24 huge volumes, it is a seven-century-long stormy debate between hundreds of the earliest and most remarkable sages who discuss God, the Bible, life in outer space, economy, damages, international law and so much more. It even deals with the most intimate moments in a person’s life and advises a woman how to seduce her husband in the bedroom (4).
The majority of people know little about Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy, since it is difficult to understand and only a few are able to grasp it. Most people know him as the individual who was excommunicated by the Jews. The ban brought him more fame than his actual philosophy.
And that is where the problem starts.
As a very young person I spoke with many people who had studied Spinoza’s works carefully and had an erudite grasp of Judaism. After some time I became a bit suspicious. In spite of Spinoza’s lofty ideas in the Ethics, it became clear to me that in his Tractatus Theologico Politicus he was misrepresenting Judaism in ways that were most disturbing.
For some of this, he could not be blamed. But it became evident that several of his misrepresentations were clearly deliberate and against his better knowledge. This shocked me to the core. Here are a few examples.
Spinoza was the student of Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira (1596-1660), one of the prominent rabbis in the Portuguese-Spanish Community of Amsterdam, who was a devoted follower of Maimonides, the celebrated eleventh-century Jewish philosopher.
While Maimonides is by far the greatest religious Jewish philosopher, as well as one of the most innovative halachic scholars Judaism has ever produced, he also did a great amount of harm to Judaism. He misconceived it in ways that are very unfortunate. In fact, he hijacked Judaism and transformed it into a conventional religion by introducing a notion that is completely foreign to its very spirit.
Maimonides claimed that the whole of Judaism was founded on 13 dogmas. These are the famous Thirteen Principles of Faith, which have been set to music and are sung as the Yigdal prayer in most synagogues on Friday night.
The problem is there are no dogmas in Judaism.
Dogma is an outgrowth of systematic theology, and if there is anything absent in Judaism it is precisely that. Instead, Judaism consists of ongoing debates on Jewish belief, and the intense differences of opinion are not insignificant. Dogmas, in contrast, are not open to discussion, cannot evolve, and are conclusively decided on by a synod or conclave. Since there is no synod, conclave or any other institution of binding character concerning Judaism’s beliefs, any kind of catechism or dogma is unthinkable.
Although it is probably true that Maimonides never intended these 13 principles to become authoritative, his standing in the Jewish community was so strong that once he launched these principles, they overshadowed everything else to the point that they became indisputable, as if they were given at Sinai.
Worse than that, Maimonides declared that everyone who would believe in these dogmas would be admitted to heaven even if they would transgress all commandments of the Torah (5). If anything is to be called heresy in the Jewish tradition, it is that.
This point of view stands in sharp contradiction to what authentic Judaism is actually saying. All sources make it abundantly clear that one loses one’s share in the world to come by transgressing the commandments, not by heretical beliefs or even atheism.
Famous Jewish thinker, Professor Leon Roth (1896-1963) writes about Maimonides:
“For this Hebrew of Hebrews had in many respects a Greek mind, and through his sense of logic and his passion for precision he brought Judaism into a doctrinal crisis the echoes of which are with us yet” (6).
Judaism is a perspective on life. Not the outcome of a doctrine, but rather of the concrete events, actions and insight of a people who experienced an encounter with God within the confines of history.
To believe is not to prove, but to yield to a vision. Faith is a moment when all definitions come to an end. Faith means striving for faith. It is never an arrival. It is a constant journey and can only burst forth at single moments. It is the result of becoming aware that we are surrounded by a mysterium magnum concerning all existence, which results in radical amazement, as Abraham Joshua Heschel often remarks. Faith is not the outcome of impartial knowledge but of a human experience that is far more profound than a creed or ideology. It is revealed when one’s soul is shaken by all that cannot be verbally expressed. The difference between dogma and faith is like the difference between a word spoken and a word set to music. Living by dogma is like trying to demonstrate the beauty of classical music by showing people Mozart’s musical score instead of letting them hear the music.
This is why reason alone can never be the sole arbiter of truth. It can corrupt as much as power. It can be presumptuous and abused. Reason can give us only partial support since it is incompatible with the ineffable. The issue is not to comprehend but to revere. Faith is deeper than reason. Reason is absorbed by the brain but unable to surpass it. When an act of faith takes place, it occurs in the form of an upheaval that agitates the entire person far beyond the limitations of reason.
Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980), a secular Jew who was Professor of Philosophy at Princeton and one of the greatest experts on Nietzsche, writes:
…. no dogma could ever gain authority…. Judaism never accepted them as sacrosanct nor allowed them or any other such attempts to come between itself and the inexhaustible texts. Hence, one kind of tension between religion and the quest for truth is almost unknown in Judaism: no sacrifice of the intellect is demanded.…. The primary concern in Judaism is with a way of life. This way of life involves a strong sense of tradition and a determination to realize certain ideals…. This unique directedness from a historical past into a messianic future, from Mount Sinai to justice for orphan, widow, and stranger and the abolition of war, has saved Judaism from death by ice and death by fire, from freezing in awe of a rigid tradition and from evaporating into utopian reverie…. What the Jews have traditionally sought in the Torah was not merely a way of life nor truths but—this is scarcely an exaggeration—everything…. Since the Bible and quite especially the Five Books of Moses were considered God given, it might seem that the resulting fundamentalism must have led to conflicts with science. But this inference involves a common misconception: those who consider the Bible God’s revelation need not take every sentence literally…. the essential ambiguity of Scripture was granted implicitly and every verse could be interpreted poetically…. Judaism offers something the Christian is not offered: a religion without theology (7).
But Rabbi Morteira did not realize this and Spinoza, his most gifted pupil, fell victim to his way of thinking and was trapped by these 13 doctrines. Believing that Maimonides represented Judaism in its full glory, he did not realize that trying to confine Judaism to 13 dogmas is like trying to get the Atlantic Ocean into a bathtub.
A second example of Spinoza’s misrepresentations involves the fact that he had no knowledge of the Talmud, the great reservoir of Jewish Tradition. Nor did he know anything of Midrashic literature and the Oral Tradition as a whole.
He left the Amsterdam Talmud Torah at the age of 14, to help his father in his business, and never participated in serious Talmudic studies taught in the higher classes (8).
When one has no thorough knowledge of the Talmud and its unique spirit, it is impossible to judge Judaism on its merits and shortcomings.
The Talmud is a kind of a gym where the human brain and soul are asked to try any intellectual or spiritual workout even if it seems farfetched or totally impossible. It includes heretical ideas and rebellion against God, yet considers them to be absolutely kosher. To appreciate this, one must hear the distinctiveness of its content, the spirit it breathes and the many often opposing ideological foundations on which it stands.
The Talmud is frequently at loggerheads with God and the Torah. Here are just a few of the many examples:
- On several occasions, the Sages opposed and even neutralized God’s opinion, telling Him to mind His own affairs (9).
- The Sages uprooted or changed Biblical commandments, because they did not concur with the plain intention of the text (10).
- In the Midrash, the Sages called God an Alila, a Being who deliberately sets up plots against man (11).
- They even set God up against Himself (12).
Why did Spinoza never mention any of this in his treatise?
Famous Israeli controversial philosopher David Hartman (1931-2013) claims, in an outstanding essay called “Risk and Uncertainty,” that Spinoza’s treatise is a “misleading caricature” of what authentic Judaism really stands for (13).
Why, asks Hartman, does Spinoza state that Judaism is a tradition of “obedience and piety” (14) when in fact the whole premise on which Judaism stands is protest? He gives many examples of this. If anything is true, it is that Judaism is a tradition of rebellion against idol worship, consumerism, self-indulgence, and much more. Shabbat, kashrut, laws concerning family purity are all expressions of a revolt against human complacency. The purpose of Judaism is to disturb and to challenge the established order when it would otherwise lead to mediocrity.
The purpose of Halacha (Jewish law and practice) is to turn every deed into a moment of eternity. It is a protest in which the trivial is redeemed through the adding of holy sparks. To paraphrase Heschel: What a sculptor does to a block of marble, Halacha does to our finest intuitions. It is like raising the mystery behind our lives to expression (15). It allows the unseen to enter this world and the metaphor to become tangible. There are depths to the human soul that only ritual can reach.
But Spinoza never considered any of this, because he lacked the knowledge and showed little interest to in studying Judaism on an erudite level. Despite his lofty and unparalleled philosophical ideas in many fields, he was an ignoramus when it came to Judaism.
What is truly unforgivable, though, is that Spinoza deliberately, and against better knowledge, rewrote Judaism to give it a bad name. While his knowledge of Judaism was minimal, he was well versed in the Bible, which he had studied in the Talmud Torah as a youth, and which he seemingly continued to study while writing his treatise. That surely gave him enough knowledge to be consciously aware that he was misleading his readers.
It was Professor Emil Fackenheim (1916-2003), who challenged Spinoza with the following words:
“Why does the author of the Ethics, who claims to rise above all bias and prejudice to nothing less than eternity, resort in his Theologico Political Treatise to the grossest distortions of the minority religion which he has left…?” (16)
Professor Fackenheim continues to give one example after another of Spinoza’s bias. He then quotes Spinoza who writes:
“How blessed would our age be if it could witness a religion freed also from all the trammels of superstition!” (17)
To which Fackenheim replies:
“How blessed might Spinoza’s philosophy have been had it transcended bias and prejudice against the religion which conscience had forced him to forsake!” (18)
Fackenheim continues, saying that Spinoza used double standards and showed a total lack of evenhandedness, especially when trying to prove that Christianity was much more advanced and morally correct than Judaism. He then goes on to refute Spinoza’s arguments one by one.
Unsurprisingly, Fackenheim finally asks: Does this philosopher of all philosophers act in bad faith?
This brings us to the ban.
There is nearly nothing that has done as much damage to authentic Judaism as the ban on Spinoza. Since then, Judaism has been reduced to a dogmatic, small-minded religion in the eyes of millions of people who know nothing about it or about Spinoza’s philosophy. They see it as being similar to the former Catholic Church when it dealt with people like Galileo.
But Judaism is much too broad to belong to categories that are bound by theological dogmatic constraints, as Spinoza maintains and as the ban seems to confirm.
Spinoza did not defeat Judaism. He misrepresented it. The issue is not whether Judaism is right or wrong. It is about presenting an honest account of what Judaism stands for. And Spinoza failed to do so, partly out of ignorance and partly against his better knowledge.
Yes, Judaism has made use of bans, but very sporadically, and not so much because of issues of faith and belief but as a way to protect the Jewish community against Jews who exposed it to physical danger in a world that was still far from willing to unconditionally accept Jews and Judaism in its midst.
Bans of this kind were instituted by rabbis living in exile, as part of a defense mechanism required by Judaism to protect itself and secure the well-being of its followers.
This was probably the case with the ban on Spinoza.
The Jewish Portuguese-Spanish Community that had just arrived in Amsterdam was fully aware that it could live there only by the grace of the city magistrates. It had been made abundantly clear that no member of the Jewish community would be permitted to openly attack religion, the conventional understanding of God, or the authority of the Bible. There were explicit warnings that one could run the risk of being expelled – even from Amsterdam, the most liberal city in all of Europe.
Once the young and inexperienced Spinoza began to openly declare his heretical ideas about God and the Bible, there was little the community could do to prevent a major clash with the City of Amsterdam, and they decided to expel him, using the most outrageous text of excommunication: “Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up…”
The ban was total overkill – not one book of Spinoza’s had yet been published – which just proves the anxiety felt at that time. The Amsterdam Jewish community of the seventeenth century had experienced the greatest difficulties in creating a cohesive congregation with all of the wandering and battered Jews who had newly arrived to Amsterdam from Spain and Portugal, often via Italy. Many of these Jews had been raised and educated within the confines of the Catholic Church, their parents and grandparents having been tortured by the Inquisition.
Because there was a real possibility that the community would be forced to leave Amsterdam, the Jews felt strongly that Spinoza betrayed them and that perhaps he was guilty of treason against a community that was still freshly traumatized by the Spanish inquisition, in which thousands lost their lives.
Influenced by the Catholic Church, Amsterdam’s Jewish leaders and congregants had little knowledge of Judaism when they arrived in Holland. Many still had strong ties with Christian beliefs, thinking that Judaism was analogous to Christianity, albeit without the cross, and therefore bound by dogmas and unquestionable creeds in which intellectual discourse was odious. And surely the rabbis themselves may have been too much under the spell of Maimonides’ dogmas and therefore incapable of showing Spinoza a different, more open-minded and accommodating Judaism.
Being accustomed to bans within the Catholic Church, the ma’amad (laymen leadership of this Jewish Community) used a similar method to keep their fellow Jews in check, introducing their own minor inquisition. The important difference, of course, was that they would not burn people at the stake but would instead impose bans, expelling people from their community for longer or shorter periods of time.
In the case of Spinoza, his ban backfired and in fact increased his fame.
It is high time to set the record straight so that philosophers and academicians can no longer hide behind Spinoza and call Judaism a small-minded, dogmatic religion, or use Spinoza to justify their rejection of Judaism. For a thorough critique of Judaism, Spinoza is the wrong address.
He surely helped us to think more maturely about God, human nature, happiness and the society in which we live. But from a Jewish perspective, his ideas about God and Torah are still underdeveloped. They need to undergo major transformation, something that Judaism itself has to encourage, since its own ideas about God and Torah require much more creative and mature thinking than has been offered until now.
Let us give Spinoza the honor he deserves as one of the greatest philosophers of all time. But we can do that only if we are clear that his excessive caricatures of Judaism are false and undermine his lofty ideas.
By removing the ban, we eliminate the cause of his rise to fame, albeit for the wrong reasons. Only then can he find his place among the greatest thinkers without having to fall back on undeserved fame, which has more to do with psychology than with philosophy. If not for the ban and his unusual history, he would have been half as popular as he was and is today. It would even be fair to question whether he was really the father of the Enlightenment, since there were earlier philosophers, such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes, who had already laid the foundations for this movement, although it cannot be denied that Spinoza played a major role.
The rabbinical authorities who want to uphold the ban on Spinoza must be well aware of the fact that by doing so they give the impression that Judaism is afraid of Spinoza’s ideas.
A ban is a sign of fear, and since when is Judaism afraid? While the ban may have been necessary in the seventeenth century, as a way to protect the Jewish community against forces that could undermine it, or even against expulsion from Amsterdam, the reinforcement of the ban today only embarrasses Judaism and turns it into a fearful religion that will cause many bright young people to reject it instead of viewing it as a powerful religious ideology built on courage – something our world is in great need of.
Spinoza was dead wrong about Judaism and some philosophical issues, but you do not expose his mistakes by putting him under a ban. One can ban books, but the ideas expressed in them will not die. In fact, the more one condemns these books, the more they will be read by intelligent people. After all, one cannot imprison thoughts.
The renowned Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loewe of sixteenth-century Prague), one the greatest Orthodox Jewish thinkers of all time, wrote:
Therefore it is proper, out of love of reason and knowledge, that you do not reject anything that opposes your own ideas, especially so if your adversary does not intend to provoke you, but rather to declare his beliefs. And even if such beliefs are opposed to your own faith and religion, do not say [to your opponent): “Speak not. Close your mouth” If that happens there will take place no purification of Judaism. On the contrary, you should say at such times: Speak up as much as you want, say whatever you wish and do not say later that had you been able to speak, you would have replied further. For one who causes his opponent to hold his peace and refrain from speaking demonstrates thereby the weakness of his own religious faith…. This is therefore the opposite of what some people think, namely, that when you prevent someone from speaking against Judaism, that strengthens Judaism. That is not so because curbing the words of an opponent in religious matters is naught but the curbing and enfeebling of religion itself…. For the proper way to attain the truth is to hear others’ arguments that they sincerely hold…. Hence, one should not silence those who speak against Judaism…. for to do so is admission of weakness (19).
Let us also not be afraid of stating that Judaism is still in the process of evolving. It has not yet given birth to its many splendid ideas that remain buried under the thick scab that has grown on it and needs to be removed.
Surely some of Spinoza’s ideas can help us achieve that goal.
If the Portuguese-Spanish Community in Amsterdam and its rabbinate refuse to remove the ban, a group of outstanding international religious Jewish thinkers should do so. They will have the authority and knowledge to be able to show our young people that in a world where religious fundamentalism is becoming more and more dangerous, authentic Judaism has no part in this.
After all, we should not forget that the ban is no longer just a local Amsterdam affair. It is a global one of tremendous symbolic and far-reaching importance.
It is time to undo one of the great tragedies of Jewish history.
1) See Zohar, vol. III, p. 152a.
2) Jerome Gellman, God’s Kindness Has Overwhelmed Us (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2013) pp. 20-21.
3) Franz Rosenzweig, Ed. N.N. Glatzer, On Jewish Learning (NY: Schocken Books, 1955).
4) Shabbat 140b.
5) Commentary on the Mishna in Sanhedrin 10:1.
6) Judaism: A Portrait (NY: Viking Press, 1961) p. 122.
7) Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979) pp. 268-276.
8) Stephen Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999) ch. 5.
9) Bava Metzia 59b.
10) Yevamot 90b; Sanhedrin 8:4; Sanhedrin 71a.
11) Midrash Tanchuma on Psalms 66: 5.
12) Midrash Rabbah on Kohelet 4:1.
13) David Hartman, Joy and Responsibility (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi-Posner Ltd., 1978) pp. 93-129.
14) Tractatus Theologico Politicus XIV.
15) Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983) p. 164.
16) Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World (NY: Schocken Books, 1982) pp. 38-58.
17) Tractatus, chs. IV and XI.
19) Be-er HaGolah, end of last chapter.