Spinoza

One of the most significant figures in the history of philosophy, Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community.

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It has often been noted that, in view of Christian opposition to Spinoza's opinions, the Jewish community had little option in dissoci­ating itself from Spinoza's "heresies." After he had been placed under the ban, Spinoza settled in various other Dutch cities, ending his days in The Hague where he lived an independent life earning his living by polishing lenses.

Spinoza on the Bible

Spinoza, in his Tractatus Theologico‑politicus, published in Hamburg in 1670, relies on Abraham IbnEzra's cryptic remarks regarding passages in the Pentateuch that must have been added after Moses, to put forward his view that Pentateuch was not compiled by Moses but [the prophet] Ezra…The belief that Moses wrote the Pentateuch at the "dictation" of God was shared by Christians as well as Jews in the seventeenth century. Small wonder, then, that Spinoza's views were seen at that time as rank heresy of the greatest danger to faith.

Biblical criticism in the nineteenth century relied on Spinoza to develop the whole subject further. Many Jews today accept general principles of biblical criticism and reinterpret their faith accordingly, so that for them, Spinoza's view that Ezra is the true author of the Pentateuch is unacceptable on scholarly grounds, but the question of heresy does not enter into the picture.

Spinoza on God

It is quite otherwise with Spinoza's ideas about God as developed in his Ethics, published posthumously. Here Spinoza's views, which, it must be admitted, are difficult fully to comprehend, seem to suggest that there is no God as the Supreme Being, only as a philo­sophical idea, God corresponding to the uni­verse in totality. Spinoza's tight and carefully worked‑out scheme is deterministic with no apparent room for the doctrine of free will and, for him, there is no longer any need for Jews to remain a separate people who worship God in a special way.

For Spinoza, God did not create nature but is nature, and neither intellect nor will can be ascribed to God. This, at least, is the usual understanding of Spinoza's pan­theism, although a few scholars have inter­preted his thought as rather more in accordance with traditional theism. In his lifetime Spinoza was accused of being an atheist. In a letter to Jacob Ostens (1625‑78), Lambert Van Velthuysen (1622‑85) openly states that in his view Spinoza's opinions are nothing more than a disguised form of atheism:

thinkers & thought quizHe [Spinoza] acknowledges God and con­fesses Him to be the maker and founder of the universe. But he declares, that the form, appear­ance, and order of the world are evidently as necessary as the Nature of God, and the eternal truths, which he holds are established apart from the decision of God. Therefore he also expressly declares that all things come to pass by invincible necessity and inevitable fate ... He does this in accordance with his principles. For what room can there be for a last judgement? Or what expectation of reward or of punish­ment, when all things are declared to emanate from God with inevitable necessity, or rather, when he declares that this whole universe is God? For I fear that our author is not very far removed from this opinion; at least there is not much difference between declaring that all things emanate necessarily from the nature of God and that the Universe Itself is God ... I think, therefore, that I have not strayed far from the truth, or done any injury to the author, if I denounce him as teaching pure Atheism with hidden and disguised arguments.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.