Steven Nadler - Why Spinoza Was Excommunicated
Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise was vilified by its critics as “a book forged in hell” by the devil himself
Bento de Spinoza (1632-1677) was a young merchant in Amsterdam, one of many Sephardic Jews in that city involved in overseas trade in the early 1650s. The specialty of his family’s firm, which he and his brother Gabriel had been running since their father’s death in 1654, was importing dried fruit. Bento (or Baruch, as he would have been called in Hebrew in the Portuguese community’s synagogue—the names both mean “blessed”) was, at this time and to all appearances, an upstanding member of the Talmud Torah congregation. His communal tax payments and contributions to the community’s charitable funds may have been especially low by early 1656, but this could have been a reflection only of the poor condition of his business.
Or it may have been a sign that something else was amiss. On July 27 of that year (the sixth of Av, 5416, by the Jewish calendar), the following proclamation was issued by the leaders of Talmud Torah from in front of the ark of the Torah in the synagogue on the Houtgracht:
The Senhores of the ma’amad [the congregation’s lay governing board] having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from his evil ways. However, 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 borne witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of this matter. After all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honorable hakhamim [“wise men,” or rabbis], they have decided, with the [rabbis’] 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 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.A modified version of a translation by Asa Kasher and Schlomo Biderman.
Extract from Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise
II. (18:41) How dangerous it is to refer to Divine right matters merely speculative and subject or liable to dispute. () The most tyrannical governments are those which make crimes of opinions, for every- one has an inalienable right over his thoughts—nay, such a state of things leads to the rule of popular passion.
Spinoza lived an outwardly simple life as a lens grinder, turning down rewards and honors throughout his life, including prestigious teaching positions. The family inheritance he gave to his sister. His philosophical accomplishments and moral character prompted 20th-century philosopher Gilles Deleuze to name him "the 'prince' of philosophers" (meaning the "first" of "modern materialist" philosophers). Spinoza died at the age of 44 allegedly of a lung illness,.perhaps exacerbated by fine glass dust inhaled while grinding optical lenses
The dying afternoon is fear, is
cold, and all afternoons are the same.
The hands and the hyacinth-blue air
that whitens at the Ghetto edges
do not quite exist for this silent
man who conjures up a clear labyrinth—
undisturbed by fame, that reflection
of dreams in the dream of another
mirror, nor by maidens' timid love.
Free of metaphor and myth, he grinds
a stubborn crystal: the infinite
map of the One who is all His stars.