Spinoza Addendum

I have been asked by several readers to expand more fully on Spinoza’s biblical criticism in his Theological-Political Treatise of 1670. I have already written on the connection of theology and political theory in general in both Grotius and Spinoza. This blog offers specific illustrations and answers some questions directed at me. Nothing I write is earth shattering or original.

Clearly, the basic premise was that the Bible should be examined and analyzed by rational methods. This was the forerunner of what became known as “higher criticism.” Further, I believe Spinoza was the first to argue that the Torah was a product of different authors and, following the rabbinic commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century), expanded on the latter’s thesis that Moses could not have been the author. In addition, Spinoza claimed that reason was sufficient to find basic ethical principles. The Torah was primarily a pedagogical tool. Perhaps, even more importantly, as I have put forth, the Torah was for Jews the constitution of the Jewish people.  For an extended analysis, readers may want to consult Jonathan Israel (2001) Radical Enlightenment.

Readers of my blog were interested in examples in which Spinoza found the Torah to be “faulty, mutilated, tampered with, and inconsistent,” a synthetic product of different versions, some lost forever. His views were also shared by some Calvinists, like Isaac La Peyrère, namely that the flood did not cover the whole earth or that Adam was the first man. In doing so, Spinoza did not disparage the Torah. He upheld it as a crucial text to teach ordinary people through telling tales that offered norms by which to live. But Spinoza was also an intellectual snob. It is because the ordinary guy was incapable of higher reason that the teaching had to be written as stories to be read to and by the ordinary guy.

What he most disparaged were miracles – of which the text is full. He did not need to prove that any one one of them was false for, from the proposition that natural laws are manifestations of God and miracles are breaches of natural laws, and that it was irrational for God to express his nature in natural laws at the same time as He provided for breaking those laws, it was a contradiction and irrational. Therefore, not only were there no miracles, but there could be no miracles. Claims for miracles were only products of the imagination, tall tales without any truth value.

More radically, Spinoza disparaged the idea of God as judge. God manifested Himself in nature and nature was the expression of God. God is an immanent presence and not transcendent. Further, even the application of a concept like free will is misleading. For if God manifests Himself in nature according to laws, and that is called God’s freedom, then “free will” is a superfluous expression. There is no personal God. God does not feel, get angry or mete out justice. God does not expect nor does He experience disappointment. God does not even make choices. So why worship or pray to Him?

Spinoza’s most profound critique targeting the Aristotelians was his attack on final causes, the notion that to each thing there is an essential end and that through the purpose of anything, its telos, we can unravel the nature of the world. Spinoza disparaged the view that the world has a purpose especially made for our benefit; such a perspective was as fallacious as the doctrine that the sun revolves around the earth. His critique claimed that there was an inherent contradiction. If God is perfect, then there is nothing yet to be unfolded. More importantly, it suggests that there is something that God does not have but which God wants, pointing to an insufficiency in God.

Further, if nature as an expression of God is perfect, why are there faults and failings in the system, such as in the way the heart functions for some. If the heart was designed by God, then God could not be perfect for He makes imperfect pumps. Since there are imperfections in the particulars, it is only in the overall composite of natural laws that you can come closer to perfection – but still very far away. An inability to understand variations in a system is but a reflection of our limited minds rather than saying anything about nature, let alone God.

The problem most believers have with Spinoza is not so much that nature is a manifestation of God, of the divine spirit, but that one cannot extrapolate, not only a purpose, but even a preestablished order. In a modern idiom, Spinoza would insist that, “it is what it is.” Standards of beauty, of good and evil, are constructs of humans and do not inhere in nature.

Why then was Spinoza excommunicated? Who would disagree with his views of imperfection, his critique of teleology and his contempt for miracles? First off, excommunication was no great thing in a Jewish congregation. It meant that you lost your membership. When we think of excommunication, we think of the Inquisition, we think of Galileo. And even in that case, as I tried to show, the action was far more permeated with politics at the time than just a conflict over religious doctrine. Nor was Galileo’s house arrest anything close to being burned at the stake.

Further, Spinoza was just being kicked out of membership in his synagogue. He was free to join another Jewish community in Hamburg or Leiden or Vilna. The language may have been drawn from Inquisitional documents – such as clauses about no contact or discourse with the man – but Spinoza continued to have contacts with Jews even as he expanded his correspondence and contacts with gentiles.

I was asked what were the particulars of Spinoza’s herem? Asa Kasher and Shlomo Biderman in their essay, “Why Was Baruch de Spinoza Excommunicated” in D. Katz et. al. 1990 edited collection, Sceptics, Millenarians and Jews or Steven Nadler’s 2013 essay, “Why was Spinoza Excommunicated,” (Humanities 34:5) offer detailed accounts. The condemnation reads as follows:

The Senhores of the ma’amad [the congregation’s lay governing board] having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from his evil ways. However, having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having for this numerous trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of this matter. After all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honorable hakhamim [“wise men,” or rabbis], they have decided, with the


consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. 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. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.

The reasons sound horrific and the extent seems global. The “crime” certainly seemed very serious and, for the Jewish community, the punishment was very severe.  Though the offence could have been for a cause as mundane as not paying dues, the instigation in Spinoza’s case was far more serious. Although the Board of Directors of his synagogue had responsibilities equivalent to the United States Senate, Spinoza was not an officer of the synagogue nor was he excommunicated for high crimes and misdemeanours. In fact, he was not even the worst villain. Daniel Ribero and, especially, Juan (Daniel) de Prado, whose memberships were also up for review at the same time, were worse. There was no equivalent to Galileo’s trial. There was not even a trial.

Reread the document above. Neither it nor any other document has been found which tells us what the “monstrous deeds” and “abominable heresies” were. Dr. Prado, charged at the same time, recanted. The charges were dropped until Prado repeated the offence a year later and was then excommunicated. Spinoza would not recant on the first round and even rejected the offer to be relocated in another Jewish community alongside all the Jewish refugees who had fled Brazil. There are some suggestions that Spinoza felt that the four Sephardic congregations in Amsterdam had all been “infected” with the Christian conviction as a dogma that the soul was immortal, since all four rabbis espoused such a belief and critics argued that this was a result of their immersion in Christian beliefs before they converted back to Judaism.

Yet this young man, only 23 at the time, from a well-respected Portuguese Marrano family, with no published works, is branded with such a severe edict. My hypothesis is it was the same charge leveled against Socrates for which that ancient Greek philosopher was forced to take hemlock – the corruption of youth by questioning the Bible’s historical accuracy. Spinoza was brilliant. They did not want him to influence their children and his peers lest his “abominable heresies” become even more “monstrous deeds.” When he did publish, he proved that the Directors of the synagogue were correct. Spinoza ended up “corrupting” the whole religious world.

What about Spinoza’s reference to the particularism of Judaism and the universality of Christianity? First, that distinction should be suspect from the get go. After all, Christianity really anthropomorphized God; Judaism only did so with characterization – how God felt, how He thought, how He decided, how He had regrets. That meant a constraint on human freedom and reinforcement of institutionalized authority. The establishment had a way of keeping the masses in line. The consequences of disobedience were enormous, much more for a Christian than for a Jew. Nadler speculated it was worse for Jews because God then could not have “chosen” the Jews.

But even Spinoza’s God could have done so, not by giving Jews a special status, but by assigning them by nature to a specific function or set of functions. A role, not a reward, was defined. But once the world became or aspired to become a commonwealth of nations, “there is nothing whatsoever that the Jews can arrogate to themselves above other nations.” They no longer need to define themselves as more different than other nations. Further, the history of Jews has proven than the laws Jews adopted were historically rooted. The laws of Temple sacrifice were no longer relevant and had been abandoned. So would be the end of other irrelevant Jewish laws.

Except for one law that was universal. Love thy neighbour. Love your fellow human beings. Act towards others with justice and charity. The Lutheran doctrine that one could only grasp the truth of scripture by “opening oneself first to grace and surrendering oneself to the service of and trust in Jesus” was even more irrelevant than the accretions of Jewish law. Institutions, the Christian churches much more than the Jewish establishment, perverted the universality of the message of both Jesus and of the prophets, including Moses.  Even though the prophets directed their message to the Jewish people, one should attend to the universality in the message. When Paul taught that Jesus died on the cross to free men, it was not to free them from the rule of law, but from the bondage imposed by irrelevant legal commands. That is the correct way to read the Gospels. Jesus “purified” the universalist message within Judaism. The institutions built over his dead body resurrected authority structures to undermine the message.

It should be no surprise why liberal Calvinists respected Spinoza so much while conservative Calvinists, who clung much more to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, were even more negative that Spinoza’s own congregation. Did this make his synagogue more sensitive to the dangers of Spinoza’s beliefs?

With the help of Alex Zisman


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