Irvin D. Yalom

{EN} The Spinoza Problem – Irvin D. Yalom

1. ” In his official report, Rosenberg’s officer, the Nazi who did the hands-on looting of the library, added a significant sentence: ‘They contain valuable early works of great importance for the exploration of the Spinoza problem.’
What was the Nazi Spinoza problem?” Like a mime duo, my hosts hunched their shoulders and turned up their palms. I pressed on. “You’re saying that because of this Spinoza problem, they protected these books rather than burn them, as they burned so much of Europe?” They nodded.”

2. “Consider this world where a son smells the odor of his father’s burning flesh. Where is the God that created this kind of world? Why does He permit such things? Do you blame me for asking that?”

3. “Then surely you would agree that, by definition, a perfect and complete being has no needs, no insufficiencies, no wants, no wishes. Is that not so?”

4. ““Then,” Spinoza continues, “I submit that God has no wishes about how, or even if, we glorify Him. Allow me, then, Jacob, to love God in my own fashion.””

5. “He looks like everyone and no one. He is a near-man with a whole life ahead of him. In eight years he will travel from Reval to Munich and become a prolific anti-Bolshevik and anti-Semitic journalist. In nine years he will hear a stirring speech at a meeting of the German Workers’ Party by a new prospect, a veteran of World War I named Adolf Hitler, and Alfred will join the party shortly after Hitler. In twenty years he will lay down his pen and grin triumphantly as he finishes the last page of his book, The Myth of the Twentieth Century. Destined to become a million-copy best seller, it will provide much of the ideological foundation of the Nazi party and offer a justification for the destruction of European Jews. In thirty years his troops will storm into a small Dutch museum in Rijnsburg and confiscate Spinoza’s personal library of one hundred and fifty-one volumes. And in thirty-six years his dark-circled eyes will appear bewildered and he will shake his head no when asked by the American hangman at Nuremberg, “Do you have any last words?””

6. “Late in that century, measures were passed in Germany to transform Jews into German citizens, and they were compelled to choose and pay for German names. If they refused to pay, then they might receive ridiculous names, such as Schmutzfinger or Drecklecker. Most of the Jews agreed to pay for a prettier or more elegant name, perhaps a flower—like Rosenblum—or names associated with nature in some way, like Greenbaum. Even more popular were the names of noble castles. For example, the castle of Epstein had noble connotations and belonged to a great family of the Holy Roman Empire, and its name was often selected by Jews living in its vicinity in the eighteenth century. Some Jews paid lesser sums for traditional Jewish names like Levy or Cohen. “Now your name, Rosenberg, is a very old name also. But for over a hundred years it has had a new life. It has become a common Jewish name in the Fatherland, and I assure you that if, or when, you make the trip to the Fatherland, you will see glances and smirks, and you will hear rumors about Jewish ancestors in your bloodline.”

7. ““You say that imperishable happiness lies elsewhere. Tell me about this ‘elsewhere.’” “I only know that it does not lie in perishable objects. It lies not outside but within. It is the mind that determines what is fearful, worthless, desirable, or priceless, and therefore it is the mind, and only the mind, that must be altered.””

8. “Spinoza, you say . . . hmm, from the Latin spina and spinosus, meaning respectively ‘thorn’ and ‘full of thorns.’””

9. “At first, Bento was shocked: one of the Jewish tenets he never challenged was the inferiority of women—inferior rights and inferior intellects. Though he was stunned by Clara Maria, he came to regard her as an oddity, a freak, an exception to the rule that women’s minds were not equal to men’s.”

10. ““Here is your project. You are to read, very carefully, two chapters—fourteen and sixteen—in Goethe’s autobiography, and you are to write down every line that he writes about his own personal hero, a man who lived a long time ago named Spinoza. Surely, you will welcome this assignment. It will be a joy to read some of your hero’s autobiography. Goethe is the man you love, and I imagine it will be of interest to you to learn what he says about the man he loves and admires. Right?””

11. ““Well, let’s start with the action of rejecting Jewish customs, and rejecting even the community. And then the action of dishonoring the Sabbath. And turning away from the synagogue and donating practically nothing this year—those are the kinds of actions I mean.””

12. ““He said that the ‘Spinoza problem,’ as he calls it, could be traced back many years, back to your impertinence during your bar mitzvah preparation. He remembered that Rabbi Mortera favored you above all other students. That he thought of you as his possible successor. And then you called the biblical story of Adam and Eve a ‘fable.’ Sarah’s father said that when the rabbi rebuked you for denying the word of God, you responded, ‘The Torah is confused, for if Adam was the first man, who exactly did his son, Cain, marry?’ Did you say that, Bento? Is it true you called the Torah ‘confused’?””

13. ““Sarah’s father said that this insolence in questioning the Bible and our religious leaders is offensive and dangerous not only to the Jews but to the Christian community also. The Bible is sacred to them as well.” “Gabriel, you believe we should forsake logic, forsake our right to question?””

14. “‘He who loves God rightly must not desire God to love him in return.’”

15. “In other words it is not what you believe or say you believe, it is how you live that matters.”

16. “What are we, what are you, without our community, without our tradition? Can you live wandering the earth alone? I hear you take no wife. What kind of life can you have without people? Without family? Without God?””

17. “Tell me, both of you, why is the miracle season over? Has the mighty, all-powerful God gone to sleep? Where was that God when my father was burned at the stake? And for what reason? For protecting the sacred book of that very God? Wasn’t God powerful enough to save my father, who revered Him so? If so, who needs such a weak God?”

18. “I believe the problem has its root in a fundamental and massive error, the error of assuming that God is a living, thinking being, a being in our image, a being who thinks like us, a being who thinks about us.”

19. “Two thousand years ago, a wise man named Xenophanes wrote that if oxen, lions, and horses had hands with which to carve images, they would fashion God after their own shapes and give him bodies like their own. I believe that if triangles could think they would create a God with the appearance and attributes of a triangle, or circles would create circular—””

20. “No, no, it was not the oath that vexed him: it was the Goethe problem. He worshipped Goethe. And Goethe worshipped Spinoza. Alfred could not rid himself of this cursed book because Goethe loved it enough to carry it in his pocket for an entire year. This obscure Jewish nonsense had calmed Goethe’s unruly passions and made him see the world more clearly than ever before. How could that be? Goethe saw something in it that he could not discern. Perhaps, someday, he would find the teacher who could explain this.”

21. “But in 1915, as the German troops threatened both Estonia and Latvia, the entire Polytechnic Institute was moved to Moscow, where Alfred lived until 1918, when he handed in his final project—an architectural design for a crematorium—and received his degree in architecture and engineering.”

22. ““It’s not your words,” interrupted Jacob. “It’s your manner. As a Jew, I am offended by the way you handle our holy book. You don’t kiss it or honor it. You practically threw it on the table; you point with an unwashed finger. And you read with no chanting, no inflection of any sort. You read in the same voice as you might read a purchase agreement for your raisins.”

23. “But I do say that the words and ideas of the Bible come from the human mind, from the men who wrote these passages and imagined—no, I should better say wished—that they resembled God, that they were made in God’s image.””

24. ““You refer, I assume, to Epicurus’s advice to do anything necessary to fit in with a community, including participating in public prayer.” “Yes, I call that hypocrisy. Even Edward responded to that. How can inner harmony be present if one is untrue to oneself?””

25. “The Bible was put together by human hands. There is no other possible explanation for the many inconsistencies. No rational person could imagine that a divine omniscient author deliberately wrote with the object of contradicting himself freely.””

26. “I have reached the conclusion that rituals of our community have nothing to do with divine law, nothing to do with blessedness and virtue and love, and everything to do with civic tranquility and perpetuation of rabbinical authority—””

27. “Let us look at Isaiah, who teaches most plainly that the divine law signifies a true manner of life, not a life of ceremonial observances. Isaiah plainly tells us to forego sacrifices and feasts and sums up the whole of divine law in these simple words”—Bento opened the Bible to a bookmark in Isaiah and read—“Cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed.””

28. ““I have told you that Nature is eternal, infinite, and encompasses all substance.” “Yes?” Jacob’s face was furrowed and quizzical. “What question?” “And have I not told you that God is eternal, infinite, and encompasses all substance?” Jacob nodded, entirely bewildered. “You say you have been listening, you say you have heard enough, but yet you have not asked me the most fundamental question.” “What fundamental question?” “If God and Nature have the identical properties, then what is the difference between God and Nature?” “All right,” said Jacob. “I ask you: what is the difference between God and Nature?” “And I give you the answer you already know: there is no difference. God is Nature. Nature is God.””

29. “Religion and statehood must be separated. The best imaginable ruler would be a freely elected leader who is limited in his powers by an independently elected council and who would act in accord with public peace and safety and social well-being.””

30. ““This is the last time, the very last time, we shall be with one another. The cherem means absolute exile. It will forbid you to speak to me or contact me in any way ever again. Ever again.”

31. ““Take his offer, Bento, please. We all make mistakes when we are young. Rejoin us. Honor God. Be the Jew you are. Be your father’s son. Rabbi Mortera will pay you for life. You can read, study, do anything you want, think anything you want. Just keep it to yourself. Take his offer, Bento. Don’t you see that for the sake of our father he is paying you not to commit suicide?””

32. “I shall never do that. I shall follow no power on earth other than my own conscience.””

33. “Taking blame is just a way of deceiving ourselves into thinking we are powerful enough to control Nature.”

34. ““But where will you live, if you’re going to remain a Jew?” asked Rebekah. “A Jew can live only with Jews.” “I’ll find a way to live without a Jewish community.””

35. ““In the synagogue he had to strip, and he received thirty-nine terrible lashes to his back and then after the ceremony ended had to lie down in the doorway while everyone in the entire congregation stepped on him as they left, and all the children chased him and spit on him. We didn’t join them—father wouldn’t permit it. A short time after that he took a gun and shot himself in the head.” “That’s what happens,” she said, turning to Bento. “There is no life outside of the community.”

36. “I promise you that I shall live a holy life and follow the words of the Torah by loving others, doing no harm, following the path of virtue, and directing my thoughts upon our infinite and eternal God.”

37. “I shall not permit the rabbis or anyone else to forbid me to reason, for it is only through reason that we can know God, and this quest is the only true source of blessedness in this life.””

38. ““Benedictus Spinoza”—hmm, Benedictus, a name with the greatest possible distance from a Semitic name. The biographical sketch noted that he was excommunicated by the Jews in his twenties and never again had contact with a Jew. So he was not truly a Jew. He was a mutation—the Jews recognized he was not a Jew, and, in taking this name, he must have realized it too.”

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