2 Friday, August 10, 1984
THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS
PURELY COM NTARY
Spinoza and the Herem
again in the limelight
Establishment of the Jerusalem Spinoza Research
Center at the Hebrew University, under the direction of
Prof. Yirmiyahu Yovel, creates a revived interest in the
famous philosopher who was placed in a herem —excom-
munication — by the Dutch Rabbinate, under the accusa-
tion of heresy.
Only two other such research centers, formed for the
study of Spinoza's philosophy, are already functioning — in
France and in Holland.
Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza was the excommunicated
philosopher. He was placed in a herem by his Jewish com-
munity and he was rejected in his lifetime by the Chris-
Theologically the master, he fronted hostility and it is
only now, on the 307th year of his death, that there is
greater acceptance of him. Even in Orthodoxy there is
evidence of a welcome of his being reinstated in Jewish
thinking, to be recorded as Jewish in the history of the
people that excommunicated him.
Spinoza was born in
Amsterdam in 1632 and
died at the Hague in 1677: A
descendant of the Mar-
ranos, he had deep roots in
Judaism. His philosophic
mind led him to what had
been interpreted as heresy.
Now, both among the Dutch
and the Jews, in Israel and
in many other ranks, there
is a readiness to embrace his
memory with kindness.
David Ben-Gurion, who
had himself turned to
philosophic and religious studies although he was never an
observant Jew, advocated the erasing of the excommunica-
tive regulations against Spinoza.
Perhaps Ben-Gurion was especially influenced
towards Spinoza because the excommunicasted
philosopher at one time expressed belief in a reconstructed
Jewish state. He had written in reference to the Jewish
I would go so far as to believe that, if the
foundations of religion have not enfeebled their
minds, they may, if the occasion presents itself
amid the changes to which human affairs are li-
able, even raise their empire anew, and that God
may elect them a second time.
This excerpt from Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-
Politicus is of considerable interest in view of his reference
to Spinoza's Jewish attitudes by Heinrich Graetz in History •
of the Jews:
In spite of his condemnatory verdict on
Judaism, he was struck by two phenomena,
which he did not fully understand, and which,
therefore, he judged only superficially according
to his system. These were the moral greatness of
- the prophets and the superiority of the Israelite
state, which in a measure depend on each other.
Without understanding the political organization,
in which natural and moral laws, necessity and
freedom work together, Spinoza explains the ori-
gin of the Jewish state, that is, of Judaism, in the
When the Israelites, after deliverance from
slavery in Egypt, were free from all political bon-
dage, and restored to their natural rights, they
willingly chose God as their Lord, and transferred
their rights to Him along by formal contract and
alliance. That there be no appearance of fraud on
the divine side, God permitted them to recognize
His marvelous power, by virtue of which He had
hitherto preserved, and promised in future to
preserve them, that is, He revealed Himself to
them in His glory on Sinai; thus God became King
of Israel and the state a theocracy.
Israel and Diaspora: Confronting negatives
and providing cures for the ailments
In the decades before the rebirth of Israel, when Tel Aviv had begun to flourish into a municipality that attracted
world attention, when Haifa was already a port city of significance, the socially-minded predicted: "Comes a Jewish
State, we'll have our criminals as well as saints, we'll have prostitutes amidst aims for high.standards, the courts will
be needed because lawbreaking will be inevitable, and we'll have — as we already have — fanatics as well as the
rational who must itedominate."
It didn't take long to prove the point, because humans are not perfect, and poor mental health is not yet completely
In the immediate experiences, there were turns for the worse. Prior to the election in Israel, there was an outburst
of terrorism. Jews resorted to terror. The horror they planned to perpetrate was checked before the threatened damage.
Something worse developed: in the name of sanctity the planned terrorism was approved by a fanatic faction in the
Then came the election, and that very faction of extremely fanaticized provided a seat in the Israel parliament, the
Knesset, for a man who advocates the worst conceivable for the dignity and self-respect of Jewish ethical decencies.
In the process, the abominable Kahane plans received endorsement from his followers in the United States, and in
Los Angeles there was fund raising in defense of the terrorists being convicted in Israel for their criminally-destructive
Such experiences are sad enough for Israel and for the Jewish people. A columnist in the New York Times (Flora
Lewis) advanced the theory that American Jews contributed toward the divisiveness in Israelis' political thinking that
enabled the election of a Kahane and gave encouragement to the fanatical terrorists.
It is flattering to be treated in the tradition of the Jewish ethical legacies which demand rejection of criminality,
total adherence to the highest ethical goals which have become guidelines for mankind. We would not have it any other
way — if it could be enforced. But no group, anywhere on earth, is immune from the dangers posed by sick minds, by
mentally deranged, by fundamental fanaticism. Is it too much to expect that the existence of an irrational element in
Jewish ranks — in Diaspora as well as in Israel — will be understood and tolerated?
, The intolerance is especially deplorable when a highly-respected columnist blames the election results in Israel
and the shock of the existence of a terrorist gang in fanatical circles in Israel upon American Jewry — because Kahane
comes from the United States and has supporters here and there is fundraising to protect terrorists, conducted in an
American Jewish community!
There is no objection to being lessoned, to be constantly advised to adhere to our inherited ideals, to be a highly
moral society. It is unfair not to know and to admit that we would not stray from the decencies without which we could
not exist, that American Jews do and will speak out against inhumanities and indecencies. Where there are
shortcomings, the reasons for them are not to be ignored. When the ill-minded betray their own people, there should be
a measure of understanding that it is not of the making of responsible members of the Jewish communities, wherever
they may function, in Israel, the United States, in all of the Diaspora.
Agonized Jewish sentiments as well as the critical from media and the non-Jewish world should be appeased by the
genuine spirit of decency that prevails in Jewish ranks. That spirit does not welcome Kahane. It rejects his views. It is
appalled by his miserable hatreds. The Rabbinate formally condemned him. The Knesset seeks a way of providing him
with the leper's role he earns with his' dementions.
Only an Arab propagandist who guides his people toward animosities could have had the audacity to provide a
welcome for Kahane into diplomatic ranks. The sadness for Israel and Jewry will be solvable in the recognition of the
rejection of him that predominates in Jewish and all human spheres.A measure of compassion is needed for the Israelis
and their government. A democratically-functioning system permitted a very small group to elect Meir Kahane to the
Knesset. In the mass, it was a small group of some 23,000. In the conscience of the Jewish people and our traditions even
Kahane himself is too much to stomach. While deploring the result, the sorrow is more Israel's than all the judges who
are utilizing the election result for incrimination. One must have compassion on the Israeli authorities: how will they
tackle this new menace?
But a castigation is unfair and the blaming of American Jewry on a tragic series of negations for Israel cannot be
accepted with grace.
Responsible people always find solution for problems that menace them. Israel has gone through the hellish too
often to have it believed that even the most serious cannot be resolved. There will be solutions. With them will come
agonies. Let there be compassion for those confronted by so many tragic challenges.
and use force against its followers, to which they
ought meekly to sumbit.
The funeral piles of the Inquisition for Mar-
ranos were, according to Spinoza's system, dou-
bly justified; citizens have no right on national
grounds to resist the recognized religion of the
state, and it is folly to profess Judaism and to
sacrifice oneself for it. But a peculiar trait of
Spinoza's character stood Judaism in good stead.
- He loved peace and quiet too well to become a
propagandist for his critical principles ...
For David Ben-Gurion, nevertheless, the tercentenary
of the herem was a time for forgiveness. Might he have
become a Spinozist? In the time of Moses Mendelssohn his
close friend Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was accused by the
Christian theologian Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi of being a
Spinozist. It was then — 200 years ago — considered adher-
ence to heresy. Mendelssohn strongly defended his close
associate against the charge. Ben-Gurion needed no de-
fense. He affirmed belief in God. He Wrote to this commen-
tator in March 1972:
I have not the slightest shadow of doubt that
God exists. He is not body and He is free from all
the accidents of matter. We can neither see Him
nor hear Him. He has no likeness but He exists
Religious opinions and truths, therefore, had
and without Him nothing can exist in the uni-
a legal character in, this state, religion and civic
verse. This is a profound and correct belief and no
right coincided. Whoever revolted from religion
science can speak a greater truth than it. This is
forfeited his rights as a citizen, and whoever died
for religion was a patriot ...
Albert Einstein also had shared similar views with
Graetz, the pious historian and the dedicated Jew,
provided thorough review of Spinoza in his History of the contemporaries like Ben-Gurion and many scholars of the
Jews, and he defined the threats to the Jewish community present era. Ben-Gurioil wrote:
I once taked about this to Einstein. Even he,
, with his great formula abOut energy and mass,
Spinoza might have brought Judaisil into ex-
agreed that there must be something behind the
treme peril; for he had not only furnished its op-
energy. And when I spoke of this to Niels Bohr, he
ponents with the weapons' of reason to combat
too agreed, and thought it was probably true of
• Judaism more effectually, but also conceded to
the entire cosmos, that behind it there must be
every state and magistrate the right to suppress it
some superior being. This is also what Spinoza
may have meant.
If, then, by "God" is meant such a superior
being, which is neither material nor tangible, I say
that I believe in God. From this it follows that,
while I respect the faith of those who believe that
everything written in the Bible is divinely in-
spired, my own approach is that I accept what is
written in the Bible except the passages where
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