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The Pale God

Imagine God not as a benign force infusing the universe with love and sustaining it with mercy, and not as a stern judge smiting sinners from on high with his cosmic zap-gun, but as a grandfatherly figure, kind but, truth be told, somewhat out of it, sitting in a corner, tolerant of the various paths his children have chosen, content when surrounded by his grandchildren, desiring only to be recognized and see his offspring stay connected.  It would take an outrageous sin for him to get up out of his chair and say something that might cause even slight discomfort.

Relevant Links
A Portrait of Israeli Jewry  Asher Arian, Ayala Keissar-Sugarmen, Avi Chai Foundation. A comprehensive study of religious behavior among Israeli Jews, worshiping Spinoza’s pale God. (PDF)
Spinoza: A Life  Steven Nadler, Cambridge University Press. The first complete biography of Spinoza in any language—and a portrait of 17th-century Jewish Amsterdam.
Gender Trouble  Yehudah Mirsky, Jewish Ideas Daily. Israel’s secularists have their work cut out for them in implementing their vision of a moderate, state-friendly Judaism.
Secularism and Its Discontents  Yehudah Mirsky, Jewish Ideas Daily. A dependence on the idea of Jewish “tradition” has been a hallmark of Jewish secularists and proto-secularists for nine centuries or so.

According to Gideon Katz, lecturer at Israel's Ben-Gurion University and author of The Pale God: Israeli Secularism and Spinoza's Philosophy of Culture  (a slightly edited version of a Hebrew text originally published in 2011), this is the diminished vision of God that implicitly animates the ethos of most Israeli Jews—who, studies have shown, are loosely observant of Jewish law and easy-going, part-time believers in a grandfatherly God.  If they have to be classified, they should be called neither religious nor secular but mesorati, or traditionalist, Jews.

Katz is content with this.  From his perspective, if citizens in a liberal democracy are going to believe in God, it needs to be the kind of God—a "pale God"—who doesn't issue directives that can undermine political authority but just asks people to visit him when the holidays roll around.  Indeed, Katz wants Israeli secularists, for their own secularizing purposes, to embrace a traditionalist society grounded in this vision of God.  The Pale God is an unwieldy translation, and the book can be excessively self-referential.  But Katz makes a very important contribution to the discussion of the relationship between "church and state" in Israeli society.

Katz notes that three main "options" for secularism in Israel were born with the emergence of Zionism at the turn of the 20th century.  They remain the dominant secular options today, but none has resolved the tension between secularism and Jewish tradition.

One option, identified with Ahad Ha'am (1856–1927), reinterprets Judaism as national culture. The problem with this option is that the Jewish tradition presents itself as God-given; "Judaism as culture," by interpreting the tradition as merely a human creation, undermines itself by eviscerating what it purports to exalt.  A second option, identified with A.D. Gordon (1856–1922), interprets Judaism as cosmic and individualistic, new-age Judaism before the "new age"; here, Jewish tradition is raw material for fashioning one's inner life.  The problem with this "spiritual secularism," as Katz calls it, is that the collective dimension of the tradition is lost.  The last option, pure rebellion, sounds simple; but it means rebelling against the dominant ethos of Israeli society.

In place of these failed options Katz offers a surprising secular alternative: Spinoza.  Yes, Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), the renegade Jew who claimed that only the hatred of the nations had preserved the Jewish people and who wanted nothing to do with that people.  There is, in fact, a modern tradition of Jewish secularists who have turned to Spinoza for direction and inspiration, including David Ben-Gurion.  It is no accident that in the past 130 years, Spinoza's Ethics has been translated into Hebrew three times.

Spinoza is relevant, Katz claims, because he understood something fundamental about human nature that 20th-century Israeli secularists failed to grasp: Religious tradition isn't about to disappear.  

Spinoza wished to create a rational political order—but only to the degree possible.  He recognized that most people are controlled by desires and guided by sentiments.  Unwilling or unable to live a life of reason, they turn to religious symbols and language.  Accordingly, Spinoza taught that in order to move the masses toward reason, it was necessary to rationalize—to moderate—God.  The living God of the Bible, who intervenes in human affairs and issues commands superior to human political authority, was to be replaced by a "pale God" who stands aside and doesn't legislate.  The language and symbols of tradition are accepted but infused with less intense meanings.

And here's where Katz gets excited about the prospects for Israeli society: "Traditionalism in Israeli society corresponds, in many ways, to the principles of the popular religion which Spinoza introduces."  In other words, the laid-back faith of traditional Israelis is just what Spinoza was hoping for.  Most Israeli Jews, re-politicized by Zionism, have gradually developed an attitude towards religious tradition that doesn't undermine the state's authority and in many cases even serves the state's purposes.  The peculiar mix of religious and national symbols often seen in Israel's public sphere testifies to just how thoroughly the state has tamed religious tradition for most Israelis.

Katz wants Israeli secularism—understood not as personal solipsism but as a political project—to embrace this "traditionalist society" as its own.  He thinks Israeli Jews' shared religious attachment is a "moderated tradition" that can "serve as a common culture and the basis for political authority." In addition, because secularists oftentimes are, in Katz's view, no more rational than their religious counterparts, it would also be arrogant and foolish for secularists to jettison a tradition that implicitly reflects the limits of human understanding.  

It will be wonderfully ironic if Spinoza, the great Jewish heretic, becomes a guide to negotiating the tension between the Jewish tradition and the state of Israel.  But Spinoza may be a more problematic guide than Katz thinks. 

First, in order to emancipate philosophy from religion, Spinoza aggressively attacked the legitimacy of the Jewish interpretive tradition; using Spinoza to rationalize the Jewish tradition—like using "Judaism as culture"—weakens the tradition by emptying it of its interpretive dimension.  More fundamentally, the Jewish tradition teaches that man was created in God's image; if God is a cosmic mediocrity, man's potential is likewise limited.  Therefore, anyone concerned about the future of human excellence, especially religion's role in fostering that excellence, must rebel against Spinoza's pale God.  

Yet Katz raises an important issue that thoughtful people need to address as secularism increasingly collides with militant religious fundamentalism: the tension between thought and society.  Nurturing an image of God's greatness—God is great!—that respects the autonomy of the political sphere is clearly one of the pressing problems of our time.

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Kerry on February 3, 2012 at 6:57 am (Reply)
Free will is a major part of the Judeo-Christian tradition and fits with Spinoza's philosophy. We have a choice.
Nissel on February 3, 2012 at 10:03 am (Reply)
When are we going to finally recognize that there's nothing up there, stop worrying about it, get on with what's real and tangible, and do something that really makes a difference?
Julian Tepper on February 3, 2012 at 12:00 pm (Reply)
The question about when "we" will "recognize that there's nothing up there" demonstrates a quality often shared by true believers, including atheists: the inclination to command others to accept their beliefs . These people find others' differing beliefs, whether or not adamantly held or practiced, anathematic. The commenter might have merely exhorted his audience to "do something that really makes a difference;" attaching to it a condemnation of the belief that God exists was unnecessary. The exhortation is what Aryeh Tepper accomplished in his article.

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM/Bethesda, MD
Stephen L. on February 4, 2012 at 7:31 pm (Reply)
How does free will fit with Spinoza's philosophy? He is a determinist.
SW on February 5, 2012 at 2:39 pm (Reply)
"We" should "do something that really makes a difference?" If the commenter is not "making a difference" as he means it, why not? If he is, why ask the question in the plural? Pale God, vibrant God or no god, there is no reason to not do good individually.
Aharon HaLevi on February 6, 2012 at 9:40 am (Reply)
There is a detailed discussion and analysis of this general topic in R. Jonathan Sacks' book, "One People?" (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization), for people who want to analyze this problem rather than merely complain about it. It has some useful perspectives.
Steve Gonzalez on February 6, 2012 at 3:15 pm (Reply)
"If you seek Me with all your heart, you will find Me" (Jer. 29:13). Does anyone have the courage to take Him up on His offer?
Moshe Kaplan on February 6, 2012 at 3:37 pm (Reply)
"Nurturing an image of God's greatness—God is great!—that respects the autonomy of the political sphere is clearly one of the pressing problems of our time," but doesn't Judaism already have a built-in structure for brilliantly solving this problem? It is the idea that when Moshiach comes, G-d's greatness will be eclipsed by nothing; but until then, the political sphere--and other spheres--are autonomous.
Aryeh Tepper on February 7, 2012 at 4:02 pm (Reply)
A distant messiah might guarantee the autonomy of the political sphere but doesn't provide us with an image of greatness to be emulated, here and now.
David L. Fried on February 7, 2012 at 8:29 pm (Reply)
The phrase "human excellence" seems to imply the existence of an ideal that needs an active God defining (and enforcing?) the standards. Wouldn't "human betterment" be good enough, and wouldn't a pale God be adequate to define it?
Aryeh Tepper on February 7, 2012 at 10:21 pm (Reply)
If "human betterment" means meeting the material needs of humanity coupled with basic decency, perhaps a "pale God" will be sufficient. Is an active God necessary for setting the standard of excellence? It depends on what you mean by "active." I don't think God has to providentially care for every human individual in order for him to set the standard. Perhaps some things should be beneath a robust God's concern.
SW on February 8, 2012 at 2:49 am (Reply)
"Nurturing an image of God's greatness—God is great!—that respects the autonomy of the political sphere is clearly one of the pressing problems of our time." Perhaps nuturing a political sphere that respects the autonomy of one's image of God is among the pressing questions, as one watches the U.S. government demand that Catholics fund abortion, the Canadian and several European governments demand that intellectual criticism of Islam be restrained, the Saudi government demand that Christians not worship, and more. The issue is not "God in the political sphere" but the political sphere itself becoming a god.
Julian Tepper on February 9, 2012 at 7:34 pm (Reply)
"Perhaps some things should be beneath a robust God's concern:" God only knows! JT
Daniel Paul K on February 13, 2012 at 7:53 pm (Reply)
Spinoza's view--that the hatred of the nations preserved the Jewish people--is right. If there were no persecutions or pogroms, and if Jews were living as happily as they do in the United States, how many Jews would have returned to Palestine to create their own Kingdom? If there were no Holocaust, could Jews have gotten the world sympathy needed to establish a Jewish state, Israel? Where there was no such strong hatred, there was the greatest danger of Jews assimilating into the gentile world. The hatred of gentiles helped Jews hold fast to their God. The Psalmist could foresee this and said, long before Spinoza, "Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies, I keep your precepts with all my heart. Their hearts are callous and unfeeling, but I delight in your law. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees (Ps.119:60-71). The arrogant dig pitfalls for me, contrary to your law. All your commands are trustworthy; help me, for men persecute me without cause. They almost wiped me from the earth, but I have not forsaken your precepts. Preserve my life according to your love, and I will obey the statutes of your mouth(Ps. 119:85-88)..
Julian Tepper on February 14, 2012 at 3:07 pm (Reply)
But if there were no persecutions or pogroms, the "Temple" would not have been destroyed and the Jews who worshiped there would not have been driven out of their country. Thus, neither a return to that country nor a re-creation of their own Kingdom would have been at all necessary.

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM/Bethesda, MD

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