It was with the Treatise on God, Man, and his Well-Being, that Spinoza challenged the rabbinate by advocating complete freedom of thought. According to Jewish tradition, dissent was traditionally confined to people in the clergy. However, Spinoza proposed "a priesthood of all believers" (Edelstein, Part 2).
Perhaps the greatest threat posed by Spinoza was that his discussions with the Jews of Constantinople had become religious services. Although the tradition began innocently enough, when the discussions ran into the time for evening prayers, they soon began to threaten the rabbinate. Spinoza was neither a rabbi, but rabbis were not necessary for religious services. Within a short period of time, Spinoza's beliefs became integrated into the religious services; there was some modification of traditional prayers to reflect a deist interpretation of God. By 1665, Spinoza had hundreds of followers and the established rabbinate was extremely wary of him. Therefore, they determined to assemble a din Torah to weigh Spinoza's merits.
However, it was at this time that the religious and political climate of the Ottoman Empire once again interacted with Spinoza's belief. Sabbatai Zevi, who believed himself to be the Messiah, announced himself to the world. In Smyrna, Europe, and the Ottoman Empire, people lined the streets to acclaim Zevi as their king. In fact, many Jews sold their homes and prepared to return to Jerusalem under the leadership of the Messiah.
Although Zevi took some of the heat off of Spinoza, Spinoza despised Zevi. Spinoza's believed that only God deserved real reverence. In fact, Spinoza did not believe in the idea of any Messiah, much less that Zevi was the Messiah. Few of Spinoza's followers went over to Zevi. Instead, Spinoza provided a safe haven for disbelieving Jews among the frenzy caused by Zevi's revelations.
Zevi told his followers that he would "reveal himself to the Sultan, that the Sultan would renounce his throne, and that he would recognize Zevi as messiah and secular king of the world" (Edelstein, Part 3). Instead, Zevi was arrested by the Sultan. The Sultan gave him a choice: convert to Islam or die. Zevi chose Islam. Those who had followed Zevi were embarrassed and did their best to deny that they had ever followed him.
While Zevi's conversion was traumatic for many Jews, it was initially beneficial to Spinoza. Because Spinoza had consistently stood against Zevi, the fact that Zevi was not the Messiah lent credence to Spinoza's other beliefs. The crowds at his lectures increased, as did those who believed in his tenets. However, the renewed interest in Spinoza's beliefs led the rabbis to once again consider Spinoza a threat. "The Zevi controversy had raised his standing immensely, and the rabbinate feared that a move against him... might backfire" (Edelstein, Part 3). However, the rabbis decided to challenge Spinoza to a debate.
It was at this debate that Spinoza gave an answer that established one of the foundations of Rational Jewish theology. According to Spinoza, although the Scriptures were divinely inspired, they were written by men. In fact, "their language reflects the imperfect understanding of men rather than the true nature of God" (Edelstein, Part 4). Therefore, the commandments were not actually given to Moses by God, but came from Moses' understanding of God's nature. Therefore, while denying that the Torah was divinely authored, Spinoza believed that the Torah was a testament to God's power because it demonstrated that God had given humans the power of discernment. To support the assertion that the Torah was not divinely authored, Spinoza pointed to the fact that the commandments in the Torah could have been discerned through logic and reason (Edelstein, Part 4).
The debates increased interest in Spinoza's teachings, within and without the Jewish community. If the rabbis had found Spinoza threatening before, the fact that essential Muslims from the Sultan's court began to attend Spinoza's lectures did nothing to ease their concerns. In fact, the philosophy of God espoused by Spinoza had threatened the rabbinate for just that reason; it was non-denominational. A central tenet of Judaism had been that the Jews were chosen people, set apart from and above others. Spinoza's idea of God went against the presumption of Jewish superiority. However, the rabbis could not denounce Spinoza's ideas as anti-Semitic for perpetuating Jewish oppression, because they did not do that either. While Spinoza espoused support for some Christian ideas, he had the same problems with Christianity and Islam that he had with Judaism.
The fact that Spinoza denied that the Scriptures were divinely authored was enough to declare him a heretic, and the rabbis decided to convene a rabbinical court to do so. Spinoza was declared herem. However, the rabbinate was unsuccessful in enforcing Spinoza's excommunication. Because Spinoza's followers included members of the great merchant families of Constantinople, it was nearly impossible for even those Jews who observed the ban on Spinoza to avoid contact with his followers (Edelstein, Part 5).
Just as the freedom of the Jewish community in Constantinople had contributed to the formation of Spinoza's philosophy, another Jewish community was responsible for encouraging the Enlightenment. While the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire were Christians, they received their financing from the Hofjude. The Hofjude were considered part of the court. There were potential rewards for the Hofjude, but also potential risks. The Hofjude could become very rich, break free of the ghettos, and be placed on the same footing as Christian merchants, travel freely, live in non-Jewish districts, and mingle in high society (Edelstein, Part 9). In fact, "long before emancipation was granted to the rest of their brethren, the court Jews were emancipated one at a time" (Edelstein, Part 9). However, the position of Hofjude was very risky; they faced arbitrary imprisonment, execution, and torture. The Hofjuden turned to Rational Judaism and Spinoza's ideas that Jews should become equal partners in Western civilization. The Jews of Hanover brought Spinoza's ideas to the attention of the Duchess Sophia, who championed the idea of Jewish Emancipation.
Of all his accomplishments, Spinoza is most widely known for the emancipation. However, the emancipation was merely the culmination in Spinoza's extremely controversial life. Although Spinoza denied the existence of free will, he championed the idea of intellectual freedom and championed the idea of immortality through intellect.
Most importantly, Spinoza challenged the restrictions of Judaism. A central belief in Judaism had been the concept of religious superiority, or the idea that Jews were a chosen people. However, Spinoza maintained that all people were entitled to salvation and that salvation was not a function of faith. Furthermore, Spinoza challenged the idea of Messiah, both in theory and when challenged by the appearance of the false Messiah Zevi. Furthermore, Spinoza challenged the commandments in the Scripture by denouncing their divine origin and giving practical reasons for them. Combined together, these challenges proved too much for the rabbis of Spinoza's day; he was declared herem. However, Spinoza's ideas resonated with the Jews of his day. Despite his excommunication, Spinoza's ideas continued to spread through the Jewish community, eventually leading to the emancipation.
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