Spinoza and Farcical “Orthodoxy”


By Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer

He rejected the concept of divine revelation; he equated God with nature; he denied the idea of a personal God, Who intervenes in history and performs miracles; he renounced external interpretations of Scripture, such as the Oral Law, the Talmud; he believed that Jesus was greater than Moses; he denied the existence of prophecy; he dismissed the concept of the Jews as chosen by God. He fit to a T the various categories of heretics as codified by Maimonides (Hil. Teshuva 3:6-8).

Yet Shmuly Yanklowitz, in An Open Letter to Spinoza, apologizes to Baruch Spinoza, the famed heretic who propounded the above ideas and was hence excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656. In what can be called nothing short of the absurd, Shmuly honors and blesses Spinoza, condemns his excommunication and apologizes for it, and affirms, in Shmuly’s eyes, Judaism’s welcoming of ideas that are deemed by the Torah to be apostasy:

Those who don’t understand the subtle complexities of your ideas ban them simply for being foreign and threatening. But these individuals are spiritually xenophobic. Your philosophy must, at the least, be understood. For doesn’t Judaism thrive most amidst an open marketplace of ideas where critiques, protests, and counterpoints are not only to be welcomed but encouraged? Is not this the source of our intellectual sustenance? The ban on you has, for centuries, represented fear. And Judaism must embrace a bold and fearless journey forward.

Judaism shuns clinging to dogmas and the notions of religious exclusivity. Our normative practices reflect the intellectual ideals we hold dear. We must make clear, then, that the precepts of Torah embrace autonomy, open-thinking, hermeneutical diversity, and engaging with ideas that may be outside the comfortable framework that is all too prevalent in contemporary Jewish thought. Thus, defending you is defending the essence of Judaism itself.

May your neshama have an aliyah…

Judaism does encourage inquiry and new ideas, but only once the dogmas — yes, dogmas — such as those formulated by Maimonides and other classical authorities, which affirm an omniscient and omnipotent God, prophecy, divine providence, divine revelation, the truth of the Torah — both Written and Oral — and so forth, are first accepted, along with the traditions of the Sages. One may not even entertain ideas that give rise to rejection of the above fundamentals of belief (Maimonides Hil. Av. Kochavim 2:3).

This is traditional/Orthodox Judaism. As such, the ideology of Spinoza needed to be forcefully renounced, and an iron-strong message of condemnation was most certainly required. Spinoza’s excommunication has been basically accepted as proper by centuries of rabbinic leadership, and its correctness has even been affirmed by several modern religious academics.

Let’s shift gears a bit — but not too much:

It just dawned on me that I am waking up from being under a 20-year spell of the patriarchal god. I don’t know that I want to be in constant negotiation with male-centered texts… She (my daughter) explained that she did not accept the curse that Eve got from God — both about grief in childbirth and about women being ruled by men. (With this in mind she chanted these verses in the specific mourning trope of Lamentations!)

These are the words of Dr. Melanie Landau, a recently-ordained star graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, the Open Orthodox rabbinical school for women, endorsing new bat mitzvah rituals and attitudes. These words are about as unaccepting of Torah values and tradition as it gets. Yet they are feted on the Yeshivat Maharat Facebook page. Similarly, Shmuly, who has repeatedly made public statements that are not in consonance with Orthodox Judaism, is nonetheless honored by Open Orthodox leadership and his fellow graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, who serve as frequent guest speakers at Shmuly’s Valley Beit Midrash and who participate in other programs under his coordination.

Although the words of Shmuly and Melanie could be dismissed as the well-meaning, yet naive and wayward expressions of less learned, wet-behind-the-ears young clergy (and I do believe that these two people, along with their colleagues, are indeed very sincere and well-meaning), their endorsement by the Open Orthodox establishment speaks volumes. It speaks of a movement that claims the Orthodox brand yet is anything but, as embrace of heresy and adoption of attitudes that reject Torah values and beliefs are a dominant part of the package. Just as it is silly and farcical to call North Korea a democracy, despite its assertion that it is the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, expropriating descriptive terms whose meaning it glaringly defies, so too has Open Orthodoxy comically co-opted the Orthodox designation, despite its rejection of Torah tradition and core values in so many fundamental ways.

It is hard not to relate this train of thought to the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day concert in the epicenter of Open Orthodoxy, where a Baptist choir sings church music in this congregation’s sanctuary, before its holy ark. To describe this as a form of Orthodoxy is an exercise in absurdity and irony of the highest order. Such can also be said of the recent Open Orthodox rabbinical affirmation of Christianity (“Orthodox Rabbis Bring Jesus Home for Christmas“).

I am tired of writing about a movement that turns the word “Orthodoxy” into a farcical, silly and empty term, pliable without limit and able to be turned on its head. We have already read about Open Orthodoxy’s celebration of gay marriage, its ordaining of women, its engaging in banned interfaith discourse, its changes to conversion procedure, its feminization of prayer services, its defense of heresy and its rejection of core Torah values. How much further will the Open Orthodox movement go until it itself realizes that it cannot honestly claim any bedrock connection with Orthodoxy?

This article first appeared at Times of Israel and was submitted to Matzav by the author.



  1. What are you doing trolling the Yeshiva Maharat facebook page. You really need to find something better to do to occupy your time.

  2. rabbi: Every other day you stand up to Bash fellow Yidden. Yes we get it. Great

    Why don’t you wake up 1 morning and say how can I bring a fellow yid closer to Hashem and the Torah?

  3. Actually it is considered a historical mystery as to why Spinoza was excommunicated. Some have even speculated that he was excommunicated in order to pacify the Christians in Amsterdam who may not have liked Spinoza’s philosophical ruminations which questioned the Christain religion. So for Rabbi Gordimer to assert that the reason for his excommunication was because of his views is pure balderdash. Rabbi Gordimer is trying to look back in history with the bias of his contemporary agenda against open orthodoxy.

    • Spinoza’s views weren’t what we today call orthodox. (The term would not be applied to Judaism for another 150 years.)

      But the mean-spiritedness of his excommunication decree did not reflect the kind of compassion that orthodox Jews are supposed to show, either.

      There may be some lessons for today.

      • “mean-spiritedness of his excommunication decree did not reflect the kind of compassion”


        Because he was a Marrano?

        It is precisely because of decisive actions such as then that we managed to survive as a nation and thereby have the luxury to leisurely sit around centuries later debating and to monday morning quarterback it.

        A repeat in this era is desperately needed!

        Jews have been excommunicated for much, much less since the days of the Mishna
        [or they were turned “into a heap of bones”]

  4. Rachmana L’tzlan.

    And some people still defend these people?!?!

    These “decent open orthodox” people are more heretical than many goyim

  5. There are Russian Orthodox, Open Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox etc. and who cares what exactly they believe and say; they all are a “newish” thing that claims some sort of connection to what they call the “Old” texts, while deferring to the “J” entity. If anything, the usage of word “orthodox” as a synonym of “Torah observant” should be dropped.

  6. Open orthodoxy is the gross eager hate of human value for Torah today in the guise of being orthodox.

    The deal with Spinoza is that his philosophy work is so credited that it formulated most of the future of western political and philosophical thought. I have read a little bit and it tasted like he was just an average meaning for his own values. I did not feel I was dealing with a hate heretic.

    I wonder if the ban on Spinoza will be lifted. A cherem can be a disgusting affair and if the world knows that such a man is banned by judaism, the world will assume that judaism can have partings with humor and hope.

    Seeing Spinoza’s success was in a field of philosophy and that Hashem in my thoughts wants philosophical thought, it would appear that Spinoza might have been unordinarilly blessed. Perhaps his strength is why the synagogue banned him. I find the apostasy claims redundant and in the breif browsing of his philosophy Ethica, I did not find any anti-jewish remarks in any blatent nature. He did not seem like a warrior against Torah worth to me and I consider that perhaps he was way ahead of his time.

    Still, I would think that the synagogues need to refrain their value against a major philosopher as it does not promote tolerance and dignity in Orthodox Judaism. If a man has questions about Hashem, he has his right to try to pursue his questions in his own life until he can resolve his differences. That to me is G-ds way of letting man learn his divine nature and thus a man can find Torah will grow as he questions the divine.

    Still, I would think that the permanent ban on Spinoza gives the faithful a message that we can laugh at a mind that is not in our wavelength of human aim.

    Curious subject. The world will grow with philosophy and others will find reason to love and fear G-d.

    Give this subject more press.

  7. If you are tired of writing about Open Orthodoxy then take a rest. You sound like a broken record. Every article from you is the same; you are obsessed with Open Orthodoxy. Give it a rest already; give the rest of us a rest already.

  8. Take a look at Spinoza’s fame. Its not antijewish commentary. Its commentary on ethics by his books. He is very much read in a thousand college campuses and not despised for his philosophy. If the jews of his day did not like him, thats unfortunate. Maybe in the future we will realize that Hashem must have created Spinoza for a good purpose. He was not a murderer. And if I had to guess, the messiah will not come if we as jews still have sinas chinam for the stranger in our midst. It does not make sense.

  9. They must be studying Spinoza and “j” with purely scientific purposes, just like in the other article which discusses the very serious studies of Stalin and Beria about something coming out of President Mao Zedong.

  10. Wake up charlie, why dont you go check with an AUTHENTIC orthodox Rabbi what constitutes a talmid chocham and you will realize that weiss is much more a talmid Toeh than chocham

  11. weiss and all his cohorts will join spinoza up there where its hot so they are trying to remain on good terms with him so they can remain good friends up there

  12. Rabbi Gordimer, thank you. Seriously. People don’t realize how important exposing this is. No ad hominem necessary, just facts.