To the Editor:
aruch Spinoza’s approach to freedom of religion and a mutual toleration, a shared pluralism, was and still is an unaccomplishable ideal for monotheist religions, or really, religionists. But the notion that such an evolution in liberal Judaism or Christianity is somehow a betrayal of being Jewish reveals a particular supposition: that Jewishness does not change over time, that it has an essence impervious to historical development. Spinoza’s project, as Steven B. Smith describes it, constitutes an array of natural extensions of what is Jewish [“Should the Ban on Spinoza Be Lifted?” June]. So, just as the cosmos ceased, even in Judaism, to be centered on earth, and just as gods stopped mating with humans, so in some branches of Judaism the doctrines of the Orthodox are rejected.
This is not to say that all signs of distinctive identity disappear. The past leaves its fossils, some in the form of ritual and decoration. But the present, too, has a claim on the nature of identity. It is inevitable that some Orthodox Jews consider those who repudiate their edicts not to be Jews. Would a pluralistic Judaism do the same to those who deny its possibility? A question for an essay by Orwell, perhaps, but not Spinoza.
To the Editor:
his is one Christian who has loved Commentary for more than 30 years. I thoroughly enjoyed Stephen B. Smith’s “Should the Ban on Spinoza Be Lifted?” It is a terrific summary of the controversy and its competing arguments. Since the substantive question is really one for my Jewish friends, I will wisely stay out of it. But I do have two comments. First, based on my lay knowledge of Christianity and some familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures, I’m not sure that Spinoza got either Christianity or Judaism right, at least if we are to rely on the Bible as authority.
This brings me to my second comment: I do not believe Mr. Smith has accurately set forth for your readers the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura. He writes:
The fundamental principle of Spinoza’s biblical criticism can be summed up as a variation of the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura—namely, that the Bible should be read by itself alone without the use of historical commentaries or the intervention of priestly or rabbinic authorities. The central principle of this method is that the method of studying Scripture should be no different from the study of any other historical artifact. Thus, the “book of nature” and the “Book of Books” should be subject to the same causal laws and processes. Rather than approaching the Bible as a repository of revealed truth, it must be viewed in the same value-neutral manner as a scientist’s when investigating the natural causes of things.
It is probable that some Protestants have developed such a mode of interpretation of scripture. However, in my judgment, the principle of sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) requires, necessitates, derives from, and is inseparable from the belief that the Bible is a repository of divinely revealed truth—that it is “the Word of God and not the word of man.” As with the most devout Jews searching their scriptures, we Christians who believe that sola Scriptura has meaning believe we are handling something sacred, emanating from God. So much so that even were the Pope to say something contradicting the plain meaning of scripture, as in the Reformation, he would be protested against if necessary.
Additionally, while I know Protestants are often rightly reputed to be occasionally sloppy readers and extreme individualists on these questions, I do not believe the proper Protestant mode of biblical interpretation is, as Mr. Smith states, completely independent of historical commentaries or pastoral illumination. Protestants, after all, were historically devoted to long and weighty sermons and commentaries on biblical texts (and still should be). Moreover, St. Paul makes it abundantly clear in his “Letter to Ephesus” that God has given “gifts” to His church, namely “apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastoring-teachers, to bring the saints into completion.”
As during the Reformation, the issue is, in the event of a conflict, what is the source of authority: the Book itself, the divinely inspired Word of God, or the person or institution? All thought and prayer should be exhausted before even treading on such ground.
An earthly analogy can be found in interpreting the Constitution: the “originalists” versus the “Living Constitution” side. Alas, too many Protestants, Catholics, and Jews subscribe to a kind of living document, allowing them to interpret by inventing, often with great creativity, to suit their own preferences. The sola Scriptura Protestants, in this analogy, are the Originalists.
Richard K. Mason
Steven B. Smith writes:
aruch Halpern shares Spinoza’s aspirations for freedom of religion and mutual toleration. In this we are in complete agreement. Where I disagree is in his conviction that Judaism, like all natural phenomena, is subject to endless “evolution” so that earlier Jewish practices and beliefs appear today like the fossil remains of some extinct species. This progressivist or historicist view is at the core of liberal Judaism.
But what are the limits of this pluralism? At what point would Judaism, subject to endless change, simply cease to be itself? The fact that Mr. Halpern refers to the ideals of toleration and freedom of religion as “an unaccomplished ideal for monotheist religions” suggests that Judaism has such a core, namely, its belief in the one God. For all the changes that that Judaism has experienced over the centuries, we still say, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One.” Is this not the timeless essence of Judaism that remains “impervious to historical development?” I think that even Spinoza would have defended this.
Richard K. Mason takes issue with me or, more precisely, my reading of Spinoza, for regarding the principle of sola Scriptura as undermining the revealed character of the Bible. Mr. Mason is no doubt correct that the theologians and laymen who first advanced this thesis did so with an eye to reclaiming the Bible for everyone and not just a priestly elite. There was a democratic character to this manner of reading. Their intention was to give every believer access to the revealed word of God and the freedom to interpret it according to his or her own “inner light.”
The genius of Spinoza—even if it was a kind of malevolent genius—was to use this principle and turn it against itself. That is, to take an idea intended to confirm Scripture as the word of God and use it to show that Scripture was a human book like any other that should be studied historically as one might any other work of ancient literature. For Spinoza, how could such a work so full of contradictions, so brimming with anachronisms, and so spotty in its historical narrative possibly be the uncorrupted word of God? Spinoza is the profound source of every college class with the title “The Bible as Literature.”