Why Baruch Spinoza is still ex­com­mu­ni­cated

Hero to some, heretic to oth­ers, — an ap­peal to re­ha­bil­i­tate the Dutch thinker has been re­jected

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY SI­MON ROCKER

THE YEAR 1656 is usu­ally re­mem­bered as the date of the read­mis­sion of Jews to Eng­land. But some­thing else hap­pened then, re­garded by some as an in­fa­mous act that re­mains a lin­ger­ing stain on Euro­pean Jewry. Am­s­ter­dam’s Sephardi au­thor­i­ties pro­nounced a cherem, a ban of ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, on the ra­tio­nal­ist philoso­pher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza, one of the great­est Jewish minds, was con­demned for his “evil opin­ions” and “abom­inable here­sies”. A free-thinker ahead of his time, he re­jected the idea of a per­sonal God, the divine ori­gin of the To­rah, the cho­sen­ness of the Jews and the im­mor­tal­ity of the soul.

Such views might seem un­ex­cep­tion­able to many to­day and might even be held by some Pro­gres­siver­ab­bis.Butinthe17th­cen­tury, they would have been an out­ra­geous chal­lenge to the re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment, Jewish or Chris­tian. Even though Spinoza pub­lished his un­ortho­dox ideas only af­ter the cherem, it is as­sumed that he must have been talk­ing about them be­fore.

Ev­ery so of­ten, calls have come from those who cham­pion Spinoza as an in­tel­lec­tual hero for the ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion to be re­versed.In­the1920s,theHe­brewUniver­si­ty­his­to­rian, Joseph Klaus­ner — Amos Oz’s great-un­cle — de­clared, “The sin of Ju­daism against you is re­moved.”

A new at­tempt at re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion has re­cently been made by the suc­ces­sors of those who cast Spinoza out of the fold. In Septem­ber 2012, the ex­ec­u­tive of the Por­tugees-Is­raëli­etishce Ge­meente te Am­s­ter­dam asked their rab­bini­cal head, the Ha­ham, Dr Pin­chas Toledano to re­con­sider the cherem af­ter con­sult­ing a num­ber of in­ter­na­tional Spinoza schol­ars.

In their ap­peal to the Ha­ham, they ar­gued that the cherem was “in painful con­trast to a key value of the mod­ern world, where we con­sider ‘free­dom of speech’ as a fun­da­men­tal hu­man right”.

Thea­ca­demic­swere­di­vide­donover­turn­ingth­e­ban. Dr Piet Steen­bakkers, of Utrecht Univer­sity, thought “it would put to rest a vexed is­sue and… be a homage to an orig­i­nal thinker of whom the Por­tuguese-Jewish com­mu­nity has rea­son to be proud”.

But the He­brew Univer­sity scholar Yosef Ka­plan ar­gued that his­tory can­not be changed, that he could not think of any Ortho­dox rabbi who would agree to an­nul the cherem and in any event it would be a “pa­thetic and pre­pos­ter­ous ges­ture”.

Af­ter re­view­ing the schol­arly opin­ions, Rabbi Toledano — who is for­mer head of Lon­don’s Sephardi Beth Din — de­cided to let the cherem re­main. His rul­ing, al­though is­sued last year, has only lately be­gun to cir­cu­late. While the cherem was “shrouded in mys­tery” be­cause no ex­plana­tory doc­u­ments had been de­posited in the con­gre­ga­tion’s ar­chives, he noted that, sig­nif­i­cantly, the cherem had not been lifted in the philoso­pher’s life­time. Nor­mally rab­bis would lift a cherem in 30 days.

“Be­yond any shadow of doubt, Spinoza never re­quested to re­scind the cherem,” Ha­ham Toledano stated.

“Spinoza should have come be­fore the Beth Din and asked for for­give­ness — and then (and only then) the cherem would have been an­nulled. The fact that he has been buried in a non-Jewish ceme­tery shows clearly that, to the last breath of his life, he was in­dif­fer­ent to the cherem and that he never asked for for­give­ness or did teshu­vah [re­pen­tance] by re­tract­ing pub­licly what he had said about God and his con­tempt for Chazal [the Sages].”

Rabbi Toledano went on: “The mo­ment we re­scind the cherem, even if we could, it would im­ply that we share his heretic views… To him, the Law of Moses was not Divine and no longer rel­e­vant af­ter the de­struc­tion of the Jewish state. To him there was no God, ex­cept in a ‘philo­soph­i­cal’ sense. How on earth can we even con­sider to re­move the cherem from a per­son with such pre­pos­ter­ous ideas, where he was tear­ing apart the very fun­da­ments of our reli­gion?”

The Ha­ham also ob­served, i n re­sponse to the ex­ec­u­tive’s point about free­dom of speech, that Ju­daism did not share such a con­cept. Did free speech mean, he asked, that “we in our sy­n­a­gogue should spread the de­nial of God’s ex­is­tence to the ex­tent that it de­stroys our her­itage and the pil­lars on which Ju­daism rests”?

Spinoza may re­main for­mally ex­cluded from the house of Is­rael. But what about his writ­ings?

As Dr Ka­plan pointed out, in 1953 Is­raeli Chief Rabbi Isaac Her­zog con­cluded that there was in fact no pro­hi­bi­tion on mod­ern Jews read­ing them.

PORTRAIT: GETTY IMAGES

Dutch Sephardi leader Ha­ham Pin­chas Toledano ( be­low) says he can­not lift the ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion or­der against Baruch Spinoza ( right)

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