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 ḥerem, or ban:
As ḥerem documents go, it was quite long. Usually a ḥerem document in Amsterdam in this period was just a couple of sentences saying “so-and-so has been put under ḥerem 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 ḥerem, combining the Hebrew with Portuguese. So I think a more literal translation is better.