Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Ethics of Protest: A Play in Three Acts – Act Two

For an explanation of what this is about, please see Act One here. [Note: We focussed on just one historical explanation for Spinoza's ex-communication; of course, the historical record is much more complex and obscure.]


Act Two.
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...


  1. I like Spinoza very much. If he had proved his point about pantheism I would probably not be knocking the different groups of chasidim that preach pantheism and also say that what they are teaching is authentic Judaism. But personally to me it does not seem that Spinoza proved his point. Several of the things that he writes right at the beginning are of interest. He uses Descarte's idea of a clear idea as being evidence that it is true. (I only wish this were so. I have a clear idea that I have a million dollars!)(Of course Descartes was mathematician so in that context this idea makes sense but as a general rule it does not). Next Spinoza puts a restraint on substance that also is not intuitive and to me makes no sense. IE that no substance can effect another substance in any way. next most of the proofs do not prove what he is saying and he uses many terms that he does not define. while i admit his work is admirable and an amazing attempt to create a rigorous philosophy as for me i think i will stick with the rambam.()i also appreciate tht he does not claim to be teaching authentic Judaism as opposed to chasidut which also teaches pantheism (or panetheism)and yet teaches that it is authentic Judaism. In any case pantheism is not the faith of the Torah.

    this was the philosophy part. I also brought down that the arizal does not agree with pantheism. To the Arial (and the Zohar), only Azilut is godliness, not the lower worlds. Also the zimzum has nothing to do with pantheism. To use the issue of the zimzum was a smoke screen made up by chasidim to try to show why the Gra put Chasidim (or rather "the disciples of the magid from metzritch") in cherem. but the gra does not mention the zimum. also it is not relevant. Hashem might have condensed his light or himself and still everything might not be godliness. ie it could be he condensed his light or himself. then he send down his light into the empty space and made the lower worlds. that still does not mean that the lower world are Divine or not. it is simply irrelevant. and in fact anyway it says in many places in the beginning of th etitz chayim that hashem condensed Himself .
    To sum this up simply the faith of the Torah is monotheism. This goes for the Rambam and Saadia geon and the Arizal, and Rebbi Nachman in no place contradicts this. He in fact mentions the the principle of creation something from nothing as the basis for Torah as the Rambam also holds. Something from nothing does not mean something from ain sof (infinity). So for chasidim to present pantheism as kabalah or as Judaism is not appreciated by me.

  2. Note that unlike in the case of a recent book banning (5 yrs ago) that had the frum internet community all up in an uproar, Spinoza was given a chance to defend himself in beis din. Not accused by a group of rabbis who never met, most of whom don't even read the language in question.

    RAZ: Chassidus is panentheistic, not pantheistic. There is a difference between saying the universe is of G-d, but G-d is greater than the universe, and saying the universe is God.

    I think you also misunderstand the machloqes about what tzimtzum means. It actually drove the Chassidus - Hisnagdus split, rather than coming after the fact.

  3. there was a book in the library in the old city that had all (even the testimonies that were collected in villna beit din ) of the original documents about the arrangement. i did not read the whole thing. but i did not see the zimzum mentioned from the litvak side. I always saw the lubavitichers claiming this was the source of the argument but why would the gra nor any or the later or earlier litvish accounts mention it if this was so?
    incidentally i heard that a good book came out about the gra. people in Israel assured me this was not a art-scroll white wash but a very well researched book. I don't have it here but if someone could take a look at it this might be helpful to solve this issue.

  4. Nefesh haChaim implicitly does, if we take it as a response to the Tanya.

    Belief in real tzimtzum leads to a hashkafah that values emulating G-d more than cleaving to Him. When the Besh"t wanted to found a movement based on deveiqus, he had to be mechadeish the idea of tzimtzum only being an illusion.

    There are actually two levels to the dispute -- whether tzimtzum was meant literally, and whether it's of the Ein Sof (which could only be non-literal -- the Ein Sof can't change) or something else. (And if the latter what -- His Ratzon, the Or Ein Sof, etc...)

    BTW, see Adam Nadler's "The Faith of the Misnagdim" for a nice exposition, with sources.

  5. the book i am referring to about the gra is in Hebrew and is from what i heard about 4 volumes and everyone was saying it is great so i am pretty sure it would have something to say abut this debate if anyone can find it. (I could have bought it myself but i was about to travel so i had to minimize how much stuff i could take.)
    at any rate i don't want to attribute the open pantheism of chasidut to the besht for whole bunch of reasons. the basic reason is that the the stories evolve. the besht in early stories is talking about how the world is full of the glory of hashem. as chasidut progressed in time the same story gets changed generation by generation until it becomes advocating pantheism. I don't say either that the besht was against it. rather i think like you said the besht wanted people to get to develop--period. theology i think just did not interest him.
    But on the other hand he might have held from pantheism. The thing is that the place to look in terms of this would be the toldot yaakov joseph. and sadly enough i never finished that book so he might very well have something about it that i missed. If he would say so that would be a direct proof that the besht also held from it.

  6. From the Besht (died 1760) to the Tanya (published 1797) was 37 years. Yes, philosophy can slide in 4 decades -- compare Lub under the 6th rebbe with the messianists toward the end of the 7th. But it wasn't generations of drift. In any case, panentheism appears in the Besht's letters.

  7. So then all i can say about this is that i am not any expert in kabalah in any sense. but i remember wandering into yeshivat hakotel one day (in the days when you could do this) and i saw in the library a entire book that went through the differences between the teachings of the baal hatanya and those of the baal shem tov. That was part two of the book. and part one was the difference between the teachings of the ari and those of the baal hatanaya. Evey chapter was a different point of difference and these were many. by that time i was had discovered that the lubavith movement was poison so i really did not want to spend much time reading those books. I vaguely remember statements from the baal shem tov as you mentioned and also of rebbi nachman but i never wanted to go very deep into this aspect of the besht or rebbi nachman since the whole issue seemed to be completely periphery to what they wanted to teach people. as far as i can tell both the besht and rebbi nachman might have thought exactly like the nesfesh hachayim or perhaps had a idea like Kant that going into these areas of theology generates automatic contradictions and schizophrenia. at any rate the rambam and saadia goen dont hold by any of it and it seems to me that it is possible to trance the teachings of the rambam and saadia geon directly to the tenach itself, so with due respect to the greatness of the besht and rebbi nachman i didn't think that this issue is really all that relevant to any Jew.