Anthony Mayer ;  alternative history ;  Jonathan Edelstein's Spinoza in Turkey - Part 5
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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
"Since, therefore, no one can abdicate his freedom of judgment and feeling; since every man is by indefeasible natural right the master of his own thoughts, it follows that men thinking in diverse and contradictory fashions, cannot, without disastrous results, be compelled to speak only according to the dictates of the supreme power."
-- Spinoza, Theological and Political Treatise, 20:14

Part 5 - The Holy Land

February 1668 to June 1673

It has often been said that Spinoza succeeded where Zevi failed - that the philosopher rather than the would-be messiah renewed the Jewish community in Palestine. This saying is inaccurate in two respects. The colony was started, not by Spinoza, but by his secretary Haham Saltiel, and during Spinoza's lifetime it remained very small. The Rekindling, as it is known to modern historians, did not begin in earnest until well into the next century. Despite their small number, however, the first Rational settlers would prove very influential.

The project of settling the Holy Land had been in Saltiel's mind for some time - inspired, curiously enough, by both Spinoza and Zevi. He had worked closely with Spinoza in writing and publishing Against Zevi, and had played a part in framing the philosopher's proof that the messianic age would be brought on by the innate human capacity for morality and justice rather than by an external agent. For Spinoza, this age was not connected to any one place, nor did it involve a physical ingathering of the Jewish diaspora. Saltiel, however, did not dream as abstractly as his master. He would start the age of justice himself, by establishing a community of Jews in Palestine who would live according to perfect Rational principles.

It was a project begun and carried out with youthful good intentions. Unfortunately, however, Saltiel was not listening when Spinoza explained that the messianic age could not be brought about by any human agent. Such an agent, as Spinoza noted, would need to have the attributes of God - if only to deal with the other human agents who got in his way.

Saltiel had remained at his master's side throughout the Sabbatean crisis and the internecine disputes that had followed. By the beginning of 1668, however, the situation had, if not improved, at least stabilized. In February of that year, Saltiel decided that his constant presence was no longer necessary, and asked Spinoza for leave to travel through Europe in search of funding and colonists. [FN1] Spinoza, somewhat absently, granted the request, and Saltiel left Constantinople in early spring.

For the rest of 1668, Saltiel journeyed throughout the German states, the Netherlands and England [FN2], pleading for money to resettle destitute Jews. And there were many of these. Europe in 1668 still contained refugees from the Chmielnicki uprising who were forbidden to engage in the useful trades they had practiced in their homeland. In the cities of the Holy Roman Empire, the court Jews' wealth and high status was a counterpoint to the mass of poor Jews who were prohibited from engaging in most occupations and sometimes even from marrying, and were subject to expulsion at the whim of their rulers.

All the same, Saltiel's mission met with little success at first. He was the ambassador, not only of his settlement project, but of Spinoza, with all the baggage that implied. To be sure, he did not shrink from this role; indeed, he relished it. In addition to his fundraising, Saltiel took it upon himself to convince a skeptical public - made even more skeptical by the release that year of a Latin translation of the Ethics - of the soundness of Spinoza's teaching. Rational Judaism, explained Saltiel, did not abolish the law; indeed, the law was now on an even stronger footing because the mitzvot had been proven by reason. What Spinoza had abolished was the tyranny of custom, the unwritten law that bound humans with unnecessary chains and destroyed the freedom to inquire. "Ever since Avraham Avinu demanded that God spare Sodom if it held ten righteous men," Saltiel wrote to the Jews of Amsterdam, "it has been the Jewish birthright to think, to question, to quarrel - even with God. Spinoza has restored the Jews to their natural state of freedom."

Nevertheless, Saltiel's reception on the Continent was cold. In the German cities, a few of the court Jews promised aid, but more refused to see him, and the Amsterdam rabbis forbade him to enter the city. Only in England were things different. Most of the English Jews had come from the Netherlands during Cromwell's time, true, but many of them were there out of dislike for the strictures of the Dutch community. Although the encounter with the most far- reaching implications may have been Saltiel's chance meeting with Isaac Newton [FN3], the Jews of England volunteered their money to Saltiel's coffers, and some even offered to return to Germany with him to recruit colonists.

Those who followed him often did not have an easy time. Some German princes eagerly assisted in any enterprise that held out the prospect of getting rid of their Jews, but others were indifferent or even hostile. A few would-be recruiters returned home in despair; one, in fact, was imprisoned for fraud at the instigation of the local rabbinate. In the end, though, a shipload of Jewish colonists, six hundred in all, landed at Jaffa in the spring of 1669.

There they were opposed by civil and religious authorities alike. The rabbis of Jerusalem, led by Avraham Amigo, observed the decree of herem against Spinoza's followers, and forbade the colonists to live among the declining Jerusalem community. With the remaining funds collected by Saltiel, they purchased farmland in the Galilee, but few of them were well suited for a farmer's life. They were tradesmen whose skills had prepared them to live in the city, not on the land, and the first year's crops were soon threatened. Disease and bedouin attacks began to take their toll - and, as the crowning grace, the local governor was both arbitrary and noted for his dislike of Jews. The colonists found themselves fighting endless legal battles over the title to their land, and were subject to arbitrary exactions by local officials.

In the face of all this, it is no wonder that some of them returned home to resume their lives as best they could. Others, made of sterner stuff, learned to farm from their Arab neighbors, traded with them for the necessities of life, and organized patrols to defend against nomad raids. Slowly, the colony began to stand on its own - but the governor's attacks continued, and it was clear that he ultimately held the power to make the project fail. The settlers sent letters to the Sultan's court in Constantinople, and Saltiel himself pressed the suit upon his return in 1670, but it was lost amid the myriad petitions that came before the Sultan every year. There matters stood, until they were changed by the publication of a book.

The book was On Religion, published in September 1671. It was Spinoza's first major work since Against Zevi [FN4], although he had published several minor volumes in the interim, including a Latin translation and commentary on Rashi and translations of the poetry of the two Spanish Samuels, ibn Gabirol and ha-Nagid. [FN5] On Religion was, in many ways, a summation of the theology he had expounded on the Day of the Tables, and many of its themes - the role of reason, the authorship of the Torah and the nature of God - were echoed in earlier works. Even more than a religious work, however, On Religion was a treatise on the structure of religion, informed by Spinoza's years of experience as a somewhat reluctant rabbi.

Organized religion, wrote Spinoza, was inevitable. It was in the nature of human beings to seek each other's counsel in matters of importance, and given that the nature and law of the divine was the most important matter of all, it was foreordained that those who were not learned would seek the advice of those who were. Those better able to understand the divine being became teachers, and the teachers soon entrenched themselves as priests.

A priesthood, however, was often inimical to true religion. As priests, or any religious hierarchy, became entrenched, positions of power would be taken by those with the best political skills rather than those with the greatest knowledge of God. Moreover, priesthoods tended to enforce orthodoxy of thought. In an ideal religion, thought would be free, because it is only through the exercise of the faculty of reason that humans could come to understand God. Misbelief or error in doctrine were not impious, but disobedience to natural law was - so any religion that prevented its members from achieving knowledge of natural law in fact encouraged impiety.

In an ideal Rational synagogue, thought and speech would be free and the congregation would be one of equals, with knowledge the only source of authority. "Let no man be condemned for his belief or his speech, and let no one say what knowledge is beyond the bounds of discussion," he wrote - here, perhaps, betraying the asperity of a man who had been excommunicated two times. [FN6]

Spinoza's attack on religious hierarchy was revolutionary, and generated a great deal of comment. Possibly the most widely discussed chapter of On Religion, however, was its treatment of prophecy. Spinoza's ideas on prophecy had been developing at least since the Ethics, and had crystallized on the Day of the Tables. He rejected the traditional notion that prophets heard the voice of God; instead, he considered them primitive philosophers who had an intuitive understanding of the divine. It was their qualities, rather than any choice on God's part, that caused them to perceive divine truth.

Even more radical than this concept of prophecy, though, was the list of philosopher-prophets. Not only were Moses and the prophets of the Jewish canon included, but so were Jesus, Mary, Mohammed, 'Aisha, Fatima and the rightly guided Caliphs. The names on this list, in fact, were much closer to the Islamic canon than the Jewish.

The reaction to this theological bombshell was both widespread and varied. Among the Jewish community - and even among Rationalists - many whispered that Spinoza had followed Zevi into apostasy. The Muslim doctors and counselors who attended the philosopher's lectures were naturally more welcoming, with some even debating whether Spinoza's acceptance of Mohammed made Rational Judaism a form of Islam. In the end, though, the great majority concluded that Spinoza had remained within the bounds of Rational Jewish thought, because he had recognized Jesus and Mohammed only as great philosophers rather than people to whom God had spoken. A Jew did not become a Muslim merely by asserting that non-Jewish holy men possessed wisdom.

Nevertheless, Spinoza's endorsement of Mohammed - and his statement that there was much in the Koran and hadiths that was worthy of reason - could not help but raise his standing among Muslims, and some of the Muslim counselors who discovered a newfound admiration for Spinoza also heard of the struggling colony in Palestine. One of these, a member of the powerful Kprl family, brought the settlers' petitions to the attention of the Sultan, as did the court physician, Hayati Abravanel.

Despite the colonists' powerful new patron, their suit found opposition from a surprising source - Sabbatai Zevi, still ensconced in his sinecure as keeper of the palace gates. Although he had little power of his own, he had become well versed in the ways of palace intrigue, and he had not forgotten the man who opposed him at every turn. Subtly and secretly, he spread the rumor that the purpose of the settlement was to seduce the Arabs away from Islam, and turn Palestine into a land of Jews who did not obey the Sultan. This rumor, although never proven, found an ear among the Janissary generals and the more reactionary court officials, and would rise up to cause trouble for Spinoza long after Zevi's death. For the time being, though, the Kprls, who occupied the grand vizier's chair in addition to other important court posts, succeeded in persuading the Sultan to hear the petition.

The firman of Mehmet IV concerning the Rationalist colony was issued on the second day of March 1672. He confirmed the settlers' title to the land they had purchased, set their annual taxes at a fixed sum, and forbade any further exactions by the governor or any of his officials. The sponsor of the colony was also granted leave to buy additional land and settle other Jews in Palestine, provided that no more than five hundred new settlers arrived each year. In light of the actual amount of emigration, this quota was quite high; it would be more than a decade before even two hundred colonists arrived in a single year.

By the following year, the colony had become a small town, with a press and a meeting hall where prayers were held. Some of the Jews of nearby Safed bought its produce despite the rabbis' ban, and Saltiel contemplated another fundraising and recruiting journey through Europe.

In the spring of 1673, though, Spinoza's mind was unexpectedly on other things. The man who had ordained him, Rabbi Joshua ben Israel Benvenisti, had decided that it was time to forge an even closer alliance between their houses. In June, after Shavuot, he suggested that Spinoza marry his youngest daughter.

[FN1] Saltiel in fact made such a journey in OTL, albeit as a much older man.

[FN2] As it still would be for another 29 years.

[FN3] It is likely that Spinoza knew of Newton in OTL, since he restated Newton's first law during his explanation of the chain of causation. I'm not sure if they corresponded in OTL, but they certainly will in this timeline. We'll be seeing more of him.

[FN4] Spinoza has more practical responsibilities in this timeline than in OTL, so he will be a less prolific writer. On the other hand, he'll live quite a few more years.

[FN5] Maimonides would be the obvious candidate to be translated by Spinoza, but Latin editions of his work already existed by this time. Some of the cabalistic works had also been translated into Latin during the 16th century, but Spinoza wouldn't bother with those anyway. Rashi had been partially translated and discussed in Latin sources, but his complete works were not yet translated AFAIK, and neither were the poems (as opposed to the philosophical works) of ibn Gabirol and ha-Nagid. I'm willing to be corrected on any of the above; I don't claim exhaustive knowledge concerning this subject.

[FN6] Most of the ideas in On Religion are adapted from the Theological and Political Treatise, although Spinoza's focus in the ATL work is the ideal religion rather than the ideal state. His political treatises in the ATL will come much later in life.

Last modified: Fri Dec 6 12:28:41 GMT 2002