On the Respectability of Spinoza

It’s somewhat ironic that Baruch Spinoza has become an icon of respectable theology in liberal Jewish circles, especially for people who are atheists and agnostics. Consider this hypothetical. Someone goes to a Reform rabbi and says, “I really want to be more involved in the Jewish community, but I don’t really get anything out of the prayer service because I don’t believe in God.” Some rabbis may respond that there are other ways to get involved, of course, but very frequently they’ll respond with some version of the cliche “the god you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either,” followed by a suggestion to  look into Spinoza or some other thinker with an abstract concept of God.

This is at once deeply ironic and deeply harmful. Ironic because the difference between the God of Spinoza and atheism is merely an insistence on the use of the word “God” when talking about “Nature.” Deeply harmful for exactly the same reason. All that this game of theological redefinition accomplishes is to support the very system of worship that is so alienating to atheists. It doesn’t take very long to notice that the highly abstract, impersonal God-concept of Spinoza (or others) doesn’t at all match the prayers that are being chanted or read from the siddur. Those prayers, after all, were written by men who actually meant what they wrote and believed in a personal deity who interacted with the world on a regular basis. The God of Spinoza, however, didn’t “set aside the seventh day for [his] Name,” (from the prayer “Kedushat HaYom”) nor did he “sanctify us with commandments,” as the standard b’racha format states. In fact Spinoza’s God isn’t a “he,” a Lord, a Father, or a King (those being the most frequent titles and pronouns for God in the siddur). Spinoza’s God is an It that can neither hear nor answer prayer. Spinoza’s God is nothing more than all of reality. The very concept of prayer is nonsense according to his theology.

This irony of liberal rabbis pushing their doubting congregants toward Spinoza is further illustrated in the treatment that Spinoza received not only during his lifetime, but long after his death. He was excommunicated from the Amsterdam community, and people ever afterward treated his written works as far too extreme and “atheistic.” They rightly recognized that his philosophy undermined the entire structure of organized religions, based as they are on “revelation,” myth, and divine authority. One writer from the 17th century described his work Tractatus Theologico-Politicus as a “book forged in hell” for suggesting that the Bible was man-made and miracles are impossible. The book was widely banned throughout Europe. The worst thing that could happen for these rabbis would be that their congregants actually read Spinoza. Luckily for the rabbis, they usually only read the Wikipedia entry on Spinoza’s concept of God and don’t bother scrolling down any further.

The modern reader might be excused for finding Spinoza’s ideas somewhat mild. After all, most people accept that the Bible was written by men over a long period of time, and not likely by the traditionally ascribed author. Many liberal Christians and Jews are fine with the idea that miracles don’t happen and the biblical tales are historically inaccurate pious fictions. And of course, the available definitions of the term “God” have become so diverse that the term is now completely meaningless. But during his lifetime, Spinoza’s ideas were radical and potentially dangerous, despite how reasonable, demonstrably true, and mild they really were. And there’s a lesson in that. Even now when atheists criticize religions and religious concepts, religious people will be offended and defensive in exactly the same ways that Spinoza’s critics were. It doesn’t matter how mild, reasonable, or true the critique is because for religious people it’s not about truth, it’s about silencing anyone who may undermine what they have a vested interest in maintaining for a variety of reasons.

The reason liberal rabbis push their doubting congregants toward redefined God concepts is because atheism scares them, as it scares a lot of typical people. If they can get the atheists to play along by redefining the words in their heads, but never on the page they’ll be reading from, they can continue to pretend that there is a theological tradition that unites the Jewish people. That the differences between Reform and Orthodox Judaism are merely a matter of different interpretations of the words in the prayers, the grammar of the Torah, the context of a Talmudic debate. Getting rid of God or saying plainly what they believe to be true during a Shabbat or holiday service is too radical, too new, too disconnected from the past. They’ve bought into the Orthodox rhetoric that the only valid Judaism is a Judaism rooted in very particular texts and concepts: Torah, Talmud, God, Siddur, etc. Ironically, the Spinozistic idea that Judaism and its texts are completely human creations subject to whatever changes Jews wish to make terrifies them, even as they push their doubting congregants toward Spinoza.

Luckily, there is one Jewish movement comfortable with the idea that “Judaism is the evolving culture of the Jewish people.” A movement that has no problem writing new words to express what we really mean. And you don’t even have to read Spinoza to join.

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