Detail of a letter from Rabbi Joseph Serfaty, a leader of Amsterdam’s Sephardic community, to philosophy professor Yitzhak Melamed, sent 28 November 2021
It’s amazing how a man who was excommunicated in 1656 for unspecified crimes and misdemeanors can still hold so much interest and enflame so much passion.
Over three hundred and fifty years mark the gap between Spinoza’s excommunication and the letter of Rabbi Joseph Sefary, a leader of Amsterdam’s Sephardic community, to Professor Yitzhak Melamed, a world-leading expert on Spinoza. The letter declares the professor to be “persona non grata” for his work on Spinoza and desire to make a film about the philosopher at the Portuguese Synagogue complex in Amsterdam. Feelings clearly still run high.
But why? What is the attraction to Spinoza, and why such virulent reaction?
Let’s start with those attracted to him. On the one hand, it is natural for people to support and take fascination in someone treated so unfairly. Spinoza was not only booted from the Amsterdam Jewish community, but as the text of the ban makes clear, there was to be no way back for this young man (he was 23 years old at the time). The text also curses him with every curse imaginable: “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.” Who wouldn’t instinctively want to support someone facing that kind of abuse?
But Spinoza’s appeal goes beyond mere politics. It is his ideas which packed, and continue to pack, the biggest punch. What did he show us? He showed us that God is not only one (as the Torah teaches) but all that there is. He also taught us that God precedes religion, that love of science leads to love of God, that religion has utilitarian value, that humans are psychological beings, and much more. He demanded that we graduate from our naïve conception of revelation and our naïve trust in religious authority, and held up reason as the highest ideal. His writings indirectly call on those of us who respect tradition to explain why the Bible is not a book like any other. And for those sceptical of religion, he provides a path to God stripped of myth.
Many (including me) have found the encounter with Spinoza to be revelatory. Berthold Auerbach (1812–1882), the German Jewish poet and author, was eighteen when he discovered Spinoza. So profound was the effect on him that he sought to appropriate Spinoza’s identity and asked to be called Benedict. Such experiences are not limited to those critical of tradition. Rabbi Kook (1865-1935) had serious issues with Spinoza but nevertheless concluded that “there is in his inwardness some fundamental principle that after much refinement should enter the camp of Israel.” Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857–1935), a writer and early proponent of Religious Zionism, too was taken with Spinoza, despite his criticism of him.
And so we can understand a little of the reaction against Spinoza and those who engage with him. Spinoza is feared because he continues to wake people from their slumber, and to cause them to sit up and ask questions. His philosophy demands that we grow up spiritually, and challenges tradition by speaking to the soul in ways that established religions often struggle to do. No wonder that he makes some religious leaders nervous.
It is important to be as critical of Spinoza as Spinoza would want us to be of tradition, but to pick up on Rav Kook’s language, in his inwardness there is some fundamental principle which may yet find a place even in the camp of Israel. We might add, even in the orthodox camp. Scholarship, like that produced by Professor Yitzhak Melamed, is important to that project, and I for one, will be reaching for my popcorn and bottle of juice, to watch the film wherever it is made.