Why Spinoza’s ethics were not given at Sinai


Does Judaism really need animal sacrifices? Would it not be better off without them? After all, the sacrificial cult seems to compromise Judaism. What does a highly ethical religion have to do with the collecting of blood in vessels and the burning of animal limbs on an altar?

No doubt Judaism should be sacrifice-free. Yet it is not.

So, is the offering of sacrifices Jewish, or not? The answer is an unequivocal yes. It is Jewish, but it doesn’t really belong to Judaism.

If Judaism had had the chance, it would have dropped the entire institution of sacrifices in the blink of an eye. Better yet, it would have had no part of it to begin with. How much more beautiful the Torah would be without sacrifices! How wonderful it would be if a good part of Sefer Vayikra were removed from the biblical text; or had never been there in the first place.

So what are these sacrifices doing there?

The Torah doesn’t really represent Judaism. Not in its ideal form. Not in all its glory.

There are actually two kinds of Judaism. There is the Judaism of today and the Judaism of tomorrow. There is realistic Judaism and idyllic Judaism. What fills the gap between them is the world of Halacha. Halacha is the balancing act between the doable and the ideal; between approximate means and absolute ends; between what is and what ought to be. It is a great mediator, and a call for hope.

The Judaism of today is a concession to human weakness, but at the same time a belief in the greatness and strength of man. It calls upon people to do whatever is in their power to climb as high as possible, but warns them not to overstep and fall into the abyss. Judaism asks of humans to be magnificent beings, but never angels – because to be too much is to be less than.

But Judaism also believes that people may one day reach the point where what was impossible might be possible. What ought to be may someday become reality. It is that gap that Halacha tries to fill. Indeed, a mediator.  

Many people believe that concessions to human weaknesses are incompatible with the divine will, which should not be compromised by human shortcomings.

But Judaism thinks otherwise.

Judaism is amused by Baruch Spinoza’s ideal world in which passions and human desires have no place, since they upset the philosopher’s “good life” of amor intellectualis Dei (the intellectual love of God). Spinoza’s philosophy is so great that, with perhaps a few exceptions, it is not viable. He proved the shortcomings of his own philosophy when he became enraged at the political murders of the Dutch influential De Witt brothers in 1672. He told the great philosopher Gottfried Leibniz that he had planned to hang a large poster in the town square, reading ultimi barbarorum (extreme barbarians), but was prevented from doing so by his hostess who locked the door on him, as she feared that Spinoza himself would be murdered! (K.O.Meinsma, Spinoza En Zijn Kring:Historisch kritische Studiën Over Hollandsche Vrijgeesten – in Dutch [Den Haag, 1896] p. 358, fn. 1)

Perhaps Spinoza’s Ethics is the ideal, but how immature to believe that it is attainable. How different his Ethics would have been had Spinoza married, fathered children, and understood the limitations of daily life.

Halacha is pragmatic. It has no patience for Spinoza’s Ethics and no illusions about human beings. Indeed, it expects people to extend themselves to the limit, but it acknowledges the long and difficult road between the is and the ought-to-be. And it understands all too well that the ought-to-be may never be reached in a person’s lifetime.  

Judaism teaches that the Divine limits itself out of respect for the human being. It was God Who created this imperfect person. So He could not have given the Ethics of Spinoza at Sinai; only Divine, “imperfect” laws that deal with the here-and-now and offer just a taste of the ought-to-be. Judaism teaches that if the perfect is unattainable, one should at least try to reach the possible; the manageable; that which can be achieved. If we can’t do it all, let us attempt to make some improvement. If you must wage war, do it as ethically as possible. If universal vegetarianism is inconceivable, try to treat animals more humanely and slaughter them painlessly. That is doable Judaism.

True, this is not the ideal—indeed, the Torah is sometimes an embarrassment—but it’s all that God could command at Sinai. It’s not the ought-to-be Judaism, but it’s a better-than-nothing Judaism.

The great art is to make the doable Judaism, with all of its problems, as ethical as possible; and instead of despairing about its shortcomings, to live it as joyfully as we can. As Spinoza has taught us, “Joy is man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection”(Ethics, 3, definitions 2 & 3). Oh, Baruch, did you forget your own insights?

Sacrifices are not part of the ought-to-be Judaism. They are far removed from the Judaism that Spinoza dreamed of. But they are a realistic representation of the doable with an eye toward the ought-to-be.

In one of his most daring statements, Maimonides maintains that sacrifices are a compromise to human weakness. The ancient world of idol worship was deeply committed to animal sacrifices. It was so ingrained in the way of life of the Jews’ ancestors that it was “impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other,” and “the nature of man will not allow him to suddenly discontinue everything to which he is accustomed” (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32). Therefore, God permitted the Jews to continue the sacrificial cult, but only for “His service,” and with many restrictions, the ultimate goal being that with time the Jews would be weaned from this trend of worship; from the is to the ought-to-be.

By making this and similar statements, Maimonides no doubt laid the foundations for Spinoza’s dream of an ultimate system of ethics, just as he planted the seeds of Spinoza’s pantheism. But Maimonides realized that the time had not yet come; that it was still a long road from the reality to the dream.

In contradiction to his statements in the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides, in his famous Mishneh Torah, speaks about the need for sacrifices even in the future Temple (Hilchot Melachim, 11:1). I believe he thus expresses his doubt that the ought-to-be Judaism will ever become a reality in this world.

Maimonides did not live in the Dutch town of Rijnsburg, in an iron tower far removed from the real world, as did Spinoza. Maimonides lived in a down-to-earth world full of human strife, problems and pain. He was a renowned halachist, and he knew that the halachic system is one that instructs man to keep both feet on the ground while simultaneously striving for what is realistically possible.

Still, perhaps the institution of sacrifice is grounded in deep symbolism, the meaning and urgency of which escapes our modern mentality. The fact that idol worshipers made use of it in their abominable rituals doesn’t mean that it can’t be of great spiritual value when practiced on a much higher plane, something deeply ingrained in a part of the human psyche to which modern man no longer has access. And yet, it doesn’t contradict the fact that it ought to be different, so that even the higher dimensions of sacrifices become irrelevant. When Judaism and Spinoza’s Ethics will one day prevail, there will indeed be no need for sacrifices.

But what happened in the meantime? The Temple was destroyed and sacrificial service came to an end. Is this a step forward, or backward? When religious Jews to this day pray for the reinstatement of sacrifices, are they asking to return to the road between the is and the ought-to-be; between the dream and its realization? Or, are they praying to reinstate sacrifices as a middle stage, only to eventually get rid of them forever?

We need to ask ourselves a pertinent question: Is our aversion to sacrifices the result of our supreme spiritual sophistication, which caused us to leave the world of sacrifices behind us? Or, have we sunk so low that we aren’t even able to reach the level of idol worshipers who, however primitive we believe them to have been, possessed a higher spiritual level than some of us who call ourselves monotheists?

This question is of great urgency in a modern world that slaughtered six million Jews and continues to slaughter millions of other people. Have we surpassed the state of is and are we on our way to the ought-to-be Judaism? Or, are we on the brink of a Judaism that is not even at the stage of is but rather in a state of regression, while we convince ourselves that it is in a state of progression? (*)

Indeed, a haunting question; one that we cannot escape.

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