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

Reforms to Israel’s Judiciary Must Be Carefully Calibrated

The central topic of debate in Israel now is the new coalition government’s proposed reforms of the nation’s judiciary and unwritten constitution. Peter Berkowitz agrees that reform is necessary, but that “the proper scope and pace of reform, however, are open to debate and must be carefully calibrated.”

In particular, Berkowitz argues,

to preserve political cohesiveness, substantial changes to the structure of the Israeli regime must earn support that extends beyond these partisan divisions.

In a deft analysis of the conservative spirit in Israel, bestselling author Micah Goodman warns in the Hebrew language newspaper Makor Rishon that unintended consequences flowing from the constitutional counterrevolution are likely to intensify political instability. When a center-left coalition returns to power, Goodman points out, it may well repeal through a simple majority vote the major changes Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition seeks to enact. Or it may use the legislature’s expanded powers, say, to ram through laws that impair the religious liberty of the ultra-Orthodox. Either way, in a torn nation, constitutional counterrevolution amplifies division.

Conservatives make a compelling case that balance must be restored to the separation of powers in Israel. A prudent concern for the need to harmonize Israel’s free, democratic, and Jewish character counsels deliberation in the pursuit of necessary constitutional reform.

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Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Judicial Reform