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may / june 2007:

Heretic of the Month: Baruch Spinoza
Perhaps the father of free thinking, this heretic had a novel idea: Don't mix politics with religion.

By Jay Michaelson

Imagine you’re 23 years old, and the leaders of your community have just cursed you. And what for? For questioning that God wrote the Bible, for not going to synagogue, and for turning your back to the authority of the rabbis.

Today, such curses are the provenance of fundamentalist nuts, but in 1656, when these curses were pronounced against philosopher and lens-crafter Baruch de Spinoza, it was the mainstream Amsterdam Jewish community that uttered them, making Spinoza one of the most famous Jewish heretics of all time.

There are many of Spinoza’s ideas which were considered heretical, and it’s not known which of them, exactly, actually inspired the excommunication. Most people assume that it was Spinoza’s theology. Writing in a precise, mathematical way, Spinoza attempted to prove there could only be one substance in the universe — and whether we call it nature or God really does not matter. This idea is not entirely foreign to Judaism; it’s a core principle of the Kabbalah, though it’s certainly at odds with the traditional depiction of God as a personal being who rewards the good and punishes the wicked, and who loves Israel above all nations.

Actually, the rabbis who excommunicated the young Spinoza were probably not aware of these ideas, which had not yet been published. They were more attuned to Spinoza’s claim that the Bible is a product of human, not divine, origin. The rabbis were also infuriated that Spinoza publicly disrespected Jewish institutions; at one point they offered to pay him off if he would just come to synagogue once in a while.

Spinoza said no, and the rabbis pronounced their ban. Yet the Jewish community’s loss was modern civilization’s gain. Following his excommunication, and in the wake of the widespread fame/infamy it brought him, Spinoza became one of the dozen most important philosophers in the history of Western civilization. With Descartes, he was one of the founders of modern rationalism, the philosophical counterpart to science and the industrial revolution, which brought you the cell phone and the automobile. His philosophical works form one of the bases for modern liberalism, which brought you democracy and human rights. And he was an early forefather of Biblical criticism, which allowed us to question whether God really made the world in seven days, roughly 6000 years ago.

Spinoza was indeed a rationalist. Reading his philosophy is more like absorbing mathematical proofs than being inspired about the meaning of life. It’s slow going, which is why most people encounter Spinoza through secondary sources (like Rebecca Goldstein’s popular new book, Betraying Spinoza) than in the original. Yet his theology, once regarded as equivalent to atheism, actually has a lot in common with the anti-rationalist mystical theologies prevalent among today’s spiritual seekers.

Even in Spinoza’s day, his ideas were regarded as a “third way” that was neither atheistic materialism nor traditional, faith-based religion. True, Spinoza’s philosophy doesn’t make room for a benevolent father figure who listens to quarterbacks when they pray for their team to win football games — or, more seriously, to sick people praying to be healed.

At the same time as Spinoza was writing in Amsterdam, another heretic featured in this column, Shabbetai Tzvi, was active in Turkey. In fact, many of the same rabbis who denounced the rationalist Spinoza embraced the mystical Tzvi as the messiah — again betting on the wrong horse, intellectually speaking. By then, Spinoza himself had come to see religion as hopelessly entangled with superstition; he didn’t have much interest in the messianic pretensions of a Turkish manic-depressive. His way to God — and he remained a kind of pantheistic nature mystic all his life — was one of contemplation, not “spirituality” in the conventional sense, and certainly not religion in the revealed, mediated-by-authority sense.

Spinoza’s pioneering skepticism laid the groundwork for our liberation from that authority. He was one of the first to argue (in 1670) that religion should stay out of political life, and, more generally, to advance the audacious notion that, with calm and rational reflection, people can think for themselves.

And he paid the price for it. That excommunication really did matter, and continued repression made it impossible to publish most of Spinoza’s works during his lifetime; when they did finally come out after his death in 1677, some of them were banned. Even some of his friends were scandalized by Spinoza’s “radical” ideas. Yet, surrounded by superstition and hostility, Spinoza never abandoned his belief in reason. In the end, like all heretics, he was a person of faith.

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