One beauty of being Jewish is that you can’t get excommunicated, Spinoza notwithstanding. Sure, there are various boards of rabbis here and there. But no central authority, the way Catholics have their U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Nor do Jews have sacraments, like Communion, that can be withheld as punishment for apostasy. The way bishops voted overwhelmingly Friday to draft “a formal statement” forbidding Catholic public officials like President Joe Biden from receiving the eucharist if they insist on supporting one particular legal American right that conflicts with Catholic theology: abortion.
The most important aspects of Judaism: lighting candles on Friday night, atoning on Yom Kippur, pushing back against dogma, can’t be yanked away by some board of overlords.
In fact, being heretical is almost the Jewish brand. That’s why the faith is so studded with people like Spinoza, or Freud, or Einstein or Lenny Bruce.
When my son came back from sophomore year and gravely informed me he was questioning the value of his religion, I smiled and replied, “Buddy, I hate to tell you, but doubting Judaism is the most Jewish thing you can do at this point in your life.”
Yes, like all faiths, Jews have our own strong ultra-Orthodox wing, where wearing a pearl gray Borsalino hat will get you in hot water, never mind pushing back against doctrine. But the Hassidim have about as much influence on mainstream Judaism as the Pennsylvania Amish have on the Philadelphia club scene.
They do encourage weak tea Jews such as myself to say certain prayers but are smart enough not to try to punish us if we don’t. Which I respect, even while their lifestyle puzzles me. You’ve got one life. Are you really going to spend it dressed for 18th century Vilnius and arguing obscure points of Deuteronomy dietary law? Don’t let me stop you. It’s a free country.
And I’d like to keep it that way. Which is why we need to resist the bishops and remind them their authority ends at the church door. Yes, they are free to define the contours of their own faith.
But to inflict a special penalty especially on government leaders is not religion but politics. Not just their business but ours, too. It isn’t as if regular lay Catholics are being punished for their beliefs, not anymore. If some Board of Rabbis were to announce that U.S. senators couldn’t eat latkes at Hanukkah unless they keep Kosher, the ridicule would be Biblical.
And deserved. You can’t scurry out into the street, push passersby down then retreat back into the cathedral and claim you are being oppressed if people object. Of course some try. I should bring out the felt board and speak directly to them, to readers who see a column such as this as a brutal, unprovoked attack against their faith.
See this little red square with a steeple? That’s the church. It goes over here. And see this blue pillared building? That’s the state. It goes waaaaay over here. If you try to drag the state over and put it under the authority of the church, then this multicolored piece of felt, which we’ll call “The people,” are allowed, indeed compelled, to complain, bitterly, and you can’t object because you deserve it.
Using the fact that the president is a devout Catholic to blackmail him to stop supporting certain liberties of non-Catholic Americans is everyone’s business. Do you see? No, well, I tried.
OK, I know what some of you are thinking: Was Spinoza really excommunicated? To which I answer, “Yes, but ...”
A proclamation was read on July 27, 1656, at Talmud Torah, a congregation of Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam. Not exactly condemnation by the entirety of organized Judaism but a single congregation lashing out at one rebellious member. The equivalent of me being excommunicated by some synagogue in Buffalo Grove.
I wish I could share the whole excommunication. The congregation, “having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, they have endeavored by various means and promises, to turn him from his evil ways. But having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds ...”
Which leads to the question: What had he done?
Spinoza was 23, an importer of dried fruit, who had yet to write any of the philosophy that would bring his name down to this day. It’s safe to assume he was talking up his idea of God, not as the easily-riled yet omniscient celestial bully of the Torah, but being the same as the universe, which actually is vast, mysterious and eternal. Deus sive Natura, he’d write, “God or nature.”
A reminder: Bans don’t work unless you’re in complete control. Memo to Catholic bishops: You’re not. Those days are gone. In the modern world, prohibitions tend to promote the thing being suppressed.
So to the degree his excommunication helped prod Spinoza, encouraging him to publish the heresies that so irked his brethren, we must be grateful. And to the bishops as well, ultimately.
Trying to bar Biden only undermines their own fading authority and reminds the public how wedded to political power religion has become. If your belief system is so oppressive, arcane and unpopular that nobody wants to comply with it voluntarily, that’s your problem. Not ours. Save it for church.