“Spinoza (1632-77), 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. “
“He argued that there is no such thing as a transcendent, providential God; God is Nature, and everything that is is a part of Nature. He also claimed that the Bible is just a work of human literature, and a rather imperfect one at that, whose only message is “love your neighbors and treat them with justice and charity”; and that Jewish law is an obsolete body of superstitious ceremonies that are no longer valid for latter-day Jews.”
HISTORY OF THE JEWS
From the Chmielnicki Persecution of the Jews in
Poland (1648 C. E.) to the Period of Emancipation
in Central Europe (c. 1870 C. E.)
Heinrich Graetz, (born Oct. 31, 1817, Xions, Prussia—died Sept. 7, 1891, Munich, Ger.), German author of a major history of the Jews that became the first standard work in the field.
Greatly influenced by his studies with the renowned scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Graetz became a teacher at the Breslau (now Wrocław, Pol.) seminary in 1854. The seminary taught a Conservative Judaism compatible with his belief that a Jewish theology should attempt to moderate between Orthodox literalism and Reform liberalism. He retained that post until the end of his life, and also became an honorary professor at the University of Breslau in 1869.
1656–1677 C. E.
Spinoza’s Youth and Education—His Intellectual Breach with Judaism—Fresh Martyrs of the Inquisition—The Rabbis and Spinoza—Excommunication—Spinoza’s “Tractate” and “Ethics”—Spinoza’s Writings Concerning Judaism—Spinoza’s Contemporaries in Amsterdam—De Paz and Penso—The Mystical Character of the Years 1648 and 1666—Sabbataï Zevi’s early Career—The Jerusalem Community—Sabbataï’s Travels—Nathan Ghazati—Sabbataï announced in Smyrna as the Messiah—Spread of Enthusiastic Belief in the pseudo-Messiah—Manoel Texeira—Ritual Changes introduced by the Sabbatians—Sabbataï proceeds to Constantinople—Nehemiah Cohen—Sabbataï Zevi’s Apostasy to Islam and its Consequences—Continuation of the Sabbatian Movement—Death of Sabbataï and Spinoza—Results of the Sabbatian Imposture.
Whilst Manasseh ben Israel was zealously laboring to complete the fabric of Judaism by hastening on the Messianic era, one of his disciples was applying an intellectual lever to destroy this edifice to its foundation and convert it into a shapeless dust heap. He was earnest about what was only amusement for Leo Modena. The Jewish race once more brought a deep thinker into the world, one who was radically to heal the human mind of its rooted perversities and errors, and to prescribe a new direction for it, that it might better comprehend the connection between heaven and earth, between mind and matter. Like his ancestor Abraham, this Jewish thinker desired to break to pieces all idols and vain images, before which men had hitherto bowed down through fear, custom, and indolence, and to reveal to them a new God, not enthroned in heaven’s height beyond their reach, but living and moving within them, whose temple they themselves should be. His influence was like that of the storm,87 deafening and crushing down, but also purifying and refreshing.
The lightning flashes of this great philosophical genius did greatest injury to Judaism which was nearest to him. In the degradation of the religion of his day and its professors, even his searching gaze could not recognize the fair form concealed beneath a loathsome exterior.
This great thinker, the most famous philosopher of his time, who brought about a new redemption, was Baruch Spinoza (really Espinosa, born in Spain 1632, died 1677). He belonged to a family eminent for neither intellect nor wealth. No sign at his birth portended that he would reign for more than two centuries a king in the realm of thought. With many other boys, he attended the Jewish school, consisting of seven classes, recently established in Amsterdam, whither his parents had migrated. With his extraordinary talents he surely kept pace with the requirements of the school, if he did not exceed them. In his thirteenth or fourteenth year he was probably introduced by Manasseh ben Israel to the study of the Talmud, and initiated into Hebrew grammar, rhetoric, and poetry. He received final instruction in Rabbinical lore from Saul Morteira, the greatest Talmudist of his time in Amsterdam. Together with Spinoza, Morteira taught others who later had more or less influence on Jewish history, but were of quite another stamp.
Moses Zacut (1630–1697), a descendant of the famous family of that name, was held to be Morteira’s first disciple. From his youth upwards, with his predilection for mysticism and poetry, he formed a direct contrast to Spinoza. He loved what was inexact and obscure, Spinoza the clear and definite. Two incidents may serve to portray Moses Zacut. He was asked when young what he thought of the fabulous narratives of Rabba Bar-Bar-Chana in the Talmud, which are like those of Münchhausen, and he replied that he regarded them as historical. When young he learned Latin like most Portuguese youths in Amsterdam. Later, he so regretted having learned that language, that he fasted forty days in order to forget it, because, as he thought, this tongue of the devil was not compatible with Kabbalistic truth. Another fellow-disciple of Spinoza was Isaac Naar (Nahar), likewise a mystic, and of a spiteful and not over-scrupulous nature.
Thirst for knowledge stimulated Spinoza to venture beyond the limited circle of studies pursued in Morteira’s lecture-room. He plunged into the writings of older Jewish thinkers, three of whom alike attracted and repelled him: Ibn-Ezra with his free-thinking and his reticence, Moses Maimuni with his artificial system, aiming at the reconciliation of faith and science, of Judaism and philosophy, and Chasdaï Crescas with his hostility to traditional philosophy. Spinoza was also at home in the Kabbala, the main doctrines of which had been rendered accessible through Abraham de Herrera and Isaac Aboab. These various elements heaved and fermented in his mind, which strove for insight, and excited in his breast tormenting doubts, to which Ibn-Ezra’s covert unbelief mainly contributed. A youth of fifteen, Spinoza is said to have expressed his doubts in the form of questions to his master Morteira, which may have not a little perplexed a rabbi accustomed to beaten tracks. To these elements of scepticism, conveyed to him from Jewish literature, others were added from without. Spinoza learned Latin, in itself nothing remarkable, since, as has been remarked, nearly all the Jewish youths of Amsterdam, as well as Christians of the educated classes of Holland, regarded that language as a means of culture. But he was not contented with superficial knowledge; he desired to drink deep of classical literature. He sought the instruction of an eminent philologist of his time, Dr. Franz van den Enden, who lectured in Amsterdam to noble youths, native and foreign. Here he learned, in contact with educated Christian youths, to adopt a different point of view from that which obtained in Morteira’s lecture-room and in Jewish circles. Van den Enden also strongly influenced his mind. Though not an atheist, he was a man of sceptical and satirical vein, who turned religious customs and prejudices to ridicule, and exposed their weaknesses. But what with him was the object of humor and wit, excited Spinoza’s susceptible and analytical mind to deep reflection and meditation. The natural sciences, mathematics, and physics, which he pursued with devotion, and the new-born, imposing philosophy of Descartes (Cartesius), for which his mind had special affinity, extended his circle of vision and enlightened his judgment. The more he imbibed ideas from various sources, assimilating them with those innate in him, and the more his logical understanding developed, the more did he become alienated from Judaism, in its Rabbinical and Kabbalistic trappings, and love of Van den Enden’s learned daughter was not needed to make him a pervert from Jewish belief.
Independent, judicial reason, which disregards what is traditional or hallowed by time, and follows its own laws, was his mistress. To her he dedicated pure, undivided worship, and she led him to break with inherited views. All that cannot be justified before the inexorable tribunal of clear human vision, passed with him for superstition and clouded thought, if not actual frenzy. His ardent desire for truth, pure truth and certainty, led him to a complete breach with the religion endeared to him from childhood; he not only rejected Talmudical Judaism, but also regarded the Bible as the work of man. The apparent contradictions in the books of Holy Scripture appear to have first raised his doubts as to their inspiration. It must have cost him a hard struggle to give up the customs and opinions endeared to him through manifold ties, and to become, to a certain extent, a new man. For Spinoza was quite as much a moral character as a deep thinker. To hold anything as false in theory, and yet from fear, custom, or advantage to adopt it in practice was impossible for him. He was differently constituted to his revered master Descartes, who kept away from the church the torch of truth which he had kindled, made a gap between theory and practice to avoid offending that church, and, for example, vowed a pilgrimage to our Lady of Loretto for the success of his system and its destructive tendency. According to Spinoza’s idea every action ought to be a true reflection of reason. When he could no longer find truth in Judaism, he could not bring himself to follow its ritual precepts. He ceased to attend the synagogue, cared no longer for the Sabbath and the festivals, and broke the laws concerning diet. He did not confine himself to the renunciation of Judaism, but imparted his convictions to young men who sought his instruction.
The representatives of the community of Amsterdam were the more concerned at the daily increasing report of Spinoza’s estrangement from, and hostility to Judaism, as they had in a measure looked upon the gifted youth as their exponent, and as a firm support to the jeopardized religion of their fathers. Now it was to be feared that he would abandon it, go over to Christianity, and devote his intellectual gifts to doing battle against his mother-faith. Could the representatives of that faith, the college of rabbis and the secular heads of the community, behold with indifference this systematic neglect of Judaism in their midst? Fugitives were ever coming from Spain and Portugal, who forfeited their high position, and staked life and property, to remain true to Judaism. Others with unbending attachment to the faith of their fathers, let themselves91 be dragged to the dark prisons of the Inquisition, or with cheerful courage mounted the funeral pile. A contemporary writer, an eye-witness, reports:
“In Spain and Portugal there are monasteries and convents full of Jews. Not a few conceal Judaism in their heart and feign Christianity on account of worldly goods. Some of these feel the stings of conscience and escape, if they are able. In this city (Amsterdam) and in several other places, we have monks, Augustinians, Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, who have rejected idolatry. There are bishops in Spain and grave monks, whose parents, brothers, or sisters, dwell here (in Amsterdam) and in other cities in order to be able to profess Judaism.”
At the very time when Spinoza became estranged from Judaism, the smoke and flames of the funeral piles of Jewish martyrs rose in several cities of Spain and Portugal, in Cuenca, Granada, Santiago de Compostela, Cordova, and Lisbon.
In the last-named city a distinguished Marrano, Manuel Fernando de Villa-Real, statesman, political writer, and poet, who conducted the consular affairs of the Portuguese court at Paris, returned to Lisbon on business, was seized by the Inquisition, gagged, and led to execution (December 1, 1652). In Cuenca on one day (June 29, 1654) fifty-seven Christian proselytes to Judaism were dragged to the auto-da-fé. Most of them only received corporal chastisement with loss of property, but ten were burned to death. Amongst them was a distinguished man, the court-saddler Balthasar Lopez, from Valladolid, who had amassed a fortune of 100,000 ducats. He had migrated to Bayonne, where a small community of former Marranos was tolerated, and had returned to Spain only to persuade a nephew to come back to Judaism. He was seized by the Inquisition, tortured, and condemned to death by the halter and the stake. On his way to the scaffold, Balthasar Lopez ridiculed the Inquisition and Christianity. He exclaimed to the executioner about to bind him, “I do not believe in your Christ, even if you bind me,” and threw the92 cross which had been forced upon him to the ground. Five months later twelve Marranos were burnt in Granada. Again, some months later (March, 1655), a promising youth of twenty, Marcos da Almeyda Bernal, whose Jewish name was Isaac, died at the stake; and two months afterwards (May 3d) Abraham Nuñes Bernal was burnt at Cordova.
Whoever in the community of Amsterdam could compose verses in Spanish, Portuguese, or Latin, sang or bewailed the martyrdom of the two Bernals. Was Spinoza’s view correct that all these martyrs, and the thousands of Jewish victims still hounded by the Inquisition, pursued a delusion? Could the representatives of Judaism allow unreproved, in their immediate neighborhood, the promulgation of the idea that Judaism is merely an antiquated error?
The college of rabbis, in which sat the two chief Chachams, Saul Morteira and Isaac Aboab—Manasseh ben Israel was then living in London—had ascertained the fact of Spinoza’s change of opinion, and had collected evidence. It was not easy to accuse him of apostasy (formal disaffiliation from, abandonment of, or renunciation of a religion), as he did not proclaim his thoughts aloud in the market-place, as Uriel da Costa had announced his breach with Judaism. Besides, he led a quiet, self-contained life, and associated little with men. His avoidance of the synagogue, the first thing probably to attract notice, could not form the subject of a Rabbinical accusation. It is possible that, as is related, two of his fellow-students (one, perhaps, the sly Isaac Naar) thrust themselves upon him, drew him out, and accused him of unbelief, and contempt for Judaism. Spinoza was summoned, tried, and admonished to return to his former course of life. The court of rabbis did not at first proceed with severity against him, for he was a favorite of his teacher, and beloved in the community on account of his modest bearing and moral behavior. By virtue of the firmness of his character Spinoza probably made no sort of concession, but insisted upon freedom of thought and conduct. Without doubt he was, in consequence, laid under the lesser excommunication, that is, close intercourse with him was forbidden for thirty days. This probably caused less pain to Spinoza, who, self-centred, found sufficient resource in his rich world of thought, than to the superficial Da Costa. Also, he was not without Christian friends, and he, therefore, made no alteration in his manner of life. This firmness was naturally construed as obstinacy and defiance. But the rabbinate, as well as the secular authorities of the community did not wish to exert the rigor of the Rabbinical law against him, in order not to drive him to an extreme measure, i. e., into the arms of the Church. What harm might not the conversion to Christianity of so remarkable a youth entail in a newly-founded community, consisting of Jews with Christian reminiscences! What impression would it make on the Marranos in Spain and Portugal? Perhaps the scandal caused by Da Costa’s excommunication, still fresh in men’s memories, may have rendered a repetition impracticable. The rabbis, therefore, privately offered Spinoza, through his friends, a yearly pension of a thousand gulden on condition that he take no hostile step against Judaism, and show himself from time to time in the synagogue. But Spinoza, though young, was of so determined a character, that money could not entice him to abandon his convictions or to act the hypocrite. He insisted that he would not give up freedom of inquiry and thought. He continued to impart to Jewish youths doctrines undermining Judaism. So the tension between him and the representatives of Judaism became daily greater; both sides were right, or imagined they were. A fanatic in Amsterdam thought that he could put an end to this breach by a dagger-stroke aimed at the dangerous apostate. He waylaid Spinoza at the exit from the theatre, and struck at the philosopher with his murderous weapon. But the latter observed the hostile movement in time, and avoided the blow, so that only his coat was damaged. Spinoza left Amsterdam to avoid the danger of assassination, and betook himself to the house of a friend, likewise persecuted by the dominant Calvinistic Church, an adherent of the sect of the Rhynsburgians, or Collectants, who dwelt in a village between Amsterdam and Ouderkerk. Reconciliation between Spinoza and the synagogue was no longer to be thought of. The rabbis and the secular authorities of the community pronounced the greater excommunication upon him, proclaiming it in the Portuguese language on a Thursday, Ab 6th (July 24th), 1656, shortly before the fast in memory of the destruction of Jerusalem. The sentence was pronounced solemnly in the synagogue from the pulpit before the open Ark. The sentence was as follows:
“The council has long had notice of the evil opinions and actions of Baruch d’Espinosa, and these are daily increasing in spite of efforts to reclaim him. In particular, he teaches and proclaims dreadful heresy, of which credible witnesses are present, who have made their depositions in presence of the accused.”
All this, they continued, had been proved in the presence of the elders, and the council had resolved to place him under the ban, and excommunicate him.
The usual curses were pronounced upon him in presence of scrolls of the Law, and finally the council forbade any one to have intercourse with him, verbally or by writing, to do him any service, to abide under the same roof with him, or to come within the space of four cubits’ distance from him, or to read his writings. Contrary to wont, the ban against Spinoza was stringently enforced, to keep young people from his heresies.
“His prime object was to spread the conviction that freedom of thought can be permitted without prejudice to religion and the peace of the state; furthermore, that it must be permitted, for if it were forbidden, religion and peace could not exist in the state.”
Spinoza was away from Amsterdam, when the ban was hurled against him. He is said to have received the news with indifference, and to have remarked that he was now compelled to do what he95 would otherwise have done without compulsion. His philosophic nature, which loved solitude, could easily dispense with intercourse with relatives and former friends. Yet the matter did not end for him there. The representative body of the Portuguese community appealed to the municipal authorities to effect his perpetual banishment from Amsterdam. The magistrates referred the question, really a theological one, to the clergy, and the latter are said to have proposed his withdrawal from Amsterdam for some months. Most probably this procedure prompted him to elaborate a justificatory pamphlet to show the civil authorities that he was no violator or transgressor of the laws of the state, but that he had exercised his just rights, when he reflected on the religion of his forefathers and religion generally, and thought out new views. The chain of reasoning suggested to Spinoza in the preparation of his defense caused him doubtless to give wider extension and bearing to this question. It gave him the opportunity to treat of freedom of thought and inquiry generally, and so to lay the foundation of the first of his suggestive writings, which have conferred upon him literary immortality. In the village to which he had withdrawn, 1656–60, and later in Rhynsburg, where he also spent several years, 1660–64, Spinoza occupied himself (while polishing lenses, which handicraft he had learned to secure his moderate subsistence) with the Cartesian philosophy and the elaboration of the work entitled “The Theologico-Political Treatise.” His prime object was to spread the conviction that freedom of thought can be permitted without prejudice to religion and the peace of the state; furthermore, that it must be permitted, for if it were forbidden, religion and peace could not exist in the state.
The apology for freedom of thought had been rendered harder rather than easier for Spinoza, by the subsidiary ideas with which he crossed the main96 lines of his system. He could not philosophically find the source of law, and transferred its origin to might. Neither God, nor man’s conscience, according to Spinoza, is the fountain of the eternal law which rules and civilizes mankind; it springs from the whole lower natural world. He made men to a certain extent “like the fishes of the sea, like creeping things, which have no master.” Large fish have the right, not only to drink water, but also to devour smaller fish, because they have the power to do so; the sphere of right of the individual man extends as far as his sphere of might. This natural right does not recognize the difference between good and evil, virtue and vice, submission and force. But because such unlimited assertion on the part of each must lead to a perpetual state of war of all against all, men have tacitly, from fear, or hope, or reason, given up their unlimited privileges to a collective body, the state. Out of two evils—on the one hand, the full possession of their sphere of right and might, tending to mutual destruction, and its alienation, on the other—men have chosen the latter as the lesser evil. The state, whether represented by a supreme authority elected for the purpose, such as the Dutch States General, or by a despot, is the full possessor of the rights of all, because of the power of all. Every one is bound by his own interest to unconditional obedience, even if he should be commanded to deprive others of life; resistance is not only punishable, but contrary to reason. This supreme power is not controlled by any law. Whether exercised by an individual, as in a monarchy, or by several, as in a republic, it is justified in doing everything, and can do no wrong. But the state has supreme right not merely over actions of a civil nature, but also over spiritual and religious views; it could not exist, if everyone were at liberty to attack it under the pretext of religion. The government alone has the right to control religious affairs, and to define belief, unbelief, orthodoxy, and heresy. What a tyrannical conclusion! As this theory of Spinoza fails to recognize moral law, so it ignores steadfast fidelity. As soon as the government grows weak, it no longer has claim to obedience; everyone may renounce and resist it, to submit himself to the incoming power. According to this theory of civil and religious despotism, no one may have an opinion about the laws of the state, otherwise he is a rebel. Spinoza’s theory almost does away with freedom, even of thought and opinion. Whoever speaks against a state ordinance in a fault-finding spirit, or to throw odium upon the government, or seeks to repeal a law against its express wish, should be regarded as a disturber of the public peace. Only through a sophistical quibble was Spinoza able to save freedom of thought and free expression of opinion. Every man has this right by nature, the only one which he has not transferred to the state, because it is essentially inalienable. It must be conceded to everyone to think and judge in opposition to the opinion of the government, even to speak and teach, provided this be done with reason and reflection, without fraud, anger, or malice, and without the intention of causing a revolution.
On this weak basis, supported by a few other secondary considerations, Spinoza justified his conflict with Judaism and his philosophical attacks upon the sacred writings recognized by the Dutch States. He thought that he had succeeded in justifying himself before the magistrates sufficiently by his defense of freedom of thought. In the formulation of this apology it was apparent that he was not indifferent to the treatment which he had experienced from the college of rabbis. Spinoza was so filled with displeasure, if not with hatred, of Jews and Judaism, that his otherwise clear judgment was biased. He, like Da Costa, called the rabbis nothing but Pharisees, and imputed to them ambitious and degraded motives, while they wished only to secure their treasured beliefs against attacks. Prouder even than his contemporaries, the French and English philosophers, of freedom of thought, for centuries repressed by the church, and now soaring aloft the more powerfully, Spinoza summoned theology, in particular, ancient Judaism before the throne of reason, examined its dogmas and archives, and pronounced sentence of condemnation upon his mother-faith. He had erected a tower of thought in his brain from which, as it were, he wished to storm heaven. Spinoza’s philosophy is like a fine net, laid before our eyes, mesh by mesh, by which the human understanding is unexpectedly ensnared, so that half voluntarily, half compulsorily, it surrenders. Spinoza recognized, as no thinker before, those universal laws, immutable as iron, which are apparent in the development of the most insignificant grain of seed no less than in the revolution of the heavenly bodies, in the precision of mathematical thought as in the apparent irregularity of human passions. Whilst these laws work with constant uniformity, and produce the same causes and the same phenomena in endless succession, the instruments of law are perishable things, creatures of a day, which rise, and vanish to give place to others: here eternity, there temporality; on the one side necessity, on the other chance; here reality, there delusive appearances. These and other enigmas Spinoza sought to solve with the penetration that betrays the son of the Talmud, and with logical consecutiveness and masterly arrangement, for which Aristotle might have envied him.
The whole universe, all individual things, and their active powers are, according to Spinoza, not merely from God, but of God; they constitute the infinite succession of forms in which God reveals Himself, through which He eternally works according to His eternal nature—the soul, as it were, of thinking bodies, the body of the soul extended in space. God is the indwelling, not the external efficient cause of all things; all is in God and moves in God. God as creator and generator of all things is generative or self-producing nature. The whole of nature is animate, and ideas, as bodies, move in eternity on lines running parallel to or intersecting one another. Though the fullness of things which have proceeded from God and which exist in Him are not of an eternal, but of a perishable nature, yet they are not limited or defined by chance, but by the necessity of the divine nature, each in its own way existing or acting within its smaller or larger sphere. The eternal and constant nature of God works in them through the eternal laws communicated to them. Things could, therefore, not be constituted otherwise than they are; for they are the manifestations, entering into existence in an eternal stream, of God in the intimate connection of thought and extension.
What is man’s place in this logical system? How is he to act and work? Even he, with all his greatness and littleness, his strength and weakness, his heaven-aspiring mind, and his body subject to the need of sustenance, is nothing more than a form of existence (Modus) of God. Man after man, generation after generation, springs up and perishes, flows away like a drop in a perpetual stream, but his nature, the laws by which he moves bodily and mentally in the peculiar connection of mind and matter, reflect the Divine Being. Especially the human mind, or rather the various modes of thought, the feelings and conceptions of all men, form the eternal reason of God. But man is as little free as things, as the stone which rolls down from the mountain; he has to obey the causes which influence him from within and without. Each of his actions is the product of an infinite series of causes and effects, which he can scarcely discern, much less control and alter at will. The good man and the bad, the martyr who sacrifices himself for a noble object, as well as the execrable villain and the murderer, are all like clay in the hands of God; they act, the one well, the other ill, compelled by their inner nature. They all act from rigid necessity. No man can reproach God for having given him a weak nature or a clouded intellect, as it would be irrational if a circle should complain that God has not given it the nature and properties of the sphere. It is not the lot of every man to be strong-minded, and it lies as little in his power to have a sound mind as a sound body.
On one side man is, to a certain extent, free, or rather some men of special mental endowments can free themselves a little from the pressure exercised upon them. Man is a slave chiefly through his passions. Love, hate, anger, thirst for glory, avarice, make him the slave of the external world. These passions spring from the perplexity of the soul, which thinks it can control things, but wears itself out, so to speak, against their obstinate resistance, and suffers pain thereby. The better the soul succeeds in comprehending the succession of causes and effects and the necessity of phenomena in the plan of the universe, the better able is it to change pain into a sense of comfort. Through higher insight, man, if he allows himself to be led by reason, can acquire strength of soul, and feel increased love to God, that is, to the eternal whole. On the one hand, this secures nobility of mind to aid men and to win them by mildness and benevolence; and creates, on the other, satisfaction, joy, and happiness. He who is gifted with highest knowledge lives in God, and God in him. Knowledge is virtue, as ignorance is, to a certain extent, vice. Whilst the wise man, or strictly speaking, the philosopher, thanks to his higher insight and his love of God, enjoys tranquillity of soul, the man of clouded intellect, who abandons himself to the madness of his passions, must dispense with this joyousness, and often perishes in consequence. The highest virtue, according to Spinoza’s system, is self-renunciation through knowledge, keeping in a state of passiveness, coming as little as possible in contact with the crushing machinery of forces—avoiding them if they come near, or submitting to them if their wild career overthrows the individual. But as he who is beset by desires deserves no blame, so no praise is due the wise man who practices self-renunciation; both follow the law of their nature. Higher knowledge and wisdom cannot be attained if the conditions are wanting, namely, a mind susceptible of knowledge and truth, which one can neither give himself, nor throw off. Man has thus no final aim, any more than the eternal substance.
Spinoza’s moral doctrines—ethics in the narrower sense—are just as unfruitful as his political theories. In either case, he recognizes submission as the only rational course.
With this conception of God and moral action, it cannot surprise us that Judaism found no favor in Spinoza’s eyes. Judaism lays down directly opposite principles—beckons man to a high, self-reliant task, and proclaims aloud the progress of mankind in simple service of God, holiness, and victory over violence, the sword, and degrading war. This progress has been furthered in many ways by Judaism in the course of ages. Wanting, as Spinoza was, in apprehension of historical events, more wonderful than the phenomena of nature, and unable as he therefore was to accord to Judaism special importance, he misconceived it still further through his bitterness against the Amsterdam college of rabbis, who pardonably enough, had excommunicated him. Spinoza transferred his bitterness against the community to the whole Jewish race and to Judaism. As has been already said, he called the rabbis Pharisees in his “Theologico-Political Treatise” and in letters to his friends, and gave the most invidious meaning to this word. To Christianity, on the contrary, Spinoza conceded great excellencies; he regarded Judaism with displeasure, therefore, detected deficiencies and absurdities everywhere, while he cast a benevolent eye upon Christianity, and overlooked its weaknesses. Spinoza, therefore, with all the instinct for truth which characterized him, formed a conception of Judaism which, in some degree just, was, in many points, perverse and defective. Clear as his mind was in metaphysical inquiries, it was dark and confused on historical ground. To depreciate Judaism, Spinoza declared that the books of Holy Scripture contain scribes’ errors, interpolations, and disfigurements, and are not, as a rule, the work of the authors to whom they are ascribed—not even the Pentateuch, the original source of Judaism. Ezra, perhaps, first collected and arranged it after the Babylonian exile. The genuine writings of Moses are no longer extant, not even the Ten Commandments being in their original form. Nevertheless, Spinoza accepted every word in the Bible as a kind of revelation, and designated all persons who figure in it as prophets. He conceded, on the ground of Scripture, that the revelation of the prophets was authenticated by visible signs. Nevertheless, he very much underrated this revelation. Moses, the prophets, and all the higher personages of the Bible had only a confused notion of God, nature, and living beings; they were not philosophers, they did not avail themselves of the natural light of reason. Jesus stood higher; he taught not only a nation, but the whole of mankind on rational grounds. The Apostles, too, were to be set higher than the prophets, since they introduced a natural method of instruction, and worked not merely through signs, but also through rational conviction. As though the main effort of the Apostles,103 to which their whole zeal was devoted, viz., to reach belief in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus, were consistent with reason! It was only Spinoza’s bitterness against Jews which caused him to depreciate their spiritual property and overrate Christianity. His sober intellect, penetrating to the eternal connection of things and events, could not accept miracles, but those of the New Testament he judged mildly.
In spite of his condemnatory verdict on Judaism, he was struck by two phenomena, which he did not fully understand, and which, therefore, he judged only superficially according to his system. These were the moral greatness of the prophets, and the superiority of the Israelite state, which in a measure depend on each other. Without understanding the political organization, in which natural and moral laws, necessity and freedom work together, Spinoza explains the origin of the Jewish state, that is, of Judaism, in the following manner: When the Israelites, after deliverance from slavery in Egypt, were free from all political bondage, and restored to their natural rights, they willingly chose God as their Lord, and transferred their rights to Him alone by formal contract and alliance. That there be no appearance of fraud on the divine side, God permitted them to recognize His marvelous power, by virtue of which He had hitherto preserved, and promised in future to preserve them, that is, He revealed Himself to them in His glory on Sinai; thus God became the King of Israel and the state a theocracy. Religious opinions and truths, therefore, had a legal character in this state, religion and civic right coincided. Whoever revolted from religion forfeited his rights as a citizen, and whoever died for religion was a patriot. Pure democratic equality, the right of all to entreat God and interpret the laws, prevailed among the Israelites. But when, in the overpowering bewilderment of the revelation from Sinai, they voluntarily asked Moses to receive the laws from God and to interpret them, they renounced their equality, and transferred their rights to Moses. Moses from that time became God’s representative. Hence, he promulgated laws suited to the condition of the people at that time, and introduced ceremonies to remind them always of the Law and keep them from willfulness, so that in accordance with a definite precept they should plough, sow, eat, clothe themselves, in a word, do everything according to the precepts of the Law. Above all, he provided that they might not act from childish or slavish fear, but from reverence for God. He bound them by benefits, and promised them earthly prosperity—all through the power and by the command of God. Moses was vested with spiritual and civil power, and authorized to transmit both. He preferred to transfer the civil power to his disciple Joshua in full, but not as a heritage, and the spiritual power to his brother Aaron as a heritage, but limited by the civil ruler, and not accompanied by a grant of territory. After the death of Moses the Jewish state was neither a monarchy, nor an aristocracy, nor a democracy; it remained a theocracy. The family of the high-priest was God’s interpreter, and the civil power, after Joshua’s death, fell to single tribes or their chiefs.
This constitution offered many advantages. The civil rulers could not turn the law to their own advantage, nor oppress the people, for the Law was the province of the sacerdotal order—the sons of Aaron and the Levites. Besides, the people were made acquainted with the Law through the prescribed reading at the close of the Sabbatical year, and would not have passed over with indifference any willful transgression of the law of the state. The army was composed of native militia, while foreigners, that is, mercenaries, were excluded. Thus the rulers were prevented from oppressing105 the people or waging war arbitrarily. The tribes were united by religion, and the oppression of one tribe by its ruler would have been punished by the rest. The princes were not placed at the head through rank or privilege of blood, but through capacity and merit. Finally, the institution of prophets proved very wholesome. Since the constitution was theocratical, every one of blameless life was able through certain signs to represent himself as a prophet like Moses, draw the oppressed people to him in the name of God, and oppose the tyranny of the rulers. This peculiar constitution produced in the heart of the Israelites an especial patriotism, which was at the same time a religion, so that no one would betray it, leave God’s kingdom, or swear allegiance to a foreigner. This love, coupled with hatred against other nations, and fostered by daily worship of God, became second nature to the Israelites. It strengthened them to endure everything for their country with steadfastness and courage. This constitution offered a further advantage, because the land was equally divided, and no one could be permanently deprived of his portion through poverty, as restitution had to be made in the year of jubilee.
Hence, there was little poverty, or such only as was endurable, for the love of one’s neighbor had to be exercised with the greatest conscientiousness to keep the favor of God, the King. Finally, a large space was accorded to gladness. Thrice a year and on other occasions the people were to assemble at festivals, not to revel in sensual enjoyments, but to accustom themselves to follow God gladly; for there is no more effectual means of guiding the hearts of men than the joy which arises from love and admiration.
After Spinoza had depicted Israel’s theocracy quite as a pattern for all states, he was apparently startled at having imparted so much light to the picture, and he looked around for shade. Instead of answering in a purely historical manner the questions, whence it came that the Hebrews were so often subdued, and why their state was entirely destroyed; instead of indicating that these wholesome laws remained a never realized ideal, Spinoza suggests a sophistic solution. Because God did not wish to make Israel’s dominion lasting, he gave bad laws and statutes. Spinoza supports this view by a verse which he misunderstood. These bad laws, rebellion against the sacerdotal state, coupled with bad morals, produced discontent, revolt, and insurrection. At last matters went so far, that instead of the Divine King, the Israelites chose a human one, and instead of the temple, a court. Monarchy, however, only increased the disorder; it could not endure the state within the state, the high-priesthood, and lowered the dignity of the latter by the introduction of strange worship. The prophets could avail nothing, because they only declaimed against the tyrants, but could not remove the cause of the evils. All things combined brought on the destruction of the divine state. With its destruction by the Babylonian king, the natural rights of the Israelites were transferred to the conqueror, and they were bound to obey him and his successors, as they had obeyed God. All the laws of Judaism, nay, the whole of Judaism, was thereby abolished, and no longer had any significance. This was the result of Spinoza’s inquiry in his “Theologico-Political Treatise.” Judaism had a brilliant past, God concluded an alliance with the people, showed to them His exalted power, and gave them excellent laws; but He did not intend Israel’s preëminence to be permanent, therefore He also gave bad laws. Consequently, Judaism reached its end more than two thousand years ago, and yet it continued its existence! Wonderful! Spinoza found the history of Israel and the constitution of the state excellent during the barbarism of the period of the Judges, while the brilliant epochs of David and Solomon and of King Uzziah remained inexplicable to him. And, above all, the era of the second Temple, the Maccabean epoch, when the Jewish nation rose from shameful degradation to a brilliant height, and brought the heathen world itself to worship the one God and adopt a moral life, remained to Spinoza an insoluble riddle. This shows that his whole demonstration and his analysis (schematism) cannot stand the test of criticism, but rests on false assumptions.
Spinoza might have brought Judaism into extreme peril; for he not only furnished its opponents with the weapons of reason to combat Judaism more effectually, but also conceded to every state and magistrate the right to suppress it and use force against its followers, to which they ought meekly to submit. The funeral piles of the Inquisition for Marranos were, according to Spinoza’s system, doubly justified; citizens have no right on rational grounds to resist the recognized religion of the state, and it is folly to profess Judaism and to sacrifice oneself for it. But a peculiar trait of Spinoza’s character stood Judaism in good stead. He loved peace and quiet too well to become a propagandist for his critical principles. “To be peaceable and peaceful” was his ideal; avoidance of conflict and opposition was at once his strength and his weakness. To his life’s end he led an ideally-philosophical life; for food, clothing, and shelter, he needed only so much as he could earn with his handicraft of polishing lenses, which his friends disposed of. He struggled against accepting a pension, customarily bestowed on learned men at that time, even from his sincere and rich admirers, Simon de Vries and the grand pensionary De Witt, that he might not fall into dependence, constraint, and disquiet. By reason of this invincible desire for philosophic calm and freedom from care, he would not decide in favor of either of the political parties, then setting the States General in feverish agitation. Not even the exciting murder of his friend John de Witt was able to hurry him into partisanship. Spinoza bewailed his high and noble friend, but did not defend his honor, to clear it of suspicion. When the most highly cultivated German prince of his time, Count-Palatine Karl Ludwig, who cherished a certain affection for Jews, offered him, “the Protestant Jew,” as he was still called, the chair of philosophy in the University of Heidelberg under very favorable conditions, Spinoza declined the offer. He did not conceal his reason: he would not surrender his quietude. From this predominant tendency, or, rather, from fear of disturbance and inconveniences and from apprehension of calling enemies down upon him, or of coming into collision with the state, he refused to publish his speculations for a long time. When at last he resolved, on the pressure of friends, to send “The Theologico-Political Treatise” to press, he did not put his name to the work, which made an epoch in literature, and even caused a false place of publication, viz., Hamburg, to be printed on the title-page, in order to obliterate every trace of its real authorship. He almost denied his offspring, to avoid being disturbed.
As might have been foreseen, the appearance of “The Theologico-Political Treatise” (1670), made an extraordinary stir. No one had written so distinctly and incisively concerning the relation of religion to philosophy and the power of the state, and, above all, had so sharply condemned the clergy. The ministers of all denominations were extraordinarily excited against this “godless” book, as it was called, which disparaged revealed religion. Spinoza’s influential friends were not able to protect it; it was condemned by a decree of the States General, and forbidden to be sold—which only caused it to be read more eagerly. But Spinoza was the more reluctant to publish his other writings, especially his philosophical system. With all his strength of character, he did not belong to those bold spirits, who undertake to be the pioneers of truth, who usher it into the world with loud voice, and win it adherents, unconcerned as to whether they may have to endure bloody or bloodless martyrdom. In the unselfishness of Spinoza’s character and system there lurked an element of selfishness, namely, the desire to be disturbed as little as possible in the attainment of knowledge, in the happiness of contemplation, and in reflection upon the universe and the chain of causes and effects which prevail in it. A challenge to action, effort, and resistance to opposition lay neither in Spinoza’s temper, nor in his philosophy.
In this apparently harmless feature lay also the reason that his most powerful and vehemently conducted attacks upon Judaism made no deep impression, and called forth no great commotion in the Jewish world. At the time when Spinoza threw down the challenge to Judaism, a degree of culture and science prevailed in the Jewish-Portuguese circle, unknown either before or after; there reigned in the community of Amsterdam and its colonies a literary activity and fecundity, which might be called classical, if the merit of the literary productions had corresponded with their compass. The authors were chiefly cultivated Marranos, who had escaped from the Spanish or Portuguese prisons of the Inquisition to devote themselves in free Holland to their faith and free inquiry. There were philosophers, physicians, mathematicians, philologists, poets, even poetesses. Many of these Marranos who escaped to Amsterdam had gone through peculiar vicissitudes. A monk of Valencia, Fray Vincent de Rocamora (1601–1684), had been eminent in Catholic theology. He had been made confessor to the Infanta Maria, afterwards empress of Germany and a persecutor of the Jews. One day the confessor fled from Spain, reached Amsterdam, declared himself as Isaac de Rocamora, studied medicine at the age of forty, and became the happy father of a family and president of Jewish benevolent institutions. The quondam monk, afterwards Parnass (president of the community), was also a good poet, and wrote admirable Spanish and Latin verses.