Redeeming Spinoza

A bitter controversy is taking place in Amsterdams’s Portugese-Jewish community regarding the excommunication of one of the world’s most respected philosophers, Benedito de Espinosa (Baruch Spinoza) who was born in Amsterdam in 1632.

Spinoza was a Dutch Jew and a member of the Portugese- Sephardi synagogue and the Amsterdam Jewish community who was regarded as a brilliant philosopher by the Dutch community but not so by the Dutch Jewish community. His writings and his thoughts brought him into great dispute with the Rabbis of Amsterdam who condemned him for his radical ideas on the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible and the existence of God.

In his magnum opus “Ethics”, he denied Israel’s role as a Chosen People and expressed his belief that the Hebrew Bible had not been divinely revealed but rather written by rabbis to control their authority of the Jewish people.

Spinoza was given several warnings by the Portugese-Jewish community of Amsterdam and they demanded that he retract his anti-Jewish beliefs. But he was unable to heed their warnings and as a result a ban of herem was pronounced upon him in 1656. He was forcibly brought into the synagogue and forced to lie prostrate while candles were lit and the rabbis pronounced a series of curses upon him, banishing him forever from the Jewish people. Spinoza was 24 years old at the time of his excommunication.

Three hundred fifty-nine years later, he is still considered one of the most influential philosophers of the 17th century. At the age of 44, he died from a lung disease in 1677 and was buried in the graveyard of a church in The Hague.

Now Dutch rabbis are deliberating on whether or not to repeal the ban of excommunication upon Spinoza. The main rabbis of Amsterdam’s Portugese-Jewish community oppose it. They claim that they have no authority to remove a herem which had been issued 359 years earlier.

One of the leading and respected rabbis of that community, Nathan Lopes Cardozo, has taken a more liberal and humane approach toward the redemption of Spinoza and the repealing of the ban of excommunication, but his opinion is in the minority.

The major question revolves around the authority of today’s rabbis to correct which many see as an injustice 359 years ago.
Regardless of a decision which may or may not be declared, Baruch Spinoza, Dutch Jewish philosopher, remains one of the most influential thinkers of his age and his theories have influenced some of the world’s greatest philosophers, including Immanuel Kant.

In Judaism there is a concept that “Yehudi af al pi she chatah, Yehudi hu”… a Jew no matter if he sins remains a Jew.

Case closed. In my opinion, Spinoza may be reconsidered a Jew but his anti-Jewish beliefs must keep him forever banished from official membership in Amsterdam’s famous and historic Portugese-Jewish community.

A Jew may choose not to observe shabbat or holidays, may decide not to keep kosher, and he is still a Jew. But a Jew who does not believe in the credo of our faith…Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad… Listen O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One…, who denies the existence of God… such a person can not be a member of the Jewish people. He is simply a lonely Jew belonging to no one and unwanted by all.

In spite of Spinoza’s scholarship, Jews continue to believe that there is a loving God and we remain His Chosen People.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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