The Excommunication of Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza

Benedict de Spinoza is one of the most influential philosophers in the history of Western thoughts and is recognised as one of the pioneers the Existentialism. As this blog already discussed in an earlier entry, he was born to a Jewish family exiled from Portugal to Amsterdam, Holland in his parents’ generation (https://wrex2009.wordpress.com/2010/03/17/maranos-ancestors-of-spinoza-the-philosopher/). Though little is known about his early life, one of the most important and significant events in that period would be the excommunication from the Jewish community in Amsterdam, which took place when he was 23 years old. This short entry will examine the philosopher’s early life up to this important event, mainly focusing on the development of his inner thoughts that ultimately led him to split from his fellow community as a whole and his native religion.

When he was born to a family of Jewish merchants in Amsterdam on 24 November 1632, he was ‘originally called Baruch, a name that he later translated into its Latin equivalent Benedict’ (Knight, 2009). His father, Michael de Spinoza, was ‘a prosperous merchant and Warden of both the synagogue and the Amsterdam Jewish school’ (Uzgalis, 1997) and his mother, Hana Debora, was Michael’s second wife. It is also known that his father Michael married a third wife called Hester de Espinosa in 1641, when Baruch was about eight years old.

In his early years, Baruch studied at the Amsterdam Jewish school, where he showed ‘rapid progress in Hebrew and the study of the Talmud, and his teachers, especially Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira, had the greatest hopes of his future’ (Knight, 2009), in accordance with his father’s wish, to make him a Rabbi.

It is uncertain how and when young Baruch began to divert from his firmly established reputation as a hopeful for becoming a Rabbi and accounts from biographers describing the period from 1651 to 1654 occasionally do not match coherently. By ignoring some subtle differences in these descriptions, important things that occurred in Spinoza’s life can be summed up in the following three; (1) by 1651, he could hardly get on with the Jewish community and ‘he was looked upon with suspicion by orthodox Jews’ (ibid), (2) he came across with the philosophy of Rene Descartes, and (3) he has acquainted with a private school manager called Franz van den Enden, who was also known as ‘ex-Jesuit and freethinker’ (ibid).

His inclination for free thoughts represented by Descartes and his conflicts against Jewish orthodox community cast a shadow upon his relationship with his own family, especially when his father died in 1654. It is said that he was brought to a legal battle against his sister Rebekah, who tried to ‘block his inheritance’ (Uzgalis, 1997), and although he could win the court case, he must have acknowledged the situation where he was ‘almost completely cast off by his family’ (Knight, 2009). Due to avoid further troubles within the Jewish community, he decided to ‘leave and move in with Van den Enden’ (Uzgalis, 1997), who could offer a teaching post in in his own school. During this teaching period, it is said that Spinoza ‘perfected himself in Latin and continued his philosophical investigations by the study of St. Augustine, the Stoics, Scholasticism… , the philosophy of the Renaissance and that of some modern writers, especially of Hobbes’ (Knight, 2009).

Ironically, however Spinoza deeply engaged into cultivating from modern philosophical fashions and social thoughts, the community he was surrounded retained its conservative nature, at the least, or presumably even tightened. It is reported that ‘many problems concerning unbelief arose within and around the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam’ (Charles-Daubert et al, 1996, p. 425) in around 1655 and it did not take long before these problems took a form of visible and physical action.

On 27 July 1656, the rabbis of the Jewish community in Amsterdam issued the proclamation of the excommunication against Baruch Spinoza. According to Charles-Daubert et al, the proclamation was issued because of ‘the “abominable heresies he practiced and taught”. These heresies were presumably the following: (1) denial of the immortality of the soul, (2) denial of the divinity of the Law, and (3) the view that the God exists only philosophically’ (ibid). Practically, the proclamation prohibited Spinoza to make any kind of communication with other members of the community (http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/philosophers/spinoza_curse.html

) and soon afterward, it extended to expel him from living in Amsterdam.

Reference:

Charles-Daubert, Françoise and Richard Henry Popkin (1996), Heterodoxy, Spinozism, and free thoughts in early-eighteenth-century Europe, Google Books (electrically accessed 07/12/2011)

http://books.google.com/books?id=TWCOLdhcwEIC&pg=PA425&lpg=PA425&dq=27+July+1656+spinoza+excommunicated&source=bl&ots=vv2sa-bSqF&sig=sdz0DFvo8-qm8IjxZGLNmIAx5iA&hl=en&ei=J2LfTpSlN-7DmQXapqHwBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CFcQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=27%20July%201656%20spinoza%20excommunicated&f=false 

Knight, Kevin (2009), Benedict Spinoza, New Advent – Catholic Encyclopedia – S (electrically accessed 08/12/2011)

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14217a.htm 

Meyer, Ronald Bruce (2011), November 24: Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza (1632), Freethought Almanac (last updated 24/11/2011, electrically accessed 19/12/2011)

http://freethoughtalmanac.com/?p=4046

Uzgalis, Bill (1997), Spinoza Time Line, Benedict De Spinoza (1632-1677), Oregon State University – Philosophy Department (last updated March, 1997, electrically accessed 06/12/2011)

http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/philosophers/spinoza.html

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