The Lesson of Spinoza: Judaism Must Be Tolerant and Allow Dissenting Views
It would be too much to say that I was “raised on the knees” of Spinoza, but it’s definitely true that my father was a great admirer of his and often spoke about him and his teachings. I’m not sure if he understood Spinoza or just used some of his ideas to justify his own secular lifestyle.
There are two reasons why as a child I was attracted to Spinoza. First of all, he was a member of the Portuguese Spanish Jewish Community in Amsterdam. This is the very community of which my father was a member, as were all my ancestors (my family came to Holland via Portugal and Italy about 150 years after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492). My father always spoke about this community and was extremely proud of it, although he was not an active member. (Remember, my father was in a mixed marriage.)
Secondly, I was intrigued by the fact that Spinoza had been expelled by this community at a young age, when his ideas about God and Tanach became somewhat known (a long story, which I have spoken and written about at great length). This is the gravest and most notorious ban in all of Jewish history. In fact, it probably made Spinoza more famous than his actual philosophy did.
While some people claim that Spinoza was the greatest of all philosophers in the 17th century, I greatly doubt it. But that’s a discussion for another time. Three years ago, while participating in a forum of major international Spinoza experts at the University of Amsterdam, I pleaded to revoke the ban, but to no avail. (This, again, is a long story, which I have written and spoken about.)
I found it most painful that somebody was banned for speaking his mind. After all, a ban is an expression of fear, and is in fact very un-Jewish.
I wondered what this story was all about, so I started reading about his life and philosophy. In no time, I was completely absorbed. I drew closer and closer to his personality and his thoughts; and so, paradoxically, I was indirectly introduced to Judaism. After all, Spinoza is probably the most severe critic of Judaism and often wrote about it. In short, I started to look into Judaism to discover why he so strongly objected to its beliefs and practices.
While I became more and more convinced of his supreme mind, I realized that he was misrepresenting Judaism — sometimes due to ignorance, but also deliberately. While he was well-versed in Tanach, he had very little knowledge of Jewish tradition. This was not a fair game, and it involved double standards, especially when you compare his observations on Judaism with those he made about (liberal) Christianity, which were much less critical and sometimes even flattering.
I believe something else was going on in me subconsciously. However much I realized that Spinoza was not as truthful as he wanted his readers to believe, I had a weak spot for him because of the way he was treated. Since my childhood, I have abhorred close-mindedness and attempts to use power in order to silence somebody. Clearly, it was my father who instilled this in me. But Dutch society at large, which has always been very liberal, also played a role. This is why in the 17th century, unlike almost any other country in Europe, it allowed Jews to come and live in the Dutch Republic and practice their religion more or less openly.
Many works of so-called heresy, which could not be published in any other country, were published in Amsterdam in the same and later centuries. The fact that today you can legally buy soft drugs, and that (many kinds of) euthanasia and prostitution are legalized is the other side of the coin.
I do encounter a lot of opposition from people who try to silence me in ways that are not far removed from those used against Spinoza. One thing I definitely learned from him is the way to react to this. He stayed calm, almost never lost his temper, and continued to live with an inner tranquility, although I am convinced that sometimes he must have been deeply hurt. I think you can find this in some of his harsher observations in his Tractatus Theologico Politicus.
But the greatest tragedy is that Spinoza was lost to the Jewish people and Judaism. The rabbis who dealt with him didn’t know how to approach him and his as yet underdeveloped opinions. They reacted out of fear, which is the worst thing you can do when you’re confronted with a young man who is struggling with his Jewish identity and Judaism. Instead of appreciating the struggle, they couldn’t cope with doubt and challenge, and took the easiest way out by casting him out of the Jewish community.
To this day, any challenge to its traditions and beliefs is still one of the greatest fears of the Orthodox Jewish community, and I have no doubt that this has done, and still does, a lot of harm to Judaism in our own days. Lots of young people cannot live with this kind of dogmatic Judaism and therefore walk out.
I think it is this tragedy that moves me to show how real Judaism doesn’t have to be afraid of any challenge, and that struggle and doubt are part of its tradition. In many ways, its multifaceted and contradicting opinions are proof of its strength.
This brings me directly to the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859). I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Spinoza had met the Kotzker. They lived in different centuries. 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. What the Kotzker Rebbe could have shown Spinoza is that the Judaism he left behind and detested was terribly puritanical, dogmatic, and not authentic. It was deeply rooted in the experience of the Marranos, preferably called Conversos — Jews who were forced to become Catholics during the Inquisition. For hundreds of years, they were brought up in the Catholic Church and transplanted its ideas into the kind of Judaism that prevailed in the Portuguese Spanish Kehilla in Amsterdam. In many ways, it was Christianity without the cross, combined with large doses of religious law and ritual, which were completely misunderstood.
Faith was seen as obedience and bowing to a higher authority without any personal input, rooted in blind routine. Spinoza strongly objected to it, but never took the time to investigate whether real Judaism would actually agree with this notion. The Kotzker would have taken Spinoza by the ear and shlepped him out of this kind of Judaism, showing him that the truth was very different, although Spinoza was probably more level-headed than the Kotzker, who was very eccentric.
For the Kotzker, it was rebellion that was the essence of Judaism, not spiritual capitulation. According to him, Judaism was against any kind of conformity and outward appearances, even those hallowed throughout the generations. He referred to a person as “worse than a scoundrel” if he offered a prayer today as he did yesterday.
Both men worked to bring about a spiritual renewal, but Spinoza was so boxed in and limited by the Judaism he found in Amsterdam that he couldn’t liberate himself from it without leaving and condemning it altogether. This is still a problem for many Spinoza experts today. Most do not manage to bypass him and have a fresh and honest look at Judaism. They are completely indoctrinated by Spinoza’s misguided reading of Judaism. The Kotzker could have saved Spinoza and them from this very tragedy.
It is for this reason that my Judaism has been influenced by the Kotzker Rebbe, and that I rebel against the commonplace Judaism I encounter today in most Orthodox communities. Not that my personal conduct lives up to the requirements of the Kotzker, but I make an honest effort.
I believe that Spinoza’s story was the greatest tragedy in modern Jewish spiritual history, second only to the tragic story around the false mashiach Shabbetai Zvi, which took place in the same century. With Spinoza’s breaking away from Judaism, we entered the world of Jewish secularism, which over the years has become a major force that is still alive and well today.
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism.