The Postville Kosher Scandal — May 2008

The True Meaning of Kosher

Slaughter houses are not for the squeamish of heart. I have personally worked as a Kosher Supervisor in my twenties, and for a long time afterwards, I gave up eating meat. Many people probably would become vegetarians if they knew how their meat was obtained. From this perspective, Kosher slaughter is no worse than any other kind of slaughter.

The Kosher laws were designed to minimize pain to the animals; the blade must be so sharp, the animal loses consciousness immediately. Kosher laws are detailed and exact. In binary terms, kosher laws differentiate between the forbidden and the permitted. Just as there are permitted animals that we may eat, such as cows, chickens, sheep, and so on, so too, there are animals that are forbidden to consume, such as the pig or the rabbit. Yet, the concept of Kosher is not limited to just the Jewish dietary laws. It isn’t just what comes in the mouth that defiles; it’s what comes outside of the mouth that defiles as well. The way we communicate towards others is important. The spoken word can bring healing and strength, or it can bring death and ruination to a person’s reputation. Business also has a kosher dimension: there is a permitted way of doing business; there is a forbidden way of doing business. How we treat our workers is also governed by the same principle. There is a permitted way of how we ought to relate to workers, there are forbidden ways of treating a worker.

In light of this, the recent scandal coming out of the Postville AgriProcessors meat packing plant is offensive for many reasons. Although exploiting workers may be a common practice in many meat packing houses or factories, for a Jewish business that calls itself “kosher”, such behavior is indeed offensive. Even the appearance of impropriety is shameful in our faith. Unfortunately, Rabbi Aaron Rubashkin, a leading Chabad Hassidic rabbi of the Postville community allowed for many abuses to occur under his watchful eye.

The workers in AgriProcessors tried to unionize, but Rubashkin would not allow them to do so, for they were after all—illegal immigrants! There are many other alleged infractions that will be evaluated in the weeks to come. As a rabbinic leader in the Quad-Cities, I must say that the Jewish community is outraged and embarrassed by how AgriProcessors violated both the spirit and letter of Jewish Law—and secular law.

People were not the only victims. PETA uncovered a number of practices Rubashkin instituted that frankly, violated many of the Kosher laws governing how animals are to be morally treated. Jewish tradition teaches that animals are not machines—they are sentient creatures and how we behave toward them matters. We are forbidden to cause senseless pain to God’s creatures.

In summary, “Kosher” must be more than a method of how animals are ethically slaughtered, it ought to incorporate a dimension that is equally sensitive to the rights of the poor and marginalized members of our communities. Taking advantage of migrant workers is a moral outrage. As Kosher consumers, I think we have every right to expect that any Kosher business live by the ideals that Judaism is supposed to represent.

Rabbi Michael Samuel

Why did God create evil? A Parable from the Zohar

Why Did God Create Evil – A Parable From the Zohar

The fact that evil confronts good, gives man the possibility of victory.


Let us assume for a moment that the rabbis and the allegorical school represented by Philo of Alexandria and Gersonides are correct in identifying the serpent as a metaphor for the evil inclination. But why did God create the impulse for evil? Would humankind have been better off not having to deal with such an urge? The Zohar raises this question, and offers the reader a most intriguing thought-provoking response with respect to the phenomena of moral evil .

Should it be asked, ‘How can a man love Him with the evil inclination? Is not the evil inclination the seducer, preventing man from approaching the Blessed Holy One to serve him? How, then, can man use the evil inclination as an instrument of love for God?’ The answer lies in this, that there can be no greater service done to the Holy One than to bring into subjection the “evil inclination” by the power of love to the Holy One, blessed be He. For, when it is subdued and its power broken by man in this way, then he becomes a true lover of the Holy One, since he has learnt how to make the “evil inclination” itself serve the Holy One. Here is a mystery entrusted to the masters of esoteric lore. All that the Holy One has made, both above and below, is for the purpose of manifesting His Glory and to make all things serve Him. Now, would a master permit his servant to work against him, and to continually lay plans to counteract his will? It is the will of the Holy One that men should worship Him and walk in the way of truth that they may be rewarded with many benefits. How, then, can an evil servant come and counteract the will of his Master by tempting man to walk in an evil way, seducing him from the good way and causing him to disobey the will of his Lord? But, indeed, the “evil inclination” also does through this the will of its Lord.

It is as if a king had an only son whom he dearly loved, and just for that cause he warned him not to be enticed by bad women, saying that anyone defiled might not enter his palace. The son promised his father to do his will in love. Outside the palace, however, there lived a beautiful harlot. After a while the King thought: “I will see how far my son is devoted to me.” So he sent to the woman and commanded her, saying: “Entice my son, for I wish to test his obedience to my will.” So she used every trick in her book to lure him into her embraces. But the son, being good, obeyed the commandment of his father. He refused her allurements and thrust her from him. Then did the father rejoice exceedingly, and, bringing him in to the innermost chamber of the palace, bestowed upon him gifts from his best treasures, and showed him every honor. And who was the cause of all this joy? The harlot! Is she to be praised or blamed for it? To be praised, surely, on all accounts, for on the one hand she fulfilled the king’s command and carried out his plans for him, and on the other hand she caused the son to receive all the good gifts and deepened the king’s love to his son.[1]

The Zoharic passage just cited illustrates a remarkable concept that exists in many of the primal religions of the world, the notion of the coincidentia oppositorum, also known as “the reunion of opposites.” As Eliade has already noted, the lost memory of this unitive existence with reality emanates from a part of humanity that yearns to overcome the duality and opposites we now experience in a post-Fallen world. Eliade adds that: “On the level of presystematic thought, the mystery of totality embodies man’s endeavor to reach a perspective in which the contraries are abolished, the Spirit of Evil reveals itself as a stimulant for the Good. . . .”[2]

[1] Zohar 2:162b–163a (all translations of the Zohar are from the Soncino translation).

[2] The Two and the One (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1965), p. 123.

What is the origin of the Golem story?

Q. What is the origin of the Golem story?

A. The Talmud tells us: that Rava created a man through the Sefer Yetzirah and sent him to Rabbi Zeira. The latter tried speaking to him and when there was no response (because the power of speech, a function of the soul, is limited to God’s creation) he declared: “You are a product of our colleague. Return to your dust!” (Sanhedrin 65b)

This is not the only anecdote; there are other stories from Jewish folklore that resemble the golem created by Rava. . Continue reading “What is the origin of the Golem story?”

Pop Kabbalah and the other forms of McMysticism

Q. I recently started reading about other religions to find one that suits me and came upon Kabbalah. I started reading about it (through the most accessible books to find by Yehuda Berg) and started digging the whole thing he was selling. I liked the theories presented in his books and I agreed with the fact that the Bible was never meant to be something lived by so literally. Not to mention many of the other things talked about in his books. I knew that Kabbalah had something to do with Judaism (which I love my culture), but he never really mentioned that in the books.

So, I tried to find out more information on the internet and found out that Kabbalah is like a completely Jewish sect, and it is strictly based on the Torah. I found out that the ‘teachings’ of Berg are shunned by the Jewish community and they are not close to what Kabbalah actually is.

I am wondering, what is true Kabbalah and what is what I have started calling the ‘pop kabbalah’. I am intrigued by the things Berg says in his books, but now I am trying to figure out what exactly Kabbalah is.

I know that a rabbi was talking about how upset he was about Madonna being into Kabbalah because she was so openly pro‑gay, and apparently Kabbalah is anti gay. But maybe like how there are orthodox, conservative and reform Jews, the same goes for Kabbalah? And where can I find a book that will explain this stuff. Please tell me about “pop kabbalah.”

A. Rabbi Philip Berg (known by his followers as “the Rav”) is a colorful personality who quirks have angered many folks. In the past he was known to threaten critics with lawsuits, and needless to say, this type of behavior did not enhance his public image. Given the jealousy scholars have, I am not surprised to see people take pot-shots at knocking him down. Our society’s predisposition toward gossip is dangerous, and perhaps some of his critics deserved to be sued. To his immense credit, Rabbi Berg did what no other rabbi of his era could achieve: he made the Kabbalah accessible to many people who are (for whatever the reason) far removed from Judaism. I believe he serves a positive purpose in that regard, and if his works inspire you, by all means, continue reading them. While Rabbi Philip Berg’s organization may have suffered from some unusual quirks in the past, I have been most impressed with the Rav’s successful outreach program.

Today, in almost every major city around the globe, the Kabbalah Center has done more to bring people across the denominational divide to authentic Jewish spirituality than any other Orthodox movement—even Chabad. Rabbi Michael Berg, the Rav’s son is especially talented and is an excellent writer of Jewish mystical themes. In fact, on occasion, I have used some of his texts on the Zohar in my own Kabbalah classes.

Fortunately, Rabbi Berg and others demonstrate a lucid grasp of original texts.

What I dislike about the Kabbalah movement in general is its lack of historical objectivity when it comes to the actual formation of the Kabbalah. Contrary to Chabad, Kabbalah Center, or Aish HaTorah, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai had nothing whatsoever to do with the Zohar, but Rabbi Moshe de Leon (1250-1305) certainly did—at least according to his rich widow who revealed that her husband was just simply trying to make a profitable living—and attributing this work to a famous third century Sage would give it the mystique that would make him into a wealthy man!

Maybe one of the most important lessons of the Kabbala is for us to remember that the Torah is essentially a spiritual text and guide to holy living. To understand the meaning of the Torah, one must read in between the lines. To the Kabbalist, the Torah is a cosmic text that is full of spiritual metaphors. In an age where bible scholars often examine the Torah text as if it were a cadaver, I personally feel enriched with the Kabbalah’s approach. Yet, in all fairness to critical studies, the Torah must be studied on numerous and concurrent levels.

I for one, would encourage you to read other books on the Kabbalah that offer a far clearer and psychologically deep grasp of the Kabbalah; I think we need to be careful of shysters who scalp the public for a buck. See Adin Steinzaltz’s Thirteen Petalled Rose, Dr. Ed Hoffman’s The Way of Splendor as well as anything written by Daniel Matt, e.g., The Essential Kabbalah. Those are two excellent primers for a start, and you may want to read other books they have written as well.

I wish you well,


Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel

Why aren’t religious Jews generally unconcerned with whether there is an afterlife or not?

Q. Why aren’t religious Jews generally unconcerned with whether there is an afterlife or not? Don’t they care what is going to happen to their souls when they die?

A. In general, the Torah does not want us to preoccupy ourselves with questions pertaining to the existence of an afterlife. Living the holy life is more important than dreaming about an ethereal life that awaits us beyond this ephemeral world of existence. The Torah’s comments here are significant:

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to usand to our children forever, Continue reading “Why aren’t religious Jews generally unconcerned with whether there is an afterlife or not?”

Questions with regard to the afterlife.

Q My cousin said to me that when we pass away, we automatically go to heaven. I have searched the Talmud and cannot seem to find anything like that at all. Would you please tell me where I can find this or any reference to us going to heaven?

A It seems to me your grandfather was referring to a famous Mishnah found in the beginning of the 10th chapter of Sanhedrin, which states:

Continue reading “Questions with regard to the afterlife.”

Please explain the difference between Tanya and Zohar?

Q. Please explain the difference between Tanya and Zohar?

A. The Zohar (The Book of Splendor) is the central book in the literature of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah). It is attributed to Shimon bar Yoh’ai, a second century Tanna, but modern scholarship has concluded beyond any shade of doubt, that the Zohar was compiled in Spain during thirteenth-century.

Citations from the Zohar first appeared in Kabbalistic writings after 1280, and analysis of the book’s terminology and prose style shows that its real author is Mosheh de León (1240-1305), a Castilian Kabbalist. It was not unusual for scholars in those days to attribute works to long famous dead sages as a means of selling manuscripts for a hefty profit! People have been doing this since the beginning of recorded history; even today, it is not uncommon to see a new book that purports to be written by a famous person who lived in the days of antiquity.

New Testament scholars are especially well aware of this kind of shtick. In Late Antiquity, there is an entire literature  scholars now refer to as the “Pseudepigrapha.” Works like “The Life of Adam and Eve” and the “Apocalypse of Moses” are really examples of proto-midrashic writing and the Zohar is another example of that genre of literature.

To add to the mystique of the Zohar, the author  creates the existence of a secret organized group of “companions” (havrayya), who kept the secret of the Zohar to themselves. What is ironic, and is certainly a dead giveaway to the real author of the Zohar, are the stories the Zohar weaves from the Talmud pertaining to dead Amoraim who lived centuries after Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The Zohar’s language is written in artificial Aramaic that is replete with numerous grammatical incongruities and Spanish words with numerous citations from other medieval works. Despite the grandiose claim about its purported author, R Mosheh de León proved to be an exceptional promoter. Say what you will about the author, the Zohar is a really a gold mine of mystical insights and treasures.

All and all, the Zohar is essentially a mystical and allegorical commentary on the various books of the Bible. It’s language is shamelessly evocative and uses very human-like similes. Sexual imagery abounds as the author attempted to express the nature and power of God’s erotic love toward Israel. Its work is truly one of the great mystical works of the last 1000 years, and it has inspired countless Jewish mystical texts ever since its first publication. Continue reading “Please explain the difference between Tanya and Zohar?”

What can you tell me about the Kabbalistic Doctrine?

The Nature of the Spiritual Universe

Q. What can you tell me about the Kabbalistic Doctrine of the Ten Sefirot? How do they relate to the human body?

A. You’ve asked a tough question, but here goes! One of the great problems Jewish mystics grappled with is the question of how an utterly transcendent and ineffable God can be related to a cosmos? How can the One be the source for the many? How is it possible for evil to exist in the world if God, the source of all things, is truly good? The Sefirot are the means through which God introduced compositeness into creation. Without the Sefirot, the world would never have developed its own unique sense of consciousness or personhood. The Sefirot are like the various organs of the human body which serve to house and manifest the power of the soul.

God uses the Sefirot much like a fine teacher uses all of his various skills and intellectual powers to convey an obtuse idea to a struggling student. The teacher must utilize his creative powers, but still must be understanding; he must be willing to feel the anxiety of the student. The road to knowledge must be paved by the teacher through similes and parables designed to win over the student’s heart as well as his intellect.

The capacity to be patient, as well as the will power to triumph over all obstacles and lastly the ability to be communicative with the student makes it possible for him to realize knowledge.

Each attribute of the Sefirot is essential in the birthing of the student’s consciousness. Without the teacher’s self-imposed limitations, the student would remain in a state of ignorance and unknowing.

God’s utter transcendence and Mystery is described in the Kabbala as the Ein Sof (“The Endless One”), and the ten qualities of divine being that emanate from within the depths of Ein Sof, known as the “Sefirot [” which is related to the Hebrew word Sappir, loosely translated as ‘sapphire’ and interpreted as the radiance of God.) i.e., the Ten Radiances” Each of the Sefirot represented a different revelation of God’s creative power. Through the Sefirot, the light of the God becomes manifest in the world.

According to Genesis 1:27, the human being is created in the image of God; the Sefirot are the divine template and archetypal energies God used to create humankind. At the dawn of Adam’s creation, he lived in complete harmony with the cosmos, the upper spiritual worlds were one with the lower spiritual worlds C it was a period of undifferentiated consciousness. Now as a result of the Fall, the harmony became dissonant and disrupted, the story of humankind is to bring about a Tikkun “a restoration” of this world and to connect the lower and upper realms so that the Kingship of God shall reign over all creation as He did at the beginning of creation.

Some Jewish mystics suggest that the word Sefirot comes from the word “sapare” meaning “telling” in that through the Sefirot, a story about God is told, and in our emulation of God’s Sefirot, God’s story becomes told through us. Some Kabbalistic texts compare the Sefirot to the various organs and limbs of the body. Other Kabbalistic texts compare the Sefirot to garments i..e., which give expression to the wearer’s personality and beauty, in the same way the Sefirot express God’s “personality” so to speak.

Here is another way to think of the Sefirot—fingers. Imagine for moment: what do we use our fingers for? The answer will vary from person to person depending on what s/he does at any given time of the day. An artist uses his fingers to create beauty; the writer uses his fingers to create literature; the baseball player uses his fingers to hold the bat, while the pitcher uses his fingers to throw a baseball. A musician uses his fingers to play music. In short, fingers have myriad applications. Just as our body serves as the medium through which the soul interacts with the world, so too does God interact with the Sefirot when revealing His Presence in the world. Job said “From my flesh I behold God.” [Job 19:26] in other words, from understanding the microcosm, we may understand the macrocosm of the Universe. Truth is immanent in the universe and this reality is no less present within the human body.

Sometimes the Sefirot are also known as garments. It has been said “Clothes makes the man.” Garments serve to reveal the personality of the person who wears them. For instance, the fireman, the doctor, the priest, the baseball player all wears a uniform that pertains to the activity associated with that particular skill. In the same manner, God clothes Himself in the Sefirot, but His true essence is simple and unadulterated.

Ancient Kabbalists conceived of a Great Chain of Being which emanating from an energetic, superabundant Spirit which composes every level of existence. We need not seek this Spirit enshrined in some synagogue or some other holy place, nor must we search this Spirit in some hidden esoteric writings. We are manifestations of this Spirit; everything we do and are reveals the Spirit from which we cannot be separated, for there is nothing else but Spirit.

The body is a microcosm whose various processes corresponds to those of the physical world and yet whose root is embedded in the celestial realm. “A well-known aphorism expresses the analogy between macrocosm and microcosm: “That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above.” the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm; whereby the human soul was regarded as a microcosm of the forces and principles contained in the macrocosm of the universe. The universal template that is the blueprints for the macro and microcosmic order are the Sefirot.

The Sefirot serve as God’s instruments or tools through which God performs His various activities in the world, much like the soul that operates through the organs of the human body. The body in and of itself is dead, it is the soul that gives the human body its personality and life. Were it not for the Sefirot, the world would be utterly suffused with the light of God’s infinite Being, and it is through God’s severity, human freedom has the spiritual space so to speak in which to function.

In the spiritual sense too, the Sefirot represents the great chain of being that links all things that exist, all of which is calibrated to our moral and spiritual behavior. Each deed, however small it may seem in our eyes, can have great repercussions in evolution of spiritual consciousness. Like stone reverberating in a pool of water, so too, our deeds reverberate in all worlds, and in all dimensions. The Sefirot serve as a spiritual mirror for God’s Presence in the world; each Sefirah reveals something about the personality of God.

According to the great 16th century Moshe Cordovero, the attribute of judgment (din) is a necessary condition for the survival of any existence. What is too near to the abundance of God’s infinite compassion cannot exist, and therefore the highest thoughts were abolished, so that the Sefirot could be formed only when emanation reached the Sefirah of Binah (“Discernment”), which already contains judgment (din).

Thus, the world we experience inside and outside us rests on a transcendental background which is the spiritual source and structure of the physical universe. Within our consciousness exists the realm of the Sefiort providing the archetypal patterns that give rise to a world of diversity and personality. Human beings reflect the order that exists in the higher spiritual dimensions.

Thus, the person who acts with compassion, mirrors and reveals God’s own compassion in the world. When a man acts stingily, he mirrors an image of God that is severe and withholding. Only in our creative and goodly deeds do we step forth into the Divine light and reveal a God that is wholesome and complete.

Each Sefirah points to an aspect of God in His capacity of Creator, forming at the same time a whole world of divine light in the chain of being. The doctrine of the Sefirot teach us that the world is not governed by chance, but by is under the ever watchful Eye of Divine providence which is always present and yet hidden in all the planes of creation, and particularly in the world of humankind. The Sefirot depict dynamic principles of Divine Providence which are ever manifested in our world.

This of course is not a new idea. The ancient rabbis also intuited this notion in non-mystical terms, but certainly intended just the same. Hama bar Hanina, who expounded the verse, “After the Lord your God ye shall walk” (Deut. 13:5): “How can man walk after God? Is He not a consuming fire? What is meant is that man ought to walk after [imitate] the attributes of God. Just as the Lord clothes the naked, so you shall clothe the naked. Just as He visits the sick, so you shall visit the sick. Just as the Lord comforted the bereaved, so you shall also comfort the bereaved; just as He buried the dead, so you shall bury the dead” (Sota 14a ) This ancient intuition inspired Moshe Cordevero to write one of his most far-reaching kabbalistic texts Devorah (The Palm Tree of Deborah, tr. by L. Jacobs, 1960), which begins:

“It is proper for man to imitate his Creator, resembling Him in both likeness and image according to the secret of the Supernal Form. Because the chief Supernal image and likeness is in deeds, a human resemblance merely in bodily appearance and not in deeds debases that Form… Consequently, it is proper for man to imitate the acts of the Supernal Crown which are the 13 highest attributes of mercy”( Louis Jacob’s introduction to The Palm Tree of Deborah, p. 37).

Sometimes the Sefirot have often been portrayed as a tree. They are linked together as a vital organism, like a tree whose root is the Infinite, with the kingdom as the trunk, the foundation as the point from which the branches begin to spread, the Sefira of harmony is at the center while Keter [crown –representing transcendence] at the top.

Gershom Scholem wrote in his classic work Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism: “The point to keep in mind is that the sefirot are not secondary or intermediary spheres which interpose between God and the universe . . . not steps of a ladder between God and the world, but various planes in the manifestation of the Divinity which proceed from and succeed each other” (Scholem, 1961, pp. 208-209). This last point of Scholem is significant, for many of the objections Jews had towards the Trinity, many anti-kabbalists had toward the Sefirot! One famous 14th century Rabbinic Sage, Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet [a.k.a. the Rivash,] wrote in a famous responsa about a certain Kabbalistic practice he held with disdain:

I asked a Kabbalist, Rabbi Don Yosef [of whom he highly regarded] the following question: How can you Kabbalists intend with each blessing [of the Eighteen Benedictions,] intend that each of the blessings to be directed to a separate divine attribute [sefirah]. And all of this is quite strange to those who are not kabbalists like themselves and think that this is a belief in dualistic tendencies [emunat sheniyut]. Once I heard one of those involved in philosophy, speak contemptuously about the Kabbalists saying, “the idolaters believe in a Trinity, and the Kabbalists believe in a Tenfold God!….Concerning what Rabbi Shimson of Chinon, of blessed memory, whom I already mentioned earlier, use to declare that he prayed like a young child [kiTinuk] ie., he had in mind only the simplest meaning of his prayers, in contrast to the Kabbalists who now have in mind this Sefirah or that Sefirah [and so on]. Is it not better to pray directly [stam] to the Lord, may He be blessed, with simple intention rather than advising God how to grant his request?” Responsa 157

Rabbi Perfet’s Kabbalistic colleague rejoined: that whenever a Kabbalist prays, he mindfully tries to draw the Divine flow of energy through the specific Sefirot of the Divine. The worshiper prays that God should reveal His attribute of justice in the world; or that God should allow an epiphany of His Love to be made through the Sefirah of Chesed, and so on. By focusing on the individual Sefirot, the worshiper in effect draws and directs God’s infinite power into the phenomenal and spiritual realms. Rabbi Ibn Shoshan’s answer in effect is what is known as theurgy (which comes from the Greek work theourgia) which means literally something like “actuating the divine.” Theurgy refers to actions that induce or bring about the presence of the Divine. Theurgy stresses the role of contemplation in raising the soul to fellowship and intimacy with God. Theurgy should not be confused with magic, for its aim is primarily spiritual to achieve unification with the Divine unlike magic whose aim is to control and manipulate spiritual energies.

In summary, when speaking about the nature of the Sefirot, we must always remember that we are using terms of analogy. Such is the principle of all religious discussion. We can only use images and concepts drawn from our human experience, which always falls short from the truth. Everything that is said about the Sefirot all must be understood in terms of metaphor and parable.

Rabbi Michael Samuel

Conversation with Spinoza II

In his writings, Spinoza sometimes operates on the assumption that there is essentially one interpretation of the Tanakh, which in essence denies the polyvalence of a  text’s meaning. Modern hermeneutics expands the nature of interpretation far more comprehensively than Spinoza could have ever imagined possible. In addition, language is not as monocular as Spinoza envisioned.

Perhaps if Spinoza witnessed the birth of psychoanalysis (Freudian and Laconian) and depth psychology (of the Jungian variety), undoubtedly he would have acknowledged the importance of not taking a classical text like the Bible, or for that matter any classical work, as if it had only one layer of interpretive meaning.

Had Spinoza been privy to Lévinas’s concept of first philosophy and theology is ethics, Spinoza might have realized that morality is rooted in God’s capacity to be or act “personally” with Creation. I wonder whether Spinoza might have agreed with Lévinas’s theory of ethics.

From the writings of Jung, Eliade, Levi-Strauss, Spinoza could have immensely benefited from the wisdom that the sacred is discovered within the space of interpretation in a manner that transcends both the text and the person who is reading it. Spinoza certainly would have benefited from modern hermeneutical theory as well—especially from the ideas of M. Bakhtin and H. G. Gadamer, not to mention the various other thinkers developed hermeneutical thought over the last 300 years.

Nevertheless, despite these limitations, Spinoza’s questions and theological assumptions demand thoughtful refection and answers. In many respects, Spinoza is the prototype of the modern secular Jew who, like Spinoza, challenges the basic beliefs underlying contemporary faith.

Just as excommunication was a failed response in Spinoza’s case, neither will marginalizing Spinoza’s spiritual descendants who find themselves asking the same essential questions today that the great Dutch philosopher raised centuries ago.

Questions like:

* How do we know when it is the word of God that Scripture is speaking or whether it is the word of God we as human beings retroject into the Scriptures only to be made sacrosanct by tradition?

* What are we to do when the word of God commands us to do what violates not only common sense and reason, but also morality itself?

Fortunately, Judaism has always valued the great questions of the ages. A good question is better than a sloppy answer. There are no easy answers. Let’s keep an open mind and explore these questions together.

Conversation with Spinoza: Spinoza’s Interpretation of the Peshat.

No Jewish philosophy of biblical interpretation would be complete without mentioning the thoughts of Baruch Spinoza (1632–77), who deservedly is the one of the founding fathers of modern historical criticism. He was the first modern Judaic thinker to encourage the reader to move away from the traditional rabbinic and ecclesiastical authorities who defined the meaning of the text for their generations. He encouraged each person to make a scientific examination of the biblical text based on the facts as they appeared.

According to Spinoza, any exegete or layperson ought to subscribe to the following guidelines before attempting a serious exposition of the Bible. Without a clear and defined methodology would inevitably lead to eisegetical theological prejudices and other cognitive distortions of the text. Spinoza laid out several general principles which would set the agenda for the next 4 centuries and beyond, which we will only briefly examine:

[T]o interpret Scripture, we need to assemble a genuine history of it and to deduce the thinking of the Bible’s authors by valid inferences from this history, as from certain data and principles. Provided we admit no other criteria or date from interpreting Scripture and discussing its contents than what is drawn from Scripture itself and its history, we will always proceed without any danger of going astray, and we will have the same assuredness in discussing things that surpass our understanding as in discussing things that we learn by the natural light of reason.

As to the type of historical approach to Scripture this would entail, Spinoza fleshes out some of the specifics he envisions:

(1) Firstly, such a history must include the nature and properties of the language found in which the biblical books were composed and which their authors were accustomed to speak. We can then investigate all the possible meanings that every single phrase in common usage can admit; and because all of the writers of the Old and New Testament were Hebrews undeniably the history of the Hebrew language is more essential than anything else not only for understanding the books of the Old Testament which were first written in this language, but also those of the New Testament. For while the latter were propagated in other languages, they are full of Hebrew idioms.

(2) Such a history must gather together the opinions expressed in each biblical book and organize them by subject so that we may have available by this means all the statements that are found on each topic. We should then make note of any that are obscure or seem to contradict the others. By ‘obscure expressions,’ I mean those whose sense is difficult to elicit from the context of a passage while those whose meaning is readily elicited I call by reason. I am not now speaking of how easily or otherwise their truth is grasped by reason; we are concerned here only with their meaning, and not with their truth. Moreover, in speaking the sense of Scripture we must take care not to be blinded by our own reasoning, in so far as it is founded on the principles of natural knowledge (not to mention our preconceptions). In order not to confuse the general sense of a passage with the truth of things, we must investigate a passage’s sense only from its use of the language or from reasoning which accepts no other foundation than Scripture itself.

To Spinoza’s credit, he is one of the first modern thinkers to introduce an intratextual approach to the study of the Tanakh; each passage across the scriptural horizon can clarify and amplify a different but similar text:

To make all this clearly understood, I will give an example. Moses’ statements, ‘God is fire’ and ‘God is jealous; are as plain as possible so long as we attend exclusively to the meaning of the words, and therefore I class them as clear expressions, even though, with respect to truth and reason, they are exceedingly obscure. Moreover even though their literal sense conflicts with the natural light of reason, unless it is also clearly in conflict with the principles and fundamentals derived from investigating the history of Scripture we must still stick to this, the literal sense. Conversely, if the literal sense of these expressions is found to conflict with the principles drawn from Scripture, even if they are fully in agreement with reason, they will nevertheless need to be interpreted differently (i.e., metaphorically).

In order to know whether or not Moses believed that God is fire, we must argue that on the basis of whether this statement agrees or conflicts with reason but only from other statements made by Moses himself. For example, since Moses also plainly teaches, in many passages, that God has no similarity with visible things in the sky or earth or in the water, we must conclude that either this statement or all others have to be interpreted metaphorically. . .Now the word ‘fire’ also stands for anger and jealousy (see Job 31:12), and therefore Moses’ words are readily reconciled and we are justified in concluding that they are one and the same. Again, Moses plainly teaches that God is jealous and nowhere teaches that God lacks emotions or mental passions. Hence, we must evidently deduce that this is what Moses believed, or at least what he wanted to teach, however much we may think this statement conflicts with reason. For, as we have already shown, we are not permitted to adjust the meaning of Scripture to the dictates of our preconceived opinions; all explanation of the Bible must be sought from the Bible alone (emphasis added).

(3) Finally our historical enquiry must explain the circumstances of all the books of the prophets whose memory has come down to us: the life, character, and particular interests of the author of each individual book, who exactly he was, on what occasion he wrote, whom and in what language. Then the fate of each individual book, namely how it was first received and whose hands it came into, how many variant readings there have been of its text, by whose decision it was received among the sacred books, and finally how all the books which are now accepted as sacred came to form a single corpus. All this, I contend, has to be dealt with in a history of the Bible.