Letters: Concerning, Spinoza (A Jewish Philosopher)

In last week’s edition of “The Guardian Express” I discussed Baruch Spinoza’s break with Judaism. This article attempts to follow up on that analysis by exploring several contemporary letters about the Jewish scholar/philosopher. I will ask and answer several underlying questions in order to illuminate a more lucid portrait of Spinoza and his philosophy. This piece will highlight the explicit points, underlying assumptions, target audience, and historical reliability evident in several modern letters pertaining to Spinoza.

The document called “The Writ of Excommunication against Baruch Spinoza” is a letter specifically intended for the Jewish community of Amsterdam. Its main objective was to demonize Spinoza, who, as I mentioned last week, is perhaps one of “the first secular Jews of modern times”. In addition to verbally bashing Spinoza, this letter was also intended to warn and persuade the Sephardic community to sever any association with Spinoza and all so-called profane literature attributed to him. Moreover, the Writ specifically orders that “nobody should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or come within four ells of him,(an ell meaning the equivalent of six hand breadths), or read anything composed or written by him”.

The next letter, or rather second document titled “Baruch Spinoza”, is a 1675 correspondence from Spinoza to Albert Burgh. In this letter, Spinoza is responding to Burgh’s plea for him (Spinoza), to embrace Roman Catholicism. However, Spinoza is not interested in Burgh’s attempts to convert him. Spinoza’s letter is aimed at questioning Burgh’s own logical reasoning for embracing the Catholic faith.Spinoza uses the opportunity to communicate the many logical errors apparent in the language Burgh’s employs to communicate his faith.

In the first document that was previously reviewed, it is obvious that the author has taken for granted that his reader is familiar with the Torah and its 613 laws. This is clearly demonstrated where the text alludes to “the holy Scrolls with the 613 precepts, which are written therein”.

In the second document Spinoza does not seem to allow any assumptions. There is however, one exception, he does assume that his reader is reasonably skilled in the area of logical thought.

The first letter is clearly addressed to Jews of Sephardic Amsterdam. This is evident in its opening, where the author or authors introduce themselves as the governing council of the synagogue. This is what is meant by the phrase it uses: “Senhores of the Mahamad”.

Though the second document is addressed to Albert Burgh, it somehow seems that it was intended for anyone willing to engage in its reasoning and virtue. This assertion is even more apparent when Spinoza writes, “you, who presume that you have at lest found the best religion, or rather the best men on whom you have pinned your credulity, you ‘who know that they are the best among all who have taught, do now teach, or shall in the future teach other religions. Have you examined all religions, ancient as well as modern, taught here and in India and everywhere throughout the world?”

Both documents are primary source accounts. Thus, their reliability as having historical value could not be stronger. In other words, you have two documents that are histories within themselves. The fact that there is no intent within them to persuade the historicity of their content only strengthens their reliability.

I do appreciate those of you who find Jewish history exciting and important. And though I will be switching topics by turning to a different aspect of Jewish history next week, I will revisit Spinoza in future editions of “The Guardian Express”. If you are interested in commenting on this or any other article that I write, please email me at publisher@guardianlv.com