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Spinoza's Excommunication

Professor Matthew Goldish

Ohio State University



posted on the Donmeh mail list
Thu, 28 Oct 1999



Dear Friends,
Although I understand that the matter is merely incidental to other discussions, I must comment on the Spinoza issue which has been raised.  My friend and colleague, Boaz Huss, certainly has the most accurate picture of this situation. The actual excommunication of Spinoza is easily found in Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz (eds.), The Jew in the Modern World, p. 57. There we see the official reason for pronouncement of the ban:

"The Senhores of the Mahamad make it known that they have long since been cognizant of the wrong opinions and behavior of Baruch d'Espinoza, and tried various means and promises to dissuade him from his evil ways. But as they effected no improvement, obtaining on the contrary more information every day of the horrible heresies which he practised and taught, and of the monstrous actions which he performed...they decided...that the same Espinoza should be excommunicated..."

Another easily accessible document, Colerus' 1705 biography of Spinoza (in Jacob R. Marcus [ed.], The Jew in the Medieval World, pp. 334-342) offers more-or-less reliable information on the background to this ban from Spinoza's side.

"...He began to be very much reserved amongst the Jewish teachers, whom he shunned as much as he could. He was seldom seen in their synagogues, which exasperated them against him to the highest degree...Monsieur Bayle says in the biography of Spinoza...that the Jews offered him a pension a little while before his desertion to engage him to remain amongst 'em, and to appear now and then in their synagogues..."

There is no reason to think the rabbis knew his philosophy at this time. Among the considerable literature dealing with Spinoza's excommunication, one of the best articles in English is Asa Kasher and Sh. Biderman, "Why was Baruch de Spinoza Excommunicated?", in D.S. Katz and J.I. Israel (eds.), Skeptics, Millenarians and Jews. Their position would tend to support Boaz's claim that the issue was largely "social", or perhaps political.

As for Spinoza and the Kabbalah: I know of no evidence that Spinoza specifically studied Kabbalah with Manasseh, though it is quite possible. He owned works with kabbalistic material in them. There are also specific ideas in his corpus which are similar to kabbalistic ideas. None of this makes him a kabbalist by any means. However, at the end of the seventeenth century, a Christian named Wachter accused Spinoza of learning all his heresies from the Lurianic Kabbalah. This was treated by Gershom Scholem, "Die Wachtersche Kotroverse ueber den Spinozismus und ihre Folgen," in K. Gruender and W. Schmidt-Biggemann (eds.), Spinoza in der Fruehzeit Seiner Religioesen Wirkung; and by Richard H. Popkin, "Spinoza: Neoplatonic Kabbalist?" in Lenn E. Goodman, Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought. Professor Schmidt-Biggemann himself is at the Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania this year, working on the Wachter controversy.

For the interests of this list, Spinoza was also aware of Shabbatai Zvi.  Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the Royal Society, wrote Spinoza to ask his opinion about the news from Turkey.

Matt Goldish
The Ohio State University
Department of History
Columbus, OH 43210



YAKOV LEIB REPLIES:

Dear Matt,

Thank you so very much for this timely information about Spinoza's excommunication. It helps to dispell one more myth of Jewish history, and shows how very much more complicated that history is than some of us have been taught to believe.

I'm also grateful to you for reminding us that Spinoza had been made aware of Sabbatai Zevi by Henry Oldenburg in 1665. I'll have more to say about that fascinating nexus in a separate post. As for Spinoza's studies of the Kabbalah with Manassah ben Israel, I must confess the only place I've ever seen that mentioned is in the article on Spinoza by Rabbi Max Joseph in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 10, p. 5:

"Spinoza attended the well-directed school of the Jewish community of [Amsterdam, Holland] where he studied Bible and Talmud, the exegetic and philosophical literature of the Middle Ages, and presumably also Cabala.  One of his noted teachers there was Saul Levi Morteira (Mortera}, who, together with Isaac Aboab da Fonesca and Manasseh ben Israel, were its heads. Morteira, like Manasseh ben Israel, was a profound student of Cabala."

Such an interest in Kabbalah on Spinoza's part would not have been surprising since, as Boaz pointed out so clearly, Jewish scholars at that time tended to make little if any disctinction between "esoteric" and "exoteric" Judaism.

Kol tuv,
Yakov Leib


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