Jewish Politics in Spinoza’s Amsterdam by Anne O Albert - review by Steven Nadler

Steven Nadler

Trouble in the Synagogue

Jewish Politics in Spinoza’s Amsterdam

By

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization/Liverpool University Press 352pp £45
 

From the standpoint of Jewish history, something remarkable happened in Amsterdam in the opening decades of the 17th century. In less time than the ancient Israelites spent wandering in the desert, a relatively small number of Portuguese and Spanish conversos, or ‘New Christians’ (descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity, whom Iberian ‘Old Christians’ derisively called Marranos, meaning ‘swine’), having been cut off for generations from Judaic traditions and texts, settled in that city, returned to their ancestral religion and established an open and flourishing Jewish community. Their original three congregations were centred on the Sint Antoniesbreestraat – soon to be called the Jodenbreestraat (‘Jews Broad Street’), also home to Rembrandt for a time – and merged in 1639 to form the Kahal Kadosh Talmud Torah. Thereafter, the city quickly became one of Europe’s most important centres of Jewish learning and culture.

A good deal of early research on this Sephardic community focused on its founding and the challenges faced by the rabbis, imported from elsewhere, in integrating these new Jews (some of whom had maintained some kind of secret observance in Iberia, albeit without any guidance) into the norms of rabbinic Judaism. Later scholarship offered a longer view of things, tracing the community’s fortunes through the rise and fall of the Dutch Republic, the period of the Dutch monarchy (instituted in 1815) and the devastation wrought by the German occupation during the Second World War.

Perhaps the most famous episode in the history of the community was the issuing in 1656 of a herem (‘ban’ or ‘excommunication’) by the ma’amad (lay board of directors) against the 23-year-old Baruch de Spinoza for ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds’. At the time, Spinoza was merely a

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