Walter Hilliger
Walter Hilliger

The first Anti-Modern: Isaac Orobio (1617-1687)

The Capitol in Toulouse (built in the 12th century) and the Maison de l'Infante in Saint-Jean-de-Luz where Isaac Orobio was the doctor of King Louis XIV and Marie-Thérèse of Spain.

A few years ago, I read the writings of the evil Spinoza and I easily noticed that he prepared not only a path to atheism, also that he began to make a name for himself. Nevertheless, I thought that this would not cause any harm that was considerable because the ignorants would neither understand him; and the learned, if they did not want to be deceived voluntarily, they would immediately reject them as improbable and false. Also, his ideas would not be admitted or accepted but only by those who hate the truth and who have no taste but for new doctrines, even if they are false. However, I know from experience that I am deceived. By showing off or vanity, not only the ignorant of the populace try to understand the works of Spinoza, and when they semble to understand them, they fall miserably into the abyss of atheism into which they were already inclined. Also, many learned men are infected with the same miserable contagion.

— Isaac Orobio about Spinoza, 1684.*

We have so many books which are part of the Sephardic culture that belonged to a period of the Renaissance in Europe; but not only the Renaissance, also to the Medieval culture. Orobio’s ideas are deeply rooted in this Western Sephardic tradition and make us think in Maimonidean philosophical terms. The famous historian, Heinrich Graetz praises him: « He acquired the respectful admiration of his outstanding opponents of Judaism by his integrity and sharp dialectics. » Voltaire speaks about him in a letter: « Orobio is so learned that he gave none of the illusions that so many other rabbis are accused of; he is deep without being obscure, he stands out in Literature, a man of a pleasant spirit and extreme politeness. »

The gravestone of Isaac Orobio says that he was famous around the world. The memorial inscription in the Portuguese Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk, near Amsterdam says: “Isaac lives in heaven, this stone marks the grave of a man of worth. A man still living, who gave light to the world. For wisdom is his name, famous in every corner of it. Namely a skilled physician Isaac Orobio de Castro, whose spirit went up on high on the first day of the month of Kislev Year 5448 (1687). May his soul be bound in the bond of life.” This is a translation from Yosef Kaplan’s biography, and he wrote a very extensive biography. I think it was published in 1989.

Isaac Orobio was born as Balthazar Alvarez in Braganza (Portugal, 1617). He didn’t yet have the name of Isaac Orobio de Castro; that came only later. He was registered as a medicine student in Osuna in Andalusia where he learned the traditional curriculum of doctors and medical students. This is interesting because, in university, he learned the Trivium, which is the three medieval arts of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. This is very unusual because we wouldn’t think today that doctors need to study a language and how to communicate but this was very important at the time. So, this is something that he shared later with the community in Amsterdam, and particularly with Rabbi Raphael de Aguilar (1611 —1679).

In 1637, Isaac wrote a poem, and for the first time he signed under the name of Orobio. In 1649, he became a professor of medicine in Sevilla, also in Andalusia; and he was someone who could write in Latin, which is amazing, but it was very common for students back then because it was the language of knowledge and erudition. Like many great men, he suffered a lot of slander and calumnies, so he spent at least two years in a dungeon (1654 – 1655), and he was again condemned by the Inquisition to perpetual confinement (Sevilla, 1657). That was like life prison. This is when he decided to leave with his family.

The Journey of Isaac Orobio.

Before arriving in Toulouse (France, 1659), he made some Jewish connections in Saint-Esprit (Bayonne, France), and he became a Professor of Surgery and Pharmacology in Toulouse. He stayed there until 1662, when he finally went to settle into the Netherlands, where “Balthazar” became Isaac ben Abraham, and his wife, “Isabel” became, finally, Esther.

Like many great men, he suffered a lot of slander and calumnies, so he spent at least two years in a dungeon (1654 – 1655)

I was surprised when I read his biography by Yosef Kaplan, who is a great scholar. Yosef Kaplan consulted many books, manuscripts, copies, and transcriptions of Isaac Orobio; and I was surprised because he missed the most important part of his life in France: He doubts that Isaac Orobio met the King of France because the King of France Louis XIV, Le Roi-Soleil, was generally in the North, and Isaac Orobio never went to Paris, or maybe, he visited Paris or Versailles, but it was unlikely that he met the King there.

One must assume that Balthazar never resided in Paris and that whatever function he did fulfill in his capacity as a medical doctor, he fulfilled in Toulouse

— From Christianity to Judaism, p. 104. Yosef Kaplan, 1989.

But on the 14th of October 1659, King Louis XIV, Le Roi-Soleil, the Sun-King, came to the south of France and he went to the Pyrénées to negotiate a peace agreement with Spain. And the French royal family remained two years in the south, and these are the two years that Isaac Orobio was also in the south. So he was there at the right time in the right place.

The Capitols welcome the royal coach on October 14, 1659, in Toulouse.

I can’t imagine the organization that they had to engage to host the king’s court and all these people. We see the images of the crowd in Toulouse (1659): 15,000 people and 8,000 horses came with him. They represented a lot of people for a city that at the time hosted 40,000 people. So there Isaac Orobio met Louis XIV, the Roi-Soleil et Maria Teresa of Spain, who was the daughter of the King of Spain, and who became after Queen of France and Navarre. Isaac Orobio was the doctor of the King when he visited, so I think that he took care of Maria Teresa, and he took care of the King and the people. This is where Isaac Orobio worked at the time. And we also see below the home of the King in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where he spent time with Queen Maria-Thérèse, and probably Isaac Orobio was housed in that place too.

The Capitol in Toulouse and the House of the Royal Family in Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

Back there, in the South (of France), Isaac Orobio started his apologetics as they call them today. There, he started writing the “Prevenciones Divinas contra la Idolatría de las Gentes” which can be translated as, “Divine Warnings Against the Idolatries of the Peoples.” In his book, “Prevenciones Divinas,” he did an exegesis, and he consulted with Rabbi Aguilar, all the passages and texts that warn Jews against future irrational flaws that were proposed in the Christian religion. For example, in page of the Chapter 2 of “Prevenciones” It says « Capítulo II, Prevención a Israel contra la encarnación del Cristianismo » i.e. “Against the incarnation of Christianity” : « Dijo mas el Señor a Su amado pueblo con la ocasión en que nuestro maestro Moshé quiso ver Su Divina Gloria: “No me verá el hombre y vivirá.” Que es decir, “Ninguno de los vivientes puede ver con los ojos de la materialidad Mi Ser infinito. » He is talking about this passage of Exodus, « When Moses was the most beloved man to God and God tells him, ‘that No man can see Me and live »
( כִּ֛י לֽאֹ־יִרְאַ֥נִי הָאָדָ֖םוָחָֽי – Ex.
33:20 )’.  And this is against the material idea, the materialistic or temporal idea of God. We see this a lot in Maimonides, who also discusses in the Guide for the Perplexed (I, Ch. 54) against this idea of giving an image, or delimiting the idea of God and the Divine. Isaac Orobio also developed this topic in his “Prevenciones Divinas.”

In the Big Data of Google Ngrams, we see that the word “Dios” or “God” is the most frequent word in the corpus of human books, especially at the time of the Enlightenment.

Source: Google Ngram Viewer

So, in the Age of Reason, between the 17 and 18th centuries, reality was studied, which is Metaphysics; to give it meaning, which is Epistemology; to reach “an objective truth of being”, which is Ontology; of which God is the source. And the frequency of God in books reached its climax in the “Century of Light”. The modern idea of the Dominant Doxa, that the Renaissance was an atheistic time, is false.

There is a popular idea that it was a “deistic” or “atheistic” time; but in the Age of Reason, people were really immersed into God, in books, and in philosophy, and it was the most important topic. This is so since the times of Greek philosophy and the Renaissance is in some way a Restoration of Greco-Roman ideas that were given a new life through Scholastic philosophy. Isaac Orobio could quote, we see it sometimes in these texts, Aquinas and some Christian scholars, and this is important to mention because someone like Orobio didn’t see in Epistemology, which is the study of objective truth, a truth separate in distinct disciplines. Today, after we have fragmented all the disciplines in our modern world, we reinvented the idea of “interdisciplinary studies”; at that time the studies were already “interdisciplinary.” “Interdisciplinary” is a medieval idea. In the sense of Orobio, something that is true in Judaism, is true and must be true also in Christianity, and is also true in Philosophy.

Orobio didn’t see in Epistemology, which is the study of objective truth, a truth separate in distinct disciplines. In the sense of Orobio, something that is true in Judaism, is true and must be true also in Christianity, and is also true in Philosophy.

In science today, we are taught, and we are constantly pushed into the idea that the universe is infinite, and that there is a void behind; I think, this is commonplace in modern thought, that there is a void, and we were deprived of something behind reality. And the thought that Orobio represents, which is a medieval thought, demonstrates that behind reality there is no void; behind reality there is God. Because He is a Creator and the infinite Creator of the universe and everything we see of reality; and reality is contingent, and it has a limited time. And this is what we’re going to see in his “Certamen Philosophicum(Philosophical Case in Defense of Divine and Natural Truth, Shehakol 2021). It’s a very deep book. It took centuries to translate and it takes years to digest it. Chapter 1, part I, page 77, Definition 1 is related to what I was mentioning, a definition that he contradicts. These are definitions based on “modern thinking” and Isaac Orobio replies to them.

For example, the modern way of thinking of the Necessary Being is that “necessary” means “necessary” in terms of utility or usefulness, but it doesn’t mean “necessity” in utilitarian terms, it defines a necessity, as something that has to be there, as a basis. And this is what I meant: “behind reality, there is God, the Necessary Being. There is no void, there is God and this is the base. Something that’s necessarily there, not the void: (Def. 1) « By Necessary Being is understood, the being whose existence is its very essence, or a Necessary Being that exists essentially. » In the times of Orobio, modernists started to think that the material world that we see and the reality we see is a “necessary being.” And this is what Orobio is against: « This definition is true, and only suits the supreme, All perfect Being that is God only, who essentially exists and whose existence is really One with His Being. But if someone, or if he (a Spinozist) intends to apply this definition to a set of rational creatures, or to something else, in that case, the definition denies God as the creator of the universe, with the belief that this same universe is “as a god” according to Spinoza’s atheism. » (Philosophical Case, Ch.1, I, p.77)

And this is the problem of the materialist paradigm: By turning the universe into a god, after that, where do we put the idea of godliness? This distinct, separate Being beyond reality.

The problem, and one of the flaws of modern thought and of Spinoza’s thought, is that for him, “everything is one” (Ethics, Proposition 14); and he lost the sense of distinction between what is different and diverse. In Orobio’s philosophy, these are very clear terms, and we can only understand that there is a God if we know that there is a distinct Being, separated from us, beyond time; and not separated from us, but there are two perspectives: If we are, and if we have a divine soul, and if we are different from God, — different because we have this similitude, which is a divine soul — God is distinct from us, while we are different from him. So this is the distinction of mind and body, a very thin distinction that we can understand when we get used to the words of Isaac Orobio.

God’s aseity in Scholastic philosophy, ‘aseity’ as when God is One in Scholastic philosophy — and not monism — is a unique sort of constant existence by itself and in itself, without causation, by which the Necessary Being cannot stop existing or stop being. If we think, as some people think, the universe is infinite; it cannot have a beginning; and if the universe had a beginning, it cannot be God because for an eternal being to be eternal, that being doesn’t have a beginning. So these are ideas that are developed in logical terms, and we see in his writing that other creatures cannot be necessary beings without causation, nor be their own cause because creatures cannot be before and after themselves. And creatures are formed and are subject to change. Obviously, this applies to all creations and all creatures, but not to that Being, omnipresent Being, that we call in Hebrew הַמָּקוֹם “Hamakom” — Omnipresence (Lit., the Place).

In chapter 2, we see the attributes (Chapter 1, II, p.79): « Definition 2: Attributes are qualities whose essences constitute the nature of the thing to which they are qualities, so they are not distinguished from the entity to which they are attributes or qualities. » Here Orobio answers: « If this definition is understood of the Being that necessarily exists — meaning God — it is inadmissible without a distinction because there are no qualities in God, who is as a whole a very simple essence without composition. » Orobio’s idea of not giving any attributes to God is also Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed, I, 57); Saadia Gaon (Beliefs and Opinions, II); Gersonides (Wars of the Lord, Book 5), etc., because attributes are not attributes in God.

In medieval language, attributes in God are infinite because God is infinite, and He cannot have parts, God cannot have components because it’s illogical. If God was composed of something, which component came first? And such component would be the creator. It’s nonsensical. So everything that’s Godliness and what’s God is infinite and the attributes in God are not attributes per se, they are called “perfections” because they are infinite, and they are complete, and they are only One essence.

Maybe some people think that this is maybe far-fetched, or too philosophical. But when we study, and when we are commanded to say and to meditate the “Shema Yisrael” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7), we are commanded to teach this oneness ( אֶחָֽד – One) to our children and to study more and to meditate. It’s very simplistic to meditate “Shema Yisrael” in terms of, there is only One God because that god from them, and the other god from the others, and the other god from that culture is not ours — that’s very simplistic!

What these words meant for Sephardic thinkers was to meditate on the Attributes. And it is this teaching of the attributes, that is very old. It started with Aristotle, but we can see with the most typical Hebrew word מִידוֹת – Midot (Guide for the Perplexed, I, 54, 2), and we see this in Maimonides, in Saadia Gaon, and in Gersonides. So, we see in point 2 of Isaac Orobio: « Qualities are categories, of the aspect of a substance, that do not exist nor subsist on their own. And all that is God is a constant substance that exists on its own, and to which nothing can be added. Qualities are only given to God by analogy and not as meaningful qualities. » If qualities are material, we cannot give any qualities to God. It’s clear: « We give to the divine Essence or Necessary Entity attributes and qualities; not because these various qualities and attributes are found in it, but rather because of the imbecility in our understanding that considered it (an attribute) as known in creatures when we assign them to God, the infinitely perfect. And if we could know God as it is, we would know only One infinite, indivisible perfection that includes all qualities. Thus, if we conceive this attribute as such qualities it’s an error of our limited capacity and a fiction of our understanding. »

I did my best to render it as readable as possible so that it’s relatable to the ideas. In the footnotes, Footnote 1 (p.82), I wrote: “The composition results from a set of several things different and distinct from each other, a compound of several parts, this is the opposite of the simple essence of God that is indivisible, whether in reality or through reasoning, in action or potential; nothing can be added to the simple essence, nor removed from it. » (p.83) « with the exception of supreme attributes or supreme categories, not all attributes are considered parts of the essence, who are essential, as the particular case of qualities. A creature like a man, receives the quality of being wise however, this quality does not represent the essence of being a man, a man without this quality is still a man. Other attributes are essential and are part of the essence, such as being rational or sensitive — or the case of flying birds that receive the attribute of volatility—, attributes are real if they shape the species and so they are essential. » And this is how we may see the manifestation of the attributes of God. And this is very important because even if we cannot know; if we cannot have, not even a de-finition of infinite God because our intellect is limited, and our perception is limited, we can only see its manifestation, the manifestation of God by attributes. And the thought of medieval literature is that we see the manifestation of God by means of attributes. 

And the thought of medieval literature is that we see the manifestation of God by means of attributes. 

It’s a commandment to meditate about God in this way (Berakhot 13b:15) like the Sephardim did. And this is a millenary way of meditating. It’s not something new. And the teaching of attributes and perfections and all this language that might be strange to us is really something that was developed for millennia and is an integral part of anti-modernism. It’s our mission to preserve this and to restore it, and not only to restore it on another page of a book but to restore it in our thought.

* Isaac Orobio, Philosophical Case in Defense of Divine and Natural Truth: Certamen Philosophicum, Propugnatae Veritatis Divinae ac Naturalis, 2020, Shehakol Inc., Prologue by Isaac Orobio.

A very lightly edited version of the 90-minute Habura video conference for the Yahrzeit of Isaac Orobio delivered on Rosh Ḥodesh Kislev 5782, December 4, 2021. Thanks to Avi Garson. 

About the Author
Walter Hilliger is a French Caribbean writer and translator. He defends a realist interpretation of Divine Providence and translates 17-century providential realism works by classical Jewish authors, such as David Nieto, On Divine Providence or Universal Nature (De La Divina Providencia o Naturaleza Universal); Triumphs of Poverty (Los Triunfos de la Pobreza); Isaac Orobio de Castro, Philosophical Case in defense of Divine and Natural Truth (Certamen Philosophicum, Propugnatae Veritatis Divinae ac Naturalis); Menasseh Ben Israel, On Resurrection of the Dead (De Resurrectione Mortuorum), and others.
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