- The Influence of Abraham Cohen de Herrera's Kabbalah on Spinoza's Metaphysics by Miquel Beltràn
Addressing the alleged "great secrets" contained in Scripture, Spinoza wrote in the Theological Political Treatise (TTP): "I have also read, and for that matter, known personally, certain Kabbalistic triflers. I've never been able to be sufficiently amazed by their madness" (TTP chapter 9, Gebhardt III/136/1–2). Were these words Spinoza's only reference to the Kabbalah, we would hardly have any reason to believe that his attitude toward the Kabbalistic literature was anything but dismissive. However, in a 1675 letter to Henry Oldenburg, Spinoza stressed that he shared the view that "all things are in God" with certain ancient traditions (traditionibus) of the Hebrews, "corrupted as they have been in many ways" (Epistle 73, Gebhardt IV/307/11). Since the very meaning of the word 'Kabbalah' in Hebrew is tradition, and since the view of the Kabbalah as a corpus of ancient wisdom that got corrupted was widespread among early modern writers, it is highly likely that Spinoza's claims in the letter to Oldenburg referred to Kabbalistic pantheism (which was the main current within Kabbalistic thought).
The precise nature of Spinoza's relation to the Kabbalah has been subject to debate and speculation ever since Wachter's 1699 Spinozismus in Jüdenthumb; and the list of luminaries who took part in this debate include Leibniz, F. H. Jacobi, Salomon Maimon, Schelling, Gershom Scholem, Zev Harvey, and Moshe Idel. The main common feature that Spinoza's [End Page 544] metaphysics shares with Kabbalistic theory is the combination of pantheism and emanation. Furthermore, some Kabbalists conceived the flow of things from the Einsof (the infinite) as strictly necessary. We may also note the significant presence of Kabbalistic works in Spinoza's personal library.
Miquel Beltràn's new book is an important contribution to this three-centuries-old debate. The book focuses on Spinoza's relation to the writing of the major Kabbalist of early modern Amsterdam, Abraham Cohen de Herrera (1562(?)–1635). Though Herrera's books were not in Spinoza's library, there are intriguing thematic similarities between his synthesis of Renaissance philosophy and Kabbalah on the one hand, and Spinoza's metaphysics on the other.
Beltràn's book is very clear and highly erudite. It relies upon, and engages in, a critical dialogue with the recent wave of studies and translations of Herrera's books, and it is clearly the most comprehensive study of the topic. Some of Beltràn's claims are quite surprising. Thus, for example, he argues that Spinoza's 1656 excommunication was partly due to his interpretation of Herrera's works (44), and that natura naturans "does not refer to substance as substance, but rather as a free cause of that which follows from its nature" (377).
The scope of Beltràn's study is quite wide, covering diverse issues such as amor Dei intellectualis, the notion of causa sui, the nature of the attributes, infinity, and acosmism. The book also contains some insightful discussions of Spinoza's reception of Maimonides and of Wachter's reading of Spinoza. Every so often, I found myself in disagreement with the author, but this is a rich, stimulating, and even exciting work, and is clearly one that should be addressed and studied by anyone with a serious interest in Spinoza's relation to the Kabbalah.