NYT: Judging Spinoza
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In February of 1927, the historian Joseph Klausner stood before an audience at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and delivered a lecture on the “Jewish character” of Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy. As he neared the end of his talk, Klausner dropped the usual academic idiom and, with great passion, announced his intention to bring Spinoza, excommunicated in 1656 by the Portuguese-Jewish community in Amsterdam, back into the Jewish fold. “To Spinoza the Jew,” he declared: “The ban is nullified! The sin of Judaism against you is removed and your offense against her atoned for. You are our brother! You are our brother! You are our brother!”
Klausner’s theatrical performance was the first of several efforts in the 20th century to revoke Spinoza’s excommunication. No less an eminence than David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, publicly argued for “amending the injustice” done to the philosopher, insisting that the 17th-century rabbis had no authority “to exclude the immortal Spinoza from the community of Israel for all time.”
All these efforts were unsuccessful (not to mention unauthorized). Unlike most of the bans issued by the Amsterdam Portuguese in that period, the ban on Spinoza was never rescinded. In fact, in 1957, Rabbi Solomon Rodrigues Pereira of Amsterdam even reaffirmed the excommunication. Like Galileo, disciplined by the Roman Catholic Church just two decades before him, Spinoza has gone down as one of history’s great thinkers punished by intolerant ecclesiastic authorities for his intellectual boldness.
But it started to look as if the situation might change in the winter of 2012, when a member of the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam requested that its governing board take up the question of lifting the ban against Spinoza. Four scholars, including myself, were asked to serve as an advisory committee. In addition to answering a number of factual questions about Spinoza and his excommunication, we were asked for our respective opinions on lifting the ban, which the rabbi and leaders of the community would take under advisement.
What did I, a philosopher and Spinoza scholar, recommend? I confess that after much deliberation, I concluded that there were no good historical or legal reasons for lifting the ban, and rather good reasons against lifting it. Some may find this disappointing. But rather than see my recommendation as a betrayal of Spinoza (whose philosophy I have long admired) or a capitulation to religion, I think of it as a reminder of what philosophy and religion, at their best, should both stand for: the quest for understanding and truth. Let me explain.
The ban against Spinoza was the harshest ever issued by the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish community. Though the writ speaks only of his “abominable heresies and monstrous deeds,” without telling us exactly what they were, for anyone who has read Spinoza’s philosophical treatises, there really is no mystery as to why he was expelled. In those works, Spinoza rejects the providential God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; insists that the Bible is not literally of divine origin but just a haphazard (and “mutilated”) compilation of human writings handed down through the centuries; denies that Jewish law and ceremonial observance are of any validity or relevance for latter-day Jews; maintains that there is no theological, moral or metaphysical sense in which Jews are different from any other people; and rejects the idea of an immortal soul. Scholars have offered a number of alternative hypotheses to explain Spinoza’s excommunication, but if he was saying any of these things around the time of his ban — and there are good reasons for thinking that he was — it is no wonder that he was punished by his community. These were heresies.
Those of us on the advisory committee agreed, to some extent, that it would be good in terms of public relations for the Jewish community in Amsterdam if the ban against Spinoza were lifted. On this way of thinking, just as the Catholic Church in 1992 did a fine thing in conceding, after a 13-year investigation, that Galileo was right and that the church was wrong in punishing him, so the Amsterdam Jewish community in reversing course could put itself on the right side of history. But we also agreed that there were several considerations that seemed to outweigh those of good P.R.
First of all, Spinoza is dead. The pronouncement of a ban as practiced by the Amsterdam Jewish community in the 17th century was an act of personal ostracism, which meant that the individual was forbidden to participate in the life of the community until he showed contrition and made amends. But this would seem to imply that such a ban had significance and validity only within a person’s lifetime, and that lifting the ban three centuries after the person’s death would be meaningless. It is not as if Spinoza would be free to take up communal life once again.
Moreover, if we were to ask Spinoza, “Would you like the ban lifted?” I am certain that his answer would be, “I could not care less.” It is clear that he did not have any interest in being reintegrated into Judaism, much less into the particular Portuguese community that banned him. You might even say that to want to reintegrate Spinoza into Jewish life by lifting the ban would be to misunderstand what Spinoza stood for, given his strongly negative views on organized religion, and on Judaism in particular.
Here the analogy with the case of Galileo is misleading. Galileo was promoting a set of purely scientific doctrines, albeit doctrines that the Catholic Church had deemed inconsistent with biblical texts and religious dogma. Spinoza, on the other hand, was defending views that were direct and blatant denials of some core elements of the Jewish faith. It is one thing to insist that the Earth goes around the sun, and even to insist (as Galileo did) that the Bible should not be regarded as a source of scientific knowledge; it is quite another to claim that the observance of Jewish law is no longer valid or necessary, or that the biblical prophets were uneducated individuals who spoke not from understanding but only from imagination.
Finally, as one of my fellow committee members noted, it seems that the governing board of the Jewish congregation in Amsterdam today does not have the legal authority to rescind the excommunication of Spinoza; nor would there be any rabbi in the congregation or in the Orthodox world who would agree to annul the ban. In order for an excommunication to be annulled, the excommunicated person must repent and agree to accept the authority of the congregation, or at least there must be some evidence that the person did repent. There is no such evidence in the case of Spinoza. On the contrary, he went on to elaborate and defend his heretical views publicly and with great cogency.
Thus we on the advisory committee reached a consensus, which we relayed to the rabbi and leaders of the congregation, that the ban on Spinoza should not be lifted.
In July of 2013, I received an email with a letter from the congregation’s rabbi, Dr. P. Toledano, giving his decision. He began his response by noting how unfortunate it was that no relevant documents concerning the ban of Spinoza remained in the congregation’s library and archives. He took this as evidence that the community had made a concerted effort to eradicate all evidence of Spinoza’s case, lest future students within the congregation be tempted to emulate his heretical example.
Rabbi Toledano also mentioned the important fact that the ban was not lifted during Spinoza’s lifetime, and that Spinoza was not buried in the community’s cemetery (burial would have been forbidden to a person who died while under a ban). He concluded from these facts that “to the last breath of his life,” Spinoza was indifferent to the ban and did not ask for forgiveness by retracting what he had said.
As for the issue of public relations and sending “a strong, global message” about religion and freedom of speech, Rabbi Toledano offered a dissenting view. “If by freedom of speech you mean to study the views of Spinoza,” he wrote, “anyone can do so, as his books are freely available. May I also add that Judaism does not share this concept of freedom of speech. Does freedom of speech mean that we in our synagogue should spread the denial of God’s existence to the extent that it destroys our heritage and the pillars on which Judaism rests?”
Rabbi Toledano concluded, “after much thought and deliberation,” that the governing board of the community should leave Spinoza’s ban in place.
The rabbi was certainly right about Spinoza. The things Spinoza was saying at the time of his ban were not, and could not be, acceptable to any normative Jewish community of the time, even one as cosmopolitan as the Amsterdam Portuguese. And there is nothing that has come forth in the intervening centuries to suggest that given the regulations of the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish community, its leaders were wrong to expel Spinoza.
But is this everything that needs to be said? I think a larger, and more pressing, question concerns the wisdom and efficacy of enforcing orthodoxy, or conformity in the matter of ideas (as opposed to conformity in the matter of behavior), in religious communities. Presumably, religion, in addition to being for many people a source of identity, community, comfort and moral guidance, is also a quest for understanding and truth: truth about ourselves and about the world. As John Stuart Mill and many other thinkers have argued, exercising any kind of censorship over ideas and restricting freedom of thought and speech only make it less likely that, in the end, the truth will be discovered. Why should this be any less a matter of importance in the domain of religious belief than in philosophy, science and other areas of human intellectual endeavor?
Spinoza believed that he had, through metaphysical inquiry, discovered important truths about God, nature and human beings, truths that led to principles of great consequence for our happiness and our emotional and physical flourishing. This, in fact, is what he called “true religion.” There is a lesson here: By enforcing conformity of belief and punishing deviations from dogma, religious authorities may end up depriving the devoted of the possibility of achieving in religion that which they most urgently seek.