Why was Spinoza excommunicated?

Wednesday, 27 May, 2009 - 4:38 pm

The year 1656 is known for an event that changed history, when Menasseh ben Israel (1604-57) of Amsterdam, of converso origin, travelled to England to petition Oliver Cromwell to readmit the Jews. His petition was viewed with favour, according to historians, as Puritan England regarded the conversion of all the descendents of the ancient Israelites as a precondition for the Second Coming.


There was also the motive of Menasseh ben Israel. He was stimulated by the arrival in Amsterdam in 1644 of a Portuguese New Christian, Antonio de Montezinos, who claimed to have met a group of Indians in a remote part of present-day Columbia who were descendents of the Biblical tribe of Reuben, one of the ten lost tribes.


This gave a sense that G-d was perhaps finally fulfilling the prophecy that the Jews would be scattered “from one of the earth to the other” (Deuteronomy 28:64) before the end of days. Yet there remained one corner of the world from which Jews were still absent, England (called ketseh ha-aretz – the end of the earth – in medieval Hebrew). Jews therefore viewed their return to English soil as preparation for the advent of the messianic age.


Less known, however, is that in the same year, in Amsterdam, the place from where the Jews who would have immigrated to England resided, Menasseh ben Israel with two other leaders of Amsterdam Jewry issued an extremely harsh condemnation in the form of a curse and excommunication against a 23 year old Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. The excommunication, written in Spanish, took place on 27 July 1656.

Spinoza's ancestors were of Sephardic Jewish descent, and were a part of the community of Portuguese Jews that grew in the city of Amsterdam after the Alhambra Decree in Spain (1492) and the Portuguese Inquisition (1536) had led to forced conversions and expulsions from the Iberian Peninsula.

Some historians argue the Spinoza family ("Espinosa" in Portuguese) had its origins in Espinosa de los Monteros, near Burgos, Spain. Others claim they were Portuguese Jews who had moved to Spain and then returned to their home country in 1492, only to be forcibly converted to Catholicism in 1498. Spinoza's father was born roughly a century after this forced conversion in the small Portuguese city of Vidigueira, near Beja in Alentejo. When Spinoza's father was still a child, Spinoza's grandfather, Isaac de Spinoza (who was from Lisbon), took his family to Nantes in France. They were expelled in 1615 and moved to Rotterdam, where Isaac died in 1627. Spinoza's father, Miguel, and his uncle, Manuel, then moved to Amsterdam where they reassumed their Judaism.

Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. His mother Ana Débora, Miguel's second wife, died when Baruch was only six years old. Miguel was a successful merchant and Baruch had a traditional Jewish upbringing.


Wars with England and France took the life of his father and decimated his family's fortune but he was eventually able to relinquish responsibility for the business and its debts to his brother, Gabriel, and devote himself to philosophy and optics.


At the age of 23 he had already developed his thoughts and ideas to the degree that he came into conflict with the Jewish community, expressed in the following statement of excommunication:


The members of the council do you to wit that they have long known of the evil opinions and doings of Baruch de Espinoza, and have tried by diverse methods and promises to make him turn from his evil ways. As they have not succeeded in effecting his improvement, but, on the contrary, have received every day more information about the horrible heresies which he practised and taught, and other enormities which he has committed, and as they had many trustworthy witnesses of this, who have deposed and testified in the presence of the said Spinoza, and have convicted him; and as all this has been investigated in the presence of the Rabbis, it has been resolved with their consent that the said Espinoza should be anathematised and cut off from the people of Israel, and now he is anathematised with the following anathema:

"With the judgment of the angels and with that of the saints, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and of all this holy congregation, before these sacred Scrolls of the Law, and the six hundred and thirteen precepts which are proscribed therein, we anathematise, cut off, execrate, and curse Baruch de Espinoza with the anathema wherewith Joshua anathematised Jericho, with the curse wherewith Elishah cursed the youths, and with all the curses which are written in the Law: cursed be he by day, and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lieth down, and cursed be he when he riseth up; cursed be he when he goeth out, and cursed be he when he cometh in; the Lord will not pardon him; the wrath and fury of the Lord will be kindled against this man, and bring down upon him all the curses which are written in the Book of the Law; and the Lord will destroy his name from under the heavens; and, to his undoing, the Lord will cut him off from all the tribes of Israel, with all the curses of the firmament which are written in the Book of the Law; but ye that cleave unto the Lord your God live all of you this day!"

We ordain that no one may communicate with him verbally or in writing, nor show him any favour, nor stay under the same roof with him, nor be within four cubits of him, nor read anything composed or written by him.


End of text.


In retrospect one can understand why Spinoza aroused such ire within the Jewish community, as he is considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy, laying the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism.


Indeed, Spinoza was not just a pariah within the Jewish community but also was theologically provocative to the country where he lived. After the publication of his magnum opus Ethics in 1677, it was censured by the States of Holland as a “profane, atheistic, and blasphemous book”.


His work was condemned alongside a number of other works in the 17th century.


This must have been embarrassing for the Jewish community who were guests in the country from Portugal and Spain.


In addition, he lived in a very sensitive period when the Jewish leaders in Amsterdam were trying to find new places of refuge for Jews. This was one of the main motives behind the petition to Oliver Cromwell.


It is plausible that the year of excommunication is not a coincidence, as it would have been necessary to prove to Puritan England that the Jews were believers and would not pose a threat to the beliefs of the church and the people in England.


However, there is a fundamental problem with this theory. The publication of his works only happened after 1656 and his magnum opus the Ethics was only published after his death in 1677, followed which he was censured by the States of Holland.


An outline of the chronology of his published works is as follows: Spinoza began working on the treatise on the emendation of the intellect in 1658. In 1660, he begins working on the short treatise on G-d, Man, and his well being. In 1662 he had completed the first part of the Ethics.


In the same year he begins work on the Principles of Cartesian Philosophy and Metaphysical Thoughts and publishes it in 1663. In 1665 he finishes first drafts of Parts two and three of the Ethics.


In 1670, he publishes the Theological–Political Treatise. In 1673, he is formally condemned by the States of Holland for this work. In 1675, he completes and circulates the Ethics but declines to publish it, due to attack by theologians. As mentioned earlier, the Ethics was only published posthumous in 1677.


It is therefore interesting to note that Spinoza was excommunicated as a heretic by the Jewish community of Amsterdam so many years earlier in 1656 before he began working on any of his works and before he even begins the study of humanities, Latin, philosophy at the ex-Jesuit school of Van den Enden.


The precise reasons for the excommunication is indeed unknown, as in all his letters published in the essential Spinoza edited by Michael L. Morgan and translated by Samuel Shirley, there is no mention of the writ against him and there is no other historical source explaining clearly the reason for the writ.


All one can do is explain the reason why his views in his later published works are so diametrically opposed to Jewish belief, which will give some insight as to the views he already likely had from much earlier, although likely crystallized in his works.


Spinoza’s complete Ethics is made up of five parts: On G-d, humankind and human epistemology, the passions, human bondage to the passions, and rational freedom.


It is in the part concerning G-d that seems to be the most problematic, as he denies some fundamentals of Jewish belief, including the concept of the creation of a finite universe, good and evil, free choice, punishment and reward and miracles.


In proposition 14 Spinoza writes, there can be, or be conceived, no other substance but G-d. Hence it follows quite clearly that G-d is one: that is, in the universe there is only one substance, and this is absolutely infinite.


In proposition 15, he writes, whatever is, is in G-d, and nothing can be or be conceived without G-d. I have clearly stated that in my judgement no substance can be created by anything else. Apart from G-d no substance can be, and hence we deduced that extended substance is one of G-d’s infinite attributes.


Spinoza believes that the corporal world is an extension of G-d, infinite, and is in G-d.


This theory seems to deny creation of a world, which by definition distinguishes between creator and created. It also denies the concept of evil in the world, since if everything is an infinite extension of G-d then this does not recognize the possibility of an existence of an action that is not part of G-d’s direct extension and against G-d’s will.


His views also describe the world as deterministic. This view is laid out in proposition 26 that a thing which has been determined to act in a particular way has necessarily been determined by G-d; and a thing which has not been determined by G-d cannot determine itself to act. Similarly in proposition 2, he writes nothing in nature is contingent, but all things are from the necessity of the Divine nature determined to exist and to act in a definite way.


This theory denies the fundamental Jewish concept of free will. If there is no free will, there is no accountability and therefore no concept of punishment and reward, a basic theme on the Torah.


Another issue is miracles. As explained earlier, Spinoza’s world is all part of the infinite extension of G-d. The world itself, therefore is infinite and in G-d. The idea of miracles is a revelation of G-d in the world which shatters the constraints of nature. This is referred to as a miracle.


If the world is not finite then there cannot be the concept of miracles, as the world itself is the state of miraculous, the infinite. This undermines many of the ideas of the Torah, which is based on the belief that G-d performs miracles on behalf of the Jews when leaving Egypt and many other occasions.


It is clear that since he composed his Short Treatise in 1661, which included the section on G-d, he would have had to of worked on this and possibly disseminated the ideas for sometime beforehand, which brought him into conflict with the Jewish community already in 1656.


The main problems with Spinoza is his philosophical position as a naturalist, although he believed in a being called G-d. He did not believe in the creation of the world.

He believes that G-d necessarily exists. What is G-d? G-d is a being that is absolutely infinite.


Based on these ideas elaborated in the first section of Ethics, on G-d, it's quite possible it was these ideas that got him anathematized.


However, when looking at these ideas, it is important to understand where Spinoza erred in Jewish theology. It is not that he did not believe in G-d. He merely believed that G-d’d infinity demands that there can be no external existence other than G-d’s infinity, for otherwise G-d would not be infinite.


The corollary of that is there is no free choice, the world is deterministic and there is no purpose for the Divine commandments, as there cannot be any punishment or reward in a deterministic universe.


This theological problem is not however unique to Spinoza. It has been a challenge to all the mystics and the founders of the Hasidic movement.


The basic problem is, as Spinoza articulated, if G-d is infinite then the world that G-d creates is part of G-d and therefore cannot be separate from G-d. If all of existence is inside G-d, then there is no room fro a finite universe and free choice.


This problem is stated best by the founder of the Chabad movement Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his mystical work Tanya in chapter three.


Here is an elucidation of chapter three in the Tanya:


Following these words of truth concerning the nature of creation, namely, that the activating force must continually be vested in created beings and create them ex nihilo, every discerning person will understand clearly that every creature and being, even though it appears to have an existence of its own, is in reality considered to be absolute naught and nothingness in relation to the activating force which creates it and the “breath of His mouth” which is within it, continuously calling it into existence and bringing it from absolute non-being into being.


Since this function must be continuous, it follows that the creature’s activating force is the true reality of its existence; the being itself bears no comparison to the activating force which is wholly responsible for its existence. The reason that all things created and activated appear to us as existing i.e., self-subsisting and tangible, and we fail to see the Divine activating source which is the true reality of any created being, is that we do not comprehend nor see with our physical eyes the power of G‑d and the “breath of His mouth” which is in the created thing.


If, however, the eye were permitted to see and to comprehend the life-force and spirituality which is in every created thing, flowing into it from “that which proceeds from the mouth of G‑d” and “His breath,” then the physicality, materiality and tangibility of the creature would not be seen by our eyes at all, for it (this physicality, etc.) is completely nullified in relation to the life-force and the spirituality which is within it since without the spirituality within it, it would be naught and absolute nothingness, exactly as before the Six Days of Creation, at which time the creature was utterly non-existent.


The spirituality that flows into it from “that which proceeds from the mouth of G‑d” and “His breath,” — that alone continuously brings it forth from naught and nullity into being, and this spirituality gives it existence.


Hence, there is truly nothing besides Him in any created being, apart from the Divinity — the only true reality — that brings it into existence.


The created being does not constitute a true reality, inasmuch as it is wholly dependent for its existence on the continuous flow of Divine life-force. Indeed, its existence verily consists of that activating force.


The Alter Rebbe proceeds to demonstrate how this is true of creatures that appear to be tangible, by means of an illustration:

An illustration of this is the light of the sun which illumines the earth and its inhabitants.


[This illumination] is the radiance and the light which spreads forth from the body of the sun and is visible to all as it gives light to the earth and the expanse of the universe.


Now, it is obvious that this light and radiance is also present in the very body and matter of the sun-globe itself in the sky, for if it can spread forth and shine to such a great distance, then certainly it can shed light in its own place.


However, there in its own place, this radiance is considered naught and complete nothingness, for it is absolutely non-existent in relation to the body of the sun-globe which is the source of this light and radiance, inasmuch as this radiance and light is merely the illumination which shines from the body of the sun-globe itself.

Since the sun’s light is merely an illumination deriving from the sun, it is in a state of complete nothingness while it is found within the sun-globe itself. One cannot say that within the body of the sun there is sunlight; only the sun itself is found there.

It is only in the space of the universe, under the heavens and on the earth, where the body of the sun-globe is not present, and all that is seen is but an illumination that emanates from it, that this light and radiance appears to the eye of all beholders to have actual existence.


And here the term “existence” (yesh) can truly be applied to it, The sun’s light and rays as they appear outside of the sun-globe can truly be said to exist, inasmuch as the sun itself is not found there, whereas when it is in its source, in the body of the sun, the term “existence” cannot be applied to it at all; it can only be called naught and non-existent.


There it is indeed naught and absolutely non-existent, for there only its source, the luminous body of the sun, gives light, and there is nothing besides it.


To sum up: Although the sun’s rays are surely found within the body of the sun, they cannot be said to “exist” there; they are found there in a manner of “non-existence”, in a state in which their separate identity is utterly nullified. That which can be deemed to exist within the sun-globe can be nothing other than the sun itself.


The exact parallel [to this illustration] is the relationship between all created beings and the Divine flow [of the life-force that emanates] from the “breath of His mouth,” which flows upon them and brings them into existence and is their source.


However, [the created beings] themselves are merely like a diffusing light and effulgence from the flow and spirit of G‑d, which issues forth [from Him] and becomes clothed in them, and brings them from naught into being.


Hence, their existence is nullified in relation to their source, just as the light of the sun is nullified and is considered naught and utter nothingness, and is not at all referred to as “existing” when it is within its source, viz., the sun; the term “existence” applies to it only beneath the heavens, where its source is not present.


In the same manner, the term “existence” can be applied to all created things only as they appear to our corporeal eyes, for we do not see nor at all comprehend the source, which is the spirit of G‑d that brings them into existence.


Therefore, since we do not see nor comprehend their source, it appears to our eyes that the physicality, materiality and tangibility of created things actually exist, just as the light of the sun appears to exist fully when it is not within its source, and is found within the expanse of the universe.


In truth, the Source of all creatures is constantly found within them, our failure to perceive this notwithstanding. Hence, their existence is totally nullified in relation to their source and they cannot be said to truly “exist”.


But in the following respect, the illustration is apparently not completely identical with the object of comparison.


For in the illustration, the source — the sun — is not present at all in the expanse of the universe and upon the earth, where its light is seen as actually existing.

Since the sun itself is not present upon the earth, its rays are able to assume a seeming reality of their own. It is therefore readily understandable why they are perceived as existing independently.


By contrast, all created beings are always within their source, the Divine activating force, which is continuously found within them, constantly creating and animating them ex nihilo, and it is only that the source is not visible to our physical eyes.

Since in reality they are indeed within their source at all times, —


Why are they not nullified in their source? Why are creatures not nullified within their source in an obvious and revealed manner, so that there is no mistaking them as independently existing beings?


End of chapter.


This is the same logic presented by Spinoza.


However, Rabbi Schneur Zalman Liadi will go on to explain in chapter four that the Divine power of concealment and contraction (Tzimtzum) is responsible for hiding G‑d’s light, so that it will not be perceptible to created beings. This enables creation to be perceived as possessing “existence”, whereas in reality it is totally nullified within its source.


This hardly answers the question posed by Spinoza and the previous chapter in the Tanya. The Tanya however does attempt to explain the concept but ultimately writes that it is beyond human comprehension that there can be Divine creation of an existence that is perceived as separate from G-d.


Here is an elucidation of chapter four in the Tanya:


Just as it is impossible for the mind of any creature to apprehend His attribute of greatness (Gedulah), which is the ability to create a being out of nothing and give it life, as it is written, “The world is built by i.e., created through the attribute of kindness,” exactly so is it impossible for it to apprehend the Divine attribute of Gevurah (“might,” “restraint”), which is the faculty of tzimtzum (“condensation,” “contraction,”), restraining the spreading forth of the life-force from His attribute of Gedulah preventing it from descending upon and manifesting itself to the creatures, and providing them with life and existence in a revealed manner, but rather with His Countenance concealed; i.e., the Divine activating force is at work within creation in a concealed manner.


Thus, it is the attribute of Gevurah and tzimtzum that enables the life-force to be concealed from the very creature it is creating. For the life-force conceals itself in the body of the created being, [making it appear] as if the body of the created being had independent existence, and [making it appear as though] the created being was not [merely] an extension of the life-force and the spirituality that creates it — just like the diffusion of the radiance and light of the sun — but an independently existing entity.


Although, in reality, [the created being] has no independent existence, and is only like the diffusion of the light from the sun, just as the sun’s rays are merely a diffusion from the sun, so, too, all of creation is but a diffusion of G‑d’s activating force. Since, however, created beings are continuously found within their source (unlike the sun’s rays which do leave their source), their Divine source should cause them to be completely nullified within it, just as the light of the sun is in a state of complete nullification when found within the sun.


Nevertheless, this nullification is not felt by created beings even though they are but a diffusion of G‑d’s activating force, for this [capacity for self-concealment] is the very restraining power of the Holy One, blessed be He, Who is Omnipotent,

G‑d’s omnipotence expresses itself not only in His ability to bring forth light and bestow life, but also in His ability to conceal this same light and life from the beings He creates.


Hence, He is able to condense the life-force and spirituality which issues from the “breath of His mouth” and to conceal it, so that the body of the created being shall not become nullified out of existence, and hence, notwithstanding the fact that the created being is but a diffusion of the rays of its source, it is thus enabled to perceive itself to be an independently existing entity. It is beyond the scope of the mind of any creature to comprehend the essential nature of the tzimtzum and concealment and [to comprehend] that nonetheless — the tzimtzum notwithstanding — the creature itself be created ex nihilo.


But since creation is an act of revelation rather than concealment, creatio ex nihilo should surely consist of the revelation of the Divine life-force within the created being. How, then, do both these things manifest themselves at one and the same time? On the one hand, the revelation of the Divine life-force; on the other, the condensation and concealment of this life-force, so that created beings will be unaware of it and consider themselves to be independently existing entities, and not utterly nullified within their source. Indeed, the paradox of tzimtzum defies the comprehension of mere created beings


End of chapter four.


This leads one to the conclusion that it might not have been the views of Spinoza in his Ethics concerning G-d that got him excommunicated but other problems, possibly to his close association with Christianity.


This is suggested by the fact that in the chronology of Spinoza’s life by Michael L. Morgan it states that in 1654, two years before his excommunication, “he begins to meet with a group of “churchless Christians” in Amsterdam. Indeed he didn’t have seemed to have begun his work concerning G-d until 1660.”


This suggests that it would have been an internal matter within the Jewish community in Amsterdam that led them to anathematize Spinoza, rather than his rationalist views regarding G-d.


The precise reason for such a harsh writ against him remains however an enigma.


Comments on: Why was Spinoza excommunicated?

Yisroel Nyman wrote...

The theology of the Tanya was and is controversial and its author was among the Hassidim who were excommunicated by the Vilna Gaon, in part because of their theological positions. So, far from precluding the possibility of Spinoza's theology being controversial, and therefore the cause of his excommunication, the similarity between Spinoza's theology and that of the Tanya might actually be the reason.

Emilie Kutash wrote...

I am a Neoplatonist scholar who is pubishing a book on Proclus Commentary on Plato's Timaeus. (a pagan philospher of late antiquity)In every way possible including the analogy of the sun etc. the Tanya seems to be very "Neoplatnic". There is literature comparing Zohar and Neoplatonism as well. HOw is this Jewish? I've often wondered at the similarity between the kabbala and Neoplatonism.. (I am Jewish myself) but never understood this.

Robinson wrote...

Good job miankg it appear easy.