Dangerous Ideas | Congregation Beth Am

Dangerous Ideas

By Rabbi Heath Watenmaker on
May 17, 2019

On July 27, 1656, the Talmud Torah congregation of Amsterdam excommunicated Bento Spinoza (or Baruch, as he would have been called in Hebrew in the Portuguese community’s synagogue—the names both mean “blessed”), a 23-year-old-businessman who had developed a reputation for having rather radical ideas. In the decree of cherem, religious excommunication from the Jewish community, the leaders of his congregation wrote:

The Senhores of the ma’amad [the congregation’s lay governing board] having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from his evil ways. However, 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 borne witness to this effect in the presence of the said Spinoza, they became convinced of the truth of this matter. After all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honorable hakhamim [“wise men,” or rabbis], they have decided, with the [rabbis’] consent, that the said Spinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Spinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with [excommunication]... 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, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law.”[1]

The document concludes with the warning that “no one should communicate with him, not even in writing, nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor [come] within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.”

It was a damning letter in many ways. Not only was Spinoza clearly perceived as a threat to this religious community -- perhaps even the Jewish religion itself, in the eyes of his community -- it also meant that this young businessman was suddenly cut off from his entire safety net in being banished from his community. It was by no means easy to be a Portuguese Jew in Amsterdam in 1656, and likely even more difficult to be a lone, wandering Jew without a community to turn to. This was by no means the only instance of a cherem from this time, but according to scholars, the severity and permanence of this particular decree seemed to go many degrees beyond the norm.

It is not clear why, exactly Spinoza was excommunicated and punished through such extreme measures, but his later philosophical works, which first appeared around 14 years after his excommunication, suggest that his philosophical ideas, which radically challenged the traditional Jewish understandings of the very concept of God, the Jewish people’s relationship with God, and the fundamental underpinnings of Jewish law, which likely were percolating around the time leading up to his excommunication, were just too radical, too dangerous, and too threatening to the established Jewish community and their very belief system. Spinoza asserted that God is Nature itself, not separate or beyond Nature, lacking any supernatural powers or emotions or any ability to have preferences or make informed choices. These ideas fundamentally challenged the very basis of previous understandings of miracles and undermined the authority of Jewish law, arguing that the practice of Jewish law was irrational once Jews no longer had sovereignty. While these concepts may sound almost unremarkable to our modern ears, in Spinoza’s day, they clearly represented a fundamental threat to the organized Jewish community.

At the very end of our Torah portion this week, Emor, we find a troubling account of a blasphemer, who “pronounced the name [of God] in blasphemy,” likely meaning that he may have done something such as curse God, or used God’s name to curse someone else. The response to the blasphemer here is clear and unequivocal: God says to Moses: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing [of what he had said] lay their hands upon his head, and let the community leadership stone him.” In the Bible, the punishment for blasphemy, for desecrating God’s name, is death, even though the nature of the crime itself is not entirely clear.

We can understand the importance and the sanctity of God’s name - particularly the tetragrammaton, the divine name of God that was only to be uttered once a year, on Yom Kippur, by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. There was incredible power, and with it, incredible danger, in the utterance or use of this divine name, and it was not to be used lightly. The improper utterance of the divine name was perceived by the community as so dangerous and so potentially detrimental to the well-being of the community, that it was punishable by death.

In both the case of Spinoza, and the original biblical case of the blasphemer, I can’t help but wonder who bears the responsibility here: Does the punishment of blasphemy -- whether through excommunication or even through death -- say more about the religious community and their values and beliefs, and what they’re threatened by, than the ideas of the person accused of blasphemy? Are religious communities justified in taking extreme measures when they feel their fundamental beliefs are threatened, or could there be another, more moderate response, perhaps? And finally, why is the perceived religious threat of the blasphemer - or anyone who challenges the religious beliefs of a particular community, so great? If a religious community has firm footing in its beliefs and values, it should be able to weather occasional ideological challenges. After all, that may even serve to reaffirm certain beliefs or help us grow and mature as religious beings.

In the Union for Reform Judaism’s podcast on this week’s Torah portion, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the URJ, emphasized the importance of distinguishing the difference between blasphemy, which in Hebrew is sometimes referred to as “chillul hashem (the desecration of God’s name)” and its opposite, “kiddush hashem, the sanctification of God’s name.” Rabbi Jacobs noted that religious communities today should not expend their energy trying to identify and punish blasphemy, cutting people down, but rather they should be looking for opportunities to raise up those who live out the values we cherish.[2] Jacobs argues that a fundamental part of chillul hashem is the idea of bringing shame to God’s name - or doing something shameful in the name of God, whether it’s anyone who identifies themselves as a religious person, but says hateful things about other children of God; or people who steal; or people who behave in ways that are harmful to the environment or our core ethical teachings -- these are actions that bring shame and a sense of undermining and draining all of the holiness out of an act. To that list, I might also add people who push forward legislation that would affect the lives and well-being of a wide range of people, based on their own narrow, limited understanding of a given religious belief.

Today, there are many issues that often represent a third-rail, or that raise the hairs on the backs of our necks when someone brings them up. I had a friend whose parents used to have a rule at their Shabbat table: No God, no politics. Because religion and politics were so charged, they thought it better to just avoid them. Depending on your community, you might find that any critical discussion of Israel is off-limits, or talking about abortion or immigration can be seen as threatening someone’s religious views. Ultimately, good debate, especially in the safety of our community, should be something that helps to strengthen our connections, not break them down. A well-reasoned argument, if presented in a thoughtful way, can actually help us expand our thinking on a given issue. And, if we were to spend more time thinking about those examples of how religion raises us up, rather than threatens or divides us, perhaps we might find ourselves with more energy and openness to discussing those things that challenge us, and ultimately more resistant to feeling threatened by new or different ideas.


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