Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Spinoza’s Life in Amsterdam
Spinoza (1632-77) was born in Amsterdam to Mikael and Hanna Deborah, Mikael’s second wife who died when Spinoza was a little boy of six. The family were Marranos who had fled from Portugal in order to return to Judaism.
A statue of Spinoza in Amsterdam
The details of Spinoza’s Jewish education are still unclear, but he seems to have been taught by Rabbi Saul Morteira, teacher of Talmud at the Etz Hayyim school, and later taught himself, becoming especially proficient in medieval Jewish philosophy and general philosophy and science.
He seems to have also acquired a knowledge of the Kabbalah, and the philosophical system he developed in his own original way owes something to the Safed Kabbalist Moses Cordovero. There are echoes in Spinoza’s thought ofCordovero’s summary of the relationship of the universe to God: “God is the all but the all is not God,” although, according to the majority ofhis interpreters, Spinoza’s pantheism goes much beyond Cordovero in actually identifying the universe with God, as in his famous maxim: Deus sive natura (“God or nature”), that is, God is the name given to the universe as a whole, monotheism becoming, for Spinoza, monism.
Spinoza’s approach and his general independent attitude to religion awakened the suspicions of both the Calvinists and the Jewish community in Amsterdam. On 27 July 1656, Spinoza was placed under the ban (herem) by the Amsterdam community. The ban, written in Portuguese, is still preserved in the archives of the Amsterdam community. The pronouncement preceding the ban reads:
The chiefs of the council make known to you that having long known of evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, they have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from evil ways. Not being able to find any remedy, but on the contrary receiving every day more information about the abominable heresies practiced and taught by him, and about the monstrous acts committed by him, having this from many trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness on all this in the presence of said Spinoza, who has been convicted; all this having been examined in the presence of the Rabbis, the council decided, with the advice of the Rabbi, that the said Spinoza should be excommunicated and cut off from the Nation of Israel.
It has often been noted that, in view of Christian opposition to Spinoza’s opinions, the Jewish community had little option in dissociating itself from Spinoza’s “heresies.” After he had been placed under the ban, Spinoza settled in various other Dutch cities, ending his days in The Hague where he lived an independent life earning his living by polishing lenses.
Spinoza on the Bible
Spinoza, in his Tractatus Theologico‑politicus, published in Hamburg in 1670, relies on Abraham IbnEzra’s cryptic remarks regarding passages in the Pentateuch that must have been added after Moses, to put forward his view that Pentateuch was not compiled by Moses but [the prophet] Ezra…The belief that Moses wrote the Pentateuch at the “dictation” of God was shared by Christians as well as Jews in the seventeenth century. Small wonder, then, that Spinoza’s views were seen at that time as rank heresy of the greatest danger to faith.
Biblical criticism in the nineteenth century relied on Spinoza to develop the whole subject further. Many Jews today accept general principles of biblical criticism and reinterpret their faith accordingly, so that for them, Spinoza’s view that Ezra is the true author of the Pentateuch is unacceptable on scholarly grounds, but the question of heresy does not enter into the picture.
Spinoza on God
It is quite otherwise with Spinoza’s ideas about God as developed in his Ethics, published posthumously. Here Spinoza’s views, which, it must be admitted, are difficult fully to comprehend, seem to suggest that there is no God as the Supreme Being, only as a philosophical idea, God corresponding to the universe in totality. Spinoza’s tight and carefully worked‑out scheme is deterministic with no apparent room for the doctrine of free will and, for him, there is no longer any need for Jews to remain a separate people who worship God in a special way.
For Spinoza, God did not create nature but is nature, and neither intellect nor will can be ascribed to God. This, at least, is the usual understanding of Spinoza’s pantheism, although a few scholars have interpreted his thought as rather more in accordance with traditional theism. In his lifetime Spinoza was accused of being an atheist. In a letter to Jacob Ostens (1625‑78), Lambert Van Velthuysen (1622‑85) openly states that in his view Spinoza’s opinions are nothing more than a disguised form of atheism:
He [Spinoza] acknowledges God and confesses Him to be the maker and founder of the universe. But he declares, that the form, appearance, and order of the world are evidently as necessary as the Nature of God, and the eternal truths, which he holds are established apart from the decision of God. Therefore he also expressly declares that all things come to pass by invincible necessity and inevitable fate … He does this in accordance with his principles. For what room can there be for a last judgement? Or what expectation of reward or of punishment, when all things are declared to emanate from God with inevitable necessity, or rather, when he declares that this whole universe is God? For I fear that our author is not very far removed from this opinion; at least there is not much difference between declaring that all things emanate necessarily from the nature of God and that the Universe Itself is God … I think, therefore, that I have not strayed far from the truth, or done any injury to the author, if I denounce him as teaching pure Atheism with hidden and disguised arguments.
Ostens sent Spinoza Velthuysen’s letter for comment. Spinoza, in his reply, rejects vehemently the accusation that he is an atheist and that he teaches atheism: “For Atheists are wont to desire inordinately honors and riches, which I have always despised, as all those who know me are aware.” It appears that in Spinoza’s day the atheist was viewed with the strongest reprobation. Certainly the charge of practical atheism, with its association of a loose and reprehensible life, cannot be leveled against Spinoza, whose personal life was devoted to what he calls “the intellectual love of God.”
But on the theoretical level, Spinoza’s identification of God with the universe does seem to amount to atheism.
All this obtains if Spinoza really teaches pantheism, as he seems to do, though some scholars prefer to think of Spinoza’s philosophy as panentheism, the doctrine that all is in God, a philosophy held particularly by Shneur Zalman of Liady and the Habad movement in Hasidism which he founded. The Habad philosophy was indeed seen by the mitnagdim [those who opposed Hasidim] as heresy but there are a number of differences between pantheism and panentheism, so that while the former is undoubtedly false according to Jewish teaching, the latter is not necessarily so.
Spinoza’s Place in Jewish History
From time to time attempts have been made to reclaim Spinoza for Judaism. If this means that Spinoza was a Jew and an admirable person who did not deserve to have been placed under the ban, many Jews would go along with it. But if it means that Spinoza’s philosophy is compatible with Judaism, Spinoza himself would have rejected any such claim.
Spinoza is generally seen by Jews as outside the religion and as therefore posing no threat to the religion. That is why nowadays religious Jews usually view the whole Spinoza question in a detached way and even feel proud of Spinoza’s influence on world philosophy–one of “us” extending such a great influence on “them.” In a Hasidic tale, a Rebbe was told by one of his follows that, in Spinoza’s view, there is no basic difference between humans and animals. The Rebbe replied: in that case, why have animals never produced a Spinoza?
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.