Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind

Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind

Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind

Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind

Synopsis

At the heart of Spinoza's Heresy is a mystery: why was Baruch Spinoza so harshly excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community at the age of twenty-four? In this philosophical sequel to his acclaimed, award-winning biography of the seventeenth-century thinker, Steven Nadler argues that Spinoza's main offence was a denial of the immortality of the soul. But this only deepens the mystery. For there is no specific Jewish dogma regarding immortality:there is nothing that a Jew is required to believe about the soul and the afterlife. It was, however, for various religious, historical and political reasons, simply the wrong issue to pick on in Amsterdam in the 1650s. After considering the nature of the ban, or cherem, as a disciplinary tool in the Sephardic community, and a number of possible explanations for Spinoza's ban, Nadler turns to the variety of traditions in Jewish religious thought on the postmortem fate of a person's soul. This is followed by anexamination of Spinoza's own views on the eternity of the mind and the role that that the denial of personal immortality plays in his overall philosophical project. Nadler argues that Spinoza's beliefs were not only an outgrowth of his own metaphysical principles, but also a culmination of anintellectualist trend in Jewish rationalism.

Excerpt

Despite Spinoza's firm recommendation of the life of reason as the path to true happiness and his warning against allowing ourselves to be 'tossed about' by the passions, by the constantly changing emotions that, as passively affective responses to the world around us, alternately sway us this way and that, it is easy to become passionate about—even obsessed with—Spinoza's philosophy. His is a rich and multifaceted system, one that rewards long and careful study. He also basically got it all right.

This book is, in a sense, a sequel to my biography of Spinoza (Spinoza: a Life, Cambridge University Press, 1999); it is probably also a prequel to further projects. My goal in this work is to look more closely at his cherem, or expulsion, from the Portuguese Jewish congregation in Amsterdam, and to situate his views on one of the issues that reportedly occasioned that extreme punishment within a broad Jewish context.

In the biography I purposefully avoided engaging any scholarly debates over the interpretation of his philosophy or the understanding of the events of his all too brief career. That book was written for a general audience interested in the life, times, and thought of one of history's most fascinating and radical thinkers, and it did not seem appropriate or useful to the purpose at hand to get bogged down in deep philosophical detail or academic polemic. Thus, when discussing what may have been the reasons behind Spinoza's cherem, I opted to maintain an appearance of neutrality and evenhandedness. I laid out the numerous hypotheses that scholars have offered to explain his expulsion from the synagogue, made some cursory remarks of my own about what seemed to be the likely causes for the event, and then moved on. It was not the right occasion to argue at length for or against any particular interpretation of the cherem or to show in

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