Why I Am Not an Observant Jew

Arturo Schwarz

I was fifteen years old (I am now eighty-nine) when I discarded the myth that there exists somewhere an entity that created the universe and, by the way, also the human species. I had just discovered Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Whether old Charles was atheist or not mattered to me not at all. The conclusion was clear, whether Charles liked it or not: humanity is not the fruit of a creative act but the outcome of an evolutionary process that is full of failures and will continue as long as humanity does. The process is painful; many species of archaic humans disappeared in the course of the two hundred thousand years before Homo sapiens appeared, perhaps fifty thousand years ago. What is to be noted, however, is that the species that survived was not the more ethical one but rather the fittest—the one best adapted to its environment.

Soon after that, I was greatly moved by Spinoza’s Ethics. If it were even needed, Spinoza delivered the final blow to my traditional beliefs. His grandiose, holistic view of a single nature that is at one and the same time “productive” (naturans)—that is to say, “creative” as well as “produced” (naturata) or “created”—did away, once and for all, with any dualistic view of a divorce between creator and creature. In a long letter to L. Meyer dated April 20, 1663, Spinoza further clarified, “substance is not multiple, there exists only one and of the same nature.” He could then calmly affirm “deus sive natura” (“god that is to say nature”). The unity of the whole is also reaffirmed in vedantic Hinduism, where the word Advaita expresses the concept of the “non-duality of duality.” The two poles of a polarity are thus in a complementary, not a conflicting, relationship.

It follows that the mind is only the highest expression of the body and not a separate entity. In other words (Spinoza’s again), “thinking substance and extended substance are one and the same thing which is now comprehended through this and now through that attribute.” Later he emphasized again, “mind and body are one and the same thing which now under the attribute of thought now under the attribute of Extension is conceived.” Thus, Spinoza never used the word anima (soul), which might evoke a reality independent of the body, but only the word mens (spirit). In a letter to Oldenburg dated November 20, 1665, Spinoza insisted that “the human mind, being finite, comprises only the human body.”

This brings us to another so-called duality, that concerning love. André Breton definitively clarified my thinking on this matter: “That word love to which ill-natured persons went out of their way to submit to all kind of generalizations, to all possible corruptions (filial love, divine love, patriotic love, etc.) it is useless to say that we return it to its strict and menacing meaning—that of the total affection to a human being, based on the imperious recognition of the truth, of our truth ‘in a soul and in a body’ that are the soul and the body of this being.” Spinoza’s view was not very different: “Love is nothing else than pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause.”

The age-old and universally disseminated myth of an androgynous creator god is only an esoteric metaphor for the most deeply ingrained psychological urge: to reconstitute the unity of one’s split personality—a process that Jung termed individuation, the word being taken here in its etymological meaning of in-dividuus, “undivided.” The belief in a divinity alien to us gave rise to an artificial duality that denied the profound unity of being. Delegating creative, intellectual, and decisional power to a divinity extraneous to oneself meant giving up autonomous thinking. In the long run, this might have caused the end of civilization. How close we came to it may be gauged by the planetary genocide Christianity actually attempted with its Crusades and the Inquisition and by Islam’s more recent efforts under its concept of holy war (jihad).

Happily for my own ethical standards, the Hebrew religion shuns proselytism. As a matter of fact, it is very difficult for a non-Jew to convert: the novice needs to spend at least two years studying Hebrew and the Tanakh (the so-called Old Testament that is neither old nor a testament) before becoming eligible.

Popular wisdom reminds us that “facts are stubborn things.” Let us recall just a few of the incontrovertible facts that nullify the concept of a creative god. Among the recent conquests of the human mind that, each in their own way, have done away with the very notion of the necessity for a deus ex machina are the discovery of the Big Bang, accounting for the existence of the universe; Einstein’s theory of relativity; Planck’s quantum mechanics; and Heisenberg’s principle of indetermination.

I was born a Jew and will die a Jew. I believe in a humanism that is not only Jewish. The humanistic revolution was sparked by Spinoza (1632–1677), John Locke (1632–1704), Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), and Voltaire (1694–1778). It developed with the French Encyclopedists, mainly Diderot (1713–1784), d’Alembert (1713–1784), and Helvetius (1715–1771). On the other hand, I also recognize myself in what is—rightly or not—a characteristic attributed to my people: that of delighting in an endless pilpul (“pepper” in Hebrew, connoting sharp analysis)—that is to say, to dwell in interminable questioning, in taking nothing for granted.

I also believe in a basic tenet of Jewish thinking concerning the holistic dimension of love. This was expressed both by Spinoza when he affirmed that “desire is the very essence of man” and by Judah Abravanel, who stressed not only that love is “supremely necessary . . . being the source of all wisdom” but also pointed out that corporal and spiritual love are two aspects of the same phenomenon: “Love and desire and are not separated . . . love has its prior and essential being in the intellectual world and thence is extended to the corporal.”

After all that is to be said is said, I delight in the answer that Pierre Simon Laplace gave to Emperor Napoleon when—presented with Laplace’s ponderous work Traité de mécanique celeste (Treatise of Celestial Mechanics)—Napoleon remarked: “Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.’’ Laplace’s blunt answer: “Sir, I have never been in need of this hypothesis.”


Arturo Schwarz

Arturo Schwarz is an art historian, an essayist, and a poet. He has lectured at leading universities and art academies and museums worldwide. He has curated major art exhibitions and authored monographs on André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray in addition to his more than fifty books.

I was fifteen years old (I am now eighty-nine) when I discarded the myth that there exists somewhere an entity that created the universe and, by the way, also the human species.

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