(Spinoza Says) Enlightenment Now (Shut the Synagogues) (Coronavirus)


[[Dutch Portuguese Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo arguing for the lifting of the ban on Baruch Spinoza, December 6, 2015. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)]]

Spinoza Says

About Enlightenment, post-secularism, and anti-liberal twaddle. Watching in real time and with some pleasure as the unfolding relationship between the Health Ministry in Israel and the rabbinate confirms the basic contention by Spinoza concerning the need to subordinate religious interests and ecclesiastical authority to state authority and the public good. As per this article here, even ultra-orthodox leaders, with all the power they hold in the Israeli political system, begin to bend to the will of the state sovereign and medical authority.

By way of a rough and general timeline. With the outbreak of the Coronavirus in Israel and the United States, liberal and modern orthodox institutions in the United States and Israel shut down operations immediately. This was just after Purim. Ultra-orthodox authorities balked, insisting that yeshivot were to remain open. Then the Chief Rabbinate and said ultra-orthodox authorities “ruled” that yeshiva study and public prayer would remain open following social distance protocols limiting the congregation of people to ten people socially spread out. Then the order comes in, in Israel (and in the U.S.?). Religious schools and synagogues close their doors, as per the directives of the competent secular authorities (medical, political). Note also the irony. In Israel, the new lock down regulations permit both political demonstrations and religious activities, which are (for now) allowed only in “open spaces,” i.e. in public, not cooped up in the private or semi-private space of the synagogue.

Key lines from this article worth noting:

The notion that religious people disgrace God’s name:

The head of the Health Ministry’s infectious disease prevention department, Prof. Mitchell Schwaber  “As a Jew who follows the commandments and prays in a minyan [prayer quorum], I am aware of the importance of communal prayer, Schwaber wrote. “But when prayer is bound up in great danger, I feel it is upon us to comply with the commandment of the hour and avoid knowingly putting ourselves and others in danger and disgracing God’s name,” he wrote.

Nothing in Jewish law to help here. The only guidelines are institutionally secular:

A source close to [the Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yosef told Haaretz that “There is an official agency in the State of Israel that decides what’s dangerous and what’s not. The chief rabbis had said all along that they rely on the Health Ministry and don’t make up their own rules.” The source added that Rabbi Yosef said that there is nothing in Jewish law that says anything particular about the coronavirus, the only guidelines come from the ministry.

For a little more context, this other article here lists current protocols as they affect religion:

Leaving the house for religious worship is only permitted if it takes place in an “open space” – effectively shuttering synagogues, churches and mosques. Life cycle events are still permitted under very limited conditions: Weddings, funerals and brit milahs (circumcision ceremonies) may be held, but only outdoors and with up to 10 participants, standing at least 2 meters apart from one another. Women are still allowed to visit a mikveh (ritual bath), but only if the appointment is scheduled.”

Whether or not which ultra-orthodox institutional leaders and which parts of the ultra-orthodox public follow or don’t follow these directives is its own question.  But in theory, a secular consensus seems like it’s being imposed to secure the larger public good.


Of interest are three lines of Jewish religion in Israel. Those modern orthodox-religious nationalists who embrace the nation-state, those ultra-orthodox who do not recognize the legitimacy of the secular Jewish nation-state in theory but who participate in its electoral politics, and those ultra-orthodox who utterly reject the state and collaboration with it in practice. But now, in theory if not necessarily or consistently in practice, even those who reject the legitimacy of the (Jewish) state, in practice, will follow the state directive, at least in theory if not consistently in practice. About the Chief Rabbanut being a state organ, the point is that they are deferring to the Health Ministry, which is still secular in function, even if run by a Degel Torah guy (Litzman). As this article suggests here rates of individual and group compliance and non-compliance to government regulations regarding this public health crisis will vary across different segments of the Haredi community, more so in Israel where these communities enjoy something that comes very close to autonomy, particularly in places like Bnei Brak and Beit Shemesh where the governing municipal authority is Haredi. 

Someone can say that Halakha allows the same, that there are halakhic principles that defer to state and medical authority. But the response in real time in Haredi worlds has been slow, inconsistent, and still troubling around the more extreme edges. And it has banged up against other values, like public prayer, the performance of weddings and funerals, and public talmud Torah. If the Halakha is to follow state authority, this does not mean that Haredi authorities are complying actually on their own terms. It is more the case that they are doing  so (i.e. activating those halakhic principles) under multiple duress.

So, yes, we can draw conclusions about how religious authorities and communities are or are not submitting to secular authority; that the first amendment in the U.S., fortunately, allows the government to close religious institutions along with other types of establishment during a pandemic. And at this moment, it seems to be the case that governing authorities in the U.S. and in Israel are forcing Jewish religious authorities to submit to public regulations, just like Spinoza would have wanted.

The scholarly question re: Spinoza would be whether he wanted [1] complete and total control or [2] a more general and diffuse compliance, cooperation, and subordination to the public good represented by the state. The Political Treatise has a passage or two suggesting the first. The TTP seems to suggest the second which is why the “modern” movements (including the modern orthodox in the U.S. and religious nationalists in Israel) were with the general program, the general good from the get go, and the Haredi communities less so, and only now, more or less so.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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