Thursday, May 10, 2012

The anger of the Lord

In July of 1656, a 23-year-old Jewish young man in the Dutch Republic incurred the wrath of his congregation. The governing board, in consultation with the rabbis, issued a proclamation of excommunication. It read in part:
By decree of the angels and by command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse, and damn {him], with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls…Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man...and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.
The young man's transgressions were in the realm of ideas, and it would not be the first time those ideas would get him or his friends in trouble, not only with Jews, but with reformed Protestants and the civil authorities. His writings, of course, made the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books.

And what were those scurrilous ideas? That God is identical with the infinite and eternal universe. That miracles are impossible. That the Bible and other holy books are not the words of God, but literary works of men. That the major religions, such as Judaism and Christianity, are nothing more than organized superstition, grounded in hope and fear. That souls are not immortal. That the goal of life is to be happy, and that happiness consists of living a virtuous life, governed by reason. That all people should enjoy freedom of ideas and speech. That church and state should be separate. That governments should be tolerant and democratic.

Baruch Spinoza has been called the first secular Jew. He may not have been the first, but he can play that role. He was certainly a secularist, and a forerunner of the Enlightenment. I have no qualms calling him a religious naturalist. He was savvy about science, a correspondent and confidant with Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of London's Royal Society. He made his living as a lens grinder, and lived modestly and without pretensions.

Those of us who live in tolerant, democratic republics, with the freedom to believe or not to believe, owe a debt of gratitude to the gentle Jew of Amsterdam. He was cautious enough to avoid the harsher fates of some of his friends, and he seems to have been unperturbed by the curse quoted above.

As for the curse, all these centuries later we are not free of those who claim to speak with "the consent of God." And as for the Lord blotting out Spinoza's name from under heaven, well, his name endures -- blessed be he -- while those "holy men" who cursed him are long forgotten.