What’s So Bad About Excommunication?

Spinoza, Excommunicated, by Samuel Hirszenberg (1907)

Much of Jewish political discourse is managed by a leadership that is commonly and unfortunately focused and obsessed on superficial characterizations and personalities at the expense of policies and communal priorities. This dysfunction in our political discourse, primarily as it relates to Israel and Zionism, has led to attempts at ostracizing and outcasting not unlike the traditional rabbinic cherem, or communal excommunication.

From the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organization’s rejection of J Street’s application for membership in the umbrella group to the reaction to Open Hillel’s resistance to the censorship efforts of the Jewish campus organization’s headquarters, to be labeled a “leftist” by the conservative-leaning mainstream is to be branded and ultimately outcast as a heretic, a “self-hating Jew,” or even an antisemite; this, despite the objective fact that Zionism has never been a monolithic movement but rather has consisted historically of the full spectrum of sacred and profane political ideologies.

As the political performances of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, building up and exploiting popular fears, from Iranian nuclear ambitions to the international effort toward boycotting, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel as “existential threats,” Jewish leadership often seems encouraged by the short term effectiveness of invoking the Holocaust for rhetorical and psychological emphasis. Indeed, Jewish leadership has a long history of exploiting communal tragedy for the sake of a vain sense of control over the rank and file while holding out the promise of messianic redemption to motivate the faithful. Back in the summer of 2015, conservative mega-donor and Yisrael Hayom publisher Sheldon Adelson and celebrity Rabbi Schmuley Boteach organized a summit between donors and invited prospective recipients to fund and coordinate actions against the BDS movement on American campuses. While groups invited to pitch their ideas to these donors included Christians United for Israel and the right-wing website Washington Free Beacon, liberal Jewish groups opposed to BDS such as J Street, Ameinu and the New Israel Fund were not. So, even Christian messianic redemption is politically useful.

But while these words and actions may sting, and as cynically brutal as the accusations and aspersions may be, they are not fatal, nor has the bad behavior of the accuser necessarily or historically been proven harmful to the livelihoods and legacies of the accused in Jewish communal life. In fact, it can be vitally important to Jewish continuity itself to find one’s own voice, speak out and refuse to be marginalized.

Even the twelfth century sage, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, widely known to Jewish scholars as the Rambam and to Western academia as Moses Maimonides, was excommunicated for, among other things, introducing elements of Aristotelian logic to Torah study.

Joseph Telushkin in his book Jewish Literacy (William Morrow and Co., 1991) wrote:

Bento (Baruch) Spinoza, often regarded as the first modern Western philosopher, was excommunicated in 17th century Amsterdam in one of the craziest of the crazy high profile Jewish excommunications.

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam of Portuguese descent. Jewish leadership in Amsterdam and other cities in Europe and Asia, having been devastated by the slaughter of tens of thousands during the Chmielnicki uprising of 1648 and the spread of Jewish refugees from Poland and Ukraine across the world, indulged rumors of messianic redemption and prepared their communities for exodus to the Holy Land. A mystic named Shabbatai Zvi had revealed himself as the messiah in 1665 and under the influence of the popular mystical Kabbalistic movements, a significant but vulnerable portion of the Jewish people believed him. However, Zvi was confronted within the following year with an ultimatum by the Holy Land’s ruling Ottoman sultan of either conversion to Islam or death. “God has made me an Ishmaelite,” Shabbatai Zvi wrote in 1666. “He commanded, and it was done.” Ultimately, some 300 families of Zvi’s followers converted with him.

Meanwhile, inspired by Antonio de Montezinos, a Portuguese “New Christian,” who arrived in Amsterdam in 1644 claiming to have met a group of Indians in a remote part of what we know today as Columbia that he believed to be descendants of the lost tribe of Ruben, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel interpreted this as fulfillment of the prophecy that the Jews would be scattered ‘from one of the earth to the other’ (Deuteronomy 28:64) before the end of days. Rabbi Menasseh would also conclude that the one remaining corner of the world from which Jews were still absent was England, or ketseh ha’aretz — the end of the earth — in medieval Hebrew.

In 1656, three rabbis in Amsterdam constituting a Beit Din ruled for the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza. The Beit Din included Menasseh ben Israel. The same year, Rabbi Menasseh had travelled to England to petition Oliver Cromwell to readmit the Jews after King Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion in 1290. “His petition was viewed with favour, according to historians, as Puritan England regarded the conversion of all the descendants of the ancient Israelites as a precondition for the Second Coming.”

But over a decade following his excommunication, Spinoza went on to publish his classic works Theological-Political Treatise and The Ethics, altering Western civilization’s conception of an active anthropomorphic deity and laying the foundation for modern Western philosophy.

The most recent rabbinic excommunication occurred in New York City in 1945, when the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Mordechai Kaplan outraged the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada by publishing his Sabbath Prayer Book. Kaplan intended his siddur to reflect an intellectual integrity worthy of modernity and famously struck several references to ancient doctrines from its liturgy, such as divine election, the idea of a personal Messiah and restoration of the sacrifices of the Temple cult.

“For an excommunication to have any weight at all, the person being excommunicated needs to abide by the decree and to feel keenly the disgrace of being ousted from a small and closed community,” wrote Zachary Silver of Rabbi Kaplan’s excommunication. But, indeed, the statement could apply to any excommunication in an open civil society. “Without this fundamental fact, the excommunication is empty rhetoric — or worse, seen as an unwarranted attack on individual freedom” [“The Excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan,” American Jewish Archives Journal; Vol. 62, №1 (2010), p. 21–48].

As liberal and Democratic Jewish opposition grew to Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial address before a joint session of US Congress leading up to the 2015 Israeli elections, Iowa Republican Representative Steve King offered his solicited perspective of American Jews. “I think many of them no longer have ties to Israel,” said King. “They are secular, they are Democrats by political affiliation and by their nature they are leftist.”

Messianic mishegoss has arguably done more than its share of damage to Jewish continuity and community than the perceived apostasy of modernity and secular philosophy. Born-again philo-Semites and authoritarian demagogues like Rep. King fail to understand that Benjamin Netanyahu is not Israel and that Israel is not a theocracy but a secular state governed by a civil law that is crafted by an elected parliament and interpreted by an independent judiciary. Instead, they will always be counted on to oppose any territorial compromise with the Palestinians that may delay Jesus’ return to Jerusalem.

So, how Jewish is that…?

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