Spinoza in Shtreimels: An Underground Seminar

“I‘m sitting in my armchair” Abraham tells me on the phone. He is a Satmar Hasid from New York, calling me in Montreal where I sit—less comfortably I suspect—in my McGill philosophy department office. I don’t laugh right away, so he adds, “Don’t you do philosophy in an armchair? I’m ready to give it a try!” And then a cascade of big questions (and answers) pours over me: Does God exist? (He doubts there’s a proof.) Are space and time finite? (He thinks they are infinite and wonders if the creation story is a myth.) Do we have good reasons to observe God’s commandments? (“If there’s no God, perhaps as social conventions?”) I do my best to reply, apparently to his satisfaction. A friend of a friend who heard that I was interested in doing philosophy with people who are not academic philosophers had given Abraham my number. “I have a group of friends who may be interested,” he says. “We’re kind of an underground debating club.”

A couple of months later I move to Princeton for a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study. Once settled in, I call Abraham to organize our first meeting. We meet at the Star Bar, a trendy bar and lounge in Soho. Abraham and two friends—Isaac, a fellow Satmar, and Jacob, a Lubavitcher—wink at me from their bar stools. Their black attire stands out in the hip crowd that has already gathered here for an after-work drink. Jake, the bartender—Chinese letters tattooed on his fingers, an unlit cigarette in the corner of his mouth—pours us a draft beer that we take with us to the management office on the second floor where Moshe and Miriam, a Lubavitcher couple, are already waiting for us. Moshe owns the property. He made money in the diamond trade and then invested in real estate. Abraham, who deals with professional electronic equipment, proudly points out that the bass drums we hear through the floor come from a sound system bought from him.  (Here and throughout, I have changed names and some details to preserve the anonymity of my students.)

“So what’s in it for you?” Moshe asks me as we sit down. “I’m trying to find out if one can use philosophy to address real-life concerns and to have debates across cultural boundaries,” I explain, somewhat professorially. “The clash between modernity and religious tradition, for example, gives rise to fundamental questions. And I want to know if philosophy can help.”

We are all a bit nervous. I hand out the syllabus: We will start with Plato’s dialogues Apology and Euthyphro to meet Socrates and discuss the idea of an examined life and the nature of moral norms. Then we will read the Deliverance from Error, the intellectual autobiography of al-Ghazali, the great 11th-century Muslim thinker. “How do you pronounce his name?” Jacob asks. “Just add an i to chazal,” (the standard Hebrew acronym for the scholars of the Rabbinic period: “our sages of blessed memory”) I reply, and they laugh.

In the Deliverance, al-Ghazali describes how he lost his childhood faith and eventually doubted even his ability to grasp things through his senses and intellect until God restored his trust in his cognitive faculties. It is a great text to discuss the foundations of knowledge and the relationship between reason and faith. We will pursue these issues from a Jewish angle through Maimonides and Spinoza, whom they’ve already read. Finally we will discuss Nietzsche, nihilism, and what might come after the loss of faith.

My Hasidic students nod seriously in agreement. They’ve been struggling to find answers for years, studying great philosophers while maintaining their busy professional and family lives. (At one of our meetings, the Satmars can barely keep their eyes open after a nightlong philosophical discussion with a friend from abroad.) So this is not merely an academic exercise for them. “From the point of view of our community,” Isaac explains, “studying these books is much worse than having an extramarital affair or going to a prostitute. That’s weakness of the flesh, but here our souls are on the line-apikorsus (heresy) means losing our spot in olam ha-ba (the world to come).”

When Isaac asks me how I became interested in their world, I tell them that while I am not attracted to its content, I am intrigued by its form—a world that revolves around wisdom and God, rather than wealth, sex, power, and entertainment. They are surprised when I say that from Plato to Spinoza most philosophers endorsed this ranking, if not the same accounts of wisdom and God. And they are stunned to learn that I would be very disappointed if my 2-year-old daughter grew up to value lipstick, handbags, and boys in sports cars more than education and ethics. “In some ways you seem to be more Satmar than we are!” Isaac exclaims. “Though I don’t want her to wear a wig, have seven children, and owe obedience to her husband,” I quickly add. Still, my idea of a good life calls into question what they have learned about the secular world. Throwing off the yoke of the Torah, it turns out, needn’t translate into hedonism.

Of course my Hasidic students are not the only ones with misperceptions. When the hip crowd at the bar meets them, all they seem to see is sexual repression. One evening, after discussing Plato for three hours, we go down for a drink. A young filmmaker from the neighborhood-disheveled red curls, carefully groomed tousled look—approaches us to ask if my students would be interested in appearing in her next art film: “I’m dying for a scene with Hasidic men being seduced by a sexy blonde!”

At the end of our first meeting I hand out copies of the Apology and the Euthyphro. Jacob asks me to send them an electronic version of the texts as well—”makes it easier to read on the Blackberry.” “Our Rebbe went through all this effort to protect us from the pollution of the outside world,” Isaac says, “and then came the Internet!” As much as the rabbis would like to ban it, their hands are tied: “We can’t do business without the Internet and we can’t support the community without business.” Of course the rabbis prohibit going on the web for private purposes. “But how can they enforce that?” Isaac asks. “When the last ban came out, it was posted on ‘Hasid and Heretic’ and got some 30 hilarious comments!”

“Hasid and Heretic,” a website maintained by a “conflicted soul, torn between the world of Hasidism and the world of reason,” is one of several anonymous online forums for disaffected community members like my students. Other sites they tell me about include “Hasidic Rebel” and “Unpious: Voices from the Hasidic Fringe,” which stands out for its cutting edge design. “We know that we’re not alone,” Abraham says, “but we have no idea how many of us are out there, since we all live in camouflage.”

We discuss Plato under the inquisitive eyes of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, looking down on us from several pictures in Moshe’s and Miriam’s living room where they have reserved “the philosopher’s armchair” for me. “Not all pictures are kosher though,” Miriam says. One in which the Rebbe is wearing a light colored grey hat caused a stir every time family visited. “So we put it away.” Their apartment in Crown Heights, the center of the modern Lubavitch movement, is our workshop’s second venue. We had to postpone the meeting because the downstairs neighbor had added a visit at the Rebbe’s gravesite to the celebration of his son’s bar mitzvah. “People would have started talking if we hadn’t showed up,” Moshe explains.

Since my Hasidic students take philosophy to be a secular project, they find Plato’s Apology confusing. Aren’t reason and religion at odds? Why, then, is Socrates so pious? Not only does he present his philosophical enterprise as a divine mission, but he chooses kiddush Hashem (martyrdom) over disobeying God’s command!

“He can’t have been bluffing for other Athenians,” Isaac observes, “since they executed him for impiety.” Then another explanation occurs to him: “Maybe Socrates died too early?”

Now it’s my turn to be surprised. “Well,” Isaac says, “I didn’t lose my faith all at once, but layer after layer. It started with doubts about the things people believed in our community. So I went back to the rishonim (early commentators). But they also said things that didn’t add up. So I went back to the Talmud. In the end, all I was left with was the Bible. For a while I was proud to rely only on the true divine source while everyone else was deceived by misleading human interpretations. I felt real joy at a hakhnasas sefer Torah (the festive procession escorting a new Torah scroll from the scribe’s house to the synagogue). When I finally lost trust in the Bible as well, it was as if the ground had broken away under my feet. Maybe had Socrates lived longer, he would have gotten to this stage.”

Abraham suggests a different interpretation: “Since all Socrates got out of his philosophical investigations was that he knows nothing, he finally just took a leap of faith.” “But if Socrates was really just a pious skeptic, why is he so fond of a philosophically examined life?” I ask. “Perhaps asking questions gave him perverse pleasure,” Isaac replies. “When I started asking questions, our rabbis told me that it was the urge of a corrupt soul.”

“Or could one interpret Socrates as a moderate skeptic?” I ask. “When he claims to know nothing, perhaps he means nothing with absolute certainty. Then debating beliefs would be useful, because it allows us to get rid of false ones and to be more confident about those that weren’t knocked down, even though they might be refuted later.”

“But what about teachers who convince us that a true belief is false and a false belief is true?” Miriam asks. “Good point,” I say, “that’s why Plato doesn’t trust rhetoric. In addition to debating techniques, you also need debating virtues. You have to love the truth more than you love winning an argument.”

“So couldn’t we say that from a Socratic standpoint it is an advantage to be born into the Hasidic community?” Jacob suddenly asks. “If you’re a Hasid in New York you can’t help but reflect on what you think and do since almost everybody else thinks that you’re weird. But if you’re more or less secular and more or less liberal, chances are that you’ll never get challenged since almost everybody else agrees with you.” He has a point. On the other hand, any debate about values within the Hasidic community is suppressed. “When you started asking questions,” I point out, “you had to go underground. But Socrates wants you to ask these questions, and he likes to debate them in public.”

I propose that for Socrates we all want to live well and how we live depends on our beliefs about the good life. “So getting these right is crucial. And we can’t just rely on the authority of tradition. We have to think things through on our own, guided by reason. And since God for him is reason, a life guided by reason is at the same time a life guided by God.”

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My students can, of course, see the problem with relying on the authority of a religious tradition. Most of them have rejected the idea of the good life with which they were brought up. In their communities, a good life is a life devoted to serving God. This is accomplished through study, meticulous observance of God’s commandments, and devotion to the Rebbe, who helps the community get in touch with the divine. The desires of the body, by contrast, are strictly regulated, lest they distract from the task of worship. “But if you think that this is all wrong, why don’t you just leave the community?” I can’t help but ask.

One reason is practical: When the last layer of faith finally falls away it’s usually too late. As Isaac puts it, “By then you speak mainly Yiddish, you’re married, have children, and you’re a talmid chakham (rabbinic scholar) with no marketable skills.” Jacob—who like me is in his late 30s—misses one meeting because of his twentieth wedding anniversary. (I haven’t yet reached my second.) When he got married, he was a brilliant yeshiva student, poised to become a community scholar—”the dream son-in-law,” he says ironically. “You know what I asked for as a wedding gift? For my father-in-law to pay for ten more years of Talmud study!” They all know of people who could no longer bear the cognitive dissonance and left the community. “But none of them managed to build a happier life outside,” Jacob says.

And if there were no practical hurdles, would they leave? From the armchair, I suggest a thought-experiment: “Suppose you could go back in time and exchange your life for that of anyone in the hip crowd that comes to the Star Bar—would you do it?” They hesitate. The truth is that they have come to enjoy the thrill of leading a double life. They are also successful in their jobs. And they take pride in the existential and intellectual depth they were able to achieve by struggling with their lives’ contradictions. “This bohemian culture looks colorful on the surface,” Jacob says, “but we’re grappling with the big questions: God, reason, Torah, the meaning of life!”

The trouble is that you cannot bring up your children as modern-day Marranos of reason. I tell them how becoming a father helped me to get clear on the beliefs and values I wanted to pass on to my children. They, on the other hand, must applaud when their children succeed by standards they have secretly rejected. “It can be heartbreaking,” Isaac says. “So people in our situation often avoid having more children.” Although the use of contraception is prohibited in their communities, the issue is not publicly raised and childless couples or couples with fewer children are generally presumed to have medical problems. “The worst,” Isaac says, “is if the spouse is not on board.” He tells me about a friend who stopped having sex altogether because his wife did not agree to using contraception. Jacob points out how harsh an indictment of their world this is: “In effect I guess we’re saying that it is better not to live at all than to live a Hasidic life.”

Isaac is the youngest and unhappiest of the group. He is planning to enter the business world like Abraham, Moshe, and Jacob, but before that he still has to get through a second year of Talmud study—a gift from his father. Cutting short his studies would be frowned upon, so he reluctantly goes on. “I’m not sure if discovering that I’m living in a prison was a blessing or a curse,” he says. “Most people I see around me seem much happier than I am.” He has decided to let his children grow up in the system to spare them his inner turmoil. “Under some circumstances, lies seem to provide a better life than truth.”

Moshe and Miriam try to accomplish a balancing act with their two children. Their daughter now goes to a Lubavitch school for girls in Crown Heights. “But then she wants to study medicine at Columbia,” Miriam says proudly. Her younger brother is fascinated by the theory of evolution. “We don’t let religion set limits to their intellectual curiosity,” Moshe explains. When Moshe reminds him that according to Jewish tradition God created all animal species in two days, he replies “I know, but I’m talking scientifically, not biblically.” “And which one is right?” Moshe asks. “The Bible of course!” he answers without hesitation. “That’s the default assumption,” Moshe says with a hint of concern.

They know that they are treading a fine line. On my way back to Montreal, at the end of the year, I visit them in the Catskills, and they tell me that their daughter is attending a special Lubavitch camp. Recently she has also gotten involved in kiruv, religious outreach activities. “When I was her age, I was just as zealous,” Moshe notes. “I hope it’s just a phase.”

Abraham expected Socrates to be easier going. He is surprised to find the great philosopher chastising Athenians for caring more about the wellbeing of the body than the wellbeing of the soul. “You’ll have no better luck with Plato,” I tell him and the group. “He compares our appetites to a ‘multi-colored beast’ that the faculty of reason has to control.”

“What about Epicurus?” Abraham asks. “Doesn’t he say that the best life is a life of pleasure?” “That’s true,” I concede, “but he argues that the greatest pleasure doesn’t lie in satisfying our appetites, but in the peace of mind we reach when we are satisfied and free from irrational fears—the fear of death, for example, and the fear of divine retribution. So we’re best off if we find satisfaction in a simple life lived in the company of philosopher-friends.”

Plato’s psychology reminds Moshe of a distinction between the “animal soul” (nefesh behemis) and the “intellectual soul” (nefesh sikhlis), made by the founder of Lubavitch Hasidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, in his chief work of philosophy, the Tanya. The distinction surely doesn’t come from the Bible. But could it have come from Plato? Jacob notes that there’s also some concern among the Lubavitchers about the similarity between the Tanya‘s description of moral character and Aristotle’s. One explanation people in the community give is that Aristotle studied Torah with the rabbis. “That’s like al-Ghazali!” I say. “He turns Aristotle into a disciple of ancient Sufis.” Of course, the historical truth in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s case is that he read classical medieval Jewish thinkers like Sa‘adia Gaon, Yehudah Halevi, and Maimonides who, in turn, knew the Arabic theological, scientific, and philosophical literature of their time.

“How could the medieval thinkers get away with interpreting the Torah according to Aristotle or the Sufis?” Jacob wonders. “Well,” I say, “they thought that if Judaism is true, it must agree with every true insight, even if it came from a Greek or a Muslim. The Haredim, on the other hand, think that they have to shelter true Judaism from any supposedly corrupting outside influence.” This leads us to discuss whether the Haredi fight against cultural contamination is a lost cause from the start. I point to an interesting passage in Toledot Yaakov Yosef, the first published Hasidic book, by Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, a disciple of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov. R. Yaakov Yosef draws a contrast between a “small” and a “great” struggle; the former refers to a battle with weapons, the latter to the moral wrestling of the soul with the “evil inclination” (yetzer ha-ra). The source of the metaphor is actually a famous hadith frequently cited by Sufi mystics. In this tradition, the Prophet Muhammad tells a group of soldiers that after returning from the “smaller jihad”—the jihad of the sword—they now must take up the “greater jihad”—the jihad of the soul against pleasure. Of course, the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples didn’t study the Sufi masters. But they did study Bahya ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart, which was translated from Arabic to Hebrew in the 12th century and became a classic of Jewish thought. Bahya’s account of the soul’s ascent to God was strongly influenced by Sufism and includes a version of the hadith in question, without, of course, the reference to the Prophet Muhammad. As Isaac points out, excitedly, the Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, was also a devoted student of Bahya’s Duties of the Heart!

Where do they come down on the Euthyphro question? Do moral norms depend on God’s will, or does God want them because they are objectively valid? To clarify the question, Isaac says: “Consider our friend Moshe here. Is Miriam attracted to him because he’s objectively beautiful or is he only beautiful to her because she loves him?”

In the Euthyphro, Socrates seems to be committed to the objectivist view. The gods love that which is holy or good because it is, in fact, objectively just that. “That would mean that there’s no need for revelation,” Jacob says. “We don’t need God to tell us that tomatoes are red, so we also wouldn’t need Him to tell us that stealing is bad.”

“But what is it in the act of stealing that is objective like the color of a tomato?” Abraham asks. “I can’t see that stealing is bad the same way I can see that tomatoes are red. So if revelation is out, and if we can’t show that moral judgments are objective, then they must be subjective.” Most modern philosophers, Abraham suggests, are relativists. “Of course we don’t always act on our desires, but that has nothing to do with objective facts; it’s just the social context. You don’t steal because you’re afraid the police will catch you. Would we continue observing the mitzvos if we were on a desert island and didn’t fear the community’s response?”

On this point I disagree with him. “If you ask the hip crowd at the Star Bar, a lot of them might turn out to be subjectivists or relativists about morality. I’d guess many will say that what’s good for one person needn’t be good for another. But neither of the two major schools in contemporary moral philosophy—Kantians and consequentialists—defend relativism. Kantians say that moral norms are absolutely valid: whether you’re under the eyes of a police officer or on a desert island—stealing is always wrong.” “So the bottom line,” Jacob cuts in, “is that even if we throw off the yoke of the Torah, few philosophers would say that we are free to do as we choose.”

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Al-Ghazali begins the Deliverance from Error with an account of how he lost faith in the authority of “parents and teachers”—that is, the beliefs and values stemming from the contingent circumstances of our socialization. This happened when he realized that he might have been just as fervent a Jew or Christian as he was a Muslim, had he been brought up in a Jewish or Christian community. Jacob describes a similar childhood experience: “I would get up very early to study Torah for a couple of hours before shacharis (the morning prayer). On the way to shul, I noticed that Muslims were already praying at the mosque. So I asked myself: if we’re both passionate enough about our religion to get up while it’s still dark—how can I be sure that my religion is true and theirs is false?”

If al-Ghazali can’t rely on the authority of his religious tradition, then how can he know anything? We discuss Plato’s classical definition of knowledge as “true, justified belief.” Why doesn’t a true belief qualify as knowledge, regardless of its justification? Moshe reports a conversation he overheard between two elderly Lubavitchers. “They were discussing a text by Rabbi Schneur Zalman that said that most of the earth is covered by water. ‘That’s a strange thing to say, but if the Alter Rebbe said so, it must be true.’ So they had a true belief, but clearly not knowledge!”

Al-Ghazali’s problem was that he came to distrust both the senses and the intellect. The senses tell us, for example, that the sun is the size of a dinar coin. Here the intellect can identify and correct the mistake. But can we really trust the intellect? We can conceive of a higher cognitive faculty, al-Ghazali argues, that would identify the mistakes of the intellect in the same way as the intellect identifies the mistakes of the senses. The fact that we don’t have such a faculty or know about such mistakes doesn’t mean that we don’t make them, since we also wouldn’t know about the mistakes of the senses without the intellect. Al-Ghazali’s skeptical crisis only ended when God cast light into his heart, restoring his trust in his cognitive faculties. “Does that mean that you can’t get from skepticism to philosophy without the help of God?” Jacob asks.

Although studying Maimonides’ chief philosophical-theological work, the Guide for the Perplexed, is virtually prohibited in their community, my Hasidic students have all read parts of it in secret. Maimonides is a bit like a Trojan horse of reason inside the gates of rabbinic tradition. His monumental Mishneh Torah, the first systematic code of Jewish law, is on the shelves of every yeshiva. But his reinterpretation of Jewish beliefs and practices in light of views derived from Greek and Muslim philosophers collides with today’s ultra-Orthodox idea of the Torah’s purity and self-sufficiency.

“Some of our rabbis say that Maimonides wasn’t really a philosopher; he only used it because the members of his community were so confused by philosophical ideas,” Isaac explains. “Others say that a genuine Jewish philosophy exists, but teaching it to the masses is strictly forbidden. But most agree with the Vilna Gaon that the ‘accursed philosophy’ led Maimonides astray.”

The Gaon’s ire was sparked by Maimonides’ claim that the only benefit of reciting a charm over someone bitten by a snake or a scorpion is that it puts the mind of the superstitious at ease. How dare Maimonides explain away the countless stories in the Talmud in which miraculous charms reveal God’s power? Isaac shows me a photo of an advertisement in Yiddish that he saw at Christmas: “Zu farqoifen a machalah oder a tsarah for a arel” (For sale an ailment or a misfortune for a non-Jew). “No wonder that our rabbis side with the Gaon!”

For my Hasidic students, Maimonides’ bold philosophical reinterpretation of Judaism played an important role at the first stage of their gradual alienation from their community. “He gives you the confidence to reject all kinds of superstition—for example that our Rebbe can miraculously heal or foresee the future,” Isaac says. “And many of the biblical stories that people in our community take literally turn out to be parables according to Maimonides.”

My students, however, did not become Maimonideans. Modern Orthodox Jews often revere Maimonides as a model for reconciling Torah (or revelation) and madda (reason). My Hasidic students don’t buy it. All attempts to integrate secular life and Jewish tradition ultimately ring false to them. In a sense they keep Torah and the secular world as strictly apart as their rabbis do; they have just switched allegiances. Moshe tells me about a Lubavitcher friend who led a double life for years. “During the day he was a brilliant Talmud teacher, during the night he explored Manhattan’s culture and art scene. Then he became Modern Orthodox and started teaching in a more liberal Yeshiva. But he still doesn’t believe in any of it.”

They have a good laugh when I tell them about the Yom Kippur sermon I heard in Princeton’s conservative synagogue. The female rabbi argued that there was no contradiction between obeying God and personal autonomy. The mitzvot must convince us that observing them is beneficial for us. (“If you want a day off from email, cell phone, and other disturbances—keep Shabbat!”) What God tells us to do coincides with what we really want to do. “Let’s hear how good a case a piece of bacon can make for kashrus,” Isaac jokes. When I say that I have no qualms about circumcising my son, Abraham is surprised: “Why would you do such a thing if you don’t believe in the bris shel Avraham (Abrahamic covenant)?”

They also doubt that Maimonides truly believed he had bridged the gap. “Did he really think that Moses was a great philosopher?” Isaac asks. “Wasn’t he just bluffing to escape the anger of the masses?” They are more attracted to Spinoza. Jacob mentions an old Hebrew book on Spinoza’s life and thought by Hillel Zeitlin, a Jewish writer and intellectual who was raised in Lubavitch and strongly identified with Spinoza after losing his childhood faith. In the last chapter, Zeitlin claims that central ideas in Spinoza can also be found in Maimonides and other Jewish thinkers. “But Spinoza was more honest than Maimonides,” Jacob says. “He didn’t pretend that his views fit with traditional Judaism. That’s why he was excommunicated.”

“But is it true that Maimonides was only bluffing to protect himself?” I ask. “Why did he spend so much time on halakha and reinterpreting Jewish beliefs? Maybe he was a kind of philosophical reformer who wanted to put the Jewish community on a firm intellectual foundation.” I also express doubts about their contrast of the insincere Maimonides with the bold Spinoza. “Sure, Spinoza was excommunicated, but after his excommunication most of his close friends were progressive Christians. And his portrait of Christ as a philosopher sounds a lot like Maimonides’ portrait of Moses. Maybe he also wants to philosophically reform religion, not get rid of it altogether.”

“But what’s the purpose of all this?” Jacob asks. “My sense,” I reply, “is that while Maimonides and Spinoza didn’t want religion to interfere with reason, they also thought that most people just can’t live a rational life on their own. So they tried to make religion into something like reason’s handmaid: it should offer guidance to those who aren’t capable of being perfectly rational without meddling in the affairs of the mistress.” They find the idea interesting, though they can’t see how such a project can be made to work in the communities they know, communities defined by their rejection of all things secular.

At the same time, Spinoza is fascinating to them not only because he is a fellow lapsed Jew. They also hope to find in him a philosophical expression of Jewish ideals—from the love of God to the quest for peace and justice—that doesn’t require the baggage of traditional beliefs and practices. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (along with two other curious Hasidic philosophers) even join me at a Spinoza conference that Dan Garber, the distinguished scholar of Early Modern philosophy, has organized. Their presence causes puzzlement among the professional philosophers. “Should I have ordered kosher food?” Garber, whose grandfather studied in a yeshiva in Vilna, asks. He then tells a famous joke about a Hasid who arrives in heaven, finds a superb restaurant operated by Moses and supervised by God himself. “I’ll have the fruit platter,” he says. Another Jewish colleague asks me in surprise: “Did I just see a Hasid eating potato salad at the buffet?”

During the lunch break I find Abraham chatting with the eminent analytic philosopher Harry Frankfurt (best known outside of academia for his bestselling little book On Bullshit). Frankfurt tells Abraham about the Talmud classes he’s taking at the Jewish Learning Initiative on campus now that he’s retired. “So tell me,” Abraham seizes the opportunity, “aren’t Spinoza and the Talmud at odds when it comes to the truth? Spinoza is sure that he has grasped the truth; he only tolerates disagreement because he thinks that most people aren’t able to get it—so he grants them the freedom to make mistakes. The Talmud, on the other hand, says about the disagreements of Hillel and Shammai elu ve-elu divrei Elokim chaim (these and these are words of the living God).” Frankfurt isn’t convinced. “Even if two philosophers differ, they would be speaking the words of the living God for Spinoza as long as they genuinely seek the truth,” he claims. When Abraham asks for my opinion, I say that I think he’s right. “I can’t see Spinoza allowing disagreements in the divine intellect.”

What does Nietzsche mean when he claims that “God is dead”? I suggest he means the breakdown of what we used to see as the natural and moral order anchored in God—the framework for our judgments about what is true, good, and beautiful. “So I think we experienced nihilism,” Isaac says. “The foundation of our faith crumbled and we realized that what we believed in was just a myth organizing life in our community.” He tells about a friend who, when he decided that he was living a lie, threw the writings of the Satmar Rebbe on the floor.

At the end of our first Nietzsche session, I ask them to think about how Plato, Maimonides, and Spinoza would respond to Ivan’s claim in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov that if God is dead everything is permitted. “Thanks, Carlos,” Isaac responds, “now at least I’ve something to keep my mind busy at shul on Shabbos.”

But how far are they willing to go with Nietzsche? Socrates, al-Ghazali, and Maimonides all tried to replace discarded, childish beliefs with new and better ones that were still grounded in God. Nietzsche, on the other hand, makes a stronger claim: there is no objective order at all, only blind, aimless, ever-changing forces of nature. My Hasidic students aren’t sure. “I’m an optimist,” says Abraham, “I still think that one day I’ll come up with definitive answers.” I suggest that Nietzsche might dismiss this as fear to embrace life in a world devoid of objective meaning. “But Nietzsche could be wrong,” he replies. “How can he be sure? Spinoza says that there’s an objective order without assuming that things follow a divine plan established by a transcendent God.”

Nietzsche’s main concern, however, was that worldviews grounded in God give rise to a morality that cripples our life here and now for the sake of an illusory afterlife. Rather than realizing our potential on earth, we are taught to be humble, obedient, and self-sacrificing to secure a place in heaven. “That’s true for us,” Isaac says, “but is it also true of biblical religion? The Bible doesn’t really distinguish between body and soul and certainly doesn’t take the good life to be the soul’s reward in heaven; living well means flourishing on earth—being blessed with wealth, a beautiful family, and so forth.”

I suggest taking his argument one step further: “Maimonides not only rejects traditional views of the afterlife, but also divine reward and punishment in this world; he claims that Moses uses these threats and promises the way a teacher uses them—to direct people to the true love of God. Once you get there, you no longer need fear of punishment and hope for reward as motivation; loving God is its own reward. Or take Spinoza who says that intellectual love of God—which is to say nature—is the highest good, no matter whether the mind is immortal.”

“So why does Nietzsche reject any objective standard of human excellence, not just the ones involving heaven,” Jacob asks. “For Nietzsche a good life is one in which you realize your own nature with its particular set of instincts and desires,” I reply.

“In our community it’s the exact opposite,” Isaac says. “The more you desire something the worse it is; it’s the yetzer ha-ra trying to distract you from serving God.” But is the difference really so glaring? “Nietzsche,” I suggest, “is just as much a champion of self-control as Plato or Maimonides. Can an Übermensch, a ‘superman,’ be enslaved to his passions? Take even the Jazz band that is playing tonight at the Star Bar: doesn’t it take a lot of disciplined effort to become a good musician? When Nietzsche equates a noble life with a powerful life he doesn’t mean power over others, he means the ability to reach one’s goals without being diverted by lust and fear.”

Moshe points to a similar concept in the work of Rabbi Schneur Zalman: “He distinguishes between teva (nature) and hergel (habit). The idea is to reshape your nature through habituation: getting rid of features that prevent you from attaining your goal and acquiring features that help.” I suggest that the only thing Nietzsche would disagree with is the goal, which for the Alter Rebbe is of course avodat ha-Shem (serving God).

“Being an Übermensch sounds stressful,” Isaac says. “Nietzsche,” I counter, “might be critical of you if you allow family and community ties to hold you back from realizing yourselves. To be free for him also means to be free from social attachments.” “But isn’t there a problem?” Isaac asks sharply. “Nietzsche’s excellence is always about outdoing others; doesn’t that create dependence on those outdone?” 

Miriam finds Nietzsche’s praise of solitude implausible. She sides with the tradition from Plato to Spinoza that claims that one cannot live, let alone live well, without living with others. “And why is he so anxious about the weak? The weak for Nietzsche always seem to be out to trap the strong. But can’t helping the weak also be a sign of strength?” We go back to Maimonides: as a brilliant philosopher, legal scholar, doctor, and community leader he sounds like a Nietzschean Übermensch. He may even have had as much contempt for the masses as Nietzsche did, but he spent most of his life trying to raise the Jewish community to a higher intellectual and moral level.

At our last meeting we discuss Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. “If Nietzsche is right, we’ll be having this exact same discussion again and again and again,” I say. Like me they are not convinced by the thesis, but fascinated by the thought experiment Nietzsche lays out in The Gay Science:

Imagine a divine messenger who reveals to you that this life, as you now live it and as you lived it in the past, you will have to live again and another infinite times; and there will be nothing new, but every pain and every pleasure, every thought and every sigh, and every unspeakable smallness and greatness of your life will come back, in the same sequence and order.

What would you do—”gnaw your teeth and curse him,” or say “you are a god, I’ve never heard anything more divine!”?


  1. jzeballo

    Buenísimo artículo. Lo mantendré como uno de mis favoritos del JRB. Además me ayudó a conocer la obra de Franenkel y su sitio web: http://carlosfraenkel.com/ Todo muy recomendable.

    Terrific article. I'll keep it as one of my JRB's favorites. Even more, it also helped to know the Fraenkel's work and its website: http://carlosfraenkel.com/ In my opinion: highly recommended.

  2. Jacob

    Greetings from Israel!
    Wanted to say I greatly appreciated the article. You've touched on some very deep topics that intersect between philosophy and Judaism, that I've never seen explored in tandem, the article is a true gem. The casual mention of Frankfurt in the meeting was amusing.

  3. Martin Zwick

    Carlos-- For your possible interest, and if you're still in touch with those who attended your seminar, also for their possible interest, a view of Spinoza as also being concerned with the derech:


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