Spinoza writ is ‘still valid’
In July 1656, the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam issued a cherem, or excommunication, against the 23-year-old philosopher Baruch Spinoza.
It said: “By the decree of the angels, and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God.”
Now, 365 years later, the rabbi of the city’s Portuguese Jewish community, Rabbi Joseph Serfaty, has said the excommunication remains valid.
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In an angry letter to the Spinoza scholar Professor Yitzhak Melamed, Serfaty has refused permission for the academic to make a film about Spinoza in the grounds of the congregation’s historic synagogue.
Moreover, says Serfaty, prof Melamed is now “persona non grata” in the Portuguese synagogue complex. He accuses the professor of promoting Spinoza’s theories and says the cherem remains in force “for all time, and cannot be rescinded”.
Serfaty calls Spinoza an apikoros, or heretic, and says the professor’s request to film is “incompatible with our centuries-old halachic, historic and ethical tradition and an unacceptable assault on our identity and heritage”.
Baruch de Spinoza
He concludes his letter by wishing Melamed “a meaningful Chanukah”.
Spinoza, who died aged 44 in 1677, never made a protest against the cherem and is, in fact, buried in a Christian cemetery in The Hague, although he did not convert from Judaism.
He is widely described as one of the early architects of the Enlightenment, the movement that swept Europe in the 18th century, and was admired by many of the leading Christian thinkers of the era. His masterwork, the Ethics, was fully published only after his death.
Over the centuries, fruitless attempts have been made to rescind the cherem. The last such one was in 2015, when, it is understood, the community was in favour of lifting the ban on Spinoza but the rabbis maintained a hard line against doing so.
Melamed, an Israeli-American who teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has been contacted for comment.
People at a symposium in Amsterdam to consider whether to lift the order of excommunication against the philosopher Baruch Spinoza examine a copy
of the original writ.
Picture: Cnaan Liphshiz, JTA