Spinoza

One of the most significant figures in the history of philosophy, Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community.

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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.

spinoza statue

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 Excommunicated

baruch spinozaSpinoza'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.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.