February 21

1677, 1913


Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam on November 24th 1632, and died in Den Haag on February 21st 1677. His family were Sephardim and he is probably the most famous excommunicated Jew in history. My purpose in this short essay is to try to rescue Spinoza's reputation from the slander of excommunication.

That excommunication came in 1656, when he was just twenty-four (see February 1). Along with a Spanish doctor named Juan de Prado, and a schoolteacher, Daniel de Ribera, he questioned three fundamental precepts of Judaism: that Adam was the first man, that Moses wrote the Torah, and that Torah takes precedence over natural law.

The first of these was revolutionary, though to us it is now commonplace, for we come after Darwin and the evolutionary theories of "The Ascent of Man", which suggest that Man was a species that emerged from the aboriginal primates rather than a single individual from the God-touched dust; we recognise Adam as a poetic metaphor rather than an actual individual, and can accept his primacy (his evolution from the primates), even if not his primacy (his "being first"). We also feel free, today, to question who it was that fathered those girls whom Adam's surviving children, Cain and Seth, would later come to marry, for there appears to be an inner contradiction in the infallible scriptural text. But even that question owes its capacity for being asked to Spinoza's virtual invention of Bible Criticism.

The second question remains controversial today. It was the reason for Rabbi Louis Jacobs' "excommunication" from the United Synagogue in the 1950s (the right to excommunicate no longer exists in England, but effectively this was what happened to him), which in turn led to the founding of the Masorti movement; and the Spinozan view was from the outset a cornerstone of both Reform and Liberal Judaism.

The third question I shall return to shortly. In addition to the three charges on which his excommunication was based, he was also accused of rejecting Mosaic Law per se and of denying the immortality of the soul. As we shall see, the first charge was ridiculous, the second entirely accurate. In a letter to Orobio de Castro, the leader of the Jewish community in Den Haag, in 1671, Spinoza furiously denied that he was either an atheist or irreligious, though the "Tractatus Theologico-Politicus" clearly demonstrates that he rejected all things supernatural, including the possibility of prophecy and miracles; that he denied scriptural authority in favour of human reason; and particularly that he abjured all forms of ceremonial Judaism.

But crucially this did not include a rejection of God. On the contrary, the whole of the "Ethics" is dedicated to demonstrating a rational interrelationship between the human construct "God" and the tangible materiality "Nature", insisting that theology should involve the same methodology as "the examination of the history of Nature… deducing definitions of natural phenomena on certain fixed axioms" – all of which answers the third charge. Spinoza understood God as being everything and also in everything, but modified in terms of his two known attributes, thought and extension. He regarded body and mind as undifferentiated; a view that disagrees profoundly with the dualism of Descartes, but which in essence echoes the monism of Maimonides. One can see why the Rabbis hated him, but also why the early humanists and rationalists of the Enlightenment saw him as their founding patriarch. His most obvious disciples are the poet Shelley and the composer Mahler, both of whom shared his materialistic pantheism, as did the philosopher Lessing. The school of German Romanticism cannot be imagined without Spinoza.

Spinoza believed that individual human knowledge, whether of the self or of the universe, is an evolutionary process, beginning from confusion and hoping, by process of logic and reflective experience, to arrive at understanding; Bloom's Taxonomy, the pedagogical base of most of our schools today, shares the same principle. 

As a means of conveying moral law and proper social behaviour, the Torah, however primitive, therefore represented a valid and necessary stage in that intellectual evolution, one which Spinoza respected in that form, though he regarded it as a human document, and noted many of its contradictions and inconsistencies. 

However, as the intellect evolves, so does Mankind transcend its earliest incoherencies and develop higher forms of clarity, culminating, though we cannot achieve it, in the perfection God Himself - the idealisation of the Perfected Human, for which Spinoza was happy to accept the metaphor God. 

The Mosaic Law is thus not invalid, merely anachronistic, a stage of transition. If Man is to climb the ladder to the summit of Mount Babel, he cannot allow himself to remain static on the first rung, but like Jacob's angels must strive to ascend, and be prepared to re-descend and start again, if necessary. Camus' "Rebel" and "Sisyphus", Sartre's archetypal existentialist Mathieu Delarue, Nietzsche's "Ubermensch" and Dostoievski's "Ivan Karamazov" would have few disagreements with Spinoza's philosophy, and would be unlikely to have come into existence without him. 

You will understand why I count myself as a Spinozist, why David Ben Gurion called for the cherem to be rescinded, and why the orthodox establishment remains as frightened of Spinoza today as it did more than three hundred years ago when it expelled him. He is in the red corner with Jacob against the angel, which is to say that he stands for Man, not against God, but certainly before God.

                For more on the cherem itself, go to my blog entry for February 1


Peter Altenberg, Jewish writer, Vienna:

"In the 34th year of my impious life... I was sitting in the Café Central... in a room with golden embossed English wallpaper. I had in front of me the "Express" with a photograph of a 15-year-old girl who disappeared forever on the way to a piano lesson. Her name was Joanna W. Consequently, deeply moved, I was writing my sketch 'Local Chronicle' on quarto paper. In came Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannstahl, Felix Salten, Richard Beer-Hoffmann and Hermann Bahr. AS said to me: 'I had no idea that you wrote! And on quarto paper, a portrait in front of you - now that is suspicious!' And he took my 'Local Chronicle' for himself. The next Sunday RB-H arranged a 'literary supper' and for dessert read aloud my sketch. Three days later HB wrote to me: 'I heard your sketch about a missing 15-year-old girl read at Herr RB-H's. Urgently request contributions from you for my newly founded weekly, Time!' Later on Karl Kraus... sent a package of my sketches to my present publisher... with the recommendation... So Fischer printed me... Just think of the coincidences on which a person's destiny depends!"

True enough, but what about the missed coincidences upon which a person's destiny also depends - by not leading one in that direction? On the very night that Altenberg wrote that sketch, and indeed every night for many months at that time, never speaking to each other though they must have recognised each other as their counterpart in constant, nightly occupation of the Café Central, at the very table next to Altenberg sat another Jew, Lev Bronstein, alias Trotsky, sat there with such constancy that the Austrian Interior Minister, informed by the secret services of preparations for a revolution in Russia, is said to have replied: "And who on earth is going to make a revolution in Russia? I suppose you are going to tell me it's that Bronstein who sits all day at the Café Central."

(unclear who Trotsky is beating here, but not Freud and not Hitler, though both were also regulars, at exactly that same epoch, January-February 1913)

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