Rabbi Allan Nadler wears many hats as a religious leader, writer, lecturer, cantor, professor of religious studies and director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University in New Jersey.
The Montreal-born rabbi was at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation in May as part of the shul’s Weisfeld Scholar Weekend, where he spoke about “Bad Jewish Boys: Notorious Heretics from the Talmud to Today.”
Rabbi Nadler, who has faced his fair share of controversy throughout his career, having left the Orthodox rabbinate because of his evolving views and open criticism of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, spoke to The CJN from his New Jersey home about heretical figures in Jewish history, a topic he explores in a book he’s currently writing on the subject.
How does one define a Jewish heretic?
If you’re a Roman Catholic and you want to read about heresy, there are 1,000 books to read, but if you’re a Jew, there isn’t a single book that deals with the subject in a comprehensive manner.
I presented the rabbinical sources and the terms rabbis used for heresy, and there are many. None are the exact equivalent of the Greek word hairesis, which is heretic in English, but they mean the same thing – someone who is deviating either from the tradition philosophically, or someone who is violating the law publicly and deliberately, or someone who has turned away from the Jewish People, or someone who has erased his identity as a Jew, but who is still halachically Jewish. The heretics were all great scholars and brilliant men.
You spoke about Maimonides, or the Rambam, as a Jewish heretic.
People are shocked when they hear I’m talking about heretics and I’m talking about Rambam, one of the greatest rabbis of all time, probably the single greatest authority on Jewish law, and saying that the author of the Mishnah Torah was considered a heretic and a great rabbi at the same time. He was considered a heretic by the traditionalists and the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics, because of his allegorical interpretation of the Torah.
I talk about Maimonides as both a dogmatist and a heretic.
It wasn’t until Maimonides wrote his Thirteen Principles of Faith, that any rabbi had put down the equivalent of a catechism, or a creed, a list of mandatory beliefs. It was Maimonides who was the first to do that.
On one hand, he is the first to define what a heretic is… but at the same time, he wrote his philosophical masterpiece, The Guide for the Perplexed, in which a lot of other rabbis found horrible heresy. When he talks about the creation of the world, he writes, if Aristotle, who believes that the world was not created because nothing can be created out of nothing – if Aristotle could have proved the eternity of the universe, which by definition is impossible – if he could have proved to his satisfaction that the world is not created in time, there is no beginning and no end, there is no creator, then he would have to reject the Torah.
What was it about Spinoza that made him a Jewish heretic?
Spinoza is a very extreme case because Spinoza rejected all revealed religions, and so he wasn’t just a Jewish heretic, but he was excommunicated by the Jewish community before he published anything, and he went on to become one of the most radical philosophers of the early European Enlightenment and a complete secularist.
Spinoza was a hard-core rationalist and materialist and did not believe in anything supernatural. There was nothing but the physical universe, which is infinite, and that’s what he called God – God or nature, whatever word you want to use. When you say God or nature, that is not a transcendent God, that is not a God that has a plan, it is not a thinking God. He had to use the word God – in the 17th century, atheism was not an option. There was no theoretical system known as atheism in 17th century Europe. Spinoza had to function in a world where everyone had a religion.
We looked at a text from his Theological-Political Treatise in which he says, look, “I don’t believe the Bible was written by God. My idea of God doesn’t write.” His God is completely bound by the laws of nature. God is not an entity that has opinions or views or plans. There is no divine plan and no divine intention and God doesn’t care what you had for lunch.
I remember when I discovered Maimonidean philosophy when I was an undergraduate doing Jewish studies and philosophy at McGill. I was enthralled by Maimonides because as an Orthodox Jew, it was always my intention to be a rabbi, and to be an Orthodox rabbi, but I always had these lingering doubts. So to find a rationalist interpretation of Torah was extremely exciting for me and very inspirational and it gave me great comfort.
But about six or seven years later in graduate school, Spinoza ruined that for me. He killed the buzz, my Maimonidean buzz totally, because I realized that Maimonides, for all his amazing intellectual – I mean, beyond brilliant, there is no word for his genius and his accomplishments – but he was still trapped in a medieval mindset that he couldn’t get out of.
Spinoza believed in what was there, and if there was no empirical evidence, he still would insist, well there are things we don’t understand yet. There is an explanation for everything – what he calls causation. Everything has a cause and the causes are all physical. There are no miracles, there are no spirits. The only difference between what people call a miracle and what people don’t call a miracle is that a miracle is something that scientists have not yet figured out.
He changed my life. And not for the better. Maybe intellectually for the better, but it was very nice, while it lasted, being an Orthodox Jew and being convinced that we got the truth, we’ve got it all figured out. Part of the reason that I left Orthodoxy – Spinoza would have told me, “Leave the whole thing,” and say, “Why do you need any of it?” But I can’t live like that because I’m a Jew.
Spinoza destroyed, for a period of time, he really destroyed my ability to believe. I read Spinoza, and maybe I took him too seriously… but that’s why he was excommunicated. Heretics are to be reckoned with.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.