Spinoza and Me by Kenneth Weene

spinoza

It was Tuesday afternoons, two-fifteen almost every Tuesday for the school year—for my seventh grade school year. They would leave—dismissed early from school to attend religious instruction. Most, the vast majority of my classmates would leave to learn about God, to learn about faith, to learn about dogma. Almost universally they were Catholics. The city in which I grew up was almost entirely Catholic, half of Irish background and half of Italian, ­ but all Catholic and all scheduled for confirmation.

Off our classmates would go in mass exodus, and we, a small number, would huddle in our respective homerooms while being watched, as questionable minorities must be.

The remainder of the school day was designated a period for “guidance and moral education.” We were given neither guidance nor moral education. Instead, we huddled in our minority and did homework. My homeroom teacher taught English so we did English homework. Next door was a social studies teacher. His minority worked on geography and memorized facts about our city, Somerville, our county, Middlesex, and our commonwealth, Massachusetts. On the other side of our room was a math teacher; there fractions and equations held sway. Therein lay one of the basic moral lessons of my youth: free will may exist, but free choice does not.

So we, in our suspicious minority status, sat quietly and tried to appear compliant – to appear as a well-disciplined and obedient unity. There was only one problem: we were not a unity. For within our small number there was yet another division, another even smaller minority, a minority of one, of me, a Jew. The Catholics were gone; the Protestants—undifferentiated from the vantage point of the Vatican—had become the majority. I, I alone, was left to be different. “Hebe,” “Kike,” “Shylock”: I heard all those epithets and more while growing up; but the worst was “Jewww” pronounced with hash J and drawn-out W—pejorative in its correctness. Make no doubt about it; I was the hated “Jewww,” the killer of Christ, wearer of devils’ horns, killer of Christian children and consumer of their blood, ah, blood-libeled matzoth.

It was not easy being a Jew in that classroom, in that school, in that city. There had been a time when the numbers had been different. If Jews had never been the majority, they had once been a serious minority, but that had changed. Most had moved away, across Boston to Brookline and Newton a the other end of the transit system. Only the temple remained to let the world know that they, a number of them—us—had once lived there. It was a solid building of granite and cement, a building as substantial as one of the many churches that serviced the rest of the community.

But, inside, within the people, within what survived of the congregation, little substance remained. Commitment had gone with the members to those newer and wealthier communities. A few stragglers, a few professional men whose careers required them to stay, a few old people with neither the means nor the will to move: this was the congregation. And, it was led by a rabbi whose lack of standing was consistent with the temple’s ever diminishing stature.

Leo Shubow had nothing to recommend him. He wasn’t particularly learned, he lacked charisma, he spoke poorly, and, just to make things worse, he sprayed spittle with every sibilant. There were those who opined that Rabbi Shubow would not even had merited our small congregation were it not for his brother, a well-known and highly respected rabbi who not only led but also dominated one of the most important temples in all of Greater Boston. This successful rabbi had demanded a congregation for his inadequate sibling; presumably it had been decided that he could do the least harm in our already failed flock.

My father, one of those professional men who felt that they needed to stay in Somerville, insisted my brother and I attend some religious education. For their part neither of our parents ever went to the temple except for those rare but socially mandatory bar mitzvahs and weddings. Very few adults did go to temple. At most services the required minyan was a last minute miracle.

It was probably just as well that almost no adults attended services; Rabbi Shubow had only two topics on which he could comfortably sermonize:

The first was the need to support the just-born nation of Israel. He would particularly exhort us to give coins to plant trees there. Presumably he thought it would be too political to ask us to help buy weapons for the fledgling Israeli army. Nevertheless, underlying our understanding of the importance of those trees was our dread of the incomprehensible hatred that had become the irresistible tide of the holocaust. Even in our small community, each of us in some way was connected to the dead of Europe and to the precious saved—that minority who had survived the camps—and to those among them who were trying to make a new home—a refuge—for themselves in Eretz Israel.

His second topic had nothing discernible to do with Israel or Judaism. He was passionate about the threat of icebergs in the North Atlantic. I never learned if he had lost somebody to an iceberg-related sinking or had simply been traumatized as a very small boy by the end of the Titanic. Whatever the reason, he would speak at length, poorly, but at length, about the need for a better warning system to protect sailors.

His preoccupation seemed somewhat silly to those of us who bothered to think about those icebergs. The world was still reeling from the war. Oceans of blood had been spilled. Even if one were to think of death in the North Atlantic, it made more sense to focus on the torpedoes of the Nazis than on the icebergs breaking away from Greenland and Iceland.

I would probably have no adult thought of Leo Shubow were it not for a book that he suggested I read. That year, that year of confirmation, I read the book he had suggested. It wasn’t a very sophisticated book, but it did raise an interesting question. Could one be a bad Jew and still be a great Jew? Felix Mendelssohn, the great composer, was one example. Shabbetai Zvi, the false messiah, was another. But, the most important example was Baruch de Spinoza.

That book didn’t teach me much about Spinoza, the brilliant Sephardic Jew who had been expected to become an important rabbi but who, instead, was perceived by his community as doubting the very existence of God. Still trying to come to grips with the Inquisition that had driven them from Spain and that had killed so many of their fellow religionists, the Sephardic community in Holland was deeply religious, strongly observant, and extremely intellectual. Spinoza’s perceived apostasy was an outrage.

Ostracized and (very unusually for a Jew) excommunicated, he had made his living as a grinder of lenses, some of the best lenses available in Holland. He had also written brilliantly in his attempts to understand whatever he could of the essential nature of the world and to define mankind’s ethical obligations. Although he had remained outside the Jewish fold, Spinoza had become the spiritual father of the modern age. His simple abode was to become a place of pilgrimage for modern thinkers, perhaps most notably Einstein, who stopped there during his flight from Europe to America – his escape from the Nazis.

Spinoza ground lenses, at that time one of the purest mathematical activities. Using mathematical formulae, light could be forced into orderly behavior. Einstein went beyond that; he applied mathematics to the understanding of light and to the fundamental physical nature of the world. Shubow was not so brilliant. He could only worry about seeing the physical dangers in the natural world, but he, like Spinoza and Einstein, understood that the physical world could be known, that the dangers inherent in it could be understood and perhaps overcome.

Precision of mathematical and scientific thinking could give mankind control over nature. It was not necessary to invoke God, nor was it meaningful to think of God as intervening in that nature—given by Him or perhaps more properly synonymous with Him. To appreciate that order, to truly appreciate it, was to love God, to be, in Spinoza’s phrase, intoxicated with God.

But, mankind is often more intoxicated with itself than with God. It is our nature that we see threat in the mirror of existence and turn on our fellow humans over and over again. Human nature is not so predictable nor so beautiful. It turns us against minorities and thereby against ourselves. We may call it prejudice and hatred, for my part I call it Evil.

The Inquisition was rooted in Evil as was the Holocaust. There was Evil in that classroom, too. Sitting there on those Tuesday afternoons so acutely aware of being a minority within a minority I was at once both a victim of that Evil and a participant in it.

Rabbi Shubow had lived with enough Evil to appreciate the goal of goodness—to understand nature and use that knowledge to save man. Now I am older. I have lived with enough Evil to wonder if man is worth saving. And I have lived with enough of mankind to wonder if mankind can save itself. Perhaps it is enough to appreciate human nature, to study the psychological world, and to accept that our species may well reach its own self-doomed end.

There is creation, there is nature, and there is man. For all these there is order, that most divine of all possibilities. Order exists. I revel in that fact and I am too intoxicated with God to think of praying for heavenly intervention.

 

In addition to the great honor of being a member and editor of The Write Room Blog, Ken Weene writes short stories, poetry, and novels. You can learn more about his writing at http://www.kennethweene.com and you can listen to his ideas on It Matters Radio, which is proud to co-host at http://www.itmattersradio.com/ Ken would like to thank the wonderful Deb Harris of All Things That Matter Press for her editorial help with this piece.

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18 thoughts on “Spinoza and Me by Kenneth Weene

  1. John B. Rosenman

    I enjoyed this. Is man worth saving? Can he save himself? Is it possible he’s doomed? Perhaps if the answers were Man is worth saving, He can save himself, And of course he will be saved, his story wouldn’t be very interesting or worth telling. As a species we’re often so pathetic, so corrupt and evil. Yet we do have a capacity for greatness and kindness and transcendence. It reminds me in some way of Spinoza. Can a bad Jew be a great Jew? Sometimes he has to be bad to be great. Though there IS too much evil in the world. I am a Jew, but though I’ve been picked on and called a few of those names, I was never singled out as you were.

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  2. James L. Secor

    I’m too much of a religious cynic to comment succinctly other than to say Spinoza–bandied about in college philosophy classes as a racist and, therefore unworthy–got it right. I cannot remember any Jews in my HS or elementary schools, so I never heard the racism; few blacks anywhere in my upbringing. As if neither existed. The outcast sometimes shines, no?

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  3. Jean Rodenbough

    Ken, this is helpful in several ways: I have a broader understanding of you, I can remember the elementary school days when the Catholic, Greek, and Jewish students were allowed to take off on Wednesdays . . . What I would love to have seen in this account is more inclusive language. God is not solely male, nor is mankind all of humanity or humankind. I know this is being a bit petty of me, but I have had to wage a long battle convincing others to use language that can include us all in regard to gender words. This has been a journey for since the mid-70’s, and still continues. Even our latest Presbyterian minister heard from me in that regard — fortunately he is working on being conscious of such gender-inclusive usage in his sermons. You are a fine professional writer and I know you can do likewise in your use of gendered language.

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  4. Jon Magee

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with so much honesty. I do feel its important to listen to each other, for we cannot truly claim to have an open mind if we don’t. So much of the troubles of this world begin with the lack of willingness both to listen and also to understand the world and the understanding of those we speak and debate with.

    I recall talking with the singer, Helen Shapiro, well known in the UK pop singing world. Though she speaks of her Christian faith today she began life raised in a Jewish family, the granddaughter of an east European refugee. Her life was fairly sheltered as the head teacher was also a Jew, however, she still has clear memories of the child who accusingly said “You killed Jesus Christ!” Her thoughts as a young girl was why did they say that? I do not know anyone of that name so how could I have killed him?

    For all of us of different faiths and also of no faiths, I suspect so much contention arises because we do not take time to understand those who think differently. Your thoughts here are helpful for us all to begin some understanding.

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  5. Delinda

    Thanks for an engaging and thought provoking piece. Where are we headed? Will evil win? Will a remnant survive? Humankind has asked these questions and answered them in various ways throughout history. It is the Jewish tradition that tells us that a remnant, Noah, Lot, and many other through history have survived. I find I cannot separate myself from the idea that a remnant survives.

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  6. Linda Hales

    If ‘egoless’ is a word, then I am sufficiently that to confess my inability to discuss Spinoza’s philosophies or even the topic of metaphysics on any level whatsoever. I am however, in awe of his concepts to the limited extent that I am able to comprehend them, despite having at least made the effort at a much younger age. Seemingly born before his time, I sense that it was precisely the right time with the clear purpose of ushering in new and advanced perspectives to be contemplated by scholars for the centuries to come. I sense that he was a man who did not limit himself to single dimensions such as the concept of evolution but perhaps embraced the simplistic belief that God contemplated it all in the totality of his infinite perfect design of creation.

    Ken, thank you for revealing the essence of this great man and for appreciating his relevance from an inside perspective.

    Reply
  7. Salvatore Buttaci

    I have always been partial to Jews; after all, the Old Testament of my Bible is the story of this Chosen People whom God loved and cared for. Your explanation here is priceless, what I always expect from one of my favorite authors who never fails to disappoint me.

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  8. Harmlessjoyce (Joyce Elferdink)

    You write clearly and vividly, and with the intent of making readers think (how darest thou, in an age when we don’t have the time or perceive the need to consider how we affect others…).

    Is humankind worth saving? My answer is yes. Deep inside, in those places that Evil hasn’t yet gnawed away our humanity, there is still the capacity to love.

    Can we save ourselves? My answer is no. I’ll support my response from an essay by William Willimon in a little book I’m reading during Lent called Bread and Wine. He says, “The status quo is too alluring. It is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the six-thirty news, our institutions, theologies, and politics. The only way we shall break its hold on us is to be transferred to another dominion, to be cut loose from our old certainties, to be thrust under the flood and then pulled forth fresh and newborn.”

    That is not in our power to accomplish. Bu to allow in new ideas fueled by a new vision of what it means to be human, now that is scary stuff. Maybe I’ll just try to save myself….

    Reply
  9. Marta Merajver-Kurlat

    Ken, although not conversant enough with Spinoza to discuss his philosophy, I can perfectly relate to your childhood experience, for mine was very similar. I attended a well-reputed public school with a majority of Catholics, no Protestants -there are still very few here- and two or three Jews per class. In those times, before religion was thankfully removed from the school curriculum, Catholics had a weekly religion class, and we Jews were marched into a small, stuffy room in which a Catholic teacher taught us “morals”. At six, I wondered if being a Jew implied that we had no morals? Worse than that, I vividly remember the teacher drawing an oversized eye on the blackboard and pinning two pictures below it. On the right, there was a boy helping an old lady cross the street. On the left, another boy was stealing apples from his neighbor’s orchard. Two arrows joined the eye to the pictures. Underneath, the teacher wrote in large block letters GOD IS WATCHING YOU ALL THE TIME. I found this frankly terrifying. When we returned to our respective classrooms, someone always saluted us with an accusation of having murdered Jesus. We had to ask our parents who Jesus was, and how come we, the children, had murdered someone. It took me a long time to come to terms with discrimination. I learnt the appropriate answers, and later in life specialized in comparative religion. But I still sense, and this is not paranoia, that a lot of work on the part of well-meaning people is necessary to do away with discrimination of all sorts.
    Thank you for a great piece on a subject that many people would rather avoid.

    Reply
  10. Martha Love

    Ken, I have read your post four times since you first posted it and it is one of the most profound pieces I have ever read. I have bookmarked it! There is so much to respond to as I think about each paragraph could be a chapter in a great book (that I do hope you write).

    Your lesson learned from those horrid days spent singled out by “Evil” that “free will may exist, but free choice does not” is quite a deep one to learn so young. Yet, as you must know, it is just what kept some people alive enduring the holocaust, to know that while we may not be able to do what we will on the outside, our light within shines and we are free within our own inner will.

    Reply
  11. Rosemary "Mamie" Adkins

    Thank you Ken for this thoughtful piece and insight of where you hail. I was a student in a Catholic school where religion was a very large part of study and where I grew close to God. Growing up we had many Jewish friends and even relatives so it was nice to read this from you with your perspective. I am sorry to read that your life was so unhappy in Catholic school with prejudices that should have never been. I hope they are no more.

    Mamie

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  12. Sharla

    Ken, your piece is most profound! Having been brought up in a small rural Georgia town, I was not exposed to either the Catholic nor Jewish faith. It was not until later years when I was in college and afterward that my closest friend turned out to be Jewish. Of all those I have encountered through the years, she is the only one with whom contact has remained. We never talked about religion with each respecting the others thoughts and views. Now, as I look back, it would have been most educational and rewarding to have learned from one another.

    Thank you for your openness and it is such a shame so much prejudice exists, even to this day.

    Reply

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