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Why Spinoza Was Excommunicated

By Steven Nadler | HUMANITIES, September/October 2013 | Volume 34, Number 5

Bento de Spinoza 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.

The document concludes with the warning that “no one should communicate with him, not even 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.” (Only a Portuguese version of the document is extant; it can be found in one of the community’s record books in the Portuguese-Jewish Archives in Amsterdam’s Municipal Archives.)

It was the harshest writ of herem (a ban or ostracism) ever pronounced upon a member of the Portuguese-Jewish community in Amsterdam. According to the historian Yosef Kaplan, forty individuals were put under herem by the city’s “Portuguese Nation” between 1622 and 1683. One could receive a ban for a wide variety of offenses: religious (for example, failing to attend synagogue on a regular basis or to properly observe a holiday), ethical (gambling, lewd behavior), social (men engaging in theological discussion with gentiles, women cutting the hair of gentile women), even business and financial (failing to pay one’s communal taxes). However, none of the other bans issued by the ma’amad in this period even approaches the wrath and vitriol directed at Spinoza. The parnassim (or community’s lay leaders) sitting on the board that year dug deep into their books to find just the right words for the occasion.

For the sake of comparison, consider another herem from the same era. The matter-of-fact tone of the ban received in 1639 by Isaac de Peralta, who, upset by a decision of the ma’amad, insulted one of its members and (it is reported) even attacked him in the street, is more typical:

Taking into consideration that Isaac de Peralta disobeyed that which the aforesaid ma’amad had ordered him, and the fact that Peralta responded with negative words concerning this issue; and not content with this, Peralta dared to go out and look for [members of the ma’amad] on the street and insult them. The ma’amad, considering these things and the importance of the case, decided the following: it is agreed upon unanimously that the aforesaid Isaac de Peralta be put under herem because of what he has done. . . . [N]o one shall talk or deal with him. Only family and other members of his household may talk with him.

As was the norm, Peralta was reinstated into the community after he asked for forgiveness and paid a fine. The ban against the twenty-three-year-old Spinoza, however, was never rescinded. There is no evidence that Spinoza sought any kind of pardon, and good reason to believe that he had no desire to return to the community anyway.

As we try to understand the event, over three and a half centuries later, on the basis of very meager documentary evidence, it is all a bit of a mystery. We do not know for certain why Spinoza was punished with such extreme prejudice. Spinoza was not a well-known individual at this time; while his family was prominent among the Portuguese Jews, he was only a young businessman, and had not written any philosophical treatises (although he was apparently talking to others about his views). His fame (or infamy) as a philosopher was still many years away. That the punishment came from within his own community—from the congregation that had nurtured and educated him, and that held his family in such high esteem—only adds to the enigma. Neither the herem itself nor any document from the period tells us exactly what his “evil opinions and acts” were supposed to have been, nor what “abominable heresies” or “monstrous deeds” he is alleged to have practiced and taught. Spinoza never refers to this period of his life in his extant letters, and thus does not offer his correspondents (or us) any clues as to why he was expelled. All we know for certain is that Spinoza received, from the Amsterdam Jewish community’s leadership in 1656, a herem like no other in the period.

Despite what some scholars say, the ban against Spinoza was not a minor affair to Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jews, nor was it issued for some ordinary kind of offense. The language of the ban is sufficient evidence for this. It is true that Spinoza had violated a communal regulation when, in 1656, he went to the Dutch authorities to have himself declared an orphan so as to be relieved of the debts he inherited from his father. This action explicitly contravened the requirement that all business and other kinds of disputes be resolved within the Portuguese community. But the litany of curses directed at Spinoza, the harshness and finality of the expulsion, especially when compared with the other bans, testifies to something more serious than a financial irregularity. We should, in fact, take the herem document at its word: What really got Spinoza in trouble were his “evil opinions” and “abominable heresies.”

In light of Spinoza’s mature philosophical writings, which he began working on less than a decade after the herem, the mystery of the excommunication begins to dissipate. No one who reads his philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics, or his scandalous Theological-Political Treatise—which Spinoza, knowing how provocative its theses were, published anonymously to great alarm in 1670—can have any doubts about how radical and unorthodox a thinker he was; nor will it be hard to imagine how his ideas must have appeared to his contemporaries. And if, as the evidence suggests, Spinoza was already expressing something like these views in the mid 1650s, there can be little wonder that he was expelled from the Amsterdam Portuguese community.

Among the boldest elements of Spinoza’s philosophy is his conception of God. Spinoza’s God, as presented in the Ethics, is a far cry from the traditional God of the Abrahamic religions. What Spinoza calls “God or Nature” (Deus sive Natura) lacks all of the psychological and ethical attributes of a providential deity. His God is not some personal agent endowed with will and understanding and even emotions, capable of having preferences and making informed choices. Spinoza’s God does not formulate plans, issue commands, have expectations, or make judgments. Neither does Spinoza’s God possess anything like moral character. His God is neither good nor wise nor just. It is a category mistake to think of God in normative or value terms. What God is, for Spinoza, is Nature itself—the infinite, eternal, and necessarily existing substance of the universe. God or Nature just is; and whatever else is, is “in” or a part of God or Nature. Put another way, there is only Nature and its power; and everything that happens, happens in and by Nature. There is no transcendent or even immanent supernatural deity; there is nothing whatsoever outside of or distinct from Nature and independent of its processes.

Spinoza’s God is definitely not a God to whom one would pray or give worship or to whom one would turn for comfort.

What follows from Spinoza’s philosophical theology is that there can be no such thing as divine creation, at least as this is traditionally understood. Nature itself always was and always will be. This means, too, that Nature does not have any teleological framework—it was not made to serve any purpose and does not exist for the sake of any end. “All the prejudices I here undertake to expose,” Spinoza says in the Ethics, “depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end, for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God.”

Equally impossible are miracles, understood as supernaturally caused violations of the natural order. As Spinoza explains in the Theological-Political Treatise—vilified by its critics as “a book forged in hell” by the devil himself—there may be events whose natural causes are unknown by witnesses, and so they call such events “miraculous” and attribute them to a supernatural providential agent; this was certainly the case in the Biblical period. But this is all superstition, Spinoza argues, and is grounded in ignorance of the true knowledge of God (or Nature). All phenomena —including human choices and actions, for we are no less a part of Nature than a tree or a rock—are brought about by Nature’s eternal laws and processes with an absolute necessity. There is no contingency in Nature, nothing which could have been otherwise.

What Spinoza is particularly concerned with are the superstitious beliefs and behaviors that the notion of an anthropomorphic and providential God nourishes. If we think that God is like us, an agent who acts for the sake of ends and who, by issuing commands, makes known his expectations and punishes those who do not obey, we will be dominated by the passions of hope and fear: hope for eternal reward and fear of eternal punishment. This will, in turn, lead us toward submission to ecclesiastic authorities who claim to know what God wants. The resulting life is one of “bondage”—psychological, moral, religious, social, and political enslavement—as opposed to the liberating life of reason.

What might have especially bothered Spinoza’s contemporary coreligionists was his claim that there is no theological or metaphysical or even moral sense in which the Jews are God’s “chosen people,” in part because Spinoza’s God does not (cannot) choose anything! All human beings are a part of Nature in exactly the same way, and thus there is nothing special or distinctive about the Jewish people other than the particular set of laws they follow. It is true that for an extended historical period the Israelites enjoyed good political affairs, with a stable and secure commonwealth. But this was only the natural effect of wise lawmakers and geopolitical fortune (with very few and insufficiently powerful neighboring enemies). So, yes, the Jewish people did, for a time, enjoy divine “favor”; but this just means that, aided by their own efforts, Nature seemed to bring good things their way. However, Spinoza argues, with the Jewish kingdom long gone and its people scattered all over the world, there is no longer anything special in which the Jewish people may take special pride or see as their divine vocation. “At the present time, there is nothing whatsoever that the Jews can arrogate to themselves above other nations.”

What also became irrelevant with the end of the Israelite kingdom, Spinoza insists, is Jewish law itself. The commandments of the Torah were tailored for life and worship around the Temple. But with the final destruction of that edifice, along with the commonwealth of which it was the center, Jewish law has lost its raison d’être. The ceremonies of Judaism—indeed, the ceremonies of all organized religions, including Christianity—are empty and meaningless practices. The acts prescribed or proscribed by the mitzvoth, or commandments of Torah, have no validity for latter-day Jews. They have nothing to do with what Spinoza calls “true piety,” which he reduces to a single moral maxim: Love your fellow human beings and treat them with justice and charity. This is all that is essential to the “true religion.” Everything else is just superstition.

Perhaps the most deleterious superstition of all is the belief in the immortality of the soul. Like the notion of a providential God, the idea that a person will experience a postmortem existence in some world-to-come is a part of all three Abrahamic religions. While there is, of course, much diversity among the major faiths about what exactly happens to a person when he dies, and while Judaism, at least, generally does not make the belief in immortality a necessary tenet of the faith, the eternal fate of the soul was of the utmost importance to the great majority of Spinoza’s contemporaries, and this is what he found so troubling. In his view, a robust doctrine of personal immortality, like the eschatology that accompanies it, only strengthens those harmful passions that undermine the life of reason. He devotes a good deal of the final part of his Ethics to showing that while there is, in a sense, an eternal part of the human mind that remains after a person’s death—namely, the knowledge and ideas that she has acquired in this lifetime—there is nothing personal about it. When you are dead, Spinoza is saying, you are dead.

This was an especially dangerous issue to pick on in Jewish Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. While Spinoza regarded the religious doctrine of immortality as a pernicious fiction propagated by power-hungry ecclesiastics seeking to control people’s lives (by manipulating their beliefs), he also knew that all four of the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish congregation’s main rabbis in the period were deeply committed to the concept of immortality, and had composed treatises or sermons defending it.

Moreover, this was a community founded by refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions; many of the original Jewish families settling in Amsterdam and elsewhere in the Netherlands were former conversos, forced converts to Catholicism who had possibly continued to practice some form of Judaism in secret. When, as immigrants in Holland, they were finally able to observe their ancestral religion openly, it was a rather unorthodox variety, and bore traces of generations of Catholic education and practice—for example, Purim was celebrated as “the Feast of Saint Esther.” As for immortality, where rabbinic Judaism tends to discourage speculation on the afterlife, it seems that among the residual Catholic elements in Sephardic Amsterdam was a vivid conception of the fate of the soul in heaven and hell.

It should also be noted that Dutch Calvinists in the seventeenth century took the immortality of the soul no less seriously than did their Catholic enemies. The Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish leaders knew this, and—still sensitive about their status in the Netherlands as noncitizens, and worried about how they were perceived by their Dutch hosts—would have taken every measure publicly to reassure the municipal authorities that their community was no haven for immortality-deniers. This suggests that there may have been a very political dimension to the herem against Spinoza. Amsterdam in the 1650s was simply the wrong place and time to be denying the immortality of the soul.

Finally, to turn to one of Spinoza’s most important and influential opinions, he denies that the Hebrew Bible is of divine origin. Neither the Pentateuch (the five books of Torah) nor the prophetic writings or histories were written by God or by anyone serving as God’s amanuensis; in fact, they were not even written by the individuals who, by tradition, are alleged to be their authors or whose names they bear as titles (Moses, Joshua, etc.). The Bible is, in fact, a haphazard collection of very human writings, composed over a long period of time by various authors. These texts were handed down, in copy after copy, through the centuries and finally collected and edited into a single (but not seamless) work by someone in the Second Temple period (most likely Ezra, Spinoza suggests). Thus, what we now have is a “corrupt and mutilated” document, one whose relationship to any original set of writings (by Moses or other prophets) must remain indeterminate. If it is at all a “pious” and “divine” document, it is not because of its origin or the words on the page, but only because its narrative is especially morally edifying and effective in inspiring readers to acts of justice and charity—to practicing the “true religion.”

These, then, are the core doctrines of Spinoza’s mature writings on metaphysics, ethics, religion, and politics. But is there any reason to think that they were already held by the young Spinoza circa 1656, and that he was expressing them to others at that time?

As a matter of fact, there is. We have testimony from Spanish travelers in the Netherlands in the late 1650s who, upon returning to Spain, were interviewed by the Inquisition (the documents were discovered in the Inquisition’s archives by I. S. Revah in the 1950s). They claim to have met Spinoza while visiting Amsterdam, and that he explained to them that he was expelled by the Jewish community for saying such things as “the Law is not true,” that there is no God “except philosophically,” and that the soul dies with the body. Moreover, Spinoza’s earliest biographer, who claims to have spoken with Spinoza himself sometime in the 1670s (before the philosopher’s untimely death in 1677), also reports that Spinoza was banned for his views on God, the Law, and the soul. This is all only hearsay, of course, but it does strongly suggest that as a young man Spinoza had already worked out, at least in embryonic form, some of his more radical philosophical and religious views.

Spinoza seems to have taken his herem in stride. By this point he had lost his religious faith such as it was, and, as his secular philosophical studies progressed under the direction of Franciscus van den Enden, his Latin tutor, he was drifting away from engagement with Jewish religious traditions and toward ancient and modern republican political theory, classical Latin literature, and especially the writings of René Descartes, the great French philosopher.

Spinoza was certainly not present in the synagogue when the herem was proclaimed, but when he heard about it he is reported to have reacted with perfect equanimity: “All the better; they do not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord if I did not dread scandal. But, since they want it that way, I enter gladly on the path this opened to me, with the consolation that my departure will be more innocent than was the exodus of the early Hebrews from Egypt.”

Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton University Press, 2011) and The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes (Princeton University Press, 2013).

Nadler has received five NEH grants, the most recent one, in 2003/2004, was for “The Intersection of Philosophy, Science, and Religion in the Seventeenth Century,” a four-week institute for twenty-five college and university teachers.