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Steven Nadler. Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 2001. Pp. xvi + 225. Cloth, $35.00.
Steven Nadler's Spinoza's Heresy opens with the following declaration: "It is a splendid mystery" (1). The mystery, of course, is how a gifted son of the Jewish community of Amsterdam, a young man whom one might have expected to grow naturally into the role of a respected rabbi, came to be expelled from that community. What Nadler finds so mysterious is not the simple fact of Spinoza's expulsion—itself a common form of discipline among the Jews of Amsterdam—but the vehemence and finality with which he was expelled. The writ of expulsion accuses Spinoza of "abominable heresies" and "monstrous deeds" and goes on to heap layer after layer of curse upon him. It is, in Nadler's judgment, the harshest writ ever to be pronounced against a member of that community. What, then, were the views so abominable and the deeds so monstrous that account for this? What had Spinoza said and done to raise such ire among his fellow Jews? That is the mystery Nadler's book attempts to solve.
Needless to say, Nadler is not the first to take up this challenge. The question of what lay behind Spinoza's expulsion has been of perennial interest to scholars, and what keeps it alive, in part, is its resistance to definitive resolution. Most importantly, Spinoza had not yet begun to write at the time of his expulsion, and his surviving correspondence is silent on the matter. Nevertheless, it is tempting to look to his Ethics and Theological-Political Treatise for clues. But if we are to do so, as Nadler encourages us to, we must not only determine which of the views they contain can be attributed to the young Spinoza, but show how his holding of them explains the events that transpired.
Nadler begins with the documentary evidence. Although sparse, the sources point to three views at the root of Spinoza's troubles: that God exists only philosophically; that the Law is not true; and that the soul is not immortal. Acknowledging that each of these may have played a role in the expulsion, Nadler singles out the last for special scrutiny and concludes that it was decisive. His reasons for doing so emerge in the last chapter of the book. Despite broad latitude within the Jewish tradition as a whole, the Jews of Amsterdam were particularly sensitive on the issue of immortality and did not take kindly those who denied it. Indeed, they had a history of confrontation with "heretics" on this issue. This was partly a function of a general concern not to arouse unwanted attention from the politically powerful Calvinists within Dutch society. But it also stemmed from an intense interest in the afterlife among the Sephardim, who, being of Marrano heritage, were naturally concerned about the postmortem fate of Jewish converts to Catholicism. Though the community was divided on what that fate would be, the entire debate on the question was carried out on the shared assumption of personal immortality. This, together with a deep commitment to immortality on the part of each of its leading rabbis, conspired to make Jewish Amsterdam an inhospitable place for anyone holding views like those Spinoza was to express. In Nadler's words, immortality "was simply the wrong issue to pick on in Jewish Amsterdam in the 1650's" (156).
Nadler's thesis is intriguing, and the light that he throws on the Spinoza affair in the course of developing it is considerable. However, a question remains. Although Nadler does an impressive job of clarifying why Spinoza's views on the afterlife would have been so volatile within the Amsterdam community, we might still wonder why the other two theses he is reported to have held do not merit equal consideration. This is particularly true of his denial of the authority of the Law. Whatever...