Modern Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Spinoza and His Contemporaries

In the comparative quiet that followed the tragic persecutions of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Jews took heart again to cultivate the intellectual life. We have seen that in the East this took the form of mysticism — carried here and there to dangerous excess. We shall now see the West, particularly Italy and Holland, developing a rationalistic school that here and there shades off into scepticism.

Uriel Acosta.

The stories of Acosta and Spinoza are characteristic illustrations of the latter. Uriel Acosta was born in Portugal in 1590, a century after the Jews were expelled from Spain. Although brought up as a Christian — for he was not even a Marano except by descent — his inherited Judaism reasserted itself. With the burning zeal of a convert he sacrificed means and position for religion. He won over all his family to the new faith — or shall we say the old — and they fled to Amsterdam, where they could worship the God of Israel without disguise. Thus far the story might be duplicated by thousands.

But Acosta was a thinker who formed an ideal conception of Judaism that he failed to find in actuality among his co-religionists in Amsterdam. He wanted a biblical, he found a Talmudic Judaism. It was the old cry of the Sadducee and the Karaite, "back to the Scripture."

He issued a volume boldly expounding his reform views and endeavored to conform his life to them. The time was not yet ripe for the individual to regulate his life in accordance with his personal religious views. But in all times refusal to conform to prevailing custom invites difficulties. Acosta was excommunicated by the Synagogue. Yearning for the companionship of his brethren, he made some concessions to the current rites and became reconciled to the community. But in the meantime his mind had advanced a step further. The Bible did not altogether meet his needs. He discerned the distinction between Natural Religion, that comes from unaided reason instinctive in the human heart, and Revealed Religion, that is a supernatural revelation of the divine will to chosen prophets and seers. The latter he denied, yet it was the accepted view of all creeds, Christian as well as Jewish, at that time.

This attitude led to his being renounced by his family and friends. So there he stood alone, spurned and deserted. But his was not a nature that could live a life of isolation. To escape this intolerable situation, he submitted to a public, humiliating penance; here the Synagogue may have been unconsciously influenced by methods of the Inquisition. But a reaction immediately followed; he felt he had been false to himself. So broken and embittered, he committed suicide. Whom shall we blame, the man or the age?

Baruch Spinoza.

Baruch Spinoza was a man more vigorous in mind and more sterling in character. He was born in Amsterdam in 1632, and received a thorough Jewish training from philosophy to Kabala and a thorough secular training in Latin and the sciences. Aboab and Manasseh ben Israel were among his teachers.

He early developed unorthodox opinions and estrangement from his family began. Summoned before the Beth Din, he openly avowed his rationalistic and free thinking views. The Jewish community, fearing that such daring skepticism might imperil the restricted rights, granted only on sufferance by the Dutch State, offered him a pension of one thousand florins annually, if at least he would not give public expression to his heterodox views. This he declined. So in self-protection the Amsterdam Synagogue excommunicated Spinoza at the early age of twenty-three.

But unlike Uriel Acosta, his peace of mind depended not on the companionship of his fellows and he was indifferent to their opinion. The Cher em (excommunication) did not affect his unruffled calm. A man of abstemious habits and few needs, he made a modest living as a grinder of lenses; but he wholly lived the intellectual life. He became a great thinker, whose writings concern not only the Jew, but the world.

He published most of his works anonymously, for he rather shunned than sought fame. One of his great productions was Tractatus Theologico-Politicus — a demand for freedom of thought and speech. It is one of the first pleas to separate Religion and State, — now a commonplace in American life and thought.

In his advocacy of freedom of conscience he writes: "What can be more fatal a step than to treat as enemies men who have committed no other crime than that of believing independently." He shows that such procedure makes either hypocrites or martyrs. It took the world long to learn this lesson. When this daring work first appeared, it roused a storm of condemnation.

Many disciples gathered about him, and he was consulted by scholars even at a distance. Yet he refused a Heidelberg professorship, lest that might shackle him.

He was one of the earliest to demonstrate the eternity and irrefragability of Nature's laws. He was likewise one of the first to examine the Bible in a critical spirit, placing it on the same plane with other literary products. Here he follows the footsteps of Ibn Ezra, (though more frankly), and Messer Leon. While his repudiation of the synagogue may have influenced his unfavorable estimate of Judaism, he notwithstanding, depicted the Jewish theocracy as an ideal state and the Hebrew prophets as ideal moralists.

His Philosophy.

His greatest work, "The Ethics", published after his death, has left a lasting influence on the world of philosophy. To understand it, one should have some acquaintance with the series of steps in philosophy up to his time. Let us endeavor to state it as simply as possible. The last word so far had been uttered by Descartes, who taught dualism; that is he recognized two distinct forces in the world — Mind and Matter. Now came Spinoza, who only recognized one Substance including both. He does not separate God from Nature. Such is styled a pantheist, (all is God.)

We must distinguish between the popular and the philosophic meaning of Substance. Philosophically it means a fundamental something which underlies all that is. Spinoza defines it as that which needs nothing else for its existence. It alone is actual — not only the cause of all being, it is itself all being. This one Substance is God.

Instead then of separating Mind and Matter as distinct realms, he makes them different attributes of the one God or Substance. Mind (in terms of Time) is expressed in Thought — (the ideal.) Matter is demonstrated in terms of Space — (extension.) We see both inseparably united in man, body, being material and soul ideal.

Individual things (called Modes) are related to the One Substance, as the waves of the sea to the sea itself. As these rippling waves constantly disappear, they have no real being. So it is with individual things — they are passing manifestations of God.

Man has no free will, for he is part of an endless series of conditioning causes. Yet knowledge makes him free to the extent that it enables him to adapt himself to external influences in a way adequate to his nature. This recalls a rabbinic saying "Submit thy will to God's, then His will will be thine."

The highest knowledge is to know God. The highest virtue is to love Him. To love God is to live in God. To love the perishable, to indulge the passions and emotions can only bring pain; therefore love the Infinite and the soul will enter into changeless joy.

At first the man was vilified and his work spurned as atheistic and dangerous. But after a century and a half of neglect, Spinoza was recognized as "the God-intoxicated Jew" and the father of modern thought. At different eras he influenced the thought of Leibnitz, Lessing, Goethe, Hegel and through them philosophy in general. In modern times from Berthold Auerbach down, Jews have been among his most appreciative expounders.

Yet this man who revolutionized philosophic thought and anticipated political liberty, lived but forty-five years, dying of consumption in 1677. He lived the simple life without consciously being an ascetic. His nature was singularly free from the evils that disturb the common mortal, jealousy, passion, luxuriousness, ambition. Wealth and high office were offered to him. He declined both; called an unbeliever, he really was a saint. He had the courage of his convictions and as he taught, so he lived.

Some Italian Rationalists.

Two earlier Italian contemporaries of Spinoza were Joseph dei Medigo and Leo Modena. The former was a grandson of Elias dei Medigo and a wanderer like Ibn Ezra. He was a great scientist and a pupil of Galileo. Modena, a Venetian rabbi, had been a prodigy as a child and was a wonderfully versatile scholar. But while Spinoza was sure of his convictions and had the courage of them, both dei Medigo and Modena were unstable in character and neither realized fully the responsibility of scholarship. Yet both like Acosta, demanded a simplified Judaism. But the Synagogue was yet to wait more than half a century for religious reform.

Jewish Dramatists.

While writing of the Jews of Holland, a word should be said here of a comparatively new role of the Jewish writer, that of playwright. The rabbis in the past had opposed attendance at theatres and arenas on strictly religious grounds — for although the drama had at times been made the medium of exalted genius, there were again periods in antiquity when the associations of the theatre were often demoralizing. In the middle ages, however, in spite of rabbinic protests, many Jews did attend the theatre. Around the time when Spinoza flourished, Dutch Jews began to dramatize Bible stories, particularly Purim comedies. Some of these plays were written by exiles from the Peninsula in Spanish and Portugese. The Marano Antonio di Gomez was styled the "Jewish Calderon" (a Spanish poet and dramatist.)

In the 18th century Joseph da Silva of Portugal, though persecuted as Jew was hailed as dramatist. The historian Karpeles intimates that he was burned at the stake, a Jewish martyr, in Lisbon in 1739, on the very evening on which one of his comedies was played. Such tragic ironies so often have entered the checkered history of Israel.

While Jews produced dramas in all eras in the tongues of nations in which they lived, it was not till the 17th century that plays were written in Hebrew. Moses Zacuto of Amsterdam produced the "Foundation of the World" in 1642. It is the story of Abraham. Joseph Penza of the same city produced the "Prisoners of Hope" in 1673.

So while England was revelling in its Shakespearian era, Holland was developing a Dutch drama. Most of the Hebrew plays of the 17th and 18th centuries were similar to the "Morality Plays" of that day. Classic dramas were also translated into Hebrew.

Moses Chaim Luzzatto.

This mystic of Italy, who touched again the strings: of Halevi's lyre wrote Hebrew dramatic poems. "Samson and the Philistine" the "Tower of Victory" and "Praise to the Righteous". They are allegories. He has been called the father of modern Hebrew. Here is a quotation from his masterpiece "Praise to the Righteous," (The Struggle between Truth and Falsehood):

"Truly our eyes are deluded, for eyes of flesh they are. Therefore they change truth into falsehood, darkness they make light, and light darkness. An accident suffices to distort our view of tangible things; how much more do we stray from the truth with things beyond the reach of our senses. See the oars in the water. They seem crooked and twisted. Yet we know them to be straight."

Luzzatto was also an ardent Kabalist and a member of a Zohar Society in his native town of Padua. The reading of the Zohar was imposed on its members with all the sanctity of a Scripture; no profit must be obtained from it other than spiritual advantage of Israel; a stranger was honored and "acquired merit" by being permitted to read a portion.


Uriel Acosta:—A tragedy of this name was written by Gutzkow. It has been translated into Hebrew by Solomon Rubin and into English by M. Meyer, of New York. See also chapter by this name in Zangwill's Dreamers of the Ghetto.

Baruch Spinoza:—Spinoza's intense monotheism is traceable to his Jewish instincts. Before he turned to Descartes, he had been a devoted student of Maimonides, Gersonides and Chasdai Crescas. (See "Crescas and Spinoza" by Prof. D. Newmark, Year Book Central Conference of American Rabbis, vol. xviii).

But Spinoza's One Substance "in whose negative abyss everything individual is buried" is far from satisfying the yearnings of the soul after the living God.

W. H. White, "Works of Spinoza", English translation, Macmillan.

H. M. Elwes, "Works of Spinoza", English translation, Bohn's Philosophic Library, 2 vols., London, George Bell..

Freudenthal, Sein Leben u. seine Lehre, Stuttgart, Fromman, 1904.

Freudenthal, "History of Spinozism," /. Q. R. vol.viii.

J. A. Froude, Article "Spinoza", Short Studies on Great Subjects, Scribner.

H. H. Joachim, Study of the Ethics, Oxford Clarendon Press.

J. Royce, "Spinoza", Library of the World's Best Literature.

"A Maker of Lenses". Zangwill's Dreamers of the Ghetto. J.P.S.A.

Ernest Renan, "Leaders of Christian and Anti-Christian Thought".

Jewish Dramatists:—The Jew has been a frequent type in the drama, from Barrabas and Shylock to Fagin and Svengali. Most of these delineations may be classed with the persecution of the Jew in literature.

Very many plays have been produced in Yiddish in the 19th century.

Karpeles, "The Jewish Stage" in Jewish Literature and Other Essays, J.P.S.A.

Abrahams, Jewish Life in thi Middle Aqes, Chap xiv. J.P.S.A.

Moses Chaim Luzzato, Dr. Abram S. Isaacs, Modern Hebrezv Poet, (N. Y. 1878). See essay I. Landman, Year Book C.C.A.R, Vol. xvii. See "Dialogue between Understanding and Uprightness" (Luzzatto), trans. Halper, Post-Biblical Hebrew Literature, J.P.S.A.

Slouschz in The Renaissance of Hebrew Literature (ch. i, J.P.S.A., 1909) from which the translation on p. 52 is taken.

Themes for Discussion:— (a) Should the Synagogue still claim Spinoza as a Jew? (b) Discuss the versatility in Jewish character and genius as demonstrated in the two contemporaries, Sabbathai Zevi, the Messianic adventurer and Spinoza, the philosopher.