Spinoza’s ‘sub specie aeternitatis,’ yeshiva students and the army

Our government and our yeshiva heads have not yet realized that we are still hanging in suspense.

Haredi mass prayer rally in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Haredi mass prayer rally in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
I spent 12 years in haredi yeshivot, went on to complete my PhD in general philosophy and then served in the IDF. Today, when I speak with many people who reject the yeshiva world and criticize it harshly for its faults, I realize that – while many of their critical assessments carry weight – they fail to understand the inner music of these institutions.
They do not realize that this introverted but remarkable world somehow lifted the Jews out of their misery throughout history, and gave them the strength to survive all their enemies under the most intolerable conditions brought on by anti-Semitism.
It was this denial of time that made the Jews eternal. The yeshiva world was no doubt very small compared to what it is now, but until the emancipation it was the pride of the entire Jewish world. The Talmud afforded the Jews wings, enabling them to fly to other worlds; to return to the past that no longer existed; and to look toward worlds that were still to come. It made the Jews indestructible, even as they were tortured and killed.
I come from a completely secular background with no Jewish education, but good schooling in secular philosophy where Spinoza, Kant, Hume and Wittgenstein reigned supreme. When I ventured to learn Talmud at the famous Gateshead haredi yeshiva in England, I did not know what was awaiting me. I expected a Jewish university for talmudic studies, where enlightened teachers and students would discuss the latest problems in theology and talmudic historiography.
But nothing was further from the truth. This was not even Yeshiva University. It’s not just that there were no secular studies and no talk about Plato’s theory of immortality or Leibniz’s famous theodicy; this was an altogether different planet. There was nothing but one supreme endeavor: immersing oneself in the Talmud, as if life was depending on it.
When you entered the yeshiva, you were no longer sure in which century you were living – the 5th, 12th, 17th or 20th. This was a world unto itself.
There was one supreme goal: shtaigen in lernen (excelling in learning). The talmudic text took us back to Mount Sinai, and through its pages we relived the greatest moments in all of Jewish history.
For nearly 2,000 years the yeshiva world made Jews view life sub specie aeternitatis, as Spinoza called it – from the perspective of eternity. Jews became ahistorical.
They stepped out of history because it was the only way to survive in history. Had the yeshiva world not done so, the Jewish people would never have endured, the State of Israel would not have been created, and no Jews – neither religious nor secular – would have lived in this wonderful country.
Spinoza continued to be a yeshiva student long after he left Judaism. He lived in his small room in Rijnsburg in the Netherlands, which was his beit midrash (Jewish study hall). There he built his universe and wrote his famous Ethics. Consistent with his own philosophy, he too lived outside of history.
His deep thoughts, insights and noble feelings are not of this world. They too are the product of sub specie aeternitatis – and therefore suspect. In the long run, they will break down. Thoughts that are eternal are unreachable.
With the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews were forced to re-enter history. But after 2,000 years of living as yeshiva students and followers of Spinoza’s saintly teachings, it is a painful transformation.
Our government and our yeshiva heads have not yet realized that we are still hanging in suspense.
We live with one foot in the world of the yeshiva and Spinoza, and the other foot on harsh ground.
Our political leaders want us to come down and stand with both feet in this ruthless world, while the yeshiva world wants to stay in the beit midrash of Spinoza’s eternity.
But both are unrealistic. It is much too early to decide whether we should come down with both feet on the ground, or continue to stay partially in heaven. We still find ourselves at a crossroads. One is reminded of the story told about a former premier of China who was asked what the impact of the French Revolution was on modern European history. His reply was,” It is much too early to say.”
What we need to ask ourselves is whether it is already possible to fully return to history. Our enemies surrounding us are getting stronger and stronger. Israel now finds itself in a most precarious situation, more and more isolated. Can we really afford to fully enter into history? Wouldn’t it be better to stay with one foot in the world of sub specie aeternitatis? In fact, isn’t the very existence of the State of Israel a bit too miraculous to fit the norms of history? Perhaps we should make sure that some of our yeshiva students continue to live outside of history? Just in case…! We are still living through the birth-pangs, as yet unable to say what the baby will look like.
The gedolei hador (great rabbis of this generation) are guilty of not realizing that we Jews must return to history at some point, and if they don’t want to join, they themselves may not survive. They seem to be completely oblivious to the radical change that has taken place in the Jewish world – including their own yeshiva world – after the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.
The Holocaust has taught us that we cannot survive ad infinitum without entering history. We have too much eternity and too little geography. To argue that our yeshiva students are the ones who really defend us against our enemies, and that we do not need soldiers, is an escape from reality and as anti-halachic as can be. It is a rewriting of Judaism that the haredi leadership cannot even accuse the Reform of doing.
Both the secular and the haredi lack historical perspective. The secular have to learn that we may need to keep some people outside of history, and the haredi leadership will have to realize that now that we have a state of our own, all of us, without exception, must serve in the IDF – because we are trying to get back into history.
In fact, every young Jewish male outside Israel should feel it his absolute moral obligation to serve for a few months in the Israeli army, because by now, world Jewry is depending on the State of Israel – if only so that when it really goes wrong in Europe or the US, there will be a haven for them.
Some MKs believe they won when they decided that all of the yeshiva world must serve in the army, but in reality it was a monumental loss. Everyone knows that there’s no such thing as equality in the army. Some people risk their lives, others do not. If all were equal, the army wouldn’t function. We also know that a Jewish state will never be able to put people in jail because they learn Torah. Surely this is inconsistent since they violate the law. But we should be reminded of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s famous observation: He who confronts the paradoxical exposes himself to reality.
The great British Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin taught us that there are no ideal solutions in this world. There are only trade-offs. “You cannot combine full liberty with full equality… Justice and mercy, knowledge and happiness can collide,” says Berlin.
It is not that such perfect harmony cannot be created because of practical difficulties. It is that “utopian solutions are in principle incoherent, ” and one can only choose how much equality and how much liberty, how much mercy and how much justice. Belief in a perfect world “cannot but lead to suffering, misery, blood, terrible oppression.”
The only thing the government can do is suggest that haredi yeshiva students go for basic training and build yeshivot in the army. The students would have to walk around in uniform and learn full time, learn with other soldiers, do community service, or something similar. Fair? Certainly not. But fairness is not always an option. Only a trade-off.
By allowing these students to study while in the army, we at least remind ourselves that we are in many ways still an ahistorical people. If some of us are full-time cooks in the army, others can be full-time learners in the army. Much too expensive? Sure! But you cannot have your cake and eat it, too.
Still, the greatest mistake was not made by the government, but by the haredi leadership. When it organized a demonstration in which nearly 600,000 black-hatted yeshiva students participated to show their love for Torah, one could hear a pin drop just before the crowd burst out in an unprecedented cry of “Shema Yisrael.” That was the perfect opportunity to prove their love for our brave soldiers, by having all 600,000 men and women recite prayers for the welfare of the soldiers and all of Israel. That would not only have been a great kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name); it would have healed much of the animosity between the haredi and non-haredi communities.
Instead of having upset hundreds of thousands of Israelis, among whom many have lost their sons and daughters in combat, it would have created an entirely different atmosphere in the country.
The failure to ask them to do so is not just a missed opportunity – it is an unforgivable blunder. When the world-renowned, haredi halachic authority Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was asked to which graves of tzaddikim one should go to pray, he said to go to the military cemeteries. The fact that the haredi leadership did not tell 600,000 of their followers to pray for our soldiers proves beyond a doubt how small-minded are those who people believe are gedolei hador.
To paraphrase Spinoza: All noble men are as great as they are rare.
The writer, an author and international lecturer, is dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem and writes a weekly internet column called Thought to Ponder.