In July 1656—over 359 years ago—the Portuguese-Jewish congregation of Amsterdam, known as Talmud Torah, excommunicated Bento de Spinoza for his “abominable heresies and monstrous deeds.” It was the harshest writ of herem ever issued by the congregation, and it was never rescinded.
The reasons behind Spinoza’s herem remain a mystery; the extant document does not explicitly state what his offenses were. And yet, for anyone who has read Spinoza’s mature treatises—which he began just a few years after the excommunication—there is no real mystery. Spinoza’s denial of a providential God, of the divine origin of Torah, of the validity of the Torah’s mitzvot, and of the immortality of the soul, must certainly have disturbed the Amsterdam Portuguese community’s leaders. Last Sunday, a standing-room only crowd of 500 gathered in Amsterdam at a one-day symposium devoted to “The Spinoza Case,” to hear whether it was, at long last, time to lift the ban.
Once in every generation, it seems, someone calls for Spinoza’s ban to be lifted; David ben Gurion did so in 1953. But it was not until 2012, when a member of Talmud Torah raised the issue once again, that the congregation’s directors decided to have closer look. Desiring more information about Spinoza, they asked four scholars—myself, Jonathan Israel (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton), Yosef Kaplan (Hebrew University), and Piet Steenbakkers (University of Utrecht)—to serve as an advisory committee to fill them in the on the historical, religious, and philosophical contexts of the ban. We wrote up our reports without conferring with each other, and (without actually recommending a course of action) weighed the reasons—for and against—lifting the herem.
All of this happened quietly, out of the public eye and with practically no media attention. However, the co-sponsors of the event, the CRESCAS Institute for Jewish Education and the University of Amsterdam, decided it was time finally to air things out. And quite an airing it was. We, the four committee members, discussed the background of the ban and what we believe to be the reasons behind it. The real question of the day, though, was whether there is room in an orthodox Jewish community for freedom of ideas and expression. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo from Jerusalem argued that there was. “For God’s sake,” he said, “lift the ban.” Rabbi Toledano, on the other hand, while agreeing that freedom of expression is generally a good thing, nonetheless denied that it is an absolute value, especially within a religious community. Any congregation, he said, needs to police what ideas are being floated around, and especially when those ideas would “destroy” the foundations of Judaism.
In the end, Amsterdam’s Chief Rabbi Pinchas Toledano decided that he could not overturn the herem of Spinoza. In his announcement, he noted that “the fact that [Spinoza] has been buried in a non-Jewish cemetery shows clearly that, to the last breath of his life, he was indifferent to the herem, and that he never asked for forgiveness or did teshuva.” Moreover, he said: “How on earth can we even consider removing the herem from a person with such preposterous ideas, where he was tearing apart the very fundaments of our religion… The moment we rescind the herem…it would imply that we share his heretic views.” Toledano concluded that the leaders of the community in the 17th century knew exactly what they were doing, and therefore he had no right to rescind their ruling.
Throughout the day there was much love shown to Spinoza, as one might expect in his native city. And while the consensus in the room seemed strongly in favor of lifting the herem, it doesn’t seem likely to happen. Still, perhaps the congregation—whose ma’amad, or board of directors, was present for the event—can at least make a public gesture of some sort, something to acknowledge the historical and philosophical importance of its most famous member, about whom they have, at least officially, maintained silence throughout the centuries.
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