Spinoza’s philosophy of freedom

The most original, radical and controversial of all early modern philosophers was born in Amsterdam in 1632. Bento de Spinoza was the middle son of one of the many families of Portuguese origin who, as Judaizing “conversos” fleeing the Inquisition, had settled in that tolerant Dutch city in the early decades of the century. He was raised and educated in an open (and non-ghettoized) Jewish community – quite rare in the seventeenth century – and entered the family’s importing business (dealing in dried fruit and nuts) after his father’s death in 1654. Bento (he would have been called “Baruch” in the synagogue – both names mean “blessed”) was, at this time and to all appearances, an upstanding member of the Sephardic congregation.

And yet, by the summer of 1656, something had changed. On July 27 that year, the following proclamation was issued by the parnassim (directors) sitting on the ma’amad (governing board) of Amsterdam’s Talmud Torah Congregation:

The Senhores of the ma‘amad make it known to you that they have been aware for some time of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, and that they have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from his evil ways. But being unable to effect any remedy, and, on the contrary, each day receiving more information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about the monstrous deeds which he performed, and having many trustworthy witnesses who have reported and testified on all of this in the presence of the said Espinoza, who has been found guilty; after all of this has been examined in the presence of the rabbis, they [the members of the ma’amad] have decided, with their [the rabbis’] consent, that the said Espinoza should be banned and separated from the Nation of Israel, as they now put him under herem with the following herem:

With the judgment of the angels and with that of the saints, we put under herem, ostracize, and curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of Blessed God and with the consent of this entire holy congregation, before these holy scrolls, with the 613 precepts which are written in them; with the herem that Joshua put upon Jericho, with the curse with which Elisha cursed the youth, and with all the curses that are written in 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 forgive him. The fury and zeal of the Lord will burn against this man and bring upon him all the curses that are written in this book of the law. And may the Lord erase his name from under the heavens. And may the Lord separate him for evil from all of the tribes of Israel, with all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. And you that cleave unto the Lord your God, all of you are alive today.

The document concludes with the warning that “no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, nor provide him any favor, nor be with him under the same roof, nor be within four cubits of him, nor read any paper composed or written by him”.

It was the harshest writ of herem (ban or ostracism) ever pronounced on a member of the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam, and it was never rescinded. There is no evidence that Spinoza sought any kind of pardon, and good reason to believe that he had finished with congregational Judaism anyway.

Over three and a half centuries later, with very meagre documentary evidence at hand, it is all a bit of a mystery. We do not know for certain why Spinoza, only twenty-three years old at the time, was punished with such extreme prejudice. He had not written any philosophical treatises, and his fame (or infamy) was still many years away. That the punishment came from within the community that had nurtured and educated him, and that held his family in 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.

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