One of the reasons for the ban though appears to be the "radical" and "unorthodox" content of Spinoza's writings, including the Theological-Political Treatise, which according to Steven Nadler, Professor of Jewish Studies and Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was "vilified by critics as 'a book forged in hell' by the devil himself." Nadler explains, "Spinoza's God does not formulate plans, issue commands, have expectations or make judgments. Neither does Spinoza's God possess anything like moral character."
God is simply Nature. There is no force or Force with a capital F beyond nature, and it is not possible to turn to God to pray, worship or turn for comfort. Spinoza challenges superstitious beliefs and behaviors, miracles, the immortality of the soul, and denies the Divine origin of the Hebrew Bible. Nadler adds, "If [the Bible] is at all a 'pious' and 'divine' document, it is not because of its origin or the words on the page, but only because its narrative is especially morally edifying and effective in inspiring readers to acts of justice and charity--to practice the 'true religion.'"
The extent of Spinoza's writings and philosophies is beyond the scope of this evening's presentation, but nonetheless, raises interesting questions for us as we prepare to begin again our reading of the Torah, with the book of Genesis. In the opening chapters of the Torah, we are treated to a narrative explaining God's creation of the earth out of nothingness, God's creation of woman from the rib of man, and a startling scene with a talking serpent, who appears busy with the task of bringing about the downfall of this newly created man and woman from the Garden of Eden. From our earliest years in religious school, we are led to believe that God created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh (we even sing this every week in V'shamru), yet it's somewhat clear, even in our religious school, that by age 11 or 12, when our children become conceptual thinkers in their own right, that the concept and meaning of "a story" changes drastically.
What does it mean if we don't believe in these stories anymore, if we challenge their authority, if we question and dispute them, if we doubt that these events ever happened in the first place, if the material contained in our Torah is nothing more than our people's myth and pre-history? Are we like Spinoza? Are our students and we destined for excommunication? Would that be such a bad thing?
That a story may not be historically true and may just be a story is often seen to undermine the foundation of faith that our students and we once had in the validity of the Bible. That a story may have inaccuracies or represent a different worldview from a different time can be challenging, unsettling, and in the words of one of my rabbinical school teachers, "destabilizing." Many of us, well beyond the age of 11 or 12, turn to faith, religion, prayer, community and God to feel stabilized, to feel a sense of security, comfort, purpose, challenge or impetus to improve upon the moral and ethical fabric of our world. It can be downright upsetting, at any age mind you, when the texts that we read, may not be "literally true."
But how do we reconcile a world being created in six days when we have a deep understanding of science and evolution and do not wish to disavow such teachings? How do we reconcile the presence of talking serpents? Rabbi Edward Feinstein has written:
It might be interesting to find out if the stories happened the way the Bible says they did. But the truth of a story is not in what happened a long time ago in a place far away. A story's truth is what it tells us about our lives right now. Can we find ourselves in the story? Did a snake really convince Eve to eat the forbidden fruit? Personally, I haven't met many talking snakes. But I do know what it's like to be tempted to do something that I know is wrong. I know what that voice sounds like--and how hard it is to resist! What do you do when you hear that voice?
Beyond a response to seeming temptation, a plethora of other questions are raised by the opening text of Genesis. What does it mean to have a structure for creation, busy-ness, and also rest? What does Torah teach us about the value and importance of resting? What does it mean that we are created in the image of God? What does it mean that God looks at the world and comments, "this is good," and looks at us, human beings, and in reminding us that we are very good, that we learn of our potential and our possibility? What does it mean that we spend less than three chapters of the Torah in virtual paradise and the next 183 trying to find our way to a Promised Land? What does it mean to be "our brother's keeper?" and how does this question perhaps the quintessential question in all of the Torah?
There is a power and a beauty that comes in the value of asking questions, in participating in a journey of exploration and discovery and these very processes help us to derive meaning from our most fundamental texts, and meaning with how to approach and live our lives. A story does not need to be fundamentally true and fundamentally sound, to contain fundamental truth, value, and inherent worth. And we do not become heretics by challenging our texts, by unearthing meaning from our people's teachings - in fact, it is the process of questioning which strengthens us even further, which pushes us to become more curious, more inquisitive, and more learned. As commentator Krista Tippett has said:
The spiritual energy of our time as I’ve come to understand it is not a rejection of the rational disciplines by which we’ve ordered our common life for many decades—law, politics, economics, science. It is, rather, a realization that these disciplines have a limited scope. They can’t ask ultimate questions of morality and meaning. We can construct factual accounts and systems from DNA, gross national product, legal code, but they don’t begin to tell us how to order our astonishments, what matters in a life, what matters in a death, how to love, how we can be of service to each other. These are the kinds of questions religion arose to address, and religious traditions are keepers of conversation across generations about them. Religion’s territory is the drama of human life, where art is more precise than science, where ideas are lived and breathed. We apprehend religious mystery and truth in words and as often perhaps beyond them, in the presence of beauty, in acts of kindness, and in silence.
As we begin our journey through the Torah yet again, we rededicate ourselves to the place of questions in our lives, questions from our children and grandchildren, and to the quest of learning and growing, rather than feeling the need to have all of the answers. Questioning and doubting is never an act of heresy - it is an act of clarification, the most respectful of acts, and can bring us to deeper understanding, and perhaps, even a fuller life.