Friday, 19 April 2013

Aharei Mot - The Spinoza Problem and David Hartman's Living Covenant


I read two books on holiday.

Both a great read.

Feel a bit like a school kids – doing a book report, but this is important.

Central to classic insight into the opening of this week’s Parasha


Acharei Mot – Aron called to go back in to the Holy of Holies, to perform divine service after the death of his sons.

Just a couple of weeks ago, after an unimaginable loss.

Divine response.

Get on with it.

Not allowed to mourn, not allowed to even show fear retunring  to the scene of every parent’s deepest terror.

Divine service trump personal emotion, personality.

Image of God as the oppressor, riding roughshod over the individual.

It ain’t easy to be holy, it takes sacrifice and surrender to some remote incomprehensible set of demands.

It ain’t easy, but actually it’s also downright unpleasant and if not immoral then resolutely unsympathetic in the most technical sense – uninterested in the pain suffered by the individual.


As a theology

At the heart of one of the most important works of C19 Christian and C20 Jewish thought

Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling.

Soloveitchik, Lonely Man of Faith, surrender

When God calls to Abraham to offer Isaac, Abraham’s role is to suppress his own feelings, whatever moral, ethical or certainly personal qualms and submit himself to his faith.

This is certainly what is requested / demanded of Aaron, but how representative is this tough, unsympathetic remote religious attitude as a marker of what Judaism is all about?


And this brings me to the first book I read on holiday.

Psychiatrist and author Irving Yarom – The Spinoza Problem

Novelisation of Spinoza’s life in Amsterdam, stunningly interwoven with the story of Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi ideologue.

Terrific book, but let me focus on this central idea.

For Spinoza, especially in Yarom’s hands, religion – Judaism, is just rough unsympathetic thing we recognise from demands made of Aron Acharei Mot – after the death of his two sons.

Remote, inaccessible, demanding with no attempt to meet or even care for the opinions of a mere mortal.

And Spinoza, in Yarom’s hands, rejects this Judaism. He rejects the superstition that locates religious obligation in some remote mystery.

Spinoza, in Yarom’s hands, believes that God couldn’t care less about so many of the things that the Rabbis of his own day demanded in the name of Judaism, he believed that the Rabbis were more interested in vouchsafing their own power and ability to control the mere mortals of the Jewish community they said they served, but in fact they manipulated to suit their own ends.

The Jewish community of Amsterdam in the mid C17 are subjected by Yarom to a Marxist read – they wield power for their ends, constructing a Judaism of strictness, closed-mindedness and demanding only submission.

Religion, Judaism, portrayed, by Yarom’s portrayal of Spinoza, is all about the remote, oppressive, unsympathetic imposition of expectations, riding roughshod over personal qualms, equivocations, morals and ethics.


I meet a lot of people who agree. And, perhaps not unsurprisingly the people who agree that the bleak picture painted by Spinoza is the nature of Judaism have very little to do with Judaism. Well they might turn up to Shul a couple of times a year. They might even keep current their membership of this community, but they will never let Judaism near their heart. Indeed why should they?

And if Spinoza could detect and reject the supernaturalism in the 1650s, then how much the more so we in this glitteringly post-modern, post-discovery of this that and the other contemporary society should also keep Judaism far from our souls.

If this is what Judaism is, then I reject it also.

But this isn’t what Judaism is.

Brings me to the second book I read on holiday.

Actually I reread it.

David Hartman’s ‘A Living Covenant’

He died only recently, just this year. This is Aharei Mot, so I reread the work as my own tribute Aharei Mot – after he passed away.

I last read this book in 1998 and re-encountering it I was struck by how much of what I still hold utterly central to my Judaism was inspired by Hartman.


Notion of covenant that interests Hartman is one which entails a meeting between God and Jew. God gets to make calls on us, and we get to make calls upon God. This isn’t a gift, it’s a sacred obligation.

Hartman reads the story of Noah against the story of Abraham.

Noah accepts God’s decree – God says will destroy, Noah should build an ark.

Noah builds the ark and watches on as God destroys.

For Hartman this is a failure.

Noah doesn’t get to be the father of Judaism.

The covenant made with Noah isn’t THE covenant which really, in Jewish eyes counts, determines and perpetuates the nature of Judaism.

Instead it’s Abraham who becomes the father and the one who defines Judaism. And it’s the covenant made with Abraham that defines the nature of Judaism.

Abraham who argues against destruction of Sodom and Gemorah

Abraham who walks in-front of God, in one Midrash cited by Hartman, Abraham who illuminates the way for a God who is stuck in darkness and can’t see without the leadership provided by the Jew.

Hartman collects a host of Rabbinic commentaries proving how dear this active, defining of what Judaism is, is to God.

Hartman takes his own teacher, Soloveitchik, to task. Soloveitchik who suggests that the offer of Isaac is the high point of Abrahams’ life – it’s more complex than that says Hartman, it’s not undiluted heroism, it’s dangerous and, if its possible to say such a thing, unJewish.

Hartman - The binding of Isaac ‘threatens covenantal adequacy because it seems to exclude ethics from religious consciousness’

And Judaism could never abandons ethics from the religious consciousness, it can never abandon the human, because Judaism is about a covenant – and that means humans and God meeting if not on equal terms, then at least both bringing of themselves to this conversation.

For Hartman, for me, Judaism is not narrowly about surrender to the remote supernatural at the total expense of the person.

It’s a debate, it’s an unfolding narrative, there is give and take on both sides.


Hartman tells the story of Tanor Shel Akhnai, God enters a debate between two groups of Rabbis and finds himself on the losing side.

This is what God desires

‘Talmud liberates the intellect’ says Hartman

It frees us to pursue the moral, the better, to keep refining and reshaping in search of ever more sophistication.

That’s what it means to be a Jew.

That’s what it means to be parties to a Covenant, as opposed to pansies,

The Jew is not some kind of Aunt Sally constructed to be the butt of divine capriciousness.

The failure of Soloveitchik is that he hasn’t taken enough notice of the human – the possibility, the insight, the potential which is surely God given – we are built this way for a purpose.

We are built this way to push, to improve, to create, innovate.

We are never to yield to the immoral, the unsympathetic.

The failure of Yarom’s Spinoza, by a similar token is he’s allowed Judaism to be defined by things he doesn’t believe in.

Judaism is great enough to handle Spinoza – to be fair Yarom captures this in a terrific scene when the Rabbi who is to place Spinoza in exile desperately tries to recruit him for a life of Talmudic study. It’s an attempt that failed, but it’s predicated on the basis that if Spinoza was able to find the space within Judaism for his own brilliance he could have been a force for renewal and growth.


Great problem Judaism has had with modernity is not that it can’t cope with modernity.

Of course it can cope with modernity, of course Judaism can thrive as it engages with modernity.

The great problem Judaism has with modernity is that hasn’t had faith in its own ability to cope.

This is what Hartman tries to address, time and time again.

Don’t allow Judaism to be painted as brittle, reliant on superstition and Marxist-style rabbinic power grabs.

Celebrate Judaism’s true soul – its innovative spirit, it’s power to regenerate in each and every generation, to remain current, vital and powerful.

That’s why we should let Judaism into our souls, to shape us and move us as we shape and move it.

That’s what it means to be part of what Hartman calls the Living Covenant.

That’s my message today.

Don’t allow Judaism to be painted as brittle, reliant on superstition and Marxist-style rabbinic power grabs.

Celebrate Judaism’s true soul – its innovative spirit, its power to regenerate in each and every generation, to remain current, vital and powerful.


When I took my fifteen year old copy of the book off the shelf I found a note I wrote to myself on the frontispiece.

I wrote it before I was a Rabbi, before I even began formal Rabbinic education, but I feel it as much today as I did then.

‘I am not prepared to have a theology which doesn’t allow me to be a Jew.’ I wrote in 1998.

That’s the point.

It’s also, for what it is worth, the life’s work of the founding Rabbi of this community, Rabbi Louis Jacobs of blessed memory.

It remains the core and heart of my own rabbinic endeavours. None of us should be ‘prepared to have a theology which doesn’t allow us to be a Jew.’




Shabbat shalom


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