The Curse Of Espinoza

They don’t forget in Amsterdam

BARUCH SPINOZA in his youth suffered a thorough cursing by the elders of his Amsterdam synagogue, and 365 years later they’re still at it. 


The original writ against the 23-year-old rabbinical dropout, who would grow to become the foremost philosopher of liberal democracy in the new world of scientific thinking, was presented at the Amsterdam synagogue on July 27, 1656. It said, “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 ordered that “no one should communicate with him, neither in writing, nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor come within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him,” according to Spinoza biographer Steven Nadler. 

The Jewish Review of Books reports in a December newsletter that the request by a Johns Hopkins University professor, Yitzchak Melamed, to bring a film crew into the historic Amsterdam synagogue for an archival documentary on Spinoza was peremptorily denied.

Rabbi Joseph Serfat in his written response calls Spinoza a heretic (Epicouros). He says the ban of Spinoza and his writings “remains in force for all time and cannot be rescinded.”  Asserting further that Melamed has devoted his life “to the study of Spinoza’s banned works and the development of his ideas,” the rabbi declares him a “persona non grata.” The letter closes:  “I wish you a meaningful Chanuka (Hanukkah).”

The brief argument of the letter is that the proposed visit would be “incompatible with our centuries-old halachic (Talmudic law), historic and ethical tradition and an unacceptable assault on our identity and heritage.”

The identity and heritage of this Sephardic community goes back to Portuguese-Spanish Jews escaping the Inquisition. Nadler tells how their persecution began in 1492 with the expulsion order by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Jewish faithful had to choose between conversion to the Catholic faith or exile. The conversos who remained were harassed by the Inquisition, which eventually expanded to Portugal where most of the unconverted had moved. Beginning in the last half of the 16th Century, Jewish refugees arrived in Europe, especially Protestant Amsterdam.

(Incidentally:  Nadler remarks that some of the refugees, who practiced their true faith surreptitiously, “trekked to the outer reaches of the Spanish empire in hope that there the power and influence of the Inquisition would be weaker.”  New Mexico, where covert Judaism has been verified by recent historians, was likely one destination. Espinoza, the name used in the cursing, is a common surname in the state, and it is often pronounced like Spinoza.)

The 17th Century religious indictment said the elders of the synagogue had long been aware of Spinoza’s “evil opinions and acts” and had unsuccessfully endeavored to turn him from “his evil ways.” It said informers continued to report his “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds.” But it did not specify what the young man had actually said or done.

Fourteen years later, in 1670, Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise would publish his “opinions” if not his acts, and the reaction was unanimous outrage. Among the book’s key departures from conventional religious faith, in my reading, were these assertions:  that the Bible should be read analytically like an investigation of nature, that the visions of the prophets are imaginary, that miracles are impossible and that there is no basis for believing Jews are the chosen people.

Nadler says, “There is one theme that runs throughout all of Spinoza’s writings. It is the liberation from bondage, whether psychological, political, or religious.” (Of Human Bondage is the title of the fourth chapter of Spinoza’s masterpiece, the Ethics.)

The Treatise opens with characterizations of religion as superstitious and so overweighted with ceremony and pomp as to displace the function of reasonable doubt. In conjunction with the rule by monarchies, religion denies freedom. Spinoza proposes that “the great secret of monarchic rule, and its whole interest, is to keep men deceived and to cloak in the specious name of religion the fear by which they must be checked, so that they will fight for slavery as they would for salvation.” He adds that “in a free state nothing more unfortunate can be contrived or attempted.”

Nadler profiles the reaction in his A Book Forged In Hell, a title adopting the words of a merchant with intellectual pretensions who wrote:  “This atheistic book is full of studious abominations and an accumulation of opinions which have been forged in hell, which every reasonable person, indeed every Christian should find abhorrent.”

Nadler says,  “All of Spinoza’s critics — conservative or liberal — believed him to be an atheist and a free thinker, and the book to be a fount of irreligion and immorality.” 

A Dutch university professor wrote that the book “ought to be buried forever in an eternal oblivion.” Liebniz, the German philosopher, in a letter called it an “intolerably licentious book on the liberty to philosophize,” although he changed his mind later.

Johann de Witt, “perhaps the most important political personality of the Dutch Golden Age,” according to Nadler, was a liberal and therefore a probable ally of Spinoza — until the Treatise came out. “He was reportedly worried especially about the effect on the morality of common people, who would no longer believe in ‘reward and punishment’ after this life and thus presumably feel free to behave in licentious ways,” Nadler writes.

This proposition continues to be debated (formally and not in the tricked out guise called debate in American media politics) in various settings. Liberal arts students still argue about the formulation in Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor: “If there is no God all things are lawful.” 

Christopher Hitchens, defining himself as an anti-theist rather than atheist, opposed Douglas Wilson, a theologian and Idaho minister, on the matter in 2009 (two years before Hitchens’ death due to esophageal cancer). Wilson said God provides “a fixed standard,” an eternal morality. Hitchens responded a more reliable alternative is human “solidarity.”

Wilson said, “If there is no God then what is truth?” Hitchens preferred an evolving tradition that runs “from the Greeks to Spinoza, Voltaire, Darwin and Einstein.” He called this lineage “humanity’s triumph over barbaric theocracy and its scriptural guidebook.” 

In a debate with Hitchens, a theology professor, Lane Craig, argued: “Without God there are no objective moral values.”

Hitchens responded that morality and all religions are created by men, not God, often for political benefit. He gave examples.  The Dutch Reform church sponsored apartheid.  The Russian Orthodox Church is “the bodyguard of the Putin dictatorship.” The Vatican refused to act against the holocaust.  The Greek Orthodox Church cooperated with the army. Hirohito claimed to be a god, commanding the Japanese military invasion of Southeast Asia and China. 

Emancipate yourself from a celestial dictatorship and you have taken the first step to becoming free,” he said.

A more familiar reaction to theological tyranny, however, is to reach above and beyond. Teresa Forcades, a Catalonian nun, expresses it in her book Faith and Freedom (2017). The two are inseparable. 

Guernica by Picasso

She and her two sisters were born during Gen. Franciso Franco’s “National Catholicism” regime. It was a brutal military dictatorship, symbolized by the  bombing of Spanish civilians (see Guernica) using German air power through a secret alliance with Hitler. And it was “religiously sanctioned by the hierarch of the Spanish Catholic church,” Sister Teresa acknowledges. But this history does not delegitimize her “friendship with God,” a concept from the Gospel of John that she opposes to serving Her. Teresa uses the feminine pronoun in a sort of reinvention of a “vulnerable” God who is not in control of events. We are free to do that. But it takes courage. “Faith involves risk, an existential risk that can only be freely assumed,” Teresa writes.

This faith is real, not simply imaginary. At about age 30 Teresa was called, by Jesus, to be a nun at the Benedictine monastery in the Montserrat mountains of Catalonia. “Is it possible that I confused my own psychological needs or desires with the voice of God? Yes, it is possible,” she acknowledges. 

She is in a metaphysical way orthodox —  not a pantheist like Spinoza or the “non-dualist” preachers of today. She opens with the saying, in her native Spanish:  Entre pucheros anda el Señor,” God walks amidst the kitchen pots. But She (God) is completely separate from the kitchen pots.

Teresa, who has a medical doctorate as well as a theological degree, both from U.S. universities, denies such a thing as an unchanging personal essence, or self. She follows the French psychotherapist Jacques Lacan, who calls this the “fundamental fantasy.”  Teresa paraphrases him: “What we call our ‘self’ is a historical and arbitrary combination of the conditionings that happened to affect us in childhood.”

Teresa also has written a study of Gertrude of Helfta, a 13th century nun who advocated the right of women to be ordained as priests and therefore be empowered to forgive sins and take confessions.  The dominant paternalistic theology of her time depicted Jesus as the ultimate King of the world with power to impose his law on the world. “Gertrude left behind her childish quest for an almighty controlling God in order to discover a God who was indeed vulnerable,” Teresa writes.

God is not a creator in the way of an artist who can walk away from Her creation, but is like a woman giving birth and nurturing Her child. Mary, mother of Jesus, was not a subservient “handmade” of the Lord but a woman who thoughtfully consented. This is a primary evidence of freedom, which is necessary for love as well as faith. 

The Spanish for to give birth, alumbrar, or dar a luz, connotes bringing into light.  “The goal of human life is ‘to bring to light the Light,’ to give birth to God,” writes Sr. Teresa Forcades.

(Thanks to my friend Peter Katel — a journalist, scholar and Spanish interpreter — for calling my attention to the Jewish Review of Books item.)

3 thoughts on “

The Curse Of Espinoza

They don’t forget in Amsterdam

  1. Hi Larry,
    Your careful crafting of intelligent and understandable essays is a gift to read. It is possible for me to follow and learn, whether or not I understand the subtleties of Spinoza. My mentor, Peter Keen, also had that ability. He spoke to everyone in an audience somehow, regardless of their background.

  2. Well done, Larry. I think Spinoza has won–have not heard of any of his critics before.

    Keep me on your list.

    I have summarized a book by Robin Wright, The Evolution of God, in about four pages of how man has created god in his image. If you would like me to send them I will.

    Peace, Ken Nelson

  3. Thanks for this, Larry. I’m sure Spinoza was among those I read in college philosophy classes but my grasp at the time was short-term and narrow and I haven’t read him since then. No yawns here, with what you’ve presented.

    What comes to mind right away is what a serious threat he was seen to be by religious officials of his time and later, to have garnered so much scorn and damnation. Which means of course they were terrified, as religious and political powers have been throughout time, of a populace free of bondage. Which also means of course that Spinoza had something important to say.

    Makes me almost want to read him, except that my reading time is limited these days and book club books come first!

    Blessings to you, as well, in this season of the returning sun.

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