Baruch (or Benedict) de Spinoza was born on November 4, 1632, in Amsterdam. He was descended from Portuguese Sephardic Jews – his name derives from the town of Espinoza in northwestern Spain. His family had emigrated to Holland, where they were able to shed the crypto- Christianity forced on them under the Inquisition and return to the Judaism of their forebears. Spinoza’s father was a successful merchant who lived in a smart house on Burgwal near the Old Portuguese Synagogue. His mother, who was also from Portugal, died in childbirth when he was six. Baruch Spinoza’s childhood appears to have been blighted by family bereavements. When he was twenty-two his father died, having buried three wives and four of his children.
Spinoza was educated in the stifling Jewish fashion of the period, spending hours each day in the study of the Bible (the Christian Old Testament) and the Talmud, the authoritative body of Jewish tradition. Despite the excruciating boredom of this severely limited curriculum, Spinoza appears to have enjoyed his studies, and his father assumed that he would become a rabbi. Outside school hours the young Spinoza was encouraged to take lessons in Latin and ancient Greek. Reality and the modern world appear to have played as little a part in his education as they were to play in his philosophy. But Baruch Spinoza was no young fogey. Jewish students of an independent turn of mind were beginning to chafe against the strictures of orthodoxy. They felt that their spiritual requirements had developed beyond those of a tribe of prehistoric Asiatic nomads, and they began questioning the Bible.
The leaders of the Jewish community were becoming deeply worried by this tendency. The United Provinces of the Netherlands was a tolerant society – but only compared with the Ku Klux Klan mentality prevailing elsewhere in Europe. (It was the Spanish Inquisition of this period that provided the Ku Klux Klan with its dunces’ uniform.) Jews were still not citizens in Holland, and attacks by Jews on the Bible were liable to be seen as attacks on Christianity.
So the reaction of Jewish authorities was hardly sympathetic when Spinoza began hanging around outside the synagogue peddling his unorthodox views. According to him, the authors of the Pentateuch (the opening five books of the Bible) were scientific simpletons, and weren’t much better as theologians. As if this wasn’t enough, the twenty- two-year-old Spinoza also began arguing that there was no evidence in the Bible to prove that God had a body, that the soul was immortal, or that angels existed (presumably Jacob’s wrestling match had been a sort of epileptic fit).
Spinoza was an extremely bright young man, and it was virtually impossible to argue with him – so the authorities decided to try a different tack. At first they attempted to silence him with vague threats; but when they saw that Spinoza was far too headstrong for this to work, they offered him an annuity of 1,000 florins to go away and keep his ideas to himself. (In those days a student could live for a year on 2,000 florins.) Considering the seriousness of Spinoza’s blasphemies, this was an amazingly lenient approach by the Jewish authorities. But Spinoza spurned their generous offer. This is usually held up as an example of his saintly refusal to be deterred from telling the truth. The seventeenth-century Jewish community of Amsterdam may be forgiven for viewing it otherwise. What could they do to shut him up?
One evening as Spinoza was leaving the Portuguese Synagogue, a man stepped up beside him. In the nick of time Spinoza noticed the raised dagger in his hand and backed, holding up his cloaked arm to protect himself. The dagger slashed through Spinoza’s cloak, but he himself was unhurt (and is said to have kept the slashed cloak ‘as a memorial’). The man responsible for this attack is usually represented as a fanatic, and it’s quite possible that he was. On the other hand, he too might have been a man of selfless courage – taking it upon himself to rid the community of a dangerous threat by committing a crime for which he would almost certainty be caught and hung. Saintliness and martyrdom can both require a similar arrogance.
As if this wasn’t enough, Spinoza now sent a long open letter to the synagogue authorities. In this he outlined in precise detail his views, backing them up with a series of logical arguments which he claimed were irrefutable.
Cursed be he
The synagogue authorities decided that they now had no alternative: they would have to demonstrate to the Christian community that they no longer had anything to do with this Spinoza. As far as they were concerned, Spinoza was now a nonperson, an ex-Jew. In July 1656 a grand ceremony of excommunication was held, and Spinoza was banished in style from the Jewish community. The great horn was blown, the candles were extinguished one by one, and the curse was read out: ‘With the judgment of the angels and the saints we hereby excommunicate, execrate, and anathematize Baruch de Espinoza. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night, cursed in his lying down and cursed in his rising up, cursed in going out and cursed in coming in. The Lord shall destroy his name under the sun and cut him off for his undoing from all the tribes of Israel. None may speak with him by word of mouth nor by writing nor shew any favour to him, nor be under one roof with him, nor come within four cubits of him, nor read any document written or dictated by him’.
(Pictured, the sign outside the Spinoza cafe in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter).
With such a recommendation, it is little surprise that Spinoza’s writings remain eagerly sought after by Jewish (and Gentile) readers to this day.