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.

Read more at Five Books

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

On Thanksgiving, Remember the Exodus from Egypt

Nov. 27 2020

When asked to design a Great Seal of the United States, Benjamin Franklin proposed a depiction of Moses at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, while Thomas Jefferson suggested the children of Israel in the wilderness after departing Egypt. These proposals, writes Ed Simon, tapped into a venerable American tradition:

The Puritans from whom Franklin descended had been comparing their own arrival in the New World with the story of Exodus for more than a century. They were inheritors of a profoundly Judaic vision, melding the stories of the Hebrew scripture with their own narratives and experiences. . . .

For the Puritans, Exodus was arguably a model for understanding their own lives and history in a manner more all-encompassing and totalizing than for any other historical religious group, with the obvious exception of the Jews. . . . American Puritans and pilgrims like John Mather, John Winthrop, John Cotton, . . . and many others placed the Exodus at the center of their vision, seeing their own fleeing from an oppressive England and a Europe wracked by the Thirty Years’ War to an American “Errand Into the Wilderness” as a modern version of the Israelites’ escape into Canaan. . . . [Thus the] Exodus . . . has become indispensable in comprehending the wider American experience. Through the Puritans, the story of Exodus became a motivating script for all manner of American stories. . . .

We read its significance and prophetic power in accounts of slaves who escaped the cruelty of antebellum plantation servitude, and who crossed the Ohio River as if it were the Sea of Reeds. . . . We see it in photographs of the oppressed escaping pogroms and persecution in the Old World, and in the stories of later generations of refugees. Exodus is an indispensably Jewish story, but what more appropriate day than Thanksgiving, this most American and Puritan (and “Jewish”?) of holidays, to consider the role that that particular biblical narrative has had in defining America’s civil religion?

Read more at Tablet

More about: American founding, American Religion, Exodus, History & Ideas, Thanksgiving, Thomas Jefferson