Anthony Mayer ;  alternative history ;  Jonathan Edelstein's Spinoza in Turkey - Part 2
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1. Preface

2. Spinoza's World, 1664

3. The Sabbateans

4. The Disputation

5. The Holy Land

6. Marriage

7. Common Prayer

8. America

9. Gottfried and Sophia

10. The Sublime Porte

11. Spinoza's World, 1691

12. Mustafa and the Janissaries

13. Naomi

14. Regime Change

15. Tulips

16. Twilight

17. Spinoza's World, 1712

18. Epilogue


Spinoza in Turkey

Part 2: Spinoza's World, 1664
The Ottoman Empire of 1664 was not that of Mehmet II or Suleiman the Magnificent, and its Jews were fewer and poorer than they had been in the days of Gracia Mendes. The empire was no longer pre-eminent in the Mediterranean trade, and the Jewish merchants suffered along with their Muslim counterparts. The Jewish communities of Salonika, Smyrna and Safed also fell victim to the perennial urban ills of pestilence and fire, and the rebuilding was sometimes slow. Each of those cities in 1664 was still home to a vibrant and creative Jewish population, but the decline was beginning and would grow faster if left unchecked.

The capital was different. Its status had insulated it, at least somewhat, from the slow decay of the rest of the empire. Here, the merchant princes were still great, the chancellors and court physicians still powerful and the scholars still wise. But even in Constantinople, things had changed.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many of Constantinople's Jews lived by the Galata Tower where the north bank of the Golden Horn met the Bosporus, and many more lived across the bay in Eminn. In fact, there had been Jews in Galata even before that, when it had been a Byzantine city and home to many Genoese banking families. By the seventeenth century, however, these districts weren't what they used to be, especially after the Jewish community of Eminn was cleared away in 1597 to make room for the New Mosque. There were still Jews in Galata in 1664, and there would be for centuries after, but by that time the center of Jewish life had drifted to three other neighborhoods.

One was Kuzguncuk, a town that had grown from a collection of villages on the Asian side of the Bosporus, where Romaniote Jews had lived from time immemorial and Sephardim since the expulsions from Iberia. Another was Hasky, a district of vineyards on the north side of the Golden Horn to which Mehmet II had invited Jews in 1453. Here lived the descendants of Sephardim expelled from Spain and Sicily along with Constantinople's small Ashkenazic community - including the latest arrivals, three hundred slaves captured and sold by Chmielnicki's men and ransomed by their Ottoman brethren.

The center of Constantinopolitan Jewish life in 1664, though, was unquestionably Balat. Bayezid II had invited the Sephardim to settle there in 1492, and the district had been their home for almost two centuries. Balat had been the home of Gracia Nasi and the Abravanels; its nineteen synagogues included the famous Ahrida with its pulpit shaped like the prow of a ship. It was here, on the southern shore of the Golden Horn just over a mile from the Topkapi Palace, that the richest and most influential Ottoman Jews lived. It was also where Baruch Spinoza had made his home for just under four years.

Spinoza was far from rich. The trade of a philosopher without the security of a university appointment was hardly a lucrative one, so he made ends meet by translating documents and keeping accounts. During his first years in Constantinople, Spinoza worked in the counting-houses of the city's greatest Sephardic families - Saltiel, Abravanel, Benvenisti, Mendes. Along the way, he had come to know many of those with whom - and for whom - he worked. Some reminded him of the smug, self-satisfied burghers who had driven him out of Amsterdam. Others, though - a surprising number of others - reminded him of those who had listened.

Before he had left the Netherlands, he had corresponded with other European philosophers, but Constantinople was the first place where significant numbers of Jews had shown an interest in his ideas. There had always been some - the discontented ones, eager to break free of the limitations to which they had been born - but in the Ottoman capital, there were those who recognized that Judaism need not necessarily be a limitation. His conversations with them were guarded at first, but grew in confidence with time; in fact, by 1663, he was confident enough to hold weekly discussions in his attic apartment and publish a slim treatise entitled Ethics.

The Ethics was a radical work, especially to a rabbinate whose primary occupation was writing commentaries on the great books of the past. Spinoza rejected the notion that God acted in a purposeful manner or even with free will. God could have no wants, because that would imply that He was lacking something and detract from His perfection. Nor could God have arranged history any differently from the way it in fact happened, because that would imply that God could have differing natures and open the possibility of there being more than one God. The universe of the Ethics was one of predestination, but a deist predestination; there was no division between the elect and the damned, and faith was an inherent quality of man rather than being necessary for salvation. God made all and was all, and had intellect but no desire. Any notions to the contrary were created by humans to reflect their own desires, and perpetuated by religious hierarchies to preserve their authority. [FN1]

Possibly an even more radical aspect of the Ethics was the language in which Spinoza chose to publish. The notes he had written during his youth in Amsterdam were in Latin, but that speech was rare in Constantinople, and the Jewish print shops used Hebrew type. Thus, when he sat down to write the treatise, he did so in Hebrew. The published edition was instantly accessible to the Jews of the Ottoman Empire, and was soon being discussed in salons throughout Balat and Hasky.

It was also discussed by the rabbinate. Although some saw merit in Spinoza's application of logic and mathematical proof to theological matters - after all, that was what Maimonides had done - his conclusions were a direct challenge to their authority. Some of the bolder rabbis suggested a disputation at which Spinoza's philosophy could be publicly challenged, but this idea was rejected at first - possibly, as Spinoza's

followers would claim, out of fear. Others reacted as the rabbis of Amsterdam had done. One, Joshua ben Israel Benvenisti, went so far as to declare him herem - a declaration which he would retract three years later in the most dramatic possible way - and several others echoed his ruling. Most, however, declined to make any final decision on Spinoza just yet; his writings needed to be examined, and a din Torah assembled if necessary to judge them.

In the meantime, in late 1664, Spinoza stirred the pot again by publishing the Treatise on God, Man and his Well-Being. He had actually written this treatise in rough form before leaving Amsterdam, but he had written it in Latin, and he had put off the clerical task of translating it into Hebrew in favor of writing the Ethics. When he finally did complete the work of translation, he decided not to let his Latin manuscript go to waste; he found an Italian printer in Galata and published the Latin edition simultaneously with the Hebrew one. Thus, the Treatise on God, Man and his Well-Being was the first of Spinoza's works to be circulated in Europe; the Ethics would not be translated to a European language until 1668.

Spinoza's second treatise added yet another element to his challenge to the rabbinate - his advocacy of complete freedom of thought. Dissent was far from unknown within the rabbinical community - even a cursory examination of the Talmud, let alone the running debates conducted through responsa, would reveal that - but it was supposed to be kept within limits and confined to people with the knowledge to dissent wisely. Spinoza's ideas would lead to an anarchy of thought - a priesthood of all believers, but not one that would gladden the soul of either John Calvin or the wise men of Balat.

Even worse, Spinoza's weekly discussions had, quite by accident, started to become religious services. This had started one evening in early 1664, when a conversation about theology had carried over into the time reserved for evening prayers. One of the participants, not wanting to end the colloquy, had suggested that the prayers be held right there. They had been - with the frequent interruptions and running commentary that had become the hallmarks of the discussion group. Spinoza was no rabbi - he had not yet found another rabbi willing to ordain him through laying on of hands, and he wasn't yet interested in finding one - but a rabbi wasn't necessary for a Jewish religious service, and Spinoza's followers were more than educated enough to carry it off on their own. There were few limits in Spinoza's nascent congregation; discussion was free, and even some of the prayers were modified to conform to a deist interpretation of God. The congregation didn't quite live up to his ideal of a leaderless community, though; there are always those who are held in greater respect and take a greater role in the conversation. Some of these were rabbinical students and even rabbis; another, the young Haham Saltiel, would later become an important figure in Spinoza's movement.

By the beginning of 1665, Spinoza's followers numbered in the hundreds, and his discussions were increasingly held at the homes of wealthy supporters because his attic was too small to accommodate them. The established rabbinate watched these events with growing consternation, and indecision turned to resolve. It was decided that a din Torah would be assembled as soon as possible, including famous scholars from throughout the Ottoman Empire, to weigh the merits of Spinoza and his works. This is where matters stood in the autumn of 1665, when a false messiah declared himself in Smyrna.

[FN1] Spinoza's Ethics and Treatise on God, Man and his Well-Being were both conceived well before the POD, and are thus substantially the same in the ATL (even though a few words here and there are probably different). Those who are familiar with the OTL treatises can assume that anything discussed in them is also present in the Turkish versions. You are, of course, free to disagree with my interpretation of them.

Last modified: Fri Dec 6 12:28:04 GMT 2002