The Pale God

By Aryeh Tepper
Friday, February 3, 2012

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.

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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