Banished for heresy 360 years ago, is it time to clear Spinoza

amsterdam | Nearly 360 years after this city’s Portuguese Jewish community excommunicated Baruch Spinoza — and later banned his writings for eternity — the philosopher’s books are for sale at the souvenir shop of the community’s synagogue.

Spinoza, a Dutch-born Jewish philosopher who laid the intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment and is sometimes referred to as history’s first secular Jew, was banished by Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jews in 1656 for heresy. The fact that his works are now being sold by the very community from which he was once ostracized is cited by some as evidence that the ban is effectively no longer operative.

But to the philosopher’s admirers, the fact that it was never formally rescinded remains a blot on the community and reinforces Spinoza’s view that Judaism is a narrow-minded, dogmatic faith.

That’s why hundreds of them gathered here on Dec. 13 for a landmark debate on whether to formally lift the ban and, perhaps, even effect Spinoza’s symbolic rehabilitation into the fold of the Jewish people.

“His ideas are a part of Dutch heritage,” said Ronit Palache, a secular Dutch Jew in her 30s and self-described Spinoza aficionado who organized the symposium. “The time to lift the ban is long overdue. It’s in a way a black mark on Jewish history.”

Attendees at an Amsterdam symposium examine a copy of the writ against Spinoza. photo/jta-cnaan liphshiz

The symposium, a sold-out event that featured an address by the head of the Dutch Portuguese Jewish community and leading Spinoza scholars from four continents, offered a rare glimpse of the original writ, which is held in the community’s library. An unusually long and vicious text, the writ of banishment — herem  in Hebrew — was read aloud in Portuguese, its citation of unspecified “evil opinions and acts” followed by a string of curses against Spinoza, who was then just 24 years old.

“Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in,” it reads, adding: “The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man … [and] blot out his name from under heaven.”

Following the ban — as well as an assassination attempt by a knife-wielding Jewish fanatic outside the synagogue — Spinoza left his native Amsterdam and the Jewish community. Devoting his life to the study of optics and the development of his philosophy, he published his magnum opus, “Ethics,” in 1677, the year of his death from lung disease at 44. Spinoza was buried in a churchyard in The Hague.

Why Spinoza was so passionately detested is a matter of some speculation, said Steven Nadler, an American professor of history at the University of Wisconsin and an international authority on Spinoza. The herem document does not specify Spinoza’s “evil” actions, but Nadler believes it derives from several of his assertions, including that God does not exist, the Jews are not a chosen people and the Hebrew Bible has no divine provenance.

Spinoza elaborated these ideas in “Ethics” and other writings, where he argued that Judaism and its scriptures were manmade constructs intended to exert control over the ancient Israelites. His criticisms were later seized upon by Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel in some of their anti-Semitic writings.

At the symposium, Nadler argued that herem was imposed for Spinoza’s revolutionary philosophy, but he also proposed several political explanations.

Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, circa 1660 photo/hulton archive-getty images

One hypothesis concerns the fact that Spinoza appeared before Dutch courts to rid himself of his father’s debts at a time when members of his community were expected to appear only before a Jewish court.

Another theory notes that Spinoza’s heresy was also deeply resented by the Dutch government, which in 1678 also banned his writings; the Jewish community followed suit to avoid angering its generally tolerant hosts.

But while the Dutch state’s ban was rescinded long ago, the Jewish community has resisted. Last week’s symposium would not be a turning point, the chief rabbi of the Portuguese Jewish community, Pinchas Toledano, told the crowd, adding that he had neither the authority nor the will to rescind the measure.

Lifting the herem “would clearly imply we share the views of Spinoza that state that God does not exist” and that “the law of Moses is no longer relevant,” Toledano said. These ideas “tear apart the very foundations of our religion.”

Other Dutch Portuguese Jews disagree. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, an influential Orthodox rabbi, began his address by holding up a portrait of Spinoza that Cardozo’s father, a secular Jew, had drawn in the 1940s while he was living in hiding from the Nazi occupation.

“He was our family’s only rabbi,” Cardozo said of Spinoza.

Cardozo said he opposes Spinoza’s observations on Judaism, which he said were “deliberately biased” and “ultimately based on Spinoza’s utter ignorance” of the Talmud. Still, lifting the ban “would remove a huge stigma from Judaism as being dogmatic and narrow-minded, as Spinoza mistakenly argued.”

As for Spinoza himself, he “never requested to rescind the herem,” Toledano pointed out, and “probably even laughed at the whole concept of the herem and [at] the rabbis who imposed it.”

Cnaan Liphshiz, Netherlands-based Europe Correspondent for JTA
Cnaan Liphshiz

JTA Europe correspondent