Situated on the Zwanenburgwal, near the Stopera (the combined Amsterdam City Hall and Opera House) is a statue of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Sephardic origin. He was one of the early thinkers of the Enlightenment and also the author of strong biblical criticism, including much more modern conceptions of the self and the universe. Considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy and a leading philosopher of the Dutch Golden Age, he promoted complete freedom of thought, religion and speech, which was frowned upon by many of his contemporaries.
Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam
During the Portuguese Inquisition (1536), many Sephardic Jewish were subjected to forced conversions and expulsions from the Iberian Peninsula. Attracted by the Decree of Tolerance issued in 1579 by the Union of Utrecht (although that was primarily meant to protect Dutch Calvinists), many Portuguese Jews who had previously been forcibly converted to Catholicism moved to Amsterdam in 1593 and promptly reconverted to Judaism. In 1639 they got permission to build an official synagogue on the Houtgracht (the current Waterlooplein).
In 1615 the States of Holland and West-Friesland commissioned Hugo Grotius (Hugo de Groot, a Dutch humanist, diplomat, lawyer, theologian, legal expert, poet and playwright) to draft a set of legal regulations for the Jews. He argued that the duty to offer hospitality to strangers was the foundation of the right to asylum, regardless of religion. The Jews were granted freedom of (private) worship, as long as they did not try to convert or circumcise any Christians. These exiled Portuguese Jews were mostly very well-to-do and also very proud of their identity and heritage. Being well-educated and also succesful and experienced merchants, they contributed highly to the increasing wealth in Amsterdam.
Spinoza’s grandfather Isaac de Spinoza was from Lisbon and moved his family to Nantes in France, where they regularly had contact with Jewish-Portuguese merchants in Amsterdam. When they were expelled from France in 1615, they moved to Rotterdam. After Isaac died, Spinoza’s father and uncle relocated to Amsterdam. Spinoza’s uncle Miguel was a successful merchant and became warden of the synagogue and of the Amsterdam Jewish school.
A Modern Philosopher in the 17th Century
Spinoza was initially inspired by the ideas of René Descartes, but criticised him as well. Spinoza’s total concept is unique, combining Cartesian metaphysics with elements of stoicisim and Jewish rationalism. He created a moral philosophy with naturalistic ideas about God, the world and mankind, whom he saw as a creature gifted by nature, having the freedom to develop his talents or not. He saw human consciousness and the human body as divine energy, meant to be accepted. Selfishness was to be controlled by reason to find true freedom in gaining understanding of God’s will.
Herem, Expelled from the Jewish Community
In 1656 the synagogue issued a herem against “Baruch espinoza” at age 23. This meant he was banned (shunned) from the Jewish community and that not even his family members could have any contact with him. The exact reasons for the ban were not clear, but they could have been related to the fact that Spinoza had used a Dutch law to get out of the heritage of debt from his father, against Jewish custom and to the discredit of the Jewish community. Spinoza’s view of Judaism as a narrow-minded, dogmatic faith did not help either.
More than 350 years after this city’s Portuguese Jewish community excommunicated Baruch Spinoza and banned his writings for eternity, in an ironic twist of events his books are now for sale at the souvenir shop of the community’s synagogue. But the ban is still not lifted, despite efforts and appeals to get the ban revoked. The rabbi argued that Spinoza had never applied for lifting of the herem by apologizing and that his ideas were tearing apart the very fundaments of their religion.
Add to this his disregard for Jewish customs, his mingling with Dutch free-thinkers, his outspoken view of the Thora as man-made instead of God-given and not accepting the Jewish people as unique and chosen people — his ideas about God, the soul and the Jewish law must have seemed very close to atheism to both the Jews and the Christians. It is likely that the herem against Spinoza was also used as a means to show to Protestant Amsterdam that the Jewish community wished to avoid causing unrest, in order to guarantee their relative freedom and safety.
His contemporaries described Spinoza as a friendly, quiet and modest man. Although he fiercely criticized the literal interpretation of the Bible in his times, his friends still considered him to be a devoutly religious man, albeit very non-dogmatic. Apart from later fabrications, little is known about his private life. Spinoza remained unmarried. He made a living grinding lenses for microscopes, magnifying glasses, binoculars and telescopes. Chistiaan Huygens, Theodor Kerckring and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz praised their quality.
Having fled the hostility in Amsterdam, he lived in Rijnsburg in 1661, where he had a small but loyal group of friends. He also lived in Voorburg and from 1671 until his death in 1677 lived in Den Haag (The Hague). In 1676 he was visited by Leibniz and the two philosophers had long conversations. Spinoza (who suffered from tuberculosis) died of silicosis, possibly as a result of inhaling fine glass dust while grinding lenses.
His Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was published anonymously in 1670, in which he promotes freedom of speech, religious tolerance and an independent judicial system, besides providing a logical analysis of the Bible. The book concludes with praise for the liberties which Amsterdam offered its citizens. Nevertheless, in 1674 the book was banned in the Dutch Republic, by order of Stadtholder William III of Orange.
His book Ethica (Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata), which he finished in Den Haag (The Hague), is his most important work, published after his death in 1677. The book starts with an explanation of Spinoza’s metaphysics, using mathematical elements throughout, resembling the methods of Euclid. It promotes God as one substance from which all natural and spiritual laws follow.
In 1929 Rabbi Herbert Goldstein sent Einstein a telegram asking “Do you believe in God?”. In response Einstein wrote back:
I believe in Spinoza’s god, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, not in a god who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.
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