Spinoza: The Marrano of Reason


On July 27, 1656, a sentence of excommunication was pronounced on a 24-year-old Jew of the Portuguese community of Amsterdam and recorded in the communal record book. The object of this excommunication, Baruch d’Espinoza, belonged to the upper crust of the Jewish community. The young Baruch (Bento) received a traditional Jewish education, and also read independently on secular subjects. At the age of six he lost his mother, and from then on death visited the family frequently, taking his younger brother, his sister, his stepmother, and finally his father.

Spinoza was 22 when his father died. Together with his brother he founded a commercial company, and during this period, Spinoza continued to attend the Keter Torah yeshivah headed by Rabbi Shaul Levi Morteira, and apparently kept up his connection with his former teacher, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, whose home was a center for scholars. On the surface, at least, no change was as yet perceptible in Spinoza’s relations with the Jewish community.

Nevertheless, he was apparently full of doubts and heretical thoughts. He knew the Bible by heart and found many contradictions in it. The notion of miracles seemed to him to contradict both reason and the laws of nature, and in the prophets he found evidence of great imaginative power but not of ordered rational thought. The ordinances of the Torah (written law) and the halakah (oral law) seemed to him arbitrary and merely historical, having nothing to do with the laws of God. If God did indeed have laws, they could only be inherent in the universe itself, in the form of the universal and immutable laws of nature. Moreover, in view of the death that awaits all, there was no comfort in the vain idea of a life to come. Death was the absolute end of every living creature, of both body and soul; if there was any value or purpose in  life, it had to be found in this world—in a life of inquiry and understanding and in the intellectual freedom of the individual. Spinoza still clung to the idea of the eternal, the infinite, the perfect—in other words, the idea of God—but this deity was not in his view a unique and separate person existing outside the world and the nature he had created. God, the object of man’s love, was rather the universe itself, insofar as it could be grasped as a single whole. Nature and God were one, and the knowledge of nature was therefore the knowledge of God.

It is not known when these ideas matured in the mind of the heterodox youth, but the process apparently began at a rather early age. With these ideas Spinoza distanced himself from both Judaism and Christianity, and even from the accepted philosophical tradition; he was a heretic not only from the point of view of the established religions, but also from the point of view of the freethinkers and from the several varieties of philosophic deism they were espousing at the time. Deistic heretics at least acknowledged the existence of a transcendent deity elevated above the world, whereas Spinoza dismissed this idea and identified God with the whole of the universe. In short, Spinoza proclaimed himself a heretic not only among the faithful, but also among representatives of the accepted heresy of his period.

In its mature form, Spinoza’s system is one of the most important in the history of philosophy. Although he had few disciples, it has simply not been possible, ever since the modern republication of his works, to participate in the enterprise of philosophy without taking his world view into account. In the words of Henri Bergson, “Every philosopher has two philosophies: his own and Spinoza’s.”

Spinoza’s ethics and metaphysics–the essence of his teaching—were not his first achievements. They were preceded by a profound critique of religion and a vigorous attacks on its sacred texts—first and foremost the Bible. When he wrote this critique, the young Spinoza, who did not know Latin, had not yet read the new scientific and philosophical works that would change the face of the age. He had not come into contact with the students of Descartes and the scholars of the Royal Society of London, and was not acquainted with Hobbes, Machiavelli, or Galileo. He developed his reflections and criticisms of religion solely from within the world of contemporary Judaism.

The Jews of Amsterdam in Spinoza’s time have been described both in literary works and by historians (mainly those following Heinrich Graetz) as a narrow-minded and fanatical lot who deliberately shut themselves off from any spark of enlightenment from the outside world. This picture is inaccurate. The truth of the matter is that the Amsterdam community was one of the most enlightened and cosmopolitan Jewish communities of the period. The people who inhabited Amsterdam’s Jewish Street—which was worlds apart from the closed ghettos of eastern Europe—were former Marranos or sons of Marranos, most of them prosperous businessmen living in relative freedom within a tolerant state. Engaged mainly in import and export and other forms of international commerce, they were accustomed to mingling with non-Jews and were open-minded and receptive, having been educated in the schools of Spain and Portugal, or later the flourishing educational system developed by the Amsterdam community itself. At the same time, their experience as former Marranos was a never-ending source of perplexity to them, an experience that led to difficulties of adjustment and deep-seated problems of identity. It is against this background that one must view both Spinoza’s heresy and the excommunication that was its result.

Some have seen in the Marranos the “beginning of modernization in Europe.” Even without going so far, however, it is clear that a person who had been educated as a Christian and who then chose to return to Judaism could not belong entirely or simply to either faith. Spinoza would of necessity be faced with enormous difficulties in reintegrating himself into the community to which he indeed belonged, but whose daily life and deepest values and symbols were not actually part of his experience. It is not hard to understand how a man who is neither Christian nor Jew, but who is divided between the two or who possesses memories of the one existing within the other, might be inclined to develop doubts about both, or even to question the foundations of religion altogether. As Yosef Yerushalmi has argued, the wonder is not that the return of the Marranos to Judaism gave rise to doubts and heresies, but rather that the majority should have succeeded as far as they did in reintegrating themselves into the framework of normative Judaism. In any case, Spinoza did not lack predecessors in his heresy among the Marranos—the dough of “New Jews” seems to have contained a leavening agent that gave rise to a constant intellectual ferment from within.

It is widely claimed that Spinoza’s critique of religion was influenced above all by his reading of Jewish philosophy. But why should the boy have pored over ancient Jewish texts and extracted from them elements that might have sounded heretical out of context unless there was some incentive in his external environment? There is no doubt that Spinoza’s apostasy contained an element of spontaneous awakening—that spiritual breakthrough of solitary genius which can not be full explained by a set of foregoing events. Yet this breakthrough did not occur in the void but within a specific social and cultural milieu, which must be taken into account if one is to understand the phenomena of Spinoza at all.


This excerpt from Spinoza and Other Heretics, Volume 1: The Marrano of Reason (Princeton University Press, 1989) is reprinted with permission from the publisher (http://press.princeton.edu/titles/4433.html).