THE ETHICS OF PROTEST
ACT TWO – THE EX-COMMUNICATION OF BARUCH SPINOZA
The issue is not always about correcting behaviour; sometimes, the issue is Chillul HaShem, desecrating Gd's Name, and its fallout. Should we protest if the conduct of a Jew or a group of Jews causes Gd's Name to be defamed, as has happened in the wake of the publicity surrounding Beit Shemesh?
The year is now 1655, and our scene shifts to Amsterdam. Two members of the Ma'amad, the Jewish leadership, Rabbi Avraham and Rabbi Yonatan, are discussing their options in dealing with an upstart lens-grinder and philosopher, Baruch Spinoza.
Spinoza is promoting ideas which Jews consider heretical. Worse, though, the local Christian government is growing agitated, raising concerns of Chillul HaShem - the elders are worried that Spinoza is desecrating the Name of Gd by promoting the idea that Jews are heretics.
[Rabbi Avraham and Rabbi Yonatan enter and sit down]
Y: These glasses just aren't as good as they used to be. [Takes glasses off to clean them on his shirt.]
A [smirking]: Maybe you should go to that Spinoza fellow to make you new ones.
Y: Not funny. What are we going to do about him, anyway?
A: We've been through this already; we're going to do nothing. We don't ex-communicate people anymore!
Y: Where have you been? I don't keep track, but I'd say in all of Amsterdam there have been 100 or so in the past fifty years.
A: Not for heresy – we ex-communicate for defying the courts, refusing to pay fines, that sort of thing. Not for heresy.
Y: So you would have us do nothing? The gemara says במקום חילול ד' אין חולקין כבוד לרב, we don't defer to anyone's honour in a case of desecrating Gd's Name! We need to act!
A: I'm not convinced that this is a desecration of Gd's Name.
Y: Really. You know he believes in monism – that the universe is Gd, and it was not created at all but it simply exists. That there is no such thing as another realm beyond this one. [A covers his ears, in fun] That we are all animals, acting by instinct and not with free will. That we shouldn't accept any sort of revelation, but deduce everything on our own. That religion is a good way to keep people in line, but it's a product of imagination. [cleans his glasses]
A: [laughing] To each his own, right?
Y: You're not taking this seriously.
A: I am taking it seriously. Sorry. I just feel like there is nothing to do about it, and there is no reason to act. We've had heretics before and we've survived them. He's not going to reach the masses. I mean, for goodness sake, he's Latinized his name to Benedictus – who's going to listen to him?
Y: It's not Jews I'm worried about, it's the Christian world.
A [laughing]: You’re worried about Christians listening to him?
Y: Not funny. [cleans his glasses again] I'm worried that the Church will decide that Jews are heretics.
A: So what if they do?
Y: Don't you remember the Rambam's words? To cause non-Jews to believe that we do not honour the Torah is a desecration of Gd's Name!
A: So you think we should do something?
Y: Rabbeinu Asher allowed a Jewish court in Spain to use physical punishment for a blasphemer, because the Muslims take blasphemy seriously and would look down on us if we didn't.
A: That's different; the Jews were really worried that the Muslims would attack them.
Y: And you think we're safe in Amsterdam because they talk about "religious tolerance"? Not even ten years ago the Christians butchered hundreds of thousands of our brethren in the Ukraine under that pig Chmielniczki, and the priests egged them on. We're still not allowed to live in England, although there is talk that Rabbi ben Israel is making some headway on it. And here – we've just absorbed thousands of refugees from those massacres in Poland, as well as thousands more from the New World because of Portugeuse conquests there. We are a burden on society. That's all we need now, for them to decide we're a bunch of heretics. Where will we move next?
A: Okay, I admit that it's a dangerous desecration in the eyes of the nations – but ex-communication as a solution? Don’t you remember the Talmud's advice for how to sanctify Gd's Name? Learn Torah, talk nicely to other people, be honest. That's it.
Y: So we'll be nice people, while he desecrates Gd's Name. How will that help?
A: By creating Kiddush HaShem, sanctifying Gd's Name. The gemara says מעשה מוציא מידי מעשה, deeds can cancel out deeds. Let our deeds get the headlines and establish what a Jew is.
Y: I'm not buying it. And I need new glasses. [rises and leaves]
A shrugs and follows him offstage to change props
Avraham and Yonatan make important points about the concern Jewish tradition has for desecrating Gd's Name, in terms of the false impression it conveys and in terms of the danger it creates, as well as our desire on the other hand to build with positive responses rather than tear down with negatives.
In the end, the Maamad decided to ex-communicate Baruch Spinoza, which did not keep him from promoting his ideas but may have succeeded in telling people that he didn't represent Judaism. His writings were denounced by the Church Council of Amsterdam as a "work forged in Hell by a renegade Jew and the Devil", so at least they called him a "renegade". Spinoza died in his ex-communication in 1677.
1. Talmud, Berachot 19b
אין חכמה ואין תבונה ואין עצה לנגד ד' (משלי ל) כל מקום שיש חלול השם אין חולקין כבוד לרב
'There is no wisdom, understanding or counsel opposite Gd' – Wherever there is desecration of the Divine Name, we do not give honour to the great.
2. Rambam, Commentary to Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1
הגוי אשר ישכרנו יחממו בשבת, וייכנסו בו הגוים ויאמרו, נרחץ במרחץ של פלוני היום, ויש בזה חילול השם למי שישמע זה ולא ידע שהוא מושכר בידו לזמן קצוב בדמים קצובים
A non-Jew hired by the Jewish bathhouse owner will heat it on Shabbat, but non-Jews will enter and say, "Let us bathe in the Jew's bathhouse today," and this will desecrate the Divine Name to those who will hear this and not know that it is rented to the non-Jew [permissibly] for a period of time, for a fixed sum.
3. Responsa of Rosh 17:8
והנחתיה להם כמנהגם, אבל מעולם לא הסכמתי עמהם על איבוד נפש. אמנם, אני רואה שדעת כלכם מסכמת לבער זה הרע מקרבכם. ובודאי חלל השם בפרהסיא, וכבר נשמע הדבר בין הישמעאלים, והם מחמירים מאד במדבר נגד דתם ואמונתם וניתוסף החילול אם לא יעשו בו כדין בשביל מיגדר מילתא
I allowed the courts to continue their custom [of punishing defendants], but I never agreed to permit execution. However, I see that all of you agree on the need to eradicate this evil from your midst. Certainly, he desecrated the Divine Name in public. His act has already been heard among the Muslims, who are very strict regarding those who speak out against their religion and belief, and so the desecration will increase if they will not act according to the law to fence in the matter.
4. Talmud, Yoma 86a
היכי דמי חילול השם... מי שקורא ושונה ומשמש תלמידי חכמים ואין משאו ומתנו באמונה ואין דבורו בנחת עם הבריות
What is desecration of the Divine Name? One who reads and studies and serves Torah scholars and does not deal honestly with others, and does not speak gently with others.
Act Three next...