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Notes from Limmud 2006

Creativity in Torah: Spinoza and Other Heretics

Nathan Lopez-Cardoso

Maimonides writes at the start of the Guide for the Perplexed:

We live in religious turbulence; a world in which religious people and faith are challenged, by philosophy, science and other religions. Within the Jewish community, many people walk away from this; close themselves off as they do not want to get challenged. This is what the world holds against religion.

Because of this we now encounter the situation in which many people drop out of our massoret, because they realise their faith is not the truth they thought it was.

Because most people turn their back on this [challenge], religious Jews do not respond to the challenges. We will pay an enormous price for this because no religion can inspire unless it understands the world and what the world's response must be. If we do not live up to that we will find the Jewish tradition slowly dying out.

To deny problems is the last thing we should ever do. Confront it. It may not be easy; challenges may require much thought; the Jewish tradition may require rethinking altogether. That is what Maimonides is trying to do in the Guide—breathe life into Judaism to survive the times.

This is as true today as eight hundred years ago. In today's world it is impossible to hold the information back.

To live a religious life, said the Rambam, is difficult. The challenges are enormous, but the [....] is also great. There are so many possibilities we have not even touched in the world of Jewish thinking and Jewish philosophy and Jewish tradition. We need to deepen out the Jewish thinkining and make it even more responsive; to turn it into a form which will inspire us to be more deeply religious Jews.

To understand today what is taking place within our world, one must read books, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Within the Jewish world we have not yet fully understood what that requires.

A great Protestant thinker of our day, Reinhold Niebuhr said, "There is nothing more irrelevant than the answer to a question nobody asks." There are many great answers, but answers only make sense when you know to ask the question. Perhaps today we have lost the questions. When we look in our tradition, we have to realise it is answering questions that are no longer being asked. In our day, we have lost the questions.

To ask a good question, and then afterwards to realise what the answer is, is an art. When looking into the Jewish tradition we often read a text without really appreciating it, not realising it was a response to something the text does not give. Consider Rashi. Rashi never asks any questions, because he believed anybody reading Chumash will have these questions. Why write down the questions if everybody is already asking them. So he responds straight away. But today we do not ask the same questions, and do not understand Rashi. The answer is there but it is meaningless.

This is true for nearly everything in the Jewish tradition. The Torah itself is the answer to a question. G-d should have written one more book before Genesis with all the questions! Because בראשית ברא אלהים את־השמים ואת־הארץ ("In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth") is already a question!

It is the absence of a problem that is a problem; the lack of understanding of the profundity of the response.

Most people today do not know what they believe. You cannot understand the depths of your belief unless you have challenged it, expressed doubts, realised you have to penetrate layers and layers to understand the text.

It has often been argued that ספק (safek), doubt, is dangerous within the religious world. "Let's not discuss what comes from the outside; let's walk away." Doubt does indeed have its risks. But that is not the way in which the tradition deals with this. Authentic doubt, though—"why do I believe this?"—will help us see the deeper side of our faith. There is need for doubt, for clarification.

Maimonides is the first evidence for this; instead of walking away he wrestles with the problem, and as a result of dealing with your problem you come to appreciate your faith more than beforehand.

There were two great thinkers in the last couple of centuries who dealt with this; the Christian philosopher Kierkegaard, and the Kotsker Rebbe, whose whole life was bust doubting and wrestling with the truth.

Faith is not easily won. There is a struggle. But faith is profound; it is deep; it wants to wake something up within yourself and you have to find a way to respond to it. If you simply read the text at a surface level you lose out.

To be a Jew means to journey and to live in a world of struggle; constantly seeing how you can get closer to G-d. Is this risky? Yes! Life is risky; it was never meant to be given to you on a silver plate. Someone once said: "To live with one's religious committment is to face opposition; to dare not to define that commitment means ... drifting with the current."

The problem of today is that very few people are perplexed. We live a life as if everything is under control. If we live our lives and have a bit of money and keep our Jewish tradition, what's the perplexion? R. Lopez Cardoso would like to write a Guide to make people perplexed!

If we can wake people up to see the challenges, then we can start to see the religion. Because it was never meant to be fixed. Every מצוה [commandment/precept] is supposed to be something to fight for and achieve as a means of growth.

The Kotsker Rebbe said, of the verse in the Song of the Sea, זה אלי ואנוהו, "This is my G-d and I shall praise him; he is the G-d of my father and I will exalt him." What's the difference? Says the Kotsker Rebbe, there is no such thing as inheriting religion. You can't inherit that from your parents. They can give you a good education within the Jewish tradition; but it must be you who finds G-d for yourself, and responds to the tradition yourself. That's the only way we can live a religious life; when we go through the struggle ourselves.

Faith is not knowledge, which just goes to the brain. It is something which overtakes us and links all the limbs of our body; as if we became newborn. "Faith is forever contingent on the courage of the believer." True, when I start to ask questions doubt will enter. But let's take the risk and ask the questions, because we are confident that there is enough depth in the Jewish tradition to be able to handle the challenge.

Heschel: "You cannot open your mind to truth without risking the entrance of falsehood; and you cannot close your mind to falsehood without risking the closure to truth."

So what are you going to do in the meantime when you're wrestling with the doubt; you know there's a response, but don't know what it is or whether you will be satisfied with it. How are you going to live in the meantime? Answer: נעשה ונשמע. [The Israelites at Sinai said "we will do and we will listen," i.e. they took on observance of the commandments before they knew what they were, on this context, understood them.]

William James wrote in The Will To Believe: The world in which we live there is a forced option. There are many people who believe as long as they are not sure they cannot live accordingly. Now, you may claim in the meantime I will push off my decision as to what to do—but the decision to make no decision is also a decision! This is crucial.

Sometimes by acting out a Jewish life you will get the response you are looking for. Not all forms of intellectual response can only come through the brain. Franz Rosenzweig: נעשה ונשמע does not mean I will do and later understand, but I will do and because of that I will understand. Hearing is the deed. Who can understand music without hearing music. This is fundamental to understand where religion comes from.

When doubt has set in throughout history the Jewish tradition has afterwards increased its wisdom. Without knowing the challenges, we would not have known the answer. Hence we were sometimes blessed when people strongly callenged the religious challenge. Many people closed their ears, but once the challenges were stated, the response was overwhelming, and strengthened the Jewish tradition.

Two examples, both from Amsterdam. Uriel Da Costa, in the seventeenth century, was a Sephardi of Spanish Marrano background. He was raised in the Catholic tradition, barely knowing he was a Jew until he read the Bible, and realised the Catholic tradition did not at all represent the Old Testament. He decided to go back to the Jewish tradition; this was the right thing to do. Since he could not do this in Oporto, he went to Amsterdam. He came to the Spanish-Portugese synagogue there—and was completely disappointed, because what he had thought the Jewish tradition was all about did not at all agree with what the rabbis were teaching. He had read the Bible like the Christians do—he read the text and thought that was all of what it was.

The rabbis explained how the Jewish tradition derived from the Oral Law. Da Costa refused to accept that. He said, using a word Spinoza would later use, "the rabbis in Amsterdam are Pharisees." They have recreated the Jewish tradition not according to the Bible. [The Pharisees got a very biased portrayal in the NT; Da Costa probably failed to appreciate modern Judaism is indeed derived from Pharisaism.] Amsterdam was then a liberal city for the Jews... but not too liberal. He was placed under חרם ḥerem—completely cut off.

He could not stand this, socially or psychologically, and he approached the rabbis and repented. The ban was lifted, but a few years later he was back in the ban again. This happened again several times, until in the end he once more went to the rabbis and asked for readmission, and they embarrassed him in so many ways he went home and committed suicide.

Before he did so he left a tractate which was an examination of the pharisaic tradition of the rabbis. For many years that book was not available; but the speaker suspects its contents were known. This was the beginning of a completely new moment within Jewish history: where the rabbis of later generations felt the need to start looking into the nature of the Oral Law; something nobdy had felt the need to do beforehand.

How did they respond? Lots of literature was writte: תורה תמימה, the מלבים, Samson Raphael Hirsch, David Nieto in London. They all said since Uriel Da Costa asked this question, we had better respond. A completely new way of looking at all this emerged, which has tremendously benefitted the Jewish tradition. Even non-Jews nowadays accept there is no way of understanding the Bible unless you know the oral tradition. The way you read the Bible is not like reading Shakespeare. You have stand in a relationship with the text; it is not a text to read but a text to hear. You do not just hear the words; you hear the symphony behind it, the tradition behind it which we would not have known so much about how it interplays with the text—what it means that there is an oral tradition which seems to contradict the text—if Uriel Da Costa had not asked his questions and put them on the map.

Franz Rosenzweig writes: "There is a great difference between the secular act of reading and the religious act of listening to the Torah." Why is it we make a blessing before and after reading the Torah? It tells us now we are involved in a religious act, a religious hearing. It is not just external; it is a transformative act whcich brings about a different dimension to what it is to be a Jew.

Da Costa held against the rabbis that they were fundamentalists; but in truth it was him that was the fundamentalist.

Spinoza was the first secular Jew. He wanted nothing more to do with the Jewish tradition. He became a tremendous opposer of anything the Jewish tradition stood for. He did not believe in G-d, not in the Biblical sense. He was a big opponent of the halachic world, of orthopraxis: by just following the rules, how much meaning is there behind it? He said that Jesus was a greater man as a result of this than Moses.

When Spinoza attacked the tradition for its legalistic side—"Halacha is a confinement of the human spirit"—we can look back today and see that the Jewish tradition benefitted tremendously in the form of writings in the nineteenth century by R. Soloveitchik, R. Eliezer Berkowitz and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

What Spinoza did not understand is that much of what halacha requires from us is not that we are commanded to do X but that we can't do otherwise than X; we have to do so of our own volition. And if we don't live on that level ourselves? The Jewish tradition wants us to act as if we do. If you don't have a dream, you'll never get there; and if you want to keep the dream alive, you have to act as if you've already made it real.

A big problem we have today is: how do you use that new creativity without violating the text itself? Anybody can write anything about the text. But on the other hand, we must fight for creativity. Too much we hear, "I can't say anything new because the masters have already said all there is to say." This is not a very Jewish attitude.

What is the nature of the text of the Torah? Sometimes it is necessary to have some secular knowledge to get a better understanding of the Torah. Consider Plato, in Phaedrus and The Seventh Letter, about the problems of the written word. Now bear in mind Plato never wrote a book, but instead wrote dialogues. Why did he do this? Because he knew writing something freezes the text; makes it absolute. You can't then repent of what you have written. Plato's attitude was, "If I write down a fixed text and tomorrow somebody gives it an interpretation, I can't now defend my text because I won't be there." So instead he said he was not going to write a book, but a dialogue: discussion, תורה שבעל פה [Oral Law]. He spoke about sprachdenken—speaking-thinking—you are thinking and you are allowing the emotions behind your voice to come out; e.g. your tone of voice. Plato tried everything in his power to make that come out in his dialogues.

This is the only way you can understand what Torah is all about—allowing the text to speak through oneself and hear the music behind it. Spontaneity in creativity.

A great pity of the Jewish tradition is that the Torah was ever written down. It had to be written down, but when you put the Divine words into a text, you freeze them. True according to Jewish tradition G-d told Moses what to write, but He was taking a risk. The rabbis held that the Oral Law was written first. The Written Law was only a notebook referring to the Oral Law. First the music and afterwards the score, and not the other way around.

R. Eliezer Ashkenazi (C16) in his commentary The Deeds of G-d—in a passage expurgated in the latest edition:

Concerning faith in contemporary human being, it says in נצבים "And not with you alone did I establish a covenant but those who are with us today and those who are not". Each and every one us, our children and grandchildren, are duty bound to examine the secrets of the Torah and to straighten out their faiths [...] according to whoever said it.

We don't limit ourselves to what was said long ago,


Just as our forebears did not wish to accept the truth that was presented to them, so should we do. Only on the basis of the gathering of many opinions will the truth be found.

Even if the course of our investigation, we err, it will not be accounted against as as an unwitting sin, because it was for the sake of heaven; but it will be held against us if we desist from the investigation.

He is not speaking about halacha; but as regards the spirit of Judaism we must continually reread and reintrepret the Torah so it talks to each generations.

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