Anthony Mayer ;  alternative history ;  Jonathan Edelstein's Spinoza in Turkey - Part 6
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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
"As concerning marriage, it is certain that this is in harmony with reason, if the desire for physical union be not engendered solely by bodily beauty, but also by the desire to beget children and to train them up wisely; and moreover, if the love of both, to wit, of the man and of the woman, is not caused by bodily beauty only, but also by freedom of soul."
-- Spinoza, Ethics, ch. IV, appendix, XX.

Part 6 - Marriage

June 1673 to February 1677

Baruch Spinoza's wife, like Sabbatai Zevi's, was named Sarah. [FN1] This may have been the only one of the ironies in his life that gave him pleasure.

At forty, Spinoza had never thought seriously of marriage. In the abstract, he considered it a sensible enough arrangement; it was good for a child to have two parents, and the mutual caretaking and division of labor that came with married life seemed eminently reasonable. Sometimes, in an idle moment, he reflected that it was odd for a man his age to be a bachelor. Like many men who are complete in themselves, however, he had never felt any pressing need for a life companion, and certainly none so pressing as to warrant the trouble of seeking one out.

As such, he was taken aback when Rabbi Joshua ben Israel Benvenisti proposed that their houses be united. He was not difficult to persuade, however; although he was supreme in matters of the intellect, he was unsure of himself in those of the heart, and ready to listen to Benvenisti's guidance. The older man had little trouble convincing him that marriage was one of life's comforts, that a man should have a family, and that it was particularly unseemly for a rabbi to remain single. After being assured that Sarah consented to the match, he agreed.

Neither the prospective bridegroom nor the bride-to-be saw much cause for delay. They were married on September 10, 1673, in the new Rational synagogue in Balat. Spinoza was not entirely comfortable with this innovation; most Rational congregations held their prayer services at meeting halls or even private homes, and elaborate structures seemed a profligate use of money. The great merchant families of Constantinople, however, demanded more, and built a new sanctuary decorated with carvings and paneled with imported woods.

However, although it was more elaborate than other Spinozan places of worship, the Rational Synagogue was quite unlike most other synagogues. There was no women's gallery; instead, the women's section was on the ground floor, situated an equal distance from the central dais. Some members had advocated doing away with the women's section altogether and allowing husbands to sit with their wives, but that had been judged too much of a distraction, and they had agreed instead to place the women where they could take part in the discussion that was necessary to spiritual growth.

Next to the platform, a place had also been reserved for a choir. Choral music was unusual in Jewish worship, but it was not unprecedented; Jews in the Italian cities had introduced music to their synagogues earlier in the century, and one, Salomone Rossi of Mantua, had even composed liturgical music in the baroque style. [FN2] Many refugees from Mantua had settled in Balat after the expulsion of 1630, and some still remembered the power that music added to prayer. Not all the other leading families had been pleased with this idea at first, but the ability of music to focus the mind had made it quite a rational addition to religious worship, and the Italians had prevailed.

And so the ceremony was held. Rabbi Benvenisti officiated, before an assemblage of guests ranging from wealthy merchants and doctors to working-class clerks and shipyard laborers. With his new bride at his side and far too much wine in his belly, Spinoza decided that his life was quite sensibly arranged.

All the logic in the world could not prepare him for what happened next, however, because he soon came to love Sarah with a passion far beyond reason. Sarah was not beautiful, but she had a face made for laughter and merry eyes that shone across the twenty years that separated them. She also had a fine mind and a liberal education, and her secure childhood in a close family had given her a measure of self-confidence rare for a woman of those times. She had the wit to pierce Spinoza's ego and occasional bouts of self- righteousness, but the gentle humor to keep it from stinging.

Before long, Spinoza's associates noticed a change in him. His mind was as sharp as ever and his vision as penetrating, but it seemed that his bitterness over being excommunicated had receded, and that he was more alert to the pleasures of the material world. As befits a person in transition, he wrote no major works during this time, although he continued to translate the Jewish poets of al-Andalus and to collect the works of Solomon ibn Gabirol [FN2] from the dusty prayer-books and letters where they were hidden.

One pamphlet published toward the end of 1674 did occasion some comment. Entitled Against Dogma, it was an expansion of his earlier advocacy of freedom of thought, arguing that even true ideas should not become received wisdom and stifle discussion. Even the truth should be open to debate, because people cannot be fully convinced of it if it is not proven, and because critical testing may reveal that what is believed true is actually not. At one point, Spinoza appeared to go so far as to criticize his own followers, writing that ideas should not simply be accepted as having been "proven by Reason" without critical examination. This was likely an early indication of Spinoza's growing discomfort with the way his own teachings were being treated as dogmatic by many Rational Jews.

The work that shook the Rational movement most during this time, however, was written not by Spinoza but by Sarah. In October 1675, she published a slim volume entitled Reflections on the Female Sex, by a humble Member thereof, which stated that the mental and intellectual faculties of women were as capable as those of men. Unlike her husband's, Sarah's attitude toward proof was distinctly empirical; she made out her case by describing women in both ancient Jewish history and contemporary Europe who excelled in statecraft, medicine and scholarship. She concluded that, although women could not hope to match men in feats of strength and their maternal instincts naturally inclined them to the "caring professions" such as medicine, they were fully capable of performing jobs that required mental faculties and control of passions. It was thus incumbent upon the state to provide women with the same liberal education that men received, in order that their neighbors not be deprived of their talents. "Consider how many more of the sick might be healed," she wrote, "especially women, whose complaints a female physician is uniquely suited to understand..."

In any other time and place, Sarah's treatise might have been ignored, as other similar works had been. Constantinople in 1675, though, was a place where settled wisdom had been turned on its head for more than a decade, and her ideas found a hearing. Not everyone agreed with them by any means - some, in fact, grumbled that Sarah would never have written such a book had she still been living in her father's house, and that her authorship of it was proof of Spinoza's pernicious influence. Nor did Sarah's citation of Rashi's daughters and the judge Deborah convince the congrega- tion that women should participate equally in religious life. Within a year, however, a wealthy Mendes matron had opened a girls' primary school, and Sarah's announcement that she would study medicine was treated as simply eccentric rather than unthinkable. Some Rational Jews deserted the movement in protest, as some did whenever Spinoza did something controversial, but they were balanced - and more than balanced - by those who came over from the other side.

Spinoza watched all this happen with characteristic serenity. Only one thing marred his happiness during this time - Sarah's failure to conceive a child. Her doctors had told her she was fertile, and could provide no reason why she had not conceived after more than two years of marriage. By the beginning of 1676, Spinoza had become convinced that he was to blame - that he had waited too long to marry, and drained himself of his capacity to give life. In his despair, he learned that, just as reason was no match for passion, it was also not proof against desire. He prayed for a child, with a fervency he had not known since his youth in Amsterdam.

And in the summer of 1676, Sarah told him that she had become pregnant. If this was an answer to Spinoza's prayers, then it was a very ambiguous one, because the manner of her child's birth prevented her from ever conceiving again. But that mattered little to her husband; all he really wanted was one person to carry on his legacy.

Their daughter was born on February 21, 1677. She was named Naomi, and she would become the Rational movement's greatest hymnist and poet. And other things.

[FN1] Sarah is the first non-historical character in this timeline, although the lives of many of the historical characters have taken different paths.

[FN2] In the previous episode, I incorrectly referred to him as Samuel ibn Gabirol.

Last modified: Fri Dec 6 12:28:46 GMT 2002