WHAT WOULD SPINOZA DO?
In Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Brought Us Modernity, author Rebecca Newberger Goldstein investigates the religious and historical context in which 17th century rationalist Baruch Spinoza formed his ideas. Spinoza was born into a Portuguese community in Amsterdam, a descendant of refugees of the Inquisition. The Dutch tolerated the Jews as long as they kept to themselves. Those whose families had converted to Christianity in Spain or Portugal struggled to reclaim their Judaism, much of which had been forgotten or altered under Christian oppression. Many still had extended family at risk in Portugal. Goldstein reasonably suggests the combination of persecution and community tension propelled Spinoza toward a philosophy free of an identity imposed at birth.
Unlike the Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern Europe), who looked for revelations of God in Torah law, the kabbalists (Jews under Muslim rule during “the Golden Age of Spain”) were more inclined to speculate about the relationship between the Eternal and the temporal. Therefore, she concludes, it is no accident that the mysteries with which the kabbalists were concerned – why the universe exists, and why there is suffering – were also issues of great concern to Spinoza. He argued humanity is only free when it abandons arbitrarily acquired definitions of self for universal truths. For him, these truths were discoverable through the rigorous application of logic. He equated God with nature. He believed the universe created itself. Superstition (his word for religion) makes us believe we are more cosmically significant than we are, and we hold to it in order to ward off our fear of mortality. He held that the elements of the world exist because logically, they must. Mathematical proofs uphold the universe – for him, this is the mind of God. Salvation occurs when we reject external definitions, identify with this Intelligence, and thus achieve a broad view that leads to recognition of immortality within the whole.
For these views he was excommunicated at the age of 23, but his Christian friends still considered him to be a Jew, which comes as no great surprise to any of us. Goldstein reinforces the Hotel California Theory of Jewish Identity: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” What does it mean to be Jewish? Is it possible to stop being Jewish, even if one converts to another faith? She asks if a struggle with Jewish identity is itself an indicator of Jewishness. With these questions, Goldstein implies a comparison of the Sephardic flight from the Inquisition to the state of Judaism today in the wake of the Holocaust, particularly within the dominant Ashkenazic community of the United States. Perhaps this offers some insight regarding the gray region in which we descendants of intermarriage often find ourselves precariously balanced.
In Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, nineteen half-Jewish writers share the stories of their families and their personal journeys through faith and identity. Those of patrilineal descent describe encounters with Jews who tell them bluntly, “You’re not Jewish.” While only a few of the writers in this collection are of matrilineal descent, they struggle with similar questions, issues, and experiences. Some were raised as Jews, others as Christian, some as both, and some as neither. None of them is indifferent to being the child of a Jew. As the editor, Laurel Snyder, writes:
“….no matter how different your experience has been from every other half-Jew, you experienced half. Even if your parents chose to deal with their interfaith marriage by avoiding the topic of religion altogether. Even if you grew up in a kosher home. Even if one of your parents died when you were very young. Maybe you felt half empty, and maybe you felt half full. Maybe you felt an equal pull and tug from each half and so, like me, you sometimes felt full but split. Maybe, sadly, you got lost somewhere in the divides between your halves. Or inside cold stares from the Rachels. Maybe you embraced it all. Maybe all of these things were true at some moment, because half doesn’t necessarily mean you were always wounded or always unhappy. It doesn’t mean you have terrible issues to face. It only means that somewhere along the line, you had to figure things out for yourself. Even if you never focused on matters of faith in any conscious way….
The history of the Jews is, whether we like it or not, a history of intermarriage and assimilation, a tradition of blending cultures and asking questions. The great strength of Judaism is that it does not fear, with any dogma or text, difficult conversations. The Jewish world has been built on a foundation of argumentation, dialogue, paradox. And so I trust the Jewish community to take the many voices in this book – even when those voices are hard to hear or understand – and to listen, search for a point of entry.”
These essays are lush, moving, nuanced, and tell stories that seem remarkably familiar from my perspective. As others have noted, we halfies tend to feel isolated – from other Jews, from Christians, or the faith or culture of the “other” parent – and, worst of all, because we theoretically don’t exist – from each other.
When halfies who are established in a Jewish community hide, deny, or downplay their “other” half, that suggests to me a problem with the level of acceptance offered to us by the Jewish community. Why are we so threatening? What do we bring into the mix that can’t be allowed? I’ve asked this question of a number of people; it’s one of my favorite survey questions. Many halfies are baffled by the way we are received, questioned, evaluated, assessed, scrutinized, pigeonholed, and directed.
In my dream world, I envision a Judaism that welcomes everyone, shares with everyone, and opens its doors to anyone who chooses to identify with the Jewish people, regardless of history, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, line of descent, or conversion status. What I’m looking for is a spiritual way of life. The ethical practices are what’s important – the ritual stuff can be helpful in cultivating a state of mind, but I believe God cares more about how we treat each other. We all belong.
“The Three Interfaith Amigos,” perhaps best known for their radio program on NPR, have written a stunning exploration of the Abrahamic faiths in Getting to the Heart of Interfaith: The Eye-Opening, Hope-Filled Friendship of a Pastor, a Rabbi, and a Sheikh (Don Mackenzie, Ted Falcon, and Jamal Rahman.) They attempt to guide the reader down the dangerous rapids of interfaith dialogue, suggesting healing occurs when we focus on what unites rather than on what divides us. Constructive communication is possible when we let go of preconceptions and defensive posturing. We can remain secure in our own beliefs, while opening ourselves to new ideas and perspectives. As we learn to listen more deeply, we discover and are enriched by the unique insights of each tradition. The Amigos share the development of their friendship to demonstrate how they bridged their differences. Each recounts his personal religious journey. Each confides what he loves and objects to in his own faith. Each counters common misconceptions. These revealing stories capture the essence of spirituality – the wellspring of life from which humanity emerges, the face of God reflected in every person.
The Amigos take for granted that the reader doesn’t need to abandon her respective tradition. Here arises an all-too-familiar dilemma: boundaries. When we discover the universal, why keep the specific? If the goal is to move our religious brethren beyond mutual antagonism, why not learn from and embrace every spiritual tradition? If all paths lead to the same God, which road should we take? Why be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu? What makes a specific religion preferable to generalized spirituality? The answers to these questions may simply be a matter of roots. Does this mean no one religion carries greater cosmic significance than another? Yes, but so what? Most of us don’t choose a religious or spiritual path arbitrarily. We choose what works, what speaks to us personally and inspires us. Isn’t that the point?