How I Became A Spinozist
(or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The One Infinite Substance Possessing Two Known Attributes And An Infinity Of Transformations)
At the core of Judaism is the idea of a God who cares. Although the Hebrew Bible is often misunderstood and caricatured these days as telling of a “wrathful God” through a funhouse mirror version of fundamentalism which cherry-picks stories and verses from the 1200 page anthology of ancient Jewish writings, a more accurate understanding is available. The God of the Torah creates out of delight, wishing to give to His creations. He cares so passionately about all of them, human and beast, that he is intimately involves with their wellbeing. He has a keen sense of tenderness and of justice, and is particularly concerned for the stranger, the refugee, the widow, the orphan. “To care for the needy, is not that to know me?”, he says in the book of Jeremiah.
That very care is what makes him angry, and though the Torah generally depicts his anger as just and as mollifiable through repentance, it also depicts him as an enraged (and cuckolded) lover, an angry father, and an avenging warrior. The Torah has neither a consistent voice nor a consistent perspective, but that’s the general outline. Behind these very masculine (and perhaps toxic) images of anger and vengeance, lies a being believed to passionately care about his creation and his creatures.
The Talmud amplifies and refines this picture, emphasizing God’s compassion, justice, and humility. Later Jewish tradition makes God both more abstract and more loving, separating him more and more from emotions like anger and vengeance, instead depicting “punishment” more as simple “consequence”. God may be intimately involved with our lives, but by the time of the 18th century Hasidic movement, any suffering that God sends us is purely educational, not punitive.
For many of us this poses problems. Not because we necessarily find fault with the Jewish tradition and the vision of its narratives (though many do of course) but because the picture in the Torah just does not seem to match our experience of the world.
I have always struggled with this. If I start with the claims of Jewish tradition and work my way out to the world, then I am faced with trying to fit what I find there together with the vision of a loving God in control of things, working out a grand master plan. That’s a challenge, but with considerable intellectual effort, guidance from some truly ingenious Jewish philosophers, and, I must confess, some selective attention, I have been able to pull it off in the past for stretches of times.
In the back of my mind for years, however, surfacing like a Japanese daruma doll, were the brilliant arguments of the “prince of philosophers” (as Gilles Deleusze called him), the Jewish heretic, Spinoza. Spinoza was a Dutch Sephardic Jew who was excommunicated from the Jewish community in the 16th century for his views, after which he lived and wrote as a man without a religion, a rare thing at that time. His two major works would come to be burned and banned, and the description “Spinozist” would be as damning an insult as “communist” in 20th century America (and arguably for some of the same reasons, laying in a systematic challenge to the status quo).
An underground sensation, Spinoza would exert an influence on the growth of democratic, secular, philosophical and scientific thought, and become beloved to such luminaries as Holderlin, Heine, Goethe, Neitzche, and Albert Einstein. He continues to be popular today among ethicists, radical political theorists, deep ecologists, and even some philosophers.
To be blunt, Spinoza did not believe that God cared. He was not an atheist (as he insisted passionately) but his vision of God differed radically from that of the three Abrahamic religions. To use modern language and stay away from the latin scholasticisms he used, Spinoza believed that God was an unlimited Reality, a Being whose intelligent structure endlessly unfolded in the universe we know. For Spinoza, in one interpretation, the universe is one giant mind, since all that exists possesses both extension in space-time and consciousness (res and cogitas). The universe is not a person, and does not will one thing over another, but rather wills all that occurs, continually, out of its own being. God does not create for any reason, God simply creates whatever is possible to create according to the laws of God’s own being. All things are “modes”, or lawful transformations, of God’s being, which applies to parakeets, supernovas, me and you and Donald Trump.
There is a lot more to Spinoza’s philosophy (like his radical and brilliant ideas about human freedom, mind-body monism, the structure of human emotions, and the way to happiness), but further discussion would take us too far afield. What I found amazing about Spinoza’s God was it allowed me to honour two of my intuitions about life: one, that it was too brilliantly structured to arise randomly out of blind, materialistic forces, and two, that it seems both relentlessly lawful and more concerned with sheer creativity than the specific wellbeing of any living creatures.
I wrote above about what happened if I started at the Jewish God and worked my way out to the world. What happens, though, if I work in the opposite direction, from the world towards God? What happens is that I came out with a vision very similar to that of Spinoza’s. Cause and effect seem more pervasive in our world than justice. No one intervenes to stop a gun from accidentally going off in the hands of a toddler and killing someone in his family, as happens all too frequently in the US. No one stops the miiltia man from picking a baby out of the shaking hands of its mother, no one catches the infant mid-air as it is flung into a fire before her eyes (as a fleeing Rohingya refugee recently described to a NY Times reporter).
Yet the miracle of the structure of a human eye, or a butterfly wing, or the way our sense of time arises out of consistent ratios between cyclical motions like the orbits of planets or the oscillations of light, rightly make us balk before declaring everything random, makes us hesitate before replacing a sense of awe and wonder with one of simple bemusement or surprise as befitting such things arising out of utter chance.
Spinoza’s God possesses awareness, being, intelligent structure and lawfulness, and everything unfolds forever out of, and within, it’s immensely powerful heart. Spinoza’s God has more in common with that of the Neo-Platonists, or the most radical interpretations of Kabbalah, but Spinoza’s God does not care.
It is much easier to accept this God who does not care then to twist oneself into pretzels trying to harmonize a vision of God’s care with the horrors of the world and the brutalities of human fate. Einstein, when questioned by a Rabbi, said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
Spinoza’s vision of “God, or nature” (deus sive natura) allows us to see the universe as an intelligent unity, and even to love it in it’s miraculous beauty and interconnectedness — if we can transcend our human desire that it work for our benefit.