I attended a lecture at a local synagogue last night with half a dozen friends from our synagogue. The lecture was part of a series, “Five Centuries of Modern Jewish Thought,” and in five sessions will focus on one personality each and how they relate to the general flow of modern Jewish thought.
Who marks the beginning of modern thought? The rabbi, an excellent teacher, argued for Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), the lens grinder and amateur philosopher of Amsterdam. Spinoza is an intriguing figure. The Jewish community put him under the ban in 1656, but this was most likely under pressure from Christian groups. Spinoza was equally comfortable quoting the apostle John from the New Testament as Moses from the Torah. He argued for contextual, historical interpretation of the Bible. Yet his view of God is not anything recognizably Jewish.
Spinoza held that God exists because the idea of God as the greatest thing thinkable must be true and therefore God must exist (the ontological proof for God, which I have never bought into and which takes a little pondering to understand). And since God is the greatest thing thinkable, there really is nothing but God. God is the only substance there is and all things perceived are in God and are part of God. This monism, an idea found in Eastern religions as well, sees God as immanent and the only essence that exists. All things and beings we perceive are modes and attributes of God. God is not personal, but is the substance pervading all things and beings.
I find that view of reality nightmarish. So why am I interested in Spinoza anyway?
His courage is admirable, for one thing. He never profited from his ideas, but was rather persecuted for them. For Spinoza, ethics is self-preservation, but is best achieved through reason instead of violence and many lesser means. Acting rationally is acting for the good.
Sadly, Spinoza did far better with his ethic than churches of his time did with the richer body of ethics revealed by God.
I was dumbfounded to read Spinoza’s clear, true, and penetrating criticism of the ethics of the religious in his time and even to suggest better ways to interpret scripture. I leave the reader with a few quotes from this remarkable individual:
When people declare, as all are ready to do, that the Bible is the Word of God teaching man true blessedness and the way of salvation, they evidently do not mean what they say; for the masses take no pain at all to live according to Scripture, and we see most people endeavoring to hawk about their own commentaries as the word of God, and giving their best efforts, under the guise of religion, to compelling others to think as they do: we generally see, I say, theologians anxious to learn how to wring their inventions and sayings out of the sacred text, and to fortify them with Divine authority.
–A Theologico-Political Treatise, ch. 7
Lastly, such a history should relate the environment of all the prophetic books extant; that is, the life, the conduct, and the studies of the author of each book, who he was, what was the occasion, and the epoch of his writing, whom did he write for, and in what language.
For, as John says [1 John ch. 4], justice and charity are the one sure sign of the true Catholic faith, and the true fruits of the Holy Spirit. Wherever they are found, there is truth in Christ; wherever they are absent, Christ is absent also. For only by the Spirit of Christ can we be led to the love of justice and charity. Had you been willing to reflect on these points, you would not have ruined yourself, nor have brought deep affliction on your relations, who are now sorrowfully bewailing your evil case.
–Letter to Albert Burgh, 1675. Spinoza is telling him why he should not have converted to Catholicism from Protestantism.