Spinoza, the Great Jewish Heretic, Can Only Be Properly Understood in His Jewish Context

Oct. 22 2020

More than most other scholars of the 17th-century Sephardi philosopher Benedict Spinoza, Steven Nadler has paid attention to his subject’s Jewish upbringing, and the influence of rabbinic thought on his work. Nadler argues, for instance, that Part V of Spinoza’s magnum opus, the Ethics, can only be understood with reference to its “Jewish philosophical context,” as a “kind of dialogue with Maimonides.” In an interview with Nigel Warburton, Nadler explains more about Spinoza’s background:

There are lots of myths about Spinoza and one of them is that he was training to be a rabbi. But we know from the documents of the period that he’d had to cut short his formal schooling because his father died and he was needed to take over the family importing business. So, he passed through the primary levels of the Jewish community’s school and the middle levels, but we know his name does not appear anywhere on the rosters for the upper classes, where Talmud was taught. . . . [H]e was, in many respects, what one early scholar called an “autodidact” but, at the same time, he had a very good grounding in Jewish texts, including Jewish philosophy.

At the age of twenty-three, the philosopher was expelled from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam, which placed him under a erem, or ban:

As erem documents go, it was quite long. Usually a erem document in Amsterdam in this period was just a couple of sentences saying “so-and-so has been put under erem for assaulting a rabbi,” or something like that, and you’re told how the person will be able to make amends and reintegrate himself into the community. In Spinoza’s case, by contrast, it’s a relatively long document, full of curses and damnations, expelling him from the people of Israel, seemingly for good, without offering any means of restitution or reintegration.

It’s in Portuguese. . . . A lot of translations have been very loose, for example, they use the word “excommunication.” In fact, that word doesn’t appear. The Amsterdam Portuguese invented a word, enhermar, which means to put under erem, combining the Hebrew with Portuguese. So I think a more literal translation is better.

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Read more at Five Books

More about: Benedict Spinoza, Heresy, Moses Maimonides, Philosophy, Sephardim

How the Death of Mahsa Amini Changed Iran—and Its Western Apologists

Sept. 28 2022

On September 16, a twenty-two-year-old named Mahsa Amini was arrested by the Iranian morality police for improperly wearing a hijab. Her death in custody three days later, evidently after being severely beaten, sparked waves of intense protests throughout the country. Since then, the Iranian authorities have killed dozens more in trying to quell the unrest. Nervana Mahmoud comments on how Amini’s death has been felt inside and outside of the Islamic Republic:

[I]n Western countries, the glamorizing of the hijab has been going on for decades. Even Playboy magazine published an article about the first “hijabi” news anchor in American TV history. Meanwhile, questioning the hijab’s authenticity and enforcement has been framed as “Islamophobia.” . . . But the death of Mahsa Amini has changed everything.

Commentators who downplayed the impact of enforced hijab have changed their tune. [Last week], CNN’s Christiane Amanpour declined an interview with the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, and the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Iran’s notorious morality police and senior officials for the violence carried out against protesters and for the death of Mahsa Amini.

The visual impact of the scenes in Iran has extended to the Arab world too. Arabic media outlets have felt the winds of change. The death of Mahsa Amini and the resulting protests in Iran are now top headlines, with Arab audiences watching daily as Iranian women from all age groups remove their hijabs and challenge the regime policy.

Iranian women are making history. They are teaching the world—including the Muslim world—about the glaring difference between opting to wear the hijab and being forced to wear it, whether by law or due to social pressure and mental bullying. Finally, non-hijabi women are not afraid to defy, proudly, their Islamist oppressors.

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Read more at Nervana

More about: Arab World, Iran, Women in Islam