woensdag 23 december 2015

The Ellips Revisited

Of all of them it was great that they were there last week during the debate in De Rode Hoed on whether the ban on Spinoza should be lifted. The representatives of the Jewish Orthodoxy were brave in participating, and it was nice to have the two atheistic philosophers attending. But for me the greatest added value was in the renowned historians who devoted their attention to such a thorny and complex issue as the ban which the Board of the Portuguese Jewish community in 1656 issued on Baruch Spinoza.

The issue is thorny because Spinoza nowadays is recognized worldwide as one of the most brilliant philosophers of all time, while a Jewish community like the Amsterdam Portuguese Jews also would like to appear a bit brainy. Then it does not help that you threw out such a brilliant member.

Simultaneously, the issue is complicated because even brilliant ideas are not necessarily harmless. An important prerequisite for a stable status quo (social, religious, political) is that there is not too much overthrown by thinking, because that could disrupt society.

Spinoza’s philosophy was very explosive indeed and the historians gathered in De Rode Hoed had a keen eye for the necessity which the Portuguese community felt at the time to contain the dangers of that thinking. If only to avoid irritating the Dutch Republic that tolerated the Jews.

By weighing all these factors, the outstanding historians managed to achieve a balanced and mild assessment of the different players in this drama: the Portuguese Jewish community, Spinoza, and later generations who worried and worry about the ban.

But does the relativist, understanding attitude of these historians mean that the question actually remains unsolved in our stomach? The historian Jonathan Israel made it clear that that does not have to be the case: you can very well, after sketching the intricacies of the complex big picture, then draw a few bright lines. He did himself as follows.

He noted that the most often proposed solution to the problem of the ban on Spinoza is: lifting the ban. Thereby there is discussion about who might do that. Would only the Portuguese Jewish Community be authorized because it has pronounced the curse, or is it something of the whole Jewish community?

Jonathan Israel then chose not to go into that question but to ask another: Who cán, from the perspective of mental fitness, lift the ban? If you ask that question it becomes, Israel says, quite clear that Orthodoxy, whether Sephardic or Ashkenazi, is not able to do so. In substance, Spinoza’s thought is after all, by his rejection of a personal God and supernatural revelations, still too subversive and threatening to them.

At the same time it is, according to Israel, also perfectly clear that the Liberal Jewish movement is up to the task. Indeed, it should take up the task (at least in substance, for in a strictly legal sense that is not possible) because the movement – unlike Orthodoxy – explicitly lets itself partly be inspired by the value system of the Western Enlightenment. And then you can not get around Spinoza, with his keen advocacy of democracy, tolerance and freedom.

I think Israel is right. For indeed, the Liberal Jew lives in two worlds, and has two focal points, which is sometimes expressed as ‘the ellipse’. These foci are Jewish tradition on the one side and the Enlightenment on the other.

Living with two focal points is certainly not easier than with one focal point, but in Israel’s and my own vision it is more interesting than if you keep at one focus. This requires a strong self-awareness, and I am glad that liberal-minded Jews in the Netherlands received a substantial helping hand from an English top-historian.

Also see Levinas and Spinoza