It will surprise me if I ever develop the patience to read more than a page of Spinoza’s Ethics at a time. I know that many people think of Spinoza as the most powerful thinker of the modern age, I know that he is the most important Jewish philosopher of all time, I know that he is even the first secular Jew. But his writing is perhaps the greatest insomnia cure I’ve ever found. Spinoza’s Ethics is an agonizingly slow slog through a thought puzzle that reads like the world’s most tedious legal brief. His conclusions are cold and disquieting, and if the world is truly the way Spinoza imagines it – I don’t want to know. He puts me to sleep within two-thirds of a page – believe me, I’ve tested this (ok…maybe not).
I’m not the most well-read philosophy student, but I have a bias against the work of any thinker who didn’t take the time to make his work readable. If the thought is too complex to be properly understood by all but the most fanatical admirer, it dismisses everybody who might look at it critically. Life’s too short to waste on books we don’t like, so such thinkers automatically become boosted by supporters who can allege that their critics haven’t read the work close enough to understand it– they’re probably right about those critics, but the admirers are probably wrong too. Most writers who hide behind an excess of difficulty probably have a reason for doing so. Nevertheless, among philosophers I’ll probably never read, I have a soft spot for Spinoza.
Bento de Espinoza was the son of a Portuguese immigrant who fled to the “New Jerusalem” of 17th century Amsterdam. The Baroque Amsterdam of Rembrandt was the freest center of Jewish practice, learning, and tolerance since Medieval Spain. Unfortunately, even in this liberal environment, the New Jerusalem turned out to be a little too much like the old, and the murderous spirit of Samuel and Herod was enlivened anew. Fifteen years before the Amsterdam Synagogue excommunicated Baruch Spinoza, the community had driven another free thinker named Uriel da Costa to suicide after burning his books, fining him into penury and excommunicating him. And there were apparently many more such incidents in Jewish Amsterdam.
What is still little known about the Spinoza affair is that the excommunication (or Cherem) was the final option they chose to silence him after many were tried. First they tried to convert him, then to threaten him, then to bribe him, one member of the community even tried to murder him. When all these attempts to bring him back to orthodoxy failed, they issued an edict that is much more readable than anything in Spinoza:
The Lords of the ma'amad (judgement), having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Espinoza, have endeavord by various means and promises, to turn him from his evil ways. But 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 born witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of the matter; and after all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honorable chachamin (wise men), they have decided, with their consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By the 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 all the Holy Congregation, in front of these holy Scrolls with the six-hundred-and-thirteen precepts which are written therein, with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho, with the curse with which Elisha cursed the boys, and with all the curses 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; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in this book, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the covenant, which are written in the Book of the Law. But you who cleave unto the Lord God are all alive this day. We order that no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells (cubits) of him, or read anything composed or written by him.
All Spinoza wanted to do was to live a life of serious contemplation and publish his harmless beliefs. When his father died, he said Kaddish for the prescribed eleven months. When his sister disputed his claim to inheritance, he renounced it. And just as our ancestors once put Zecharia to death, and all the unnumbered unnamed prophets in the time of Elijah, we once more sent one of the best of us into a life of isolation, without enjoyment or honor; a Jew among Jews. And just as so many Jews have since the beginning of recorded history, Spinoza’s isolation spurred him to more intense study, deeper perception, and more extraordinary achievement.
We Jews are people, no better or worse than others, and when given the reins of power can display all the same symptoms of intolerance, authoritarianism, and inhumanity. Just because someone does the right thing by us does not mean that we will do the right thing by others. Just as sufferers of imperialism and racism sometimes exhibit all the same traits of their captors when finally achieving their independence, we can exhibit all the same traits after being liberated from death camps, pogroms, and lack of sovereignty. It’s in no way a result of the special suffering we’ve undergone, it’s a question of being human and adjusting to the uncertainty of new circumstances. We’re no better or worse in this regard than any other civilization and I suppose a point can legitimately be made that it’s remarkable how little wrong we’ve committed considering what was perpetrated against us. The consequences of freedom are always complex, and within every group of people there are authoritarians and democrats, true leaders and demagogues, strong people who keep their humanity in the face of the temptation to forswear it, and weak ones who renounce it at the first opportunity.
The only difference is that Jews have so seldom been granted their autonomy that the suffering which Jewish rule inflicted is much more highlighted. Compared to those who suffered under the thumb of English history, or Catholic history, there are far fewer sufferers under Jews. We Jews are sufferers, not sufferees. And since we are so, the reaction to seeing Jews persecuting others is forever disproportionate. A small but well-known community who suffered at the hands of nearly every major world civilization will always be foremost in the mind of civilization’s descendents; the image of oppressive Jews is therefore more visceral in the minds of Europeans than the image of oppressive Koreans or even Saudi Arabians. So if those descendents want nothing so much as to redress the wrongs of their ancestors, they will forever see Jews as their biggest impediment.
Of all the world’s major religions, Judaism is the most human. It accepts the limitations of human folly, and it makes barely any attempt to change people’s nature. Rather than change it, Judaism attempts to contain human nature to its most rigid possible form. That Judaism has preserved itself in spite of so many wrongs committed against it is testament to how successful it’s been at domesticating the human beast. Rather than telling its adherents that it’s best to renounce sex, Judaism advises sex at the proper times. Rather than telling its adherents that it’s best to embrace poverty, Judaism puts emphasis on charity and lets its people keep a majority of the wealth for themselves (hence the stereotype…). Rather than telling its adherents that it’s best to renounce anger, Judaism has a huge maze of laws so that all wrongs can be redressed. Indeed, Judaism is thick with laws and commentary for every conceivable practical question. And in cases when these questions cannot be resolved clearly, orthodox Jews have maintained rabbinical courts for two-thousand years in which scholars can determine the proper outcome. Judaism has survived through so many adverse circumstances through the millennia because it is the world’s most practical religion. But it is not inherently superb at tolerating disagreement. In a religion where commentary and debate is so well-prized, somebody needs to be right.
Judaism’s emphasis on law and custom preserved it for two-thousand years of exile. It protected Jews from the worst excesses of all civilizations, and while other civilizations lost their bearings in the chaos of history, no contingency has ever happened in Jewish history for which Jews were not fully prepared to preserve themselves. The pre-war European culture has all but disappeared, but the Jewish culture they tried to wipe out still thrives elsewhere.
The fundamental difference between Judaism and other cultures is not a question of belief, or even moderation, it is a question of preparedness. The rabbinical sages of the Roman era realized that they needed to build a boat that would not break through any storm, and so they created a religion of laws that could be kept in any place, through any circumstance. Wherever Jews found themselves, they were instantly identifiable, with a common language and common customs for food, dress, and ritual. Wherever Jews went, they were at home with other Jews, and never at home in the Gentile world. As a result, Jews were discriminated against, Jews were ostracized, Jews were even killed, yet throughout it all, the community never broke. Judaism did not last because God protected us. We lasted because we found an indestructible formula.
But the indestructible nature of our religion comes at a terrible price. This religion of the downcast is built for survival in a perpetual disaster mode. And during those rare periods when we stumble on success, Judaism finds a way to snatch disaster from the jaws of prosperity. The formula which provides Jews with a blueprint for stratospheric success in cultures where they’re accepted also prove a formula for catostrophic downfall. All privileged Jews have to make a choice; between a religion with hundreds of pointless laws and a history of persecution or a life among the majority, free from the ties that bind them to their constricting, dangerous roots. Whatever one believes about Jewish assimilation, it’s not hard to see why privileged Jews assimilate.
And as more Jews assimilate, the remaining Jews have less and less in common with their neighbors. As they were when they first entered America, or Germany, or Holland, or Spain, they are viewed once again as provincial outsiders, sponges capable of contributing nothing to society except decay. The Jewish, once the prized engine in the rise of so many civilizations, invariably become perceived as the stumbling block that prevents their nations from achieving their full greatness. And they therefore must be removed from society by any means necessary: discrimination, persecution, exile, even death. And in their zeal to rid their countries of this ‘leach’ there is no difference between the Jew who wants to assimilate and the Jew who wants to remain Jewish. When taken to the meat grinder, all Jews become the same. Whereas all these societies once prided themselves on their liberalness, their tolerance, and their diversity; they come to pride themselves on their purity and each longs to rid the world of the Jewish pestilence.
And still, Judaism will remain.