Monday, February 05, 2007

Cherem? No Hard Feelings

We have to clarify the excommunication issue by putting it in proper context. Some place guilt upon the Amsterdam Jewish community for their actions taken against Spinoza, but I find it justified, if not unavoidable on their part. Jewish excommunication, called Cherem, is a rabbinical decree that cuts off the community from the one being excommunicated, and not the other way around, although it may have the same effect. It means that no one can have contact, offer aid, do business, mourn, or engage in any contract with the excommunicated. He becomes a persona non grata. This institutional and ritual form of 'shunning' has been very rarely used in Jewish history. Jews are very much community oriented and have a saying that goes "Kol Yisrael areyvim zeh bazeh" which, loosely translated, means that Jews stand as collateral for each other and the debt of one becomes the debt of all. It is statement of communal responsibility. To actively cast out a member of the community in such a way is the antithesis of Jewish living, and is a very serious matter.

In Biblical times, a Spinoza, and there were many dissenters, would have been dragged out into the town square and put to death. In Rabbinic times, he would have had a trial and would likely have reached a similar verdict, especially considering Spinoza's irreverent and caustic responses to the suppression of his ideas. Though the Amsterdam community had no power to execute him, they did have the power to order others not to have contact with him. The Talmud says that four types of people are considered good as dead, and if you dissect the rabbis statement you find that at the core of each case is loneliness and abandonment. The excommunication was tantamount to this sort of 'death' sentence. In a world of Inquisitions and Calvinists, a Spinoza might have nowhere to turn for help, and that door was now closed to him. They were hoping the threat alone would shut him up, but they underestimated his resolve. He begged them to 'just do it'.

The community is exempt from judgment on my part because of their time and place. Had this excommunication went off in 1998 at the Temple Beth El of Teaneck N.J., it would really concern me that a modern American Jewish community would feel so threatened by the presence of a Spinoza and go to such great and horrific lengths to distance themselves from him. However, 17th century Amsterdam was still living in the shadow of the Inquisition and most of that community came from Spain or Portugal, having already endured the worst of "Christian Love" and the Inquisitor's wrath. How many of them lost their fortunes, their loved ones, and their lives? How much fear did this refugee Jewish community still feel while living within the long and powerful reach of Rome? In their recent past, any all pretexts were used to attack and impoverish the Jewish nation, and the Amsterdam Jews had plenty good reason to fear that a Spinoza, with his atheism, would bring the wrath of both Catholic and Protestant down upon them. I would have been more surprised had they not tried, by whatever means necessary, to shut him up.

The community tried to buy him off with a stipend of florins per annum. They hired a local scoundrel to murder him. They repeatedly tried reasoning with him and he persisted. In a way, Spinoza, no matter how true to his ideals and principles he remained, though admirable, was in fact putting the entire Jewish community in a certain degree of danger, and for that, even I would have asked him to "Please, shut the hell up already!"

Kol Tuv


Hrafnkel said...

Heh, for the first half of this entry, I was thinking "What the hell?" By your conclusion I understood. You socio-utiliheretic, you.


rebelmo said...

What hasgocho pratis :>, the below link is to a day of lectures commemorating 350 years since the Spinoza Cherem.

the lecture by steven nadler was very interesting, he reads out the text of the cherem which was very severe, with the "arur" curses which was very unusual. Nadler suggests that there might have been a political reason , as his ideas especially regarding immortality would have caused some waves in the non-jewish community, and the jewish community had to fully disassociate from him.

Just for the record, IMHO, modern orthodox communities have their own form of informal cherem(s) which work using social isolation and gossip.