Abraham and my soft spot for Spinoza — down there
I have a soft spot for Baruch Spinoza, the XVIIth century Dutch philosopher.
As we all know, Spinoza was Jewish. And he continued throughout all his life to feel Jewish and pay the tax to keep his seat at the Esnoga,, despite a famous herem, “excommunication”, inflicted upon him when he was in his 20s.
Much has been said and written about this ex-communication. Many believe that Spinoza fell victim to a kind of Jewish Inquisition; the Powerful wanted to suppress the young radical philosopher, for having progressive ideas. According to this story, Spinoza is the Jewish Galileo. Galileo, you remember, was an Italian astronomer, and was tortured by the Inquisition for the sin of defending science against religious dogmatism.
There is never a shortage of new versions of the old obsession with Jews and Power. But the reality is more trivial: most probably the young Spinoza had refused to support his brother financially after a bankruptcy. The ex-communication, or more appropriately the suspension, was the mean by which recalcitrant debtors were pressed in the Jewish community Spinoza belonged. They were Jews of Portuguese origin, who arrived in Holland fleeing from the Catholic Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. They have returned to observance in Protestant lands after spending several generations as “Marranos” (illegal Jews), observing the Jewish faith into hiding.
The biography of Spinoza and his intellectual environment have fascinated me since I was in high school. But I must say that there is one particular point in which he was entirely correct and -at the same time- totally. tragically wrong.
Let me explain.
According to Spinoza, the Jewish people had no special relationship with God. Other chosen people follow a monotheistic faith and believe that God has chosen them. There are plenty of moral people who do not share the faith in the God of Israel. God had chosen other nations before choosing the Hebrews. Spinoza asserts that this choice is neither absolute nor eternal.
This passage of Spinoza’s philosophy is influenced by the provenance Marano of his parents, both born in Portugal under Catholic rule. They had their good reasons to doubt about God’s protection, and no doubt they have met some righteous Gentiles that helped them to escape the Inquisition.
Nonetheless, the question is: if we Jews are not the people chosen by the Almighty, why have we survived? Spinoza’s answer is extraordinarily modern and completely wrong.
According to Spinoza, religious observances and particularly circumcision have kept us Jews separate from the rest of the world while cultivating into us a kind of superiority complex.
Circumcision is the main object of Spinoza’s destructive fury. He believed that such a religious practice made us Jews “effeminate”. If only e could get rid of them, we could become strong (and I presume male) and take back the land of the kingdom from which we were driven out not by God but by a human and more powerful army.
In these passages, Spinoza sounds like a Socialist Zionist from the early 20th century, known for their rebellious attitude against Rabbinic law and the aspiration to build a new Jew, physically strong, master of his own destiny, and free from religious constraints. Free, strong and in his own land.
That’s Spinoza Jewish modernity.
I do think, as I have said, that Spinoza was totally right and completely wrong. Let me begin with what he got right.
It is undoubtedly true that we Jews are not the only monotheistic religion. Even at the time of the Torah, other people worshipped a Unique God and -like us- tried to live a moral life. This week’s Torah portion, for example, mentions King Melchizedek, ruler of the city of Shalem who and blesses Abraham in the name of God -in which they shared a faith. The very name of Melchizedek — Melech Tzedek, “Righteous King”, suggests that Abraham was not the only one to believe in God and to live a moral life.
So what is new and peculiar in Abraham’s faith?
Abraham is the first to enter into a relationship with God, together with his family.
Abraham often expresses his desire to have children and frustration because God does not keep His promise to make him father. And precisely for this desire and aspiration, God chose him and makes him and Sara parents. God chooses Abraham because of Abraham’s desire to have children, to have descendants.
The personality of Abraham links the monotheistic faith and the ethical dimension to the family. This is the great novelty introduced by Abraham.
Not only the faith in a Creator; not only the belief in the ethical dimension of human action. Abraham realises, or God makes him realise, that to bring this message to the rest of humanity, is necessary to have a family and to transmit this faith, this culture, to one’s descendants through education and teaching.
With Abraham, monotheism is no longer an individual pact between a person and God but rather a relationship between God and one’s family.
And with all due respect to Mr Spinoza here is precisely the place where he was wrong. Down there.
Because circumcision is not a method to control the instincts of the male human being and his alleged propensity to violence. It rather represents the pact with God, and it takes indeed the name of pact: brit. It is inscribed in the most intimate part of the parent’s body, which becomes similar to the body of the child. With the brit, the child’s body becomes similar to the parent’s. And in this way, the covenant with God continues through the generations.
The brit appears for the first time as a commandment in this week’s Torah portion when God promises to make Abraham fruitful and to give the Land of Canaan to his descendants. And since that moment we Jews have started to talk theology in family terms, speaking about God as our Parent,- and we have not stopped yet!
Rather than being a symptom of Jewish weakness, the brit is a means for endurance, resistance through the generations, and Jewish strength.
The faith in the power of education has kept the Jewish people together -with some side effects such as the number of, you know, the number of Nobel laureates. How’s the crop this year? two? David Julius — Medicine, and Joshua Angrist — economics.Well done, Abraham Avinu, our father. You taught us the power of education and, despite Mr Spinosa nuisances, I think we have learnt the lesson.
Shabbat Lekh Lekha 10 Marcheshvan 5781–16 October 2021