Back to alternative history
2. Spinoza's World, 1664
3. The Sabbateans
4. The Disputation
5. The Holy Land
7. Common Prayer
9. Gottfried and Sophia
10. The Sublime Porte
11. Spinoza's World, 1691
12. Mustafa and the Janissaries
14. Regime Change
17. Spinoza's World, 1712
|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
|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
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.
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
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.