Books: Reimagining the future of the Jewish People

After the destruction of the Second Temple two millennia ago, a group of scholars came together to discuss the nature of Judaism in a post-Temple world.

Their discussions, which make up the Talmud, set forth a path for the future of Judaism to come.

“Now, once again, a group of gifted scholars gather to reinterpret the Jewish project, to reassert its meaning, re-envision its institutions and reimagine its future,” asserts the introduction of the new book: “Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century: Human Responsibility, the Presence of God and the Future of the Covenant,” edited by Valley Beth Shalom’s (VBS) Rabbi Edward Feinstein (Jewish Lights Publishing, $24.99).

The conversation of reimagining the Jewish people took place in March 2005 at VBS in Encino on the occasion of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis’ 80th birthday, when five scholars gathered “to grapple with the deepest issues that face the Jewish people as we face the new century,” Feinstein wrote.

The book presents the best of the four days of lectures and dialogues by the Reform Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; two Modern Orthodox rabbis — professor David Hartman, founder and director of the Shalom Hartman Institute of Religion in Jerusalem; and Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, and two Conservative rabbis — Schulweis and Harold Kushner, author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

These learned rabbis together try to answer the question “How Have You Changed — How Have We changed?” using Jewish sources, personal anecdotes and Jewish history to discuss the next steps for the Jewish people.

If it’s true that Judaism had to be rethought after the destruction of the Second Temple so long ago, then it’s equally true that this new millennium — especially after the 20th century — demands a rethinking of the meaning of Judaism. Who is God? What is our relationship to God? How can we believe in the God after the Holocaust? What is the role of the Jewish people? How much should the Jewish people be engaged in the outside world?

These sometimes personal, sometimes lofty, sometimes didactic essays talk about subjects like globalization, pluralism, the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel, the Jewish conscience and responsibilities and, of course, God.

While there have been many, many books written about Jewish thought and Jewish life (especially by those present in the book), it is rare to find such great thinkers coming together and, more importantly, focused forward, rather than on the past.

“While history is irreversible, we have the power to decide what of our past belongs in our future,” Schulweis writes in “Globalism and the Jewish Conscience.” As founder of the Jewish World Watch, a response to genocide in the Sudan, the Jews’ past means also taking responsibility for what happens to the rest of the world, not just to ourselves.

“We gave the world conscience,” he writes, and that’s why we cannot close the newspaper, close our eyes, close our ears. With globalization comes global responsibility, a global God and a global conscience because “at stake is humanity.”

For Ellenson, pluralism is the key to dealing with the modern world.

“There is something of value in virtually every sector of the Jewish world — no group has the monopoly on truth,” he writes. “If a religion does not instruct you to embrace others, then it has to be, by definition, of limited or no utility.” Like Schulweis, he says the challenge of Judaism is action: “How do we treat our own people, and how do we treat others?”

Kushner provides a historical perspective on what has happened to Judaism in the last century. He wants to see assimilation “as a doorway into the Jewish community, not as a doorway out.”

The two Modern Orthodox rabbis have more nuanced approaches to modernity — which, Greenberg writes, brought on the Holocaust, which, he believes, taught Jews they cannot wait for God to save them.

“Taking power is the fundamental transformation of our religion now,” he writes. “God’s own message is that you have to take responsibility.”

Although all the rabbis discuss our relationship with God, in “A Covenant of Love,” Hartman investigates the changing relationship with God, from Abraham and the sacrifice, to his bargaining with God for Sodom to the talmudic era and Spinoza, till today. He sees the Jewish people in a partnership with God.

“God doesn’t bring about anything,” he writes. “What you seek from God now is not some teaching or some sort of liberation. What you seek from God is not that God will solve any problems, but that God should be with you.”

The essays, although sometimes erudite, counter many assumptions about Judaism, assumptions learned in childhood or study or more traditional sources — such as about a demanding, cruel God. The book’s discussions of the role of denominations, speaking to the non-Jewish community, the role of the synagogue and the rabbi all are rich catalysts for further thought.

Feinstein sums it all up in a sentence that gets to both the essence of the Jewish character, and the challenge facing the Jewish people: “We have this hope, a dream of a perfect world. But our hope is backed up by our commitment and our lives and our religions and our community and our desire to make it a reality.”

The Spin on Spinoza — Rebel or Traitor?

“Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity” by Rebecca Goldstein (Schoken, $19.95).

In high school, I read and reread two fluent, erudite surveys of philosophy until the pages of the books fell to pieces. By the time the glue bindings cracked on Will Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy” and Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy,” I knew one thing for sure — they both loved Baruch Spinoza.

For Durant, Spinoza was as close as philosophy could come to sainthood — a life of austerity, rationality, independence, principle, rarefied thought. For Russell, the draw was not only Spinoza’s devotion to reason, but his willingness to devote himself fully to the world of thought. For a philosopher to be excommunicated gave him intellectual street cred, a kind of cognitive cache. Spinoza was the real deal.

But I also grew up knowing what Rebecca Goldstein tells us again and again in her about-to-be-released speculative, digressive, charming and lucid book, “Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity”: Traditional Judaism feared and distrusted this child of the enlightenment. Although prominent Jewish thinkers, from Moses Mendelssohn to Solomon Maimon to modern Zionists, have claimed him as their own, every deliberation on Spinoza wonders — is he a Jewish thinker? Surely he does not believe in the chosenness of the Jews or the Divine authorship of Torah or the mandates of halachah — does he even believe in God?

The prosecution has a formidable team. Although Goldstein does not speak very much about the reaction of Jewish scholars to their illustrious precursor, we recall that the great historian Heinrich Graetz, while insisting that Spinoza was one of the greatest thinkers of his time, also described Spinoza’s relation to Judaism as that of a “murderer to his mother.” Hermann Cohen accused Spinoza of “incomprehensible treason” and, needless to say, in more traditional circles Benedict Spinoza in Jewish history is seen with the same sympathy as Benedict Arnold in American history.

Who was this lovable genius and hideous traitor? Spinoza was born in 1632, one of five children. His mother died in his seventh year. He saw around him the multiple traumas that afflicted the Jewish community. Despite the relative tolerance of Amsterdam in that age (their libraries were famous throughout Europe for their extensive, uncensored holdings), there were persecutions of dissidents, excommunications in the Jewish community, vigilance and fear. The historical tidal wave of the Inquisition continued to ripple through Europe. Many Jews were at some stage of hiding: Jews who converted to Christianity and practiced Judaism in secret; Jews who remained sincere Christians but had close Jewish family; Jews converted and then returned to Judaism, weighed down by guilt. These and a thousand other permutations made identity, fidelity and individual contingency very fraught questions. One of the joys of Goldstein’s book is to watch her briefly trace the historical patterns of the Inquisition — work done so extensively in Yirmiyahu Yovel’s admirable two volumes (“Spinoza and Other Heretics”) — and relate it to Spinoza’s character and story.

Here is the “betrayal” of the title. For Spinoza was the most thoroughgoing depersonalizer in the history of philosophy. In the 20th century, existentialism sought to return philosophy to the “I.” It was about my individual, free, personal orientation to existence and my acceptance of the reality of death. Spinoza is the anti-existentialist. The only universal quality that can explain the world is reason. You don’t know my experience, but we can share a syllogism. It is emphatically not about me; a wise man, he wrote, thinks of nothing less often than death.

Spinoza was a monist, believing all things are composed of the same substance and all must have come to be the way they are. There is no room for individual variation, except as a manifestation of the same substance, the whole of which Spinoza called “god.” The way to grasp the substance, and to transcend the false individuality that traps us is through reason. Logic, reason, thought are the tools of salvation and of goodness. To relate Spinoza’s philosophy to the death of his mother or the status of the Jews was precisely to contradict his reigning insight — it is all impersonal and about the austere, diamond-hard, cold and eternal realm of logic. The logical web fastens the universe, and it is our task to understand it better to expand our minds. The intellectual love of God, to know all through logic, is the highest human goal.

One friend of Spinoza’s, quoted by biographer Stephen Nadler, said he never saw the philosopher sad or merry. We might call that a “flattened affect,” but Spinoza would call it philosophical detachment and calm.

In Spinoza’s world, there is no reward and punishment, immortality or freedom; there is the striving to use the mind to achieve union with nature, which is identical with God. We cannot change things, because everything is as it must be: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, condemn or scorn human actions, but to understand.”

Goldstein, who grew up in an Orthodox girls school and went on to write novels and become a professor of philosophy, traces many threads of influence on Spinoza: his excommunication, his shattered family life, the way Spinoza used kabbalistic questions in his philosophy, his mathematical aspirations (the “ethics” is laid out like a Euclidean geometry.) She also powerfully investigates the Jewish upbringing that not only led him to a book on the composition of the Bible, but, at the end of his life, to compose a Hebrew grammar.

Spinoza was convinced the Torah was the product of human hands. Although he did not invent biblical criticism, he was an early exponent of it. He was also an early supporter of the “this-worldly return” of the Jewish people to Israel.

Spinoza spent most of his adult life grinding lenses in his apartment. He had friends and acquaintances who testified to the gentleness of his character; he turned down academic offers and offers of stipends. Some have seen him as the first truly secular man — he was excommunicated from the Jewish tradition and never became a Christian. But he could not reliably be called secular when he believed so deeply in a god — albeit a God very different from the one he had known in youth. “God-intoxicated” the poet Novalis called him, and he was — drunk with the Divine.

Spinoza died when he was 44 years old, with the herem — excommunication — still in effect. So can this gentle, heretical philosopher be legitimately included in Jewish history? In modern times, when our sense of Jewishness is broadened, it may be interesting to note which major Jewish figure called for repeal of Spinoza’s herem — David Ben Gurion.

David Wolpe is rabbi at Sinai Temple in Westwood.