Anthony Mayer ;  alternative history ;  Jonathan Edelstein's Spinoza in Turkey - Part 7
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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
"O God, open my lips that my mouth might declare Your glory."
-- Sabbath Amidah

Part 7 - Common Prayer

January 1680 to August 1682

1680 dawned a hopeful year. Although the rabbis of Constantinople clung tenaciously to their decree of excommunication, they had not succeeded in eliminating Rational Judaism; in fact, almost thirteen years after the ban had been announced, the effect seemed to be quite the opposite. Of the thirty thousand Jews in Constantinople, eleven thousand called themselves Rationalists, and Rational meeting halls existed in every Jewish neighborhood. Balat, where Spinoza lived and the new Rational Synagogue stood, was still the center of the community, but many Rational Jews had also moved to neighboring Eyp. This district was not historically Jewish, but in the past decade it had become home to three thousand Rational Jews, and was the first neighborhood to become predominantly Rational.

There were Rationalists outside Constantinople as well. The Galilee colony, under royal protection and strengthened by a decade of bountiful crops, was now more than twenty-five hundred strong, and there were meeting halls in Salonika, Smyrna and even Safed. There were also kindred spirits in Europe; Spinoza received daily correspondence from court Jews in London, the German states, and the cities of the Italian peninsula. In the Netherlands, where Spinoza's works were still banned by the local rabbinate and the decree of William of Orange [FN1], it was dangerous for Rational Jews to declare their allegiance openly, but it was rumored that meetings were held secretly in private homes.

There were probably fewer than twenty thousand Rationalists all told - a small fraction of the worldwide Jewish diaspora [FN2] - but the movement's membership was disproportionately drawn from the most educated and influential sectors of world Jewry. Rational philosophy was flourishing, and there was even talk of establishing an annual Rational journal in which the writings and correspondence of influential thinkers could be circulated. Thus far, there were none of those to equal Spinoza, but several whose works would have impact on the subsequent development of the sect.

During this time, Spinoza himself had largely been occupied with other things. His wife Sarah had recovered from the year-long illness that followed the birth of their child, but his family was still both a responsibility and a delight. Also, much as he tried to avoid it, he was sometimes forced to deal with the minutiae of administering a growing community. All the same, he found time to correspond with philosophers throughout the West, and many of these long-distance dialogues laid the groundwork for his later treatises.

One of the most important colloquies of this period in Spinoza's life was his decade-long exchange with John Locke. By 1680, a collection of these letters had already been published by Haham Saltiel, and another would be released in 1686. To the modern eye, the letters reveal an erudite and often pointed discourse between two keen minds, but they also show that the political ideas that Spinoza would incorporate years later in The State were already coalescing. [FN3] In the course of his conversation with Locke, Spinoza developed his conception that the law, rather than ruler or subject, should be supreme, and that a democratic government within constitutional limits was the best method of guaranteeing this state of affairs. [FN4] In his earlier letters, Spinoza had favored unrestrained democracy, but by the end of the first published volume, he had come to believe that a king or elected leader was necessary to act as judge in order to ensure that the people or their representative bodies did not overstep their constitutional bounds. The best such restraint would be a board of men "versed in the natural and civil Law," but a monarch or consul could also perform this function if trained in philosophy and statecraft.

The other of Spinoza's important correspondents was Isaac Newton. Most of Spinoza's letters to Newton concerned mathematics and the physical sciences, in which Spinoza had a long-standing interest, but Newton's ideas about methods of learning also made an impression on the Jewish philosopher. The concept of gaining knowledge through observation and controlled experiments had its limits - after all, one could not observe God or subject Him to a controlled environment - but it might have some utility in problems of law and ethics. As Spinoza wrote to Newton in the autumn of 1680, perhaps all laws should be closely studied after their enactment in order to determine their effect on the ills they were designed to solve, and automatically repealed if they did not have the desired effect within a given period. The full development of this concept would await the publication of The State, but it was already beginning to influence the philosophy of the Rational movement.

At the same time, another dramatic event was taking place among Rationalists, in which Spinoza would have little part - the development of a Rational liturgy. This was, in a way, not as radical as it sounded. To be sure, the core rituals of Jewish religious services - the Barechu or call to prayer, the Shema and related prayers, the Amidah and, on certain days, the prayers associated with Torah reading - had not changed for centuries. The readings that surrounded them, though - especially the piyyutim, or hymns - varied from place to place and were often in a state of flux. The Yigdal hymn, for instance, had not entered the liturgy until the fourteenth century, and Adon Olam - set to music so hauntingly by Salomone Rossi - had done so only in the fifteenth. Congregations throughout history had added hymns to the service, or replaced them with others more to their liking.

The standardization of the Rational liturgy was in most respects a change of this sort rather than a radical revision. Neither the leading Rational rabbis nor their congregations were ready to give up the familiar rituals entirely, and the core liturgies were preserved practically unchanged. Indeed, there was little reason to change them - there was nothing in the Shema that was objectionable to Rational Judaism, and the Amidah - a silent prayer in which the different aspects of God were contemplated - seemed well suited to the development of Spinoza's "third knowledge." Some of the wording of the Amidah was altered to fit the Rational conception of God as universal substance rather than free-willed agent, but the order and general substance of the service remained the same.

In other ways, the new Rational liturgy ratified changes that had already been made. One of these was the period of discussion that had come to follow the Amidah, in which a subject chosen prior to the service - the week's Torah portion, or a problem of law or philosophy - was debated. In some meeting halls, this discussion had turned into a sermon of sorts, while in others it was more participatory, but the new liturgy made some form of discussion mandatory. "After silence, voices; after contemplation, sharing."

Many of the piyyutim that were not included in the Rationalist prayer book had also been omitted by most Rational congregations for some time. The Yigdal, for instance, was unacceptable because it embodied Maimonides' thirteen principles of faith, which Spinoza had rejected as contrary to reason. The Aleinu was likewise abandoned, as was the verse of the Lecha Dodi that mentioned the Messiah. However, the remainder of the Lecha Dodi - a joyous song of greeting to the Sabbath - was retained, as was Adon Olam. [FN5]

The creative force of the new ritual, however, was what it added rather than what it took away. New piyyutim that had been written by Rational poets throughout the Ottoman realm and Europe were collected, and important philosophical passages were included at key points in the service. The liturgy was not entirely standardized; many of the readings were optional, and those that were debatable from a Rational point of view were included for the judgment of the congregation. Thus it was that the rituals that had grown up in diverse Spinozan meeting halls - even the passages from the Zohar that were sometimes contemplated in Safed - were collected for the benefit of the movement as a whole. With the publication of the Sefer Haberachot Tziburot - the Book of Common Prayer - in January 1682, Rational Judaism had found its voice.

At the same time, a long-standing dispute concerning the Rational movement's communal status was settled. Despite having been excommunicated fifteen years since, the Rationalists were still technically part of the Jewish millet, and subject to its civil authority. In practice, this had meant a variety of things. In towns where Rationalism was weak and orthodox Judaism was strong, the rabbinate persecuted or expelled the Rationalists. In cities like Constantinople where the Rationalists were strong enough to defy the rabbis, they were effectively under no civil government at all. This state of affairs was unacceptable both to the Rational leaders and the Sultan's court, although for opposite reasons.

In 1680, Haham Saltiel and Rabbi Benvenisti, who had become the Rationalists' political leaders, had petitioned the Sultan to be granted the status of a millet. With the aid of their allies at court, they pointed out that each of the Christian denominations was a millet unto itself, and that the Rationalists were now a separate Jewish denomination by the rabbis' own decree. Granting official status to the Rationalists would provide them with protection on the one hand, and regularize their government on the other, all to the benefit of the Sublime Porte and the law. On February 17, 1682, their petition was heard, and Sultan Mehmet IV issued a firman declaring the Rational Jews to be a millet subject to the Sultan's authority. Baruch Spinoza, the reluctant rabbi, was now an even more reluctant governor.

Not all the consequences of victory could be foreseen. Although the firman granted a measure of recognition to the Rational movement, it also increased the opposition of the forces at court who resented its influence. This resentment increased further in the spring of 1682, with the emergence of the first Rational society among Ottoman Muslims. The founder of this society, a physician named Ismet Celer [FN6], was careful to acknowledge the authority of the Sultan and the qadis, and to emphasize that the purpose of Rational philosophy was to provide guidance where the law of Islam did not reach. These concessions prevented Celer from being condemned as an apostate and the Rational Society from being closed out of hand, but the reactionaries viewed it - and its progenitor - with suspicion. The old rumors spread by Sabbatai Zevi in the years before his death were circulated again, and forces were at work that would cause great danger for the community in years to come.

In 1682, though, those forces whispered rather than shouted. And in August of that year, Spinoza received a letter from the far- off province of New York, written by a man who claimed to be a Rational Jew. It described a constitution that had been promulgated for a new colony, by a proprietor who listed Spinoza's work among his inspirations. This wondrous place, where the rights of freemen were guaranteed as never before and liberty of conscience promised to all, was called Pennsylvania. [FN7]

[FN1] In OTL, William of Orange banned Spinoza's works in 1674 at the request of the Amsterdam church council. Given that Spinoza's ATL treatise on religion would be at least as provocative to them as the Theological and Political Treatise was in OTL, they will probably still prevail upon William to ban his books after the death of Jan de Witt. This might make things interesting in England after 1689, when William of Orange becomes the male half of William and Mary - but then again, it might not, because Rationalism will have an established foothold and there would be less support for the ban from Parliament, the Church of England, and the local rabbinate. I don't claim to know William's mind, but I'll go with the theory that his opposition to Spinoza was political rather than personal, and that Spinoza's ideas will be a somewhat better fit with the Glorious Revolution than in Holland during the post-de Witt reaction.

[FN2] I don't have any exact figures, but most estimates of the world Jewish population in the late 1600s put it at around one million. At that point, the Jewish population was still declining toward a low point that would be reached in the mid- 18th century, when restrictions on marriage and childbearing in Europe were at their most severe and the Turkish community had been depleted by disease and assimilation. The Jewish population turnaround will probably occur sooner in the ATL, although nothing's etched in stone at this point.

[FN3] In OTL, Locke's treatises on government were not published until 1690, but it is likely that many of the ideas expressed in those works were formed much earlier. Similarly, I'm assuming that Newton's conception of the scientific method was formed before the publication of Optics in 1704. Certainly, many of the discoveries made by Newton in the 1660s and 1670s seem to bear the stamp of that method.

[FN4] Spinoza expressed similar sentiments in OTL, in chapter 16 of the Theological and Political Treatise, but he seemed to believe that popular government was self-limiting and that no explicit constitutional limitations were necessary. In the ATL, his political theories will be influenced by Locke's conception of a social contract, which he will interpret as a set of supra- legal norms that constrain the sovereign power.

[FN5] All right, Adon Olam is a bit debatable from a Spinozan point of view, but it can be rationalized, and I wanted to keep the one Jewish hymn that can be sung to anything.

[FN6] This character is not historical.

[FN7] Pennsylvania's "First Frame of Government," promulgated by William Penn on May 5, 1682, together with the bill of rights adopted by the prospective colonists in England, can be found at The ATL version is substantially the same, with the addition of a supreme court that had the power to decide, subject to override by six sevenths of the legislature, whether new laws were in conformance with the bill of rights.

Last modified: Fri Dec 6 12:28:50 GMT 2002