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Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind Paperback – 8 Jan 2004

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Product details

  • Paperback: 244 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (8 Jan. 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199268878
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199268870
  • Product Dimensions: 21.3 x 1.3 x 13.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,385,618 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Review from previous edition Nadler's book is an admirable piece of work. It relates Spinoza's thought to a wide variety of contexts, each of which enriches our understanding of Spinoza. It is clearly written and highly readable, continuing the story begun in Nadler's earlier Spinoza: A Life. It will be mandatory reading for students of Spinoza, as well as for students of Jewish thought and history more generally. (Martin Lin, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)

About the Author

Steven Nadler is Professor of Philosophy, and a member of the faculty of the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Robin Friedman TOP 500 REVIEWER on 23 July 2010
Format: Paperback
Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza (1632 - 1677) was one of the most seminal philosophers in history. His work constitutes a crucial component of Enlightenment thought and of modern secularism. In 1656, at the age of 23, Spinoza was excommunicated from the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam in which he had grown up. Excommunication was not an uncommon occurence at that time and place, but the excommunicating document banning Spinoza is extremely and unusually harsh. There have been many theories over the years about why Spinoza was excommunicated and excommunicated with such uncompromising sternness.

Steven Nadler,is Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin and the author of the biography, "Spinoza" (1999). In "Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind" Professor Nadler offers his understanding of the reasons underlying Spinoza's excommunication. But this book is not simply a historical account of the events leading up to Spinoza's excommunication in 1656. Professor Nadler gives the reader as well a study of Spinoza's philosophy and of some of the key concepts on which it rests.

Professor Nadler begins with a discussion of the Portugese Jewish community in Amsterdam and of the role excommunication (cherem) played in that community. He examines in detail the particular ban issued against Spinoza. (Much of this material can also be found in Professor Nadler's biography of Spinoza.)

Professor Nadler finds that Spinoza's excommunication is an overdetermined event -- which he analogizes to the American Civil War -- in that many reasons can be found for it and the difficulty lies in trying to isolate a specific factor.
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Amazon.com: 3 reviews
37 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Why was Spinoza Excommunicated? 29 Mar. 2005
By Robin Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza (1632 - 1677) was one of the most seminal philosophers in history. His work constitutes a crucial component of Enlightenment thought and of modern secularism. In 1656, at the age of 23, Spinoza was excommunicated from the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam in which he had grown up. Excommunication was not an uncommon occurence at that time and place, but the excommunicating document banning Spinoza is extremely and unusually harsh. There have been many theories over the years about why Spinoza was excommunicated and excommunicated with such uncompromising sternness.

Steven Nadler,is Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin and the author of the biography, "Spinoza" (1999). In "Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind" Professor Nadler offers his understanding of the reasons underlying Spinoza's excommunication. But this book is not simply a historical account of the events leading up to Spinoza's excommunication in 1656. Professor Nadler gives the reader as well a study of Spinoza's philosophy and of some of the key concepts on which it rests.

Professor Nadler begins with a discussion of the Portugese Jewish community in Amsterdam and of the role excommunication (cherem) played in that community. He examines in detail the particular ban issued against Spinoza. (Much of this material can also be found in Professor Nadler's biography of Spinoza.)

Professor Nadler finds that Spinoza's excommunication is an overdetermined event -- which he analogizes to the American Civil War -- in that many reasons can be found for it and the difficulty lies in trying to isolate a specific factor. Professor Nadler finds ample grounds for the cherem in Spinoza's denial of an anthropomorphic God, in his denial that the Torah was divinely revealed, and in his denial of the chosen status of the Jewish people. But, he argues, the decisive factor in the harshness of the cherem proclaimed against Spinoza was likely due to Spinoza's denial of personal immortality.

Professor Nadler offers a learned discussion of the various theories about personal immortality in the Jewish tradition and in the works of two medieval rationalistic Jewish philosophers who, he argues, deeply influenced Spinoza: Maimonides and Gershonides. Professor Nadler argues no particular type of belief in personal immortality is required under Jewish law and that Spinoza's own treatment of personal immortality in the Ethics follows closely and expands upon the attenuated, to say the least, commitment to personal immortality in the writings of Gershonides.

Professor Nadler follows his discussion of Jewish texts and philosophy with a discussion of Spinoza's views on personal immortality. These views are obscure and not free from differences in interpretation among philosophers. Spinoza's treatment of immortality in Part V of the Ethics is notoriously difficult. Professor Nadler draws a distinction between eternity and immortality. He concludes that while Spinoza describes truths as eternal, his philosophy has no place for an immortal soul that survives the death of the body. He concludes further that the denial of the immortality of the soul is crucial to the direction and goal of Spinoza's philosophy, and that Spinoza had been denying the soul's immortality well before completing the Ethics -- specifically at the time prior to his cherem in 1656.

The questions persists about why this issue, above all others, was critical to the Portugese Jewish community that excommunicated Spinoza. Professor Nadler gives a detailed response that shows that the question of personal immortality had arisen many times within the Jewish community in the years prior to Spinoza's excommunication. He gives a fascinating and deeply learned account of the writings of the rabbis and of heretics such as Uriel da Costa on the question. The leaders of the Jewish community, whatever other doctrinal differences they may have had, would accept no disagreement from the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Some of their firmness on this issue may have been due to the precarious nature of the religious freedom accorded to them in Calvinist Holland and to the perceived need to have the community adhere to consevative and established religous beliefs.

This is a fascinating and difficult book, both as a history and as a work of philosophical interpretation. Professor Nadler draws deeply on historical sources and on Spinoza's own writings. He also draws heavily upon Harry Wolfson's two volume study of Spinoza's philosophy (1934), while criticizing it in many places, and upon Professor Yirimahu Yovel's more recent work, "Spinoza and Other Heretics" (1989). Both Spinoza and the Jewish community are treated with respect and understanding, but Nadler's heart and mind, I think, belong more to Spinoza.

Professor Nadler has given the reader a provocative treatment of ideas that remain deeply important and that still have the power to move the mind. I wish I had this book, and the wisdom to use it, many years ago, when I was doing my own graduate study of Spinoza.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Another excellent book 26 July 2013
By toronto - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
Nadler has written another excellent book on Spinoza. As with the others, this is clear and deals with the complex material in a humane way. The great problem the book deals with is not so much the cherem (ex-communication), but the puzzle of Part V of the Ethics, where we are confronted with what some critics have determined is a failure on Spinoza's part, what others have seen as a culmination, and others have remained just puzzled. Nadler handles it all judiciously. I am not sure I agree completely with his interpretation, but it does work coherently with the main drift of the text, which is about all you can ask. There is something visionary about the last Part (akin to Wittgenstein's remarks on the ethics of wonder, a kind of intuitive, even aesthetic, grasping of the overall onto-logic) that Nadler doesn't quite capture.
8 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Spinoza and the Maumad... 21 April 2009
By Sam - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I am a fan of Professor Nadler and have been reading his works for some time now. However, I am not a fan of Spinoza and this is why:

It is in my humble estimation that the herem issued to Spinoza was necessary and that it was necessary on more than one issue. Scholars don't agree with Professor Nadler's view that it was strictly the issue of immortality that played a significant role, and I concur with this view.

That is not to say that these "unorthodox views" emanating from Spinoza were not directly correlated with his excommunication from the Hispano Luso Jewish community in Amsterdam. They were...but the main reason was more complicated and much more political.

The dynamics of a Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community, in particular the one in Amsterdam at the time, has to be taken into consideration when addressing Spinoza's herem. This is a consideration that has been downplayed throughout the years. In other words, the voice of the community has been purposefully neglected when trying to determine the factors determining Spinoza's ex communication. Gebhart, who studied the Prado-Spinoza case better than Revah, explains:

The excommunication of the Amsterdam community has been taken as an example of medieval cruelty, and even in our days there are plenty of efforts to posthumously denigrate it. But if we disregard the pathetic formulas, it is impossible not to recognize that the community was right.
Its duty was to organize a Judaism faithful to the Law, and under no circumstance could it permit that the youth, following the example of Prado, would create its own religion; in which revelation is substituted by reason, that searched God in nature and that only recognized as divine the laws of Nature.
And yet the community did everything in its power to avoid scandal. It tried to persuade Prado to emigrate to some Dutch colony, promising him ample financial assistance. It offered Spinoza, according to his biographers Bayle and Colerus and as evident from the ban itself, a yearly pension if he would not abandon the community and would attend from time to time the synagogue.[ Gebhart, Spinoza pp. 30-31]

Although I do not necessarily represent the voice of the community. Yet, being that I am a Spanish and Portuguese Jew with ties to the Amsterdam community, I believe I can shed some light onto this perplexing issue.

We are privy to the facts, as Nadler has pointed out in his previous works, that Amsterdam's Spanish and Portuguese community humbly started out with conversos (Jewish forced converts to Christianity) making an effort to regain their lost Jewish heritage. This was done with complications which eventually points to the "seemingly" harshness by which Spinoza was treated by his community.

The complications were many but, in a nutshell it was having to do with the community's political ties to the Calvinist majority in the Christian Netherlands. If anything it was tenuous, much like it was in America, when a boat load of Conversos sailed to New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil and were denied entry for a while, into what we now know as New York City. Thank G-d that the denial was latter rescinded and that our stay as Jews in America was initiated by Sephardim, trying to escape persecution, of which we enjoy full benefits today.

Much like America, the powers that be in the Netherlands where hotly debating whether the conversos/Jews should stay, and under what stipulations that stay would be afforded. On December 13, 1619 the famous Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius stipulated:

All Jews who have come of age must make before the Magistrates the following declaration concerning their belief, namely that they believe there is one God, creator and ruler of the Universe, the origin of all good, who must be honored, served, and worshiped; that Moses and the Prophets have written the truth under God's inspiration; that there exist another life after death, in which the Just will be rewarded and sinners punished. [ quoted from Jacob L Teicher, " why was Spinoza banned?," pp. 49]

From the point of view of this fairly "new" Jewish community and with the anxiety that it was accustomed to living in Christian lands, remember the persecution in Spain. It leads to reason that it would be political suicide to not act swiftly to end any form of heresy. It was at this precise time that the Jewish community was trying to gain the good will and the respect of its Christian governors in the Netherlands. And Prado and Spinoza were rocking the boat, causing the rest of its inhabitants to fear for their very existence.

We must remember that a Jew teaching publicly or privately anything contrary to sound doctrine was liable to the death penalty or corporeal punishment according to the gravity of the crime, and it was incumbent upon the community to take action quickly in order to not lose face and worse incur the wrath of the host nation.

This obligation fell on the shoulders of the Maumad, the political arm of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community. Contrary to what has been believed that the rabbis, were the ones to mete out the communities penalties for unlawful behavior. It was the Maumad that decide all political agendas for the community and as we have seen afforded to Pardo and Spinoza alternatives to excommunication which they did not heed.

This information is not devised by conjectural analysis but on the contrary as Scholars have proven, Spinoza was behaving rebelliously, treacherously, and scandalously against his community , putting them in a perilous position:

In view of the whole documentation, the historian must recognize that the decision of the Mahamad was reasonable and void of cruelty. The texts giving the legal justification for the admission of Jews in the Low Countries obligate them from removing from their communities unbelievers who deny the spiritual bases common to Judaism and Christianity. Consequently, it was absolutely normal that they would oppose the dissemination of skepticism among the Jewish youth in Amsterdam. [Aux Origines de la Rapture Spinozienne, pp. 375]

Again to reiterate, it was literally a matter of life and death to stamp out and divisiveness that would Jeopardize the continued coexistence with the host Christian nation. That Prado but in Particular Spinoza were offered alternatives to the full extent of punishment, and that they both refused. That the harshness of the punishment was not carried out by the rabbis but by the maumad, the political arm of the community. That the community was "anxious" and rightly so, both from a historical perspective ( the Iberian inquisition), but also of trying to live in peaceful coexistence with its host Christian country within the laws that were stipulated towards Jewish aliens who made the Netherlands their home.

The heresy's themselves are compelling enough to instigate a decisive action by the maumad. Yes, the immortality of the soul was absolutely a grave matter both in the Jewish as well as the Christan camps, which needed to be addressed. But, it was the perceived political repercussions of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community and its need to safeguard their stay in a new Christian land that precipitated the drastic measures against Spinoza.

In my humble opinion, and with the evidence that scholars have gathered. I can safely state that Spinoza acted selfishly and put his family/people/community at risk. Ethically, this is questionable behavior at best and unbelievably disgraceful at worst. Ultimately, I concur with Gebhart and Faur who believe that the maumad acted accordingly.

Shemu'el Fuentes de Lemos '"'
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