Leading scholar speaks on Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-century philosopher, didn’t believe in the immortality of the human soul – a mindset that one professor believes caused him to be excommunicated from his Portuguese-Jewish congregation in Amsterdam.

The Department of Religious Studies hosted Steven Nadler, a professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, on Wednesday night to speak on his theory about why the philosopher was banned, the first lecture in a series designed to bring focus to Jewish life on campus.

Cass Fisher, assistant professor of religious studies, said Nadler is the foremost expert on Spinoza.

“We have the opportunity to learn about the fascinating matter of Spinoza’s excommunication from the leading scholar in the field,” Fisher said. “The goal of the lecture series is to build interest in Jewish studies at USF by enriching Jewish cultural and intellectual life on campus, and within the wider community.”

Nadler explained to a group of more than 200 people in the Dr. Kiran Patel Center for Global Solutions Auditorium that in 1656, the philosopher was expelled from his Amsterdam congregation for his “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds.” However, such deeds were never explained in his herem, a document which “puts something out of use,” Nadler said.

Nadler said herems were initially used to ban items, but eventually made their way to individuals, such as Spinoza.

“I believe (immortality of the soul) was the truly aggravating feature in the decision to ban Spinoza,” he said.

Amsterdam in the 1650s, he said, was the wrong place and the wrong time to be denying the immortality of the soul.

In his five philosophies, Spinoza’s first denied the conception of God and said nature is all that exists. His second philosophy was that Jewish people are not God’s people and are not different from any other groups of people. His third philosophy was about the Bible being a work of human literature, and his fourth denied the validity of Jewish law by saying anyone can be Jewish, whether or not they are a strict observer of the Jewish law. The fifth denied immortality of the soul.

Nadler said there were “political dimensions” to the decision to ban Spinoza. Rabbis involved in the Portuguese-Jewish community had each written a treatise justifying the immortality of the soul, he said, and it was universally agreed that the soul is immortal.

Nadler said the excommunication was due in part to the Catholic background of many members of the community.

“Catholicism places a good deal of importance on the immortality of the soul and, I suspect, in Amsterdam … given this Catholic background, they took the immortality of the soul much more seriously,” he said.

Nadler wrote the first full-length biography of Spinoza in English, as well as books on Spinoza’s notion of eternity and his Theological Political Treatise, a book about Spinoza’s beliefs of Judaism.

“There was no biography of Spinoza, and I thought it would be a really interesting project” he said. “Once you start reading Spinoza, it’s hard to stop – it’s kind of obsessive.”