Cast Out by the Community: Taboo, Tyranny, and Tolerance from Spinoza to Modern Times

at Oshman Family JCC

Palo Alto, CA

On the occasion of the 340th anniversary of the death of Baruch Spinoza, the Lehrhaus Judaica and the Oshman Family JCC Present a Spinozium

Taboo, Tyranny, and Tolerance From Spinoza to Modern Times

Palo Alto, California

The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free. Baruch Spinoza



You know the name: Spinoza. You may know the headline: Twenty-four year old Jewish man excommunicated from the Dutch Jewish community. But do you know that Spinoza has shaped modern Jewish life, identities, and attitudes?

On the 340th anniversary of the death of Spinoza, our symposium will demonstrate by the diversity of our presentations and performances the impact this young man continues to have on Jewish life and thought. David Ben-Gurion was inspired to state that Spinoza was, “The deepest, most original thinker to emerge [from our people] from the end of the Bible to the birth of Einstein.”

And yet, the leaders of his own community declared, “We order that nobody should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells (about twelve 12 feet) of him, or read anything composed or written by him.”

But we will. We will celebrate the heretical impulse, investigate the role of the gatekeepers and censors, the price paid by those who speak out, the vitality of the secularist in the Jewish community, and women and gender issues.


3:00 pm Keynote Shultz Hall.  David Biale, “Great Jewish Heretics, from Acher through the Rambam to Spinoza.”

4:00 pm Workshops:

David Biale. Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought.  This workshop will consider the following questions: Is Jewish secularism a heresy?  What are the characteristics of Jewish secularism and how does it differ from plain secularism?  We will see how secular Jewish thinkers appropriated the traditional categories of “God,” “Torah” and “Israel,” and gave them new, secular meanings.  The workshop will look at such secular Jews as Baruch Spinoza, Heinrich Heine, Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha¹am and David Ben-Gurion.

Fred Rosenbaum.  The Price of Dissent: Southern Rabbis in the Age of Jim Crow.  Jewish spiritual leaders in Memphis, Atlanta, Jackson, and other cities spoke out against segregation in the late 1950s and 60s. We will examine not only the violent attacks against their synagogues perpetrated by the KKK and other racists, but also the censure they faced from within their own communities for putting their congregations at risk.

Tova Birnbaum.  From Archaeology to Theology: How The Kotel Became an Orthodox Synagogue and the Women of the Wall. If you look at old footage from the Western Wall, you will be surprised (or not) to see men and women standing side by side, praying and admiring the historic location. What happened in just a few decades that made Israel the only place in the world where Jews are arrested for praying- either In Temple Mount or in the Kotel Women section? Tova Birnbaum will take us to a journey starting from Herod the Great through the six day war to the Kotel Rabbinate, stopping on the way to visit freedom of religion, democracy and Israel-Diaspora relations.

Rabbi Dr. Jay Michaelson.  I Do Not Look to Heaven: The Antinomianism of Jacob Frank, Between Philosophical Critique and Esoteric Myth.  Jacob Frank (1726-1791) led the largest apostasy in Jewish history, conducted sexual rituals with his followers, and was regarded by Gershom Scholem as “a truly corrupt and degenerate individual… who could snuff out the last inner lights” of the Sabbatean heresy.  This presentation, based on ten years of doctoral research on Frankist texts, offers a revisionist view of the Frankist heresy. Frank’s complex and syncretic antinomian theology is partly a surprisingly modern critique of Jewish theodicy, and partly a bizarre magical-materialistic worldview that (really) was derived from and contributed to the Illuminati and Freemasonic societies of his day. Frank utterly rejected Kabbalah, Sabbateanism, and Judaism as ineffectual, substituting for them a Western Esotericist goal of das, gnosis, that will lead to immortality, power, and contact with a race of immortal beings.  Frank’s radical sexual praxis was a form of mystical messianism that was equal parts liberationist and sexist. And while Frankism was a dead end in terms of Jewish history, his combination of radical skepticism and experiential spirituality anticipates many currents in our own post-Jewish moment.

Naomi Seidman.  Is Heresy Gendered?  In this workshop we will explore the intersection between gender and heresy, asking what varieties of heresy are available to women at different periods. Topics we will cover include the different rates of secularization and apostasy among Eastern European men and women (including the case of Anna Kluger, the Hasidic woman who sued her parents for support for her education), and the Gershom Scholem-Hannah Arendt exchange over her lack of ‘love for Israel’.

Darren Kleinberg.  The Sociology of American (Jewish) Identity.  Beginning in the late 19th century, the United States quickly became the most diverse country in history. Ever since the great waves of immigrants arrived on these shores, scholars have tried to understand the nature and meaning of identity in America. In this session, Darren Kleinberg will take us on a journey across a century-long arc of theories of individual and group identity. From the melting pot, to pluralism, to postethnicity, we will consider the meaning of these theories for our own lives and for the contemporary American Jewish community.


5:00pm  Performance – Yair Delal.  Yair Dalal will play a program of Ladino music and poetry, romansas and intriguing folk tales which deal with ethical issues, relationships and traditions. Dalal will speak to Spinoza’s ideas on the subjectivity of musical judgement.  He will also introduce songs of Spain and Safed by poets whose opinions do not always coincide with the opinion of Baruch Spinoza.


5:50 Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan. A Eulogy for Baruch ben Michael de Espinosa v”Hana Debora d’Espinoza