Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Speaking of Spinoza

Chardal said:

“The mistake Spinoza made is that he conceived that humanity can ever grasp the infinite and in the end had a monistic and static view of the world - or at least the logical conclusion of such a conception of reality.”

One of the major difficulties in answering questions or claims regarding Orthodoxy’s view of Spinozism is that it oft times comes from those who haven’t studied Spinoza as Spinoza, but rather as Spinoza through the eyes of someone trying from the beginning to refute Spinoza’s position. In other words, for many the Orthodox Jewish reader, Spinoza is rejected outright, and there can be no reconciliation of ideals. In fact, when I began my first clandestine venture into the works of Spinoza as a teenager, I, too, entered the battle with what I believed were enough philosophical and ecumenical weapons to refute the ‘Heretic from Holland’.

The second error, and perhaps the most popular one, is that most Orthodox critics of Spinoza read and regurgitate an answer pre-packaged by someone of the first, above-mentioned group. Since there is no need to question the truth of Orthodoxy or the ‘falseness’ of Spinoza, there is also no requirement to spend any quality time sorting through the ideas. After all, a member of the first group has supposedly already done the tough and dangerous job of sifting through the heresies on Judaism’s behalf. In this vein, I have heard comments like “If Spinoza had learned Chasidus, he would have changed his mind.” There is so much false assumption and conjecture within that small comment that it warrants a posting of its own. (Those same people also assert that Aristotle and/or Plato recanted their philosophical views and claimed Judaism to be true.)

Yet, even with these errors in mind, it isn’t so simple an analysis to make. Spinoza is a difficult read even for philosophers, and I have to admit, even after years of study, parts of Spinoza’s teachings continue to baffle me. In part, it is because I am not all that intelligent to start with. Spinoza’s methodology is circular and reflexive, requiring one to backtrack and reread a great deal, thus making his works more of a lesson in patience and perseverance than in philosophy. Lastly, Spinoza created his own nomenclature, which can be very confusing even to those with both experience in Latin and Talmudic logic. Spinoza also left us a legacy of doubt regarding many issues and we are left to derive from his earlier writings what he may or may not have meant by an ambiguous comment made later on. He died too soon.

As a result of this unintended language barrier, we have some who believe that Spinoza was a mystic and others, like myself, find Spinoza to be a refreshing and definitive expression of materialism and determinism, much like philosophical Taoism was to eastern thought, but with the added features of rationalism and circular reasoning. Chardal’s statement could be agreed to by some and, at the same time, vehemently opposed by others, and all speaking out in defense of Spinoza! Some who believe they vilify Spinoza may in fact be unwittingly offering him support.

I can’t blame the defenders of Orthodoxy for their distaste of or unwillingness to take Spinoza seriously and undergo the pain and effort needed to plumb the depths of his ideas. His outlook remains as radical today, in the year 2007, as it did to the Jewish and Protestant mind-sets of the mid-17th century. If we couple that with the social pressures, religious obligations, and time constraints placed upon Orthodox Jews, to expect these folks to master a point of view diametrically opposed to their own is unrealistic, and to judge them for not taking the effort is simply unethical. I would no more expect them to study Spinoza than I might be likely to study Wicca. Nonetheless, being uneducated in Wiccan practice, I avoid assuming any sort of authority on the subject and speaking out of line.

Where I do take issue, obviously, is with the many statements or claims attributed to or derived from Spinoza's writings that are wholly inaccurate. It is one thing to ask a question or pose an optional interpretation, but it is quite another thing altogether to, deliberately or not, offer misleading commentary on his philosophy. In addition, there are those who co-opt the rationalism of Spinoza in name only, yet still cling to their Orthodoxy, claiming that somehow Spinoza provides some kind of link between the rationalism they desire and the religious and mystical absurdities they wish to preserve. It is known that Jewish-style debate prides itself upon the ability to turn around an opponent's arguments against him, but here we have nothing more than a misrepresentation of Spinoza run amok.

I have not even addressed the details of Chardal’s statement in terms of what Spinoza himself might have offered in rebuttal. That may come later.

Kol Tuv


Hrafnkel said...

Very interesting post (both you and I were getting too much blood pressure shit from politics). It almost is enough to make me want to read the Bugger.

Perhaps after I finish the "masterpiece" of Nietzsche's favorite psychologist...

Julia said...

Dear Shlomo Leib,

I'm a producer at RadioOpenSource, a nationally syndicated public radio show and blog. We're planning a show about Spinoza's strong influence on modernity, and we're having a lively discussion on our website (http://www.radioopensource.org/spinoza-mind-of-the-modern/).

While researching the show, I came across this post about the complicated relationship between Spinoza and Judaism. Your thoughts about Spinoza's "legacy of doubt" speak to the discussion we're having about Spinoza in our office and on our blog,and I'd love to have you join the conversation.

I'd be delighted to pick your brain about Spinoza and Judaism over telephone or email, or to have you join the discussion on our website. You can reach me using the contact info below.


Julia Reischel, Producer
Radio Open Source, Public Radio International

chardal said...

I am not sure if you agree with my comment or not.

It seems to me that in Spinoza's ratinoalism, it was pretty much axiomatic that the totality of reality was ultimatly understandable.

If you disagree, please do so from within the text of Spinoza. As an orthodox Jew who does not shy away from philosophical inquiry, I am not sure what you are getting at in this post - my main point in my comment was to say that from a Jewish theological perspective, the most offensive Spinozian doctorine is NOT his criticism of the Tanach nor is it even his extreme pantheism, but rather his insistance of the materialistic and knowable nature of that pantheism.

Anonymous said...

Re: chardal said...

"Nothing regarded in its own nature can be called perfect or imperfect; especially when we are aware that all things which come to pass, come to pass according to the eternal order and fixed laws of nature.
[13] (1) However, human weakness cannot attain to this order in its own thoughts..." Spinoza TIE
Re: schlomo claimed Spinoza is not a mystic, but a materialist...Could he be both and more?

"For our first birth took place when we were united with the body, through which the activities and movements of the [vital] spirits have
arisen; but this our other or second birth will take place when we become aware in us of entirely different effects of love, commensurate with the knowledge of this incorporeal object, and as
different from the first as the corporeal is different from the incorporeal, spirit from flesh. And this may, therefore, all the