Spinoza & Other Heretics

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Blessed Spinoza and Other Heretics


   All the world knows that Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam for heresy (July 24, 1656).

   The dramatic account of that excommunication has been repeated often and is without doubt as good an example of religious intolerance and fear of change as the murder of Bruno (1548-1600), the indictment of Galileo (1564-1642) and the excommunication from Islam of Salman Rushdie in our own day.

   Having thereby been treated to more advertisement than they could ever have produced themselves, these thinkers developed a following quickly as their detractors and persecutors propelled their names around the world.

   Accused of every crime, denounced from the pulpit of every faith, insulted, ridiculed and held in contempt, these thinkers and writers created the secular world we know today as they demonstrated in word and deed that the erstwhile conceptions of God and his universe were false and that their views based on reason, not superstition or faith, could  withstand the rigors of debate and argument.

   However, the skeptics who were as certain of science as any believer have found after 350 years that THE TRUTH does not reside in science and that man may be more ignorant of the "big questions" now than he was 350 years ago.

   It is the great merit of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) that he recognized the limitations of both science and religion. Nevertheless, Spinoza contributed mightily to the secularization of Judaism and, to the extent that his work was known, to the secularization of the western world. Certainly, Christianity was influenced by this doubter who could see no purpose  in arguments from authority or opinions derived from superstition.

   Spinoza had been trained in synagogue ritual, in the Hebrew language and in the sacred books. But he had gone further than that. An outstanding student, he not only studied the Talmud but also the works of philosophers and thinkers who were not Jewish, who were Christians or who had no faith and who had, in earlier days, challenged established authorities and traditions.

   This is not to say that Spinoza published his "heresies" in his lifetime. Indeed, all but one of his books was published posthumously. However, Spinoza talked about his views and was therefore denounced to the elders of the Amsterdam synagogue. After his death, however, his works were read and translated into numerous languages. Most important of these for our purposes is  Tractatus theologico-politicus or, The Treatise on Theology and Politics.  Here he argued that freedom of speech and thought must be upheld for the sake of the very piety demanded by his opponents. Spinoza was not an atheist but a supporter of religious beliefs. However, he critiqued the Bible severely and denied its divine origin. He pointed out contradictions in various Biblical passages and books and underscored the violent quarrels between theologians which these difficulties produced.

   Spinoza attributed belief in Biblical miracles to the prejudices of the writers, whom he considered human and fallible, and he insisted that just and kind behavior, not dogma, were to be the province of religious believers.

   Spinoza proposed that thought should be free and that faith and philosophy (meaning secular study) have nothing in common.

   Principally, The Treatise on Theology and Politics seeks to teach in order to change and improve the order of things. Spinoza fights against superstition, prejudice and hypocrisy in order to establish truth and reason as the basis of piety. Thus, Spinoza promotes justice, free inquiry and freedom of expression and thought, not to eliminate religion but to support it.  All this Spinoza writes with a good deal of anger and evident emotion in view of the humiliation he suffered at the hands of the Amsterdam synagogue.

   The importance of Spinoza's criticism of religion lies in the consequences of his work. While his critique will seem old and trite to present day readers, it must be kept in mind that his views were far more radical and surprising in 1654 than they are now after having been repeated these three hundred years.

   Spinoza was of course not the only writer to criticize religion. In this he was preceded by the Greek philosophers Democritus (460-374 B.C.E.) and Epicurus (342-270 B.C.E.), and numerous others in the ancient and medieval world such as Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.),  Lucretius (94 B.C.E.-50 B.C.E.), Seneca (4 B.C.E. - 65 C.E.), Tacitus (55  - 117 ),  Machiavelli (1469-1527) and, in his own century, Grotius (1583-1645), Isaac de la Peyrere and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) as well as Montaigne (1553-1592), Descartes (1596-1650) and Uriel da Costa. These thinkers provided Spinoza with writings he could not ignore and which supported with their doubts and arguments his skeptical views concerning religion.

   Da Costa, a contemporary of Spinoza, had been excommunicated from Judaism in 1618 for denying the immortality of the soul and retribution in the "World to Come". He also promoted disbelief in the Bible. Da Costa was a native of Amsterdam, and like Spinoza, had come of a "Marrano" family.  The word "marrano" means "swine" and was applied by Christians to Jews who had converted to Christianity. A number of these "new Christians" moved to the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th century to escape the Spanish and Portuguese "Inquisition" into the sincerity of their Christian beliefs. Among these was the Da Costa family, who had raised Uriel as a Catholic.  Having renounced his Christianity, Uriel became a Jew but could not support these beliefs any more than the Christian dogmas in which he was raised. Instead, Da Costa adopted a naturalistic religion, without dogma and without ritual.

   In 1655, Isaac de La Peyrere published two Latin works together. These books were Prae Adamitae and Systema Theologicum or Before Adam and Systematic Theology. Holding that there were men prior to Adam, La Peyrere cast doubt on the validity of Scripture and also proposed to prove from the words of the Bible itself that men existed before Adam was created. These beliefs eliminated Mosaic Law from the history of salvation, leading to the historical critique of the Five Books of Moses thereafter.

Shalom uívracha.


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