Abominable heresies and monstrous deeds

July 27, 2019. On this day, 363 years ago, Baruch Spinoza was kicked out of the Portuguese Sephardic community in Amsterdam. We know the words that were uttered as he was drummed out of the insular society, and we know that they they were uniquely harsh among similar pronunciations made in the city’s Sephardic congregations.

But there is so much more that we don’t know about that event. Like, what did Spinoza do that unnerved the guardians of his community so much that they had to show him the door in the strongest terms possible? And did Spinoza actually object to it, or not?

Artist’s rendering of Spinoza’s cherem trial on July 27, 1656.

The event itself has become legendary. Centuries later, Neil Armstrong took one small step for man and one great leap for mankind when he walked out onto the moon. I can’t help but wonder if Spinoza felt somewhat similar when dawn broke on the morning of July 28, 1656, and he stepped onto the streets of Amsterdam as neither Christian nor Jew, neither Dutch nor Portuguese, but simply Baruch Spinoza, a self-actualized man. Perhaps the first of the early modern era.

Cursed be he

For their part, the leaders of the Sephardic community left no question where they stood on the Spinoza question. As a matter of protocol, Spinoza’s cherem (חרם) was voted on by the ma’amad (מעמד), or council of lay leaders. It was then up to a panel of rabbis, or beit din (בית דין). And this is what they had to say:

Samuel Hirszenberg, “Spinoza and the Rabbis”

“The Lords of the Ma’amad announce that having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, they have endeavored by various means and promises, to turn him from his evil ways. But having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having for this numerous trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and born witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of this matter; and after all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honorable hakhamim (highly esteemed rabbis), they have decided, with their consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel.

“By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. 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. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.”

“We order that no one should communicate with him neither in writing nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.”

If it sounds dramatic, it was. Not the act of banning someone, mind you. That was actually rather routine. Even rabbis themselves were sometimes subject to short-term writs of cherem when they were deemed to have acted out of bounds, as Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel was when he acted overzealously in defense of his brother, who had besmirched the reputation of a business rival. And other cheremim had been issued for people who shopped at the Ashkenazi (not Sephardi) butcher, or who were caught carrying on with a gentile maid, or who vociferously defended an unorthodox theological viewpoint.

But in all those acts of excommunication, no one, as far as I have ever heard, was called monstrous without so much as a whiff of a description of what they did to incur such a description.

What could be so bad?

What, exactly, Spinoza did to earn such infamy remains a mystery all these years later. He was just 23 when he was excommunicated. He had yet to publish a single thing. If he had started to study with his notorious teacher, Franciscus van den Enden, those studies had only just begun. There’s no historical record of anything he did or said that would merit such a rebuke.

Baruch Spinoza

There’s evidence, though, that his break with his community had already begun. Spinoza’s father, Miguel, had died two years earlier and Baruch was next in line to take over the family’s importing business. But the business was circling the drain at that point, and his father had left debts. Baruch took the step of going to the Dutch courts to be declared an orphan — at the age of 21 — to get out from under them. Then he returned to the Dutch courts to fight over his inheritance with his sister, Rebekah. He won the case, only to renounce it and keep just a fancy bed for his own. All this taking of (Sephardic) family business to the Dutch courts was frowned upon by the Portuguese community. To compound matters, Spinoza had been decreasing the dues he payed to the Talmud Torah congregation, and had failed to pay his last promised dues at all. None of this pleased the community leaders.

Then there were philosophical differences. We can’t be sure what they were at this stage of his life, but we can guess. While Spinoza received the standard Jewish education of all boys of means in his community — and legend has it he was a precocious student — it can also be inferred that he had begun to question at least the orthodoxy, if not the entirety of established faith. Another legend says that after asking too many questions, a group of youths attacked him on the steps of the synagogue and stabbed at his cloak, and that Spinoza insisted wearing his tattered cloak as a sign of pride and defiance ever after.

Spinoza’s forays into something that sounded like freethought — atheism, in today’s parlance — was much more than an annoyance to the leaders of the Sephardic community. They were ever aware that they were strangers in this land, and that their situation, while enviable among all other Jews in the world at that point, was also tenuous. Dutch religious authorities were watching the Jewish community for any sign that they were trying to spread their Judaism or influencing Christians to ditch their faith for atheism. It simply would not do to have a brash young troublemaker like Spinoza out there saying things like G-d is in everything, or that G-d doesn’t care about your prayers, or G-d isn’t paying attention to human matters.

Something had to be done.

Respondez-vous, s’il vous plait

Normally, people under a cherim in the Portuguese Sephardic community in Amsterdam were not excommunicated forever. Some were just on the outs for a single day. Others were told to go sit and think what they’d done and come back to make amends. Presumably, Spinoza could have done the same.

He didn’t.

Sometimes, artists like to take Spinoza in a different direction. “Spinoza Trip to Tuscany” by Alexander Anatolevich Roitburd

The story goes that Spinoza wrote a rebuttal to his rebuke, but no record of it exists. I think that’s because it was never written.

Why should he have written it? He’s known to have said that his excommunication suited him as much as it suited the Sephardic community. It freed him to do what he really wanted to do — to pursue knowledge and learning free from the obligations, expectations and duty of the somewhat smothering community he was born into. If he wrote a rebuttal, it would have been for the sake of his pride alone. And that, well, doesn’t seem a very Spinozist thing to do.

To this day, Spinoza remains on the outs, at least officially, with the Jewish community. An attempt was made a few years back to get the modern Sephardic congregation in Amsterdam to rescind the cherem, but they weren’t having it.

Unofficially, though, Spinoza is celebrated by Jews. Sometimes he’s called the first secular Jew, sometimes the first modern man. We love our iconoclast, even if he walked away. Because what could be more Jewish than grappling with your faith, after all? Even the name Israel means “struggles with G-d.” Whether a Jew walks away for good, takes a few steps away and comes back or never strays from the fold, the questioning is the core of the being.

Still, though, the mystery remains. What were the abominable heresies? What were his monstrous deeds?

Maybe — just maybe — the deeds were monstrous because he was a monster. But that’s another book, and I’m working on it.

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