Spinoza’s Legacy, Truth, and Ice Cream

Professor Noam Pianko, the chair of the Stroum Jewish Studies Program at UW, is spending the summer in Israel as adjunct faculty on the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. This post draws upon the seminar on modern Jewish identity that he is teaching the BYFI Fellows this summer. It is republished here with the author’s permission.  

This evening our four and half year old daughter, Yona, asked me why we chose Yona as her name. Like many kids this age, Yona tends to ask the same question multiple times and she already knew the answer: since she was born right after Yom Kippur we named her after the prophet Jonah, the protagonist in the haftorah read on Yom Kippur afternoon.

But, then Yona took the conversation in a different direction. “Did the story of Jonah really happen?” she asked. Poor Yona. With a rabbi and a professor of Jewish studies as parents she received a far more complex answer than is appropriate for a four year old. After stuttering and looking at each other to see who would jump in, we tried to explain the difference between historical fact and truth to a four year old. While Yona is a precocious kid—this distinction was clearly lost on her.

While Yona moved on to a far more important topic (a comparison of Israeli and American ice cream flavors), I kept thinking about her question.  Yona asked the question that has bothered modern Jewish thinkers since Baruch Spinoza questioned the historical accuracy of the Biblical text in a book (the Theological Political Treatise) published in 1670. Spinoza introduced a radical claim. The obvious historical inconsistencies in the Biblical text, he suggested, undermined the theological claims of the Bible. By introducing what later scholars would call Biblical criticism, Spinoza elevated historical accuracy to be the primary criteria for evaluating the validity of religious belief and practice.


A Spinoza for every season. Image from jewcy.com.

Today, the intimate link between historical accuracy and the justification of religious life has become mainstream (even a four year old sensed the need to ask whether the biblical tale actually happened or not). Before Spinoza and the modern critique of religion that his work unleashed, theological beliefs did not rest on the ability of believers to demonstrate the historical accuracy of the Biblical narrative. Spinoza brought the tools of reason and history to the realm of religion. From this moment forward, Jewish thinkers (like their non-Jewish analogues) were forced to justify religious traditions on Spinoza’s grounds. As a result, a salient them across the broad spectrum of modern Jewish ideologies is the attempt to demonstrate the rational, historical, or philosophical characteristics of Biblical sources.

In my Bronfman seminar this summer, we will have the chance to briefly touch on a number of these attempts to shield Judaism from Spinoza’s enduring attack on religious life: the founders of Reform and Orthodox Judaism answered Spinoza by claiming the Bible as the source of rational and moral truths, secular Jewish nationalists rejected the Bible’s theological claims and instead viewed the text as the source of national culture, and existentialists such as Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig tried to avoid the problem by describing the Bible as a record of the encounter between God and man rather than a direct revelation.

Yet, these explanations have not fully satisfied the challenge introduced by Spinoza and now so deeply ingrained in our culture that a four year old seeks historical validity for biblical narratives.

Despite the best attempts by modern Jewish thinkers to articulate Judaism’s compatibility with Spinoza, Jewish life cannot escape the need to explain why something that did not actually happen could be the source of religious truth.

Indeed, the enduring centrality of this question has created polarizing forces in religious life: secular thinkers who view Jewish ritual and texts as human creations with limited value, and believers committed to reading texts as literal representations of the past. Both trends are equally modern innovations because they take the challenge of Spinoza as the starting point of rejecting or embracing religion.

Maybe when Yona gets older, I should explain that the problem is not whether or not the Jonah story actually took place in history; the issue is the very lens through which we approach religious sources.  Why has the historical accuracy of Jewish sources become the arbiter of scripture’s authority? Spinoza has thus left us all in a bind.

Maybe, I can eventually convince Yona that she should focus her curiosity on other questions about the text that inspired her name. But even if I can convince her, Spinoza’s legacy will be hard to overcome in a religious culture obsessed with using history and modern reason as the principal measure by which modern individuals decide whether or not to identify with a particular religious community.



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Noam Pianko

Author:Noam Pianko

Noam Pianko is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also serves as the Lucia S. and Herbert L. Pruzan Professor of Jewish Studies and Chair of the Stroum Jewish Studies Program at the University of Washington.

One Response to “Spinoza’s Legacy, Truth, and Ice Cream”

  1. Sarah Stroup
    Sarah Stroup
    8/2/2012 at 10:49 am #

    When we have encountered such questions (from out now 8 year old), I usually start by saying “well, what do you think?”

    One of the first times was when I was teaching in Rome, and took my students and the then 4 year old, to Santa Maria Maggiore, which houses (or housed: I believe it has been removed, as we were just there again this spring, and it did not seem to be there. Perhaps it has risen. Or been put in a storeroom the manger of Jesus. Or a piece of it. A piece of the One True Manger. I don’t remember.

    But as we were leaving, he asked what that thing was in the reliquary, and I explained. He said, this 4 year old “is it *really* the crib where Jesus was born?” (He doesn’t know much about Christianity, but I’ve tried to teach him some of the basics.) I said, “Well, what do you think?”

    He pretty swiftly came down on the side of “No, that’s ridiculous.” But then we discussed why it would be important for Catholics, who believe that Jesus was also the son of god and also god, to believe that this is where that god was born. And so we kind of got into the difference between historical accuracy (or probability) and faith or truth. In this case, it was not our “truth,” but he recognized that some stories may not be factual, but may hold a truth that is meaningful to a self-identifying group, and that that truth can have value beyond historicity.

    (This is, by the way, how I teach my mythology classes.)

    And since then it’s been: the Jewish captivity under pharaoh, the exodus, the parting of the reed sea, and so on. We have no historical or archaeological evidence for any of this, but all of these myths present a very real and important truth to our self-identifying people.