(This article is written by guest writer Aron Gamman.)
Exploring Judaism through the prism of spiritual naturalism opens up many possibilities. On the one hand, he challenges Jewish traditions by denying a supernatural agency. But to the extent that Judaism has been less “otherworldly” than some of the other major religions, Naturalism and Judaism have common ground.
Treating Jewish theism as mythology, rather than taking it literally, challenges the core of what it means to be Jewish for those who stick to a more static interpretation of tradition. This same kind of attitude reflects the reaction that the Jewish community in Holland had towards Baruch Spinoza in earlier times. Her idea of God challenged traditional view as she also challenged the idea of God held by the Christian churches of her day.
Spinoza began his life like any other Jew of this period. His parents had left Portugal to escape religious persecution. But more radically than other Jews of the time, Baruch questioned tradition and considered other options. Whether he considered himself a radical or not, it’s hard to know, but it led to him being excommunicated. In a sense, he became the first secular Jew. In a article in the Jewish Virtual Library, it is said:
At first Spinoza was hated as an atheist – and certainly his God is not the conventional Judo-Christian God. Enlightenment philosophers ridiculed his methods – not without reason. The romantics, attracted by his identification of God with Nature, saved him from oblivion.
It’s a bit ironic that while Spinoza’s family immigrated from Portugal for religious freedom, Baruch sought a different kind of religious freedom in his new country. He remains today one of the heroes for those of us who think that the words “God” and “Nature” refer to essentially the same thing.
Today we have a freedom that many did not have in the past. It allows us to explore our Jewish identity, even those of us who can no longer accept his model of theism. We can recognize the well known literature (or canon) of Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, Siddur; we can appreciate how they set standards and humanistic ideas and values in the past, but we don’t have to give them undue authority or take them literally. We can still connect with the memory of our ancestors and their stories, but in a different form, perhaps more authentic to us and our communities; one that can be integrated into the worldview revealed by modern science. We can accept the possibility of new stories and new interpretations arising in the present and advancing tradition.
We do not believe that religious expressions necessarily correspond to secular interpretations of Jewish history and human experience. Yet we wish to speak for ourselves. We wish to experience many concepts presented by ourselves outside of religious guidelines. We don’t necessarily need to be validated by traditional religious texts.
We approach a plurality of Jewish roots so that we have the power to choose. We deny one Jewish tradition, but accept many “Judaisms”. Many traditions of counter-establishment have existed in the past and continue to exist. These have included mystical and secular varieties. The presence of these traditions is written in the Talmud and elsewhere, although some were officially ignored once the issues were “settled.” Underground and folk traditions are rooted as much in Jewish tradition as they are in official ideology.
A spiritual naturalist’s approach to Judaism can be seen as a new tradition of counter-establishment. Who has authority now? It’s us. Spinoza’s ideas predate those of modern science, but to some extent he inspired them. Currently, it also serves as an inspiration to those of us who embrace the scientifically advanced worldview, while continuing to value our Jewish identity and the rich centuries-old tradition in which that identity has developed. We can embrace the incredible image of “creation” that modern science presents to us, while maintaining our roots in the Jewish tradition.