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.