The Curious Case of Benedict Spinoza
Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632 – 1677) was a Sephardic Jew whose forbears had fled Catholic persecution in Portugal and settled in Amsterdam.
Young Spinoza attended the local Jewish Sephardic school and studied under Rabbis Saul Morteira and Manasseh ben Israel.
His early life was one of hardship and suffering. His mother Chana Deborah died when he was only six. His father, Michael followed her to the grave 12 years later and the family fortune was lost. Spinoza decided to retreat from normal life and devote himself to the study of philosophy.
The Jewish community of Amsterdam did not look with favor on his new enterprise. They held his views to be anathema to normative Judaism (specifically his views on the immortality of the soul) and he was eventually excommunicated (put into herem) as a result. Subsequent to that we find Spinoza living a modest life as a lens grinder and living in a simple apartment owned by the painter Mr. Henryk Von Der Spijk.
Spinoza died at the age of 44 of a lung illness (which may have been caused by his profession which caused him to ingest particles of glass on a daily basis), and was buried in the churchyard of the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague, or was he?...
WHO STOLE SPINOZA'S CORPSE?
Antonio Damasio in Looking for Spinoza describes a "pilgrimage" he made to Spinoza's grave site (pictured bottom) thus:
Gates surround the churchyard but they are wide open. There is no cemetery to speak of, only shrubs and grass and moss and muddy lanes amid tall trees. I find the grave much where I thought, in the back part of the yard, behind the church to the south and east, a flat stone at ground level and a vertical tombstone, weathered and unadorned. Besides announcing whose grave it is, the inscription reads Caute! which is Latin for "Be careful!". This is a chilling bit of advice considering Spinoza's remains are not really inside the tomb and that his body was stolen, no one known by whom, sometime after the burial when the corpse lay inside the church .
Damasio wonders why Spinoza- who never formally converted to Christianity, was buried in a Christian cemetery. I would also add, moreover, that his excommunication by the Jewish community was motivated in large part by the concern that his ideas, were as offensive to "normative" Christians (even in liberal Holland) as they were to Jews, and it would endanger the limited freedoms that the Jews had achieved in Amsterdam (Spinoza's works also made the Index Librorum Prohibitorum [List of Prohibited Books] by the Roman Catholic Church).
Why is Spinoza, who was born a Jew, buried next to this powerful Protestant church? The answer is as complicated as anything else having to do with Spinoza. He is buried here, perhaps, because having been expelled by his fellow Jews he could be seen as Christian by default; he certainly could not have been buried in the Jewish cemetery Ouderkerk. But he is not really here, perhaps because he never became a proper Christian, Protestant or Catholic, and in the eyes of many he was an atheist. And how fitting it all is. Spinoza's God was neither Jewish nor Christian. Spinoza's God was everywhere, could not be spoken to, did not respond if prayed to, was very much in every particle of the universe, without beginning and without end. Buried and unburied, Jewish and not. Portugese but not really, Dutch but not quite, Spinoza belonged nowhere and everywhere.
But before we attempt to decipher who may have been behind the theft of his corpse (stealing bodies from graves is apparently still in vogue, see this piece of recent news), let us examine Spinoza's connection to Judaism.
SPINOZA'S JEWISH SELF-IMAGE
Despite his attack on the ceremonial laws of Judaism as an instrument of worldly well-being, despite his denigration of Moses and the prophets as men of vivid imagination and feeble intellectual powers, Spinoza remains a recognizably and unmistakably Jewish thinker...Spinoza was, in the first place, the first modern thinker to advocate the restitution of Jewish sovereignty and a Jewish state. ...(in Theologico-Political Treatise) we read the following surprising sentence: "If the foundations of their religion did not effeminate their hearts, I would absolutely believe that some day, given the opportunity, they will set up their state again, and that God will choose them anew, so changeable are human affairs".On the basis of this statement Spinoza has entered the history of Jewish thought as the spiritual ancestor of Zionism and the state of modern Israel. At least this is the way it was read in the last century by Moses Hess and Leon Pinsker and in this century by David ben Gurion. It is on the basis of this passage that Joseph Klausner on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Spinoza's birth opened his speech at Hebrew University with the call "Baruch Spinoza, you are our brother."
Jonathan Edelstein wrote an entertaining fictional account about Spinoza's secretary Chacham Saltiel establishing -with the tacit support of his master- a settlement of "rational Jews" in the holy land .Was Spinoza a "closet Zionist"? Perhaps he saw in the renewal of Jewish sovereignty an answer to the anomaly of Jewish existence in the exile. After all, Zionists of three generations regarded him as their forerunner- all on the basis of his somewhat obscure, though moving remarks at the end of the third chapter of the Theologico-Political Treatise. After explaining that the hostility of the gentiles is what preserves the Jews, Spinoza goes on to say:"The sign of circumcision is, I think, so important that I could persuade myself that it alone would preserve the nation forever. Nay, I would go so far as to believe that if the foundations of their religion have not emasculated their minds, they may even, if occasion offers, so changeable are human affairs, raise up their empire afresh and that God may a second time elect them."This passage appears in the chapter entitled "Of the Vocation of the Hebrews" which is designed to demolish the entire concept of election (Jews as the "chosen people" j.d.)....he argues that even from the viewpoint of the bible, the election of the Hebrews refers solely to "dominion and physical advantages". This also implies that the election is temporal, not eternal; and while Spinoza as a philosopher recognizes neither, he uses the Bible's own language and authority as a weapon against itself. If the election of the Hebrews is a mere temporal, earthly event, nothing will remain of the idea of eternal transcendent election... All things happen in accordance with the laws of nature- and this is the meaning (and part of the intent) of Spinoza's remark about the return to Zion.
Although Spinoza's point is strictly philosophical, it has a particular bearing upon current issues of his time. Spinoza is writing only a few years after the upheaval fomented by Shabbetai Sevi, the false Messiah who unleashed a wave of mystical enthusiasm throughout the Jewish diaspora...the effect was particularly fierce in Amsterdam....In Theologico-Political Treatise, Spinoza says, the renewal of the Jewish kingdom is not inevitable but if the return to Zion should take place, it will be because of the immanent laws of nature and not by providence, divine revelation or messianism. For Spinoza, the Jewish vision of redemption is thus not devoid of sense but the content is entirely historical and secular.
This then is the import of Spinoza's Zionist dictum, to which later Zionists clung. They failed to see that Spinoza does not recommend the establishment of a Jewish state; he merely posits it as one of the possibilities offered by secular history.
...still Spinoza clings to several of the deepest motifs in Jewish consciousness-the eternity of Israel, the vision of redemption (understood as political liberation), and the covenant with God as symbolized by circumcision. But true to himself he submits them all to an utterly prosaic, natural and secular interpretation.
Spinoza discloses that at some level of consciousness he views himself too as a Jew-perhaps by deterministic necessity...Thus in generalizing his critique of Jewish history into a message for humanity Spinoza does not commit the kind of "apostasy" or "defection to the enemy" that Jews had seen in converts to Christianity. From that standpoint, too, it is significant that Spinoza refused to convert even while following the Pauline pattern-which he reenacted, in contrast to Paul, on the level of universal reason...
Jewish life in the diaspora is another example of the medieval conception of polity that Spinoza seeks to expunge...Spinoza's ideal state is a single, all-embracing sovereign body, independent of any prescriptive authority, in which the citizen or subject is recognized by virtue of his individual identity rather than any collective quality vested in him....
The logic of Spinoza's analysis seems to favor a quasi-Zionist solution...the Jews must either relinquish all self-rule and disperse as individuals among the gentiles or establish their own political state. This implication may well have attracted Zionists like Ben-Gurion, Nahum Sokolow, and Joseph Klausner.
...was Spinoza then the first secular Jew? What can be said confidently is that Spinoza took the first step in the eventual secularization of Jewish life by examining it empirically as a natural phenomenon...the concept of Jewish national existence, as separate from religion, did not yet exist for him as a defined theoretical concept. Existentially, in his singular life and experience, Spinoza was indeed the harbinger of this idea but he did not articulate it consciously.
AN ORTHODOX RABBI'S DEFENSE OF SPINOZA
Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn translated parts of Spinoza's Ethics into Hebrew. He wrote a commentary on selected portions of it entitled Sources and Spider Webs. In his writings Hirschensohn vacillates between unrestrained criticisms of Spinoza and almost blind reverence. I won't focus here on his criticisms but rather his remarkable defense of Spinoza against charges of atheism and idolatry. In fact Hirschensohn writes: "The nature of Spinoza's faith in God's unity is clearer and more understood and of purer faith than all those who preceded him in the matter".
Hirschensohn came to this conclusion based on the following passage from Ethics:
"No attribute of substance can be truly conceived from which it follows that substance can be divided".
This opinion, writes Hirschensohn, "redeems Spinoza and saves him from the idolater's valley of the dead and puts him in the company of the completely righteous who believe in the absolute philosophic unity of God, for his concept of extension is not at all physical extension" .
However Hirschensohn explained that Spinoza's error was in substituting primordial matter for the spiritual God. But this was merely an error on Spinoza's part, rather than heresy, which is why he concludes that the Herem against Spinoza was justified.
I also wish to advocate for Spinoza that he only erred and is not an idolater, for an idolater is one who considers a creative being as divine, but one who says that God is created is a heretic (apikorus) and not an idolater. Spinoza did not consider the primordial matter divine, he only said that God is physical and has extension, and this is not included in the prohibition of idolatry .
SPINOZA RETURNS TO HIS PEOPLE IN DEATH
Is it possible that members of the Jewish community or perhaps one of his admirers (or maybe even extended family) decided to remove his body from the church and give him a proper Jewish burial somewhere? I would venture to say yes, but we will probably never know for sure (the mysterious disappearance of Spinoza's corpse conjures up the story of another Jewish bachelor whose body mysteriously disappeared from his tomb about 1500 years earlier. Not for naught did Gilles Deleuze refer to Spinoza as "the Christ of philosophers"....., see Ben Atlas's post here).
Interestingly enough, the German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi in a letter to Moses Mendelssohn writes: "perhaps we will live to see the day when a dispute will arise over the corpse of Spinoza, like that over the corpse of Moses between the archangel and satan...." (Jacobi is here referring to a passage in The New Testament, see here )
And indeed like Moses "no man knows his (true) burial place until this day"....
Yirmiyahu Yovel writes:
...I was interested to note on a visit to the newly reopened Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, that without fanfare, Spinoza has been readmitted by his erstwhile community. In a section devoted to "Jewish Identity", the has a text explaining that for many centuries, being Jewish had entailed belonging to the Orthodox Jewish community; but ever since the act of civil equality (1796), granting political emancipation to the Dutch Jews"every Jewish person could decide what expression to give to her or her Jewishness" ....the text is illustrated by an impressive gallery of Jewish characters...at the very end the severe and distinguished face of Rabbi Isaac Aboab, one of the signatories of Spinoza's ban. So finally the banned dissenter and the banning Rabbi end up together in this minor pantheon of Jewish diversity. What better way for the Amsterdam Jewish community to readmit Spinoza, not by a declamatory gesture like lifiting the ban, but by recognizing, with good historical sense, the new situation which Spinoza's own case had anticipated and tragically embodied.
DID SPINOZA LEAVE ANY PROGENY?
Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was a famous Italian Jewish artist born in Livorno (Leghorn) into a Sephardic family. He was a tragic figure who struggled with drugs and alcohol throughout his life and ended up dying destitute and emaciated in Paris. Modigliano was born into a family of means but his family went bankrupt shortly after his birth. He also, strangely enough, claimed descent from Benedict Spinoza through his mother Eugenia Garsin. All the biographies of Modigliani mention this "fact", which makes it apparent that Modigliani prided himself with his supposed pedigree. There is only one problem with this claim. All the biographical sources regarding Spinoza's life expressly state that Spinoza never married or had any children (although the aforementioned fictional account of Spinoza's life by Edelstein has him marrying and starting a family) .
It's also interesting to add what Modigliani's close friend and fellow artist, Jacques Lipchitz said about his relationship to his faith. While Modigliani's work -unlike Chagall for instance- does not reflect his roots, he was a man aware (and perhaps even proud) of his heritage
"Modigliani was not a physically strong man," he wrote, "yet one day in a cafe, he attacked all by himself a gang of royalists, who in France are known for their soldierly courage. He wanted to fight them because he heard them speaking against the Jews in a dirty way. Modigliani was naturally conscious of his Jewishness and could not bear any unfair criticism of a whole people ."
. Damasio, Antonio R. Looking for Spinoza: joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain p. 19
. Another "tortured soul" Uriel Acosta (1585-1640) preceded Spinoza and met with a similar fate; he was placed in Cherem by the Sephardic community of Amsterdam for his views against both Judaism and Christianit. Acosta eventually committed suicide out of isolation and humiliation.
 Damasio, p. 22
 Bagley, Paul J. Piety, peace, and the freedom to philosophize p. 205
 cited in Schwartz, Dov Fascination and rejection: Religious Zionist attitudes toward Spinoza, Journal of Israeli History,(1993) p. 166
 Yovel, p. 167
 Yovel, p. 204
 Lipchitz, Jacques Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) p.7