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On Sirens, Spinoza, Soloveitchik and Electiveness

For a printable PDF click here:On Sirens soloveicthik and Spinoza 5775


It’s been a strange few weeks.  This is the time of year in Israel that reminds us why we are here.  It’s like that moment when, unaware you are watching, your child does something so wonderful and unexpected that you radiate inside.  No one else will share that ineffable  pride. I always marvel at the phenomenon of school shows.  Every parent is focused on their child.  Whilst we may be marvelling at what a wonderful performance our child gave, the parent next to us will be thinking the very same thing about their child.  And though your child may have given the performance of a lifetime it will only be your face that is punctuated with delight.  There is a word in Hebrew that can’t be translated – Nachat – why is it that nachat is to the exclusivity of a parent? Because only you know that child, only you share the moments of joy and moments of despair, the sleepless nights, incessant worries, terrible two’s temper tantrums, first day at school, endless appointments, moment of laughter and joy.  Only you have seen that child at their worst and their best. That child is yours and yours alone, and so when she stands at the front of the stage reeling off her lines, it will be you and you alone that will overflow with indescribable pride of the miracle of your child.

I had one of those moments last week.  Though I have been living here for eleven years it is the first  time I actually experienced a remembrance siren driving in the traffic. It was Yom Hashoa and every car came to a standstill, the people got out there car and stood in silence.  I stood there crying, unsure whether I was crying for my great grandparents and family that had perished at the hand of the Nazis, or I was crying out of sheer incredulity of what I was experiencing.  It made me realise that unless one is part of this incredible nation, unless one has felt the pain of our history watched with astonishment the return to our land, experienced the highs and lows of building our state, it would just be impossible to understand the tears I shed.  It is these nachat moments that make living here worth it all.

I say it’s been a strange few weeks because everything that I have been engaged in seems to have merged together in a unconventional tapestry of connection.  I started the week by preparing a lecture on Baruch Spinoza and moved on to preparing a paper I am writing on interfaith theology in which I discuss the writings of Rav Soloveitchik, R. Hartman and R. Greenberg. I watched my children preparing for a Yom Hashoa tekes they took part in and listened to their questions about my grandparents, their great grandparents experiences during the war, in particular my grandfather Zeev Racker who lost his entire family and extended family in the camps but himself managed to survive. We spoke about the book Rav Yisrael Meir Lau wrote about his holocaust experiences and experienced the sudden shock of realisation that he was the same age as my youngest daughter and his brother Naftali Lau, under whose care he survived the Holocaust, was only a few years older than my eldest daughter.  This year more than in the past I have been profoundly affected by this period.  It is a period we could term  ‘tekufat Hanachat‘ –  it is the particularity of our shared history that pulls us together as a nation and makes us celebrate, despite all our prevailing problems, the miracle of our existence, just as a parent celebrates in those moments of pride the miracle of a child.

The differing voices from Spinoza, to R. Soloveitchik,  my eldest child to the holocaust survivors, each tell a story that is part of our national narrative.  Each voice adds to the conversation of our time and the richness of our particularity, even those like Spinoza who wanted to deny that very particularity into which he was born.

The story of the Jewish people is long and varied. It is a story engulfed in flames of destruction and fires of hope.  It is made up of a people that have journeyed the world over but whose eyes have remained fixed towards the land of Zion, often lived only in their dreams.  It is the particularity of their shared history and collective hopes that kept them over the many years in exile.

Spinoza perhaps one of the most influential philosophers ever, and arguably the forerunner to modernity, was also the most notorious Jewish heretic. He believed that the dream of Zion was already long forgotten and hence should be disassociated from the psyche of the Jewish mind.  The Portuguese community in Amsterdam put out a cherem against him, the harshest writ of cherem known in that community for ‘monstrous deeds’ and ‘abominable heresies’.  What act so monstrous and grave had Spinoza performed to merit this unprecedented writ?  Though at the time he had not formally published any of his writings, his teaching was apparently well known, enough at least, to cause great angst amongst the rabbinical leadership.  Spinoza made no effort to reconcile himself with the Jewish community and equally was uninterested in converting to Christianity.  This was a radical step in those times, no one lived without a religious identity.  Spinoza arguably becomes the first ‘secular’ person.

Besides for Spinoza’s well known denial of any transcendent Deity,  and his ardent attack on the origins and content of the Bible, Spinoza also denied the essential uniqueness of the Jewish people.  Being the protagonist of rationalism and universalism he found no prudence in the Jewish people maintaining their unique status as a ‘chosen’ people.  There is much we can thank Spinoza for. He gave back to the world what the Greek philosophers first introduced and in the interim centuries had been lost – the freedom of enquiry, autonomy from authoritative or coercive bodies, the inquisitive mind and all the enriching positivity of modernity. But he also bought some particularly inaccurate and false insights.  He believed that the Jewish people time was up.[1]  Their successful ‘stint’ as a people in their land had failed, and now it was time for them to integrate into the universal brotherhood of man.   I often wonder what Spinoza would say today. In fact I was thinking of him standing in the streets of a modern Israeli state watching my people rise up in silent defiance at the sound of the siren against those who also had believed our ‘time was up’.  What would his response to that moment be? Is it still time to engage in the universal brotherhood of man? Should we give up our ‘chosenness’ and assimilate into the universalism of today’s world?

I will not deny that there are times I feel it would be easier to live in a Spinozian universe.  It would be more peaceful,  less challenging and certainly less violent than the world we live in today.  But it would also be less meaningful,  beautiful, passionate, empowering and overwhelmingly rewarding than our current world.  If I looked at every child in the way I looked at my own, it would be unnatural and worrying.  If I looked at every religion and nation in the way I looked at mine, we may have a universal brotherhood of man, but we wouldn’t have the rich tapestry that envelops the universe and brings meaning, hope and a sense of belonging to so many.  It is this sense of belonging that overwhelmed me standing listening to the Yom Hashoa siren, I heard the words of Heschel echoing in my mind:

Why is the belonging to the Jewish people the most sacred relation to me, second only to my relation to God?  Judaism is not only the adherence to particular doctrines and observances but primarily the living in the spiritual order of the Jewish people, the living in the Jews of the past and with the Jews of the present…….Our share in holiness we acquire by living in the Jewish community.  What we do as individuals is a trivial episode, what we attain as Israel causes us to grow into the infinite.  Israel is the tree , we are the leaves.  It is the clinging to the stem that keeps us alive….its substance can be sustained only within its roots, within the depth and unutterableness of its being.[2]

With these thoughts fresh in my mind I approached a task that I had been putting off working on for weeks.  As I sat in the library pouring over the texts that discussed inter faith theology I was suddenly hit by the realisation that these thinkers voices were penetrating the siren of Yom Hashoa too. They too were responding to Spinoza, engaging with my daughter and being haunted by the Holocaust survivor.  Enveloped into the particularity of their national identity, they were answering Spinoza’s dilemma of how  to live as part of a religion with an exquisitely unique status, and similarly still be part of the universal?  They were grappling with the dissonance between acknowledging a strong and rich identity and a definitive need to engage with those who are not part of that identity, and who may not hear or appreciate the siren in the same way we do.

Rabbi J.D Soloveitchik[3] in his essay ‘confrontation’ attacks the project of inter-faith dialogue.[4]  He states one of those conditions for engaging with other faiths:

We must always remember that our singular commitment to God and our hope and indomitable will for survival are non-negotiable and non-rationalizable and are not subject to debate and argumentation.[5]

Though there are many criticisms lobbied against his stance over the years, and though I often wonder if 30 years on his views may have changed, there was any authenticity in his description of the faith experience that echoed for me in the moment of the siren.

Only as Jews can we feel that dialectical tension that pulls us between Auschwitz and Jerusalem, the burning children and the flag of modern Israel, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut.  It is this experience, unique to our religious identity, a feeling that cannot be shared outside of the family of Israel.   Of course the project of engaging with other faiths is paramount and a task that must be approached in the right way, it must be done from the viewpoint  that our religious experiences and national identity cannot always be translated into universal language.

All of these thoughts find religious expression in the book we are reading at present on Shabbat – Sefer Vayikra.  I often hear people pondering the relevance of these parshiot that delve into the intricacies of sacrificial worship and inordinate detail of the tabernacle – a temporary abode for God. There are many answers to this question, but I think one in particular relates to the discussion here.  The Torah begins with a picture of universalism – a universal brotherhood of mankind.  We are all created in the image of God, each one of us possess a uniqueness but also a generality that links us each to the other.  In the same way that God is beyond definition, separate, unique and the only One, so too we as human beings posses this individuality.  But as the Torah develops we find that mankind is unable to respect the dignity of the individual, they kill (Kayin) , hate (time of Noach), try to make everyone the same (Bavel).  God’s ideal world were a people that balances the universal and particular has failed.  Thus a particular person is chosen by God to teach the world to respect the dignity of difference.[6]   Sefer Vayikra is the climax if you like of this ideology.  It describes a particular people, chosen for a particular task, being given particular laws to enable them to achieve their goal.  To enlighten the world we need to find the right balance between the disparate notions of universal and particular.  We need the laws of Vayikra to create a ‘holy’ nation, separate, unique, different. A nation that shares certain values and practises, that holds a unique story and narrative, but that engages in a conversation with those that do not share in that narrative.    Vayikra is the nitty gritty law, the day to day dictates that create a normative system for a people whether living in their land or not.  This is the very reason Spinoza wanted to do away with ceremonial law, embracing only the Divine universal law of the Bible which in his words ‘renders men truly blessed, and teaches them the true life, is universal to all men; nay, we have so intimately deduced it from human nature that it must be esteemed innate, and, as it were, ingrained in the human mind.’ Thus for Spinoza Vayikra would have no significance since as he boldly states: “But with regard to the ceremonial observances which were ordained in the Old Testament for the Hebrews only, and were so adapted to their state that they could for the most part only be observed by the society as a whole and not by each individual, it is evident that they formed no part of the Divine law….. This, then, was the object of the ceremonial law, that men should do nothing of their own free will, but should always act under external authority, and should continually confess by their actions and thoughts that they were not their own masters, but were entirely under the control of others.” [7]

For Spinoza the ceremonial/ritual law serves merely as a way on enforcing human compliance with an authoritative regime.  It focuses on the particularities of the religion that are immune to reason and hence are    incompatible with universalism   If this is the case, a free thinking liberated soul would no longer accept the ceremonial particular dictates, for they have no benefit for the individual.

So as I stood in the Land of Israel remembering the sacrifices of six million of our people and reflecting on the sheer audacity of survival and progress we have made in the last 67 years my reply to Spinoza would be this: You were wrong, not because you were a bad philosopher or because your theories made no sense.  On the contrary you were one of the world’s best thinkers, your philosophy made absolute sense; it was logical, rational, well thought out.  You were a man convinced of the truth, seeking a way of grounding thought in universal objective categories so as to redeem mankind from the claws of religious corruption and inconsistencies.  But Spinoza I’m afraid all the reason and logic in the world cannot account for the survival of the Jews, it is something that lies beyond all certainties of the mind, as Levinas concludes in an essay entitled ‘Exclusive rights’, in his celebrated book ‘Difficult Freedom’:

Only there is this: From time to time strange dusks interrupt the clear light of History , the light splits up into innumerable tiny trembling ambiguous flames the earth is pulled away from under your feet, and events begin to turn, in a whirling infernal vortex, around a conscience that once again no longer feels at Home.  And certainties that make a mockery of confrontation float back up to greet you from forgotten depths.[8]

This week again we will stand united for two minutes listening to another siren. This week it won’t be a siren about the past, about six million of our people who died. It won’t just be about survival so as not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory.  This time it is about the present.  It is about more than just our survival.  It reminds us of our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters who gave their lives for something far greater than just their individual existence. It reminds us that we are a chosen people, not as a privilege but as a responsibility. It reminds us of God’s demand of His people just before receiving the Law to be a ‘nation of Priests and holy people’ – election as a means of upholding a strong moral code of conduct that must sustain both ourselves and those we come into contact with. It tells a story of a nation tittering on the brink of extinction, that raises up like a phoenix displaying its iridescent colours of survival.  It is the siren of a stiff necked people who refuse to just become part of ‘universal mankind’. This time the sound of the siren raises us above the here and now, it reminds us that sometimes reason and logic can only take us so far.  Sometimes it is the ‘nachat moment’, the feeling of the miracle of existence, that cannot be defined, categorised or identified, that reminds us what we are all about.

[1] It is fascinating to note that in 1953 David Ben Gurion the then Prime Minister wrote an article that proposed reneging the writ of cherem against Spinoza.  For the secular Zionist movement, Spinoza was a hero.  He had ‘demythologised’ the land of Israel, transforming it from a land with intrinsic holiness, that must be returned t the people through in a miraculous and metaphysical fashion, to a simple piece of territory that would allow the people to live a peaceful independent undisturbed existence.  In a sense he allowed Zionism to be translated into the emerging conversation and language allied to enlightenment and nationalism.  Whether this was Spinoza original intent or not is improbable but all great thinkers lead to a plethora of interpretations.

[2]A.J. Heschel  Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity p7

[3] The other thinkers i looked at –  David Hartman, Irving Greenberg and my own Professor, Ephraim Meir, each brilliantly and perceptively offers an all encompassing inter faith theology, that whilst acknowledging the unique religious and national identity of our own, engages openly and non judgementally with the ‘Other’.   I admire their courage and  often audacity to solve the problem of retaining particularity with engaging with other universal religions.  I also identify strongly with much of what they propose.  However in light of the events leading up to that moment sitting in the library I felt myself pulled towards their predecessor, and for Hartman and Greenberg their revered teacher Rav Soloveitchik

[4] There is much evidence to suggest that Soloveitchik essay ‘Confrontation’ is written as a polemic against Heschel’s attempt to influence Christian theological positions as regards to Judaism.  At about the same time Heschel’s speech which became an essay later ‘No religion is an island’ was given.

[5] J.B.Soloveitchik: Confrontation p73

[6] The language I use here is taken from Jonathan Sacks book ‘[the dignity of difference’ where he depicts this philosophy of the Bible and Judaism as a Divine project in teaching the world to respect difference through choosing the Jewish people.

[8] E. Levinas: Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism p241

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