My friend Turk Hill, who generally agrees with me, requested that I place his views about Spinoza on my website, booksnthoughts.com. I am doing so and putting it in my book Philosophical Ideas. We differ primarily in what we emphasize. He agrees that Maimonides was brilliant but thinks Spinoza was equally so. I do not believe Spinoza was as intelligent as Maimonides. He thinks Spinoza mocked the Torah and its laws. I think he was pointing out the difficulties he saw, difficulties the rabbis also saw. They explained them. He prefers to think that God did not reveal the Torah but agrees with me that it is sacred because of what it teaches. I like to think that it is possible that God revealed the Torah, and like him, I feel that even if it was just inspired, it is sacred, and the rabbinical interpretation of it should be followed. I agreed to publish it in the hope that it would prompt readers to think.

  

                                                                     

                                          Turk Hill’s “The Radical Views of Spinoza

 

People of all religions and backgrounds can learn much from the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza was a Jewish commentator of great learning. Even at an early age, Spinoza was already considered very intelligent, and the community thought he would become a rabbi. He came from an affluent family of conversos who fled religious persecution and settled in Amsterdam, Holland.

During the Inquisition, many Jews were forced to become Christians. The non-Jews suspected many who had converted to Christianity. Anyone who was found practicing Judaism in secret was killed. When Spain expelled the Jews in 1492, Portugal followed. Many Jews, like Spinoza’s family, escaped to Holland, where they were tolerated as long as they did not combat Church doctrine as interpreted in Amsterdam. Jews weren’t the only group facing difficulties. Catholics and Quakers also had to tread carefully. Alarmed at the precarious situation, the Jewish leadership decided to take tentative steps not to inflame their host country. They feared that if they offended them in any way, they could be massacred. As a result, they took a shy approach to sensitive topics in public. No one wanted to provoke the government officials.

In the seventeenth century, while most people were still devout, Spinoza was a rationalist who questioned religious teachings and held radical ideas about God and religion. Because he was so bright, he did not share the same common beliefs as his contemporaries, such as the inerrancy of the Bible, the immortality of the soul, and the efficacy of prayer. He doubted all of these things. The local synagogue officials, fearing his views would incite a pogrom, acted in the interest of the whole community and expelled him in 1656. Many vilified him. One fanatic even tried to kill him. He fled and became Benedict de Spinoza in Latin. He was twenty-four years old.

Not deterred, he published his incendiary work, “A Theological-Political Treatise,” in 1670. He attacked clerical authority and advocated for free speech. In 1677, he delineated his philosophy in his monumental work “Ethics” in the style of mathematical argumentation and axioms. He lived frugally, rejected a job at Heidelberg University, and worked as a lens polisher. The dust exacerbated his respiratory system, and he died of tuberculosis at the early age of forty-four.

It should be noted here that Spinoza, like Maimonides (1138-1204), was an esoteric writer and wrote for two audiences, the intellectuals and the masses, hiding his true views from the general public due to their inability to handle the truth. He was careful not to belittle the New Testament. The ring he wore mirrored his prudent approach, etched in Latin ‘caute,’ meaning ‘be cautious.’ Although Spinoza was excommunicated, he never lost his sense of Jewish identity by never converting to Christianity. The following are some of his radical, heterodox views.

Revelation

Spinoza stated that revelation is manifested “in all things and especially in the human mind.” He wrote in the Theological-Political Treatise, page fifty-five: “We acquire a greater and more perfect knowledge of God as we gain more knowledge of natural phenomena… the greater our knowledge of natural phenomena, the more perfect is our knowledge of the essence of God, which is the cause of all things.” God is revealed in nature. The laws of nature reveal God to us. Calling the creation a revelation is not a departure from traditional Judaism. It is Biblical. Psalm 19 — “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork, — Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge.”

Jewish law

Spinoza had no interest in Jewish law and disparaged halacha. He contended that Jewish law was no longer binding and was only valid while the ancient Judaic kingdom lasted. Spinoza comments that “the Jews themselves were not bound to practice their ceremonial observances after the destruction of their kingdom” (TTP 5).[1] Consequently, the Jews were not obligated to observe the Torah laws outside of the land of Israel.

Free will

Spinoza may have denied free will. In a private correspondence, Spinoza observes that should a stone be conscious and capable of thinking, it, too, would “believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess.” Spinoza adds that an infant may believe it desires milk, or an angry person may believe it decides how to react. However, this is only an illusion. Everything is determined. This was not the view of Maimonides. Maimonides states that we have free will: “Humans are given free will… The Creator doesn’t preordain man to be good or evil” (Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah 5:1-3).

Chosen people

In chapter three of the Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza does not attempt to explicitly deny the verses in Deuteronomy that speak about the election of the Hebrews. He does suggest that Biblical verses should not be understood literally. Instead, they reflect the historical circumstances and conditions that favored the early Israelites and should not imply favoritism. Everyone is chosen, and God was “equally gracious to all” (referencing Psalms 145:18). The ancient Israelites were chosen only to have some social, political, or economic success. There was no inherent difference between Jews and Gentiles.

Interestingly, Maimonides rejects the notion of a chosen people by omission. He omits any mention of chosen people in his works. Besides, if Spinoza is a pantheist, it is nonsensical to suppose that God can choose the Jewish people, as God cannot choose anything. Spinoza concludes the chapter: “Every nation is on a par with the rest, and God has not in these respects chosen one people rather than another.”

Miracles

In chapter six of the Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza gave naturalistic explanations for supernatural events in Scripture. The typical paradigm can be seen in how he explains the parting of the sea as “an east wind blowing for a whole day and night.” For Spinoza, whatever happened happened naturally. The sun, for example, did not stand still for Joshua and his soldiers. The day just seemed longer than usual as they fought. Spinoza mocked Joshua, the author of his book, for his ignorance in thinking that the sun circled the earth. The earth would stand still, not the sun. Joshua was a soldier, not an astronomer. The day may have also appeared longer than usual due to “the [large] amount of ice or snow in the atmosphere.”

Spinoza understands all extraordinary events in scripture as natural events, not supernatural miracles. He was sure that “every event which is truly described in Scripture necessarily happened, like everything else, according to natural laws” (TTP 6). There is no such thing as a miracle. Nature followed a fixed and immutable order.  Spinoza writes, “Nowhere does Scripture assert that anything happens which contradicts, or cannot follow from the laws of nature.”

 

This was also the view of Maimonides. Maimonides did not believe in miracles that violate the laws of nature. The world works according to the laws of nature. Natural law is fixed and needs no change. God is perfect — God established the laws of nature; therefore, the laws of nature are perfect.

The Bible

Maimonides and Spinoza do not understand Biblical passages literally. Maimonides says in his book entitled ‘Moreh Nebuchim,’ The Guide for the Perplexed, “We ought not to understand, nor take according to the letter, that which is written in the book of the creation… The book of Genesis, taken according to the letter, especially concerning the work of six days, gives the most absurd and the most extravagant ideas of the divinity.”

This is a very extraordinary declaration of Maimonides. He declares that the account of Creation in the book of Genesis is not a fact and that believing it to be a fact gives the most absurd and extravagant ideas of divinity. It is an allegory.

 

In “A Theological-Political Treatise,” Spinoza attempts to present what the Bible is teaching in its plain meaning. Spinoza criticized Maimonides for giving philosophical interpretations of biblical texts as “mere nonsense” and “Aristotelian quibbles.” Still, Spinoza himself does this in interpreting the tetragrammaton as pure Being and identifying Glory (kavod) as the intellectual love of God.

In addition, Spinoza berated Maimonides’ willingness to distort and twist Scripture to fit the view of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (e.g., regarding the eternity of the universe). If it were proven that the world was formed out of pre-existing matter or that the universe emanates from God, Maimonides “would have felt quite sure that Scripture, though everywhere plainly denying the world’s eternity, really intends to teach it” (TTP 7). Spinoza was adamant that there was no philosophy in the Bible and that “Scripture should only be expounded through Scripture” itself, not in light of rabbinic commentaries.

This also affected how he saw the prophets. The prophets were not consummate philosophers, as Maimonides would have us believe. Instead, they were of average intelligence, and “revelation” was a natural event that they perceived with a vivid imagination. Spinoza notes in a letter that Abraham, too, believed that God had dined with him. And in like manner, “all the Israelites believed that God descended, surrounded with fire, from heaven to Mount Sinai; and there spoke directly with them,” whereas these “revelations” were said to have occurred to fit their understanding and opinions.

The Torah demands Orthopraxy, not Orthodoxy

Maimonides codified in his law code (Laws of Kings 8:11) that non-Jews must accept the seven Noahide commandments based on revelation. However, this view makes no sense. It contradicts what Maimonides stated elsewhere. What if one lives in the Far East and has never heard of the Torah? Are they to be denied spiritual salvation? Spinoza would answer no. He wrote, “Obedience to God consists solely in love to our neighbor.” If a person’s “works be good, he is faithful [to God], however much his doctrine may differ from those of the rest.” Spinoza believed that “moral principles, whether they have received from God the form of laws or not, are nevertheless divine.”

Orthodoxy is not “supported by Scriptural authority.” Orthodoxy means correct beliefs. Orthopraxy means observing certain behaviors. Contrary to public opinion, there is nothing about faith in the Torah. The Torah demands proper behavior, not beliefs. Spinoza, like Maimonides, did not think “faith” was a Jewish concept; it was Christian. After seeing the sea open a way for the Jews by a strong east wind and the Egyptians killed by the divided water, the Israelites affirmed to accept the Torah. The Torah uses a form of the Hebrew word amen, which means acceptance, not belief.

Spinoza adds that “we can only judge a man by his works. If a man abounds in…charity, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, chastity… there is no law, such as one, whether he be taught by reason only or by the Scripture only, has been in very truth taught by God, and is altogether blessed” (TTP 5). Spinoza emphasized actions over beliefs. God is pleased with all people. People are good no matter their religion as long as they practice “justice and charity towards their neighbor,” act properly and harms no one.

Spinoza’s God

Albert Einstein said: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns Himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

Scholars differ in interpreting Spinoza. Professor Nadler reads Spinoza as an atheist. Yet others understand him as a pantheist. Spinoza’s formulation is “God or nature.” He may have meant that no God exists, but apply it to nature if you want to use the term. This is Pantheism. God and nature are identical.

 

However, Spinoza does not call the rocks, trees, or the universe God. In Spinoza’s conception of God, everything that exists in the universe, even an inanimate object, reveals something about God.

 

No one knows precisely what Spinoza meant when he wrote that God is in nature. Spinoza is obscure. Be this as it may, when a letter charged Spinoza with confusing God and nature, he replies: “The supposition of some that I endeavor to prove in the Tractatus Theologica-Politicus the unity of God and nature (meaning by the latter a certain mass or corporeal matter) is wholly erroneous.”

The Divinity of the Bible

Some rabbis believe that God gave the entire Torah on Sinai. Did Spinoza and Maimonides believe that God wrote a book? I think not. If Guide 2:48 is taken to the extreme, the conclusion will be that the Torah is the product of Moses, not God. Spinoza agreed. He felt similarly that the Torah is a human document. Scrutiny proved it had been tampered with (scribal errors had crept into the text). The Bible was faulty, altered, and corrupted. Spinoza reduced the Bible to a mere political document.

Spinoza still wants to say it is “holy,” even “divine.”  Spinoza explains: “A thing is called sacred and divine so long as it is religiously used,” meaning Spinoza’s method depends on the user. If a person does not treat the Torah respectfully and uses it to improve themselves and society, it is not holy for them. It ceases to be pious, its sanctity withers, and it becomes nothing but “paper and ink.” However, if the person uses it properly, it is holy, and its words are divine.

For Spinoza, the Torah is only metaphorically divine. Its divinity consists in containing moral lessons. The basic message of the Bible can be reduced to two commandments. “From the Bible itself, we learn, without the smallest difficulty or ambiguity, that its cardinal precept is: To love God above all things, and one’s neighbor as one’s self” (ibid., p. 167).

 

However, Spinoza warns us of the dangers of turning religion into superstition, and of worshiping paper and ink in place of God’s word. The Bible is not a source of truth and does not teach philosophy. It demands only obedience and morality.

Thus, the Torah is “divine” in a metaphoric sense in having some excellent moral teachings, such as the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Levit. 19:18). Thereby, the term “divine” does not mean “from God.” It is a synonym for excellent. Mozart’s music, for example, is divine. The Torah was written by man, inspired by God. However, the Bible does not hold a monopoly on divinity. For Spinoza, any piece of literature that motivates us to self-improvement and is morally edifying is divine.

 

Did Spinoza empty the term “divine” from all meaning? Does this make the term meaningless? Now, anything that is great is divine. Does this definition allow us to call the works of Shakespeare divine? Spinoza does not answer. Spinoza proclaims: “We can thus easily see how God can be said to be the Author of the Bible: it is because of the true religion therein contained, and not because He wished to communicate to men a certain number of books.” In a word, God revealed neither the Decalogue nor the Torah. The Torah is a human document inspired by all that God created.

 

Moses did not write the Torah

In his commentary to Deuteronomy 1:2, the Spanish sage Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) wrote that Moses did not compose the entire Torah and lists twelve verses. He says that Joshua wrote them via prophecy. He called this theory the “secret of the twelve.” In his Tractatus Theologico-Publicus, Spinoza took ibn Ezra’s idea and turned it on its head. The concept no longer referred to the last twelve verses in the Pentateuch.

Now, it referred to the twelve stone tablets. In other words, today’s Torah is not the same as in biblical times (consisting only of twelve tablets). He credits Ezra the Scribe as the chief editor and compiler and maintains that Moses composed “The Book of the Law,” not the Pentateuch. Spinoza insisted that this was not only his view. It was the view of ibn Ezra, who was presumably aware that there were more verses than the twelve listed. In doing so, he showed that the belief that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch was ungrounded and even irrational.

In brief, Spinoza, in his treatise on the ceremonies of the Jews, and with the observations of ibn Ezra, to which he adds many others, showed that Moses is not the author of those books and shows his reasons for saying it. Spinoza concludes: “From what has been said, it is clearer than the sun at noonday that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, but by someone who lived long after him.”

Summary

It is a shame that many still prefer to take a detour when running across Spinoza. They are reluctant to delve into the views of this esteemed philosopher because they think he is a dangerous heretic who will lead them astray. They do not realize that other prominent Jewish sages, such as Maimonides and the ibn Ezra, held similar views. Spinoza was given a bad rap, and yet I am convinced that he knew more about the Bible and more about God than the average Jew or Christian today.

 

He said that everything miraculous was imagination, God doesn’t suspend natural laws, and Divine Providence is nothing more than natural laws. He suggested that many people may have written the Bible over a long period. So, it is not surprising that they insulted him. The clergy still hawk him as an annoying heretic. Few today call for the ban to be lifted.

Maimonides felt that the truth is the truth no matter what its source. Therefore, everyone should have an open mind about Spinoza. Whether readers agree with him entirely or partially, his works are significant because they are thought-provoking and make us think. I like Spinoza. He was a rational thinker. Spinoza stressed the use of our intelligence. My understanding of Spinoza is that he agreed with Maimonides. Spinoza should be extolled, not shunned. Although Spinoza was ostracized when put in herem, he was not a heretic. Albert Einstein called him “the greatest of modern philosophers.”

 

[1] The letters TTP indicate A Theological-Political Treatise.