The Study of Spinoza

At the beginning of April, an International Spinoza Institute was established in Israel in cooperation with the Hebrew University and Mishkenot Sha’ananim. It has attracted the sponsorship of Mayor Teddy Kollek and Professor Ephraim Katzir as well as many Israeli intellectuals and academics.

The embryonic Institute has planned a series of hi-annual conferences up to the year 2,000. The first, which launched the Institute, was entitled “Ethica 1: God and Nature—Spinoza’s Metaphysics”. “Ethica 3” (1991) examines Spinoza as a psychologist and is followed by a conference on “Reason and the ‘free man’ ” (1993). The conference in 1997 looks at Spinoza as a social and political thinker.

Baruch Spinoza is, of course, regarded by many as the first “secular” Jew. The act of rabbinical expulsion in 1656 stated that “receiving every day more information about the abominable heresies practised and taught by him, and about the monstrous acts committed by him… the said Spinoza should be excommunicated and cut off from the Nation of Israel”. The herem remains to this day, despite demands over the years for its repeal by many eminent Jews, including David Ben-Gurion.

Spinoza developed into a critic of historical religion in both its Jewish and Christian forms. He created a philosophy of reason, stressing rational knowledge, political tolerance, free thought and the separation of church and state. Spinoza also defended the right of religious and  ideological plurality and this theme is very much an important concern in Israel today.

The violent clashes between the secular and orthodox in Israel in recent times have undoubtedly been a catalyst in the formation of the Institute which defines its central task as the attempt to bridge “the stormy sea that now separates the orthodox from the non-orthodox”. The Institute comments further that “the ‘status quo’ that was laid down when the state was established determined the extent to which religious law must be adhered to and which parts of it could be acceptably overlooked. Its meaning today has become vague and obsolete, as the gap between the secular and the religious widens.”

At the end of April, a symposium in Hebrew on “Jewish Pluralism and Tolerance” was held, with the participation of many public figures. Its themes included a discussion on “non-orthodox religious Judaism” and “can a Jewish State be secular?”. In addition, a permanent forum is meeting monthly to address such questions as “can Jews afford to be intolerant?”

Clearly, a lot of thought and forward-planning has gone into the creation of the Spinoza Institute. It will certainly bring the works and philosophy of Baruch Spinoza to a less-than-knowledgeable Israeli public. But whether it can even slow down the increasing polarization between orthodox and secular Jews unfortunately remains an open question.

Jewish Quarterly Summer 1987

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