Anthony Mayer ;  alternative history ;  Jonathan Edelstein's Spinoza in Turkey - Part 8
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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
"Thus in the beginning, all the world was America."
-- John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, s.49.

Part 8 - America

December 1682 to July 1685

By the time Spinoza responded to the letter from America, its author was already dead. Mail service was slow and uncertain in those days, especially between the Ottoman Empire and British North America, and the response arrived in New York scant days before 1682 turned to 1683. When the ship captain asked where he might deliver a letter to Asser Levy, he was directed instead to Levy's widow. [FN1]

Three months before, Levy had written the final chapter in a life that spanned three continents. As a child during the 1630s, he had accompanied his parents from Holland to Recife, after the Dutch had seized part of Brazil from the Portuguese. [FN2] There the Jewish community had thrived; at its height in the 1640s, almost 1500 Jews lived in Recife, and the town boasted two synagogues. Levy's parents were not rich, but his father was an honest butcher, and he learned that trade in his father's house.

By the end of the 1640s, though, it had become clear that the Dutch position in Brazil was untenable. As Recife came under rebellion and siege, many Jews returned to Holland; when the city was finally taken in 1654, less than seven hundred remained. The Dutch inhabitants, including the Jews, were given three months to vacate the colony with their possessions and ships. Most drifted back to Amsterdam or to the West Indies, but in September 1654, the St. Catherine arrived in New Amsterdam bearing 23 Jewish passengers. Among them was Asser Levy. [FN3]

Thanks to the insularity of its established merchants and the prejudices of Governor Peter Stuyvesant, New Amsterdam was not hospitable to Jews. Stuyvesant, in fact, attempted to deport the Jewish settlers, only to be vetoed by the directors of the Dutch West India Company. Failing in that, he contented himself with subjecting the Jews to indignities, and it was one of these that turned Levy into a leader of the Jewish community.

Under the law of New Amsterdam, every freeman between the ages of 16 and 60 was required to serve in the militia. Stuyvesant forbade the Jews this duty, and ordered instead that Jewish men of military age pay a tax of 65 stuivers per month in its stead. Most of the Jews complied, but Levy was both an able-bodied man and a poor one, and he much preferred to stand guard rather than pay this onerous tax. In November 1655, he and another Jewish settler, Jacob Barsimson, petitioned the New Amsterdam council for the right to "keep guard with other burghers, or be free from the tax which others of their nation pay, as they must earn their living with manual labor." The council denied their petition, remarking snidely that if they were aggrieved by the tax, they were free "to depart whenever and whither it pleases them." [FN4]

Levy and Barsimson refused to depart, or to acknowledge the decision. Instead, day after day, they appeared for military training with their muskets, and stood guard on the city walls. After two years, the council finally relented and enrolled them in the militia. Through unceasing pressure and the patronage of the Company, the Jews of New Amsterdam won other rights as well - the right to sell at retail, to practice trades, to engage in commerce with the Indians. By the end of 1657, the Company granted the Jews the status of second-class burghers - a rank that did not confer political rights, but permitted Jews to exercise the other privileges of freemen.

Through all this, Asser Levy prospered. In 1660, he was licensed to practice the butcher's trade in New Amsterdam, and he became a landowner the following year. He became a trusted agent of Dutch merchants and then a merchant in his own right, traveling as far as Albany and Holland on trading expeditions. Even as the British encroached on New Netherland and an increasing number of Jews deserted the colony, Levy stayed and expanded his business; when the British took New Amsterdam in 1664, his was one of the three Jewish households remaining in the city.

Under British rule, the Jews of New York retained their privileges. In some ways, in fact, their position improved; the Jewish inhabitants, along with other Dutch burghers, were granted the rights of English freemen, including the right to vote. Levy exercised this right, and others as well; in 1671, he became the first Jew to sit on an American jury. In one case, he was quite literally called upon to administer poetic justice; Peter Stuyvesant, the man who once tried to deport him, was the defendant in one of the civil cases that came before the court during his term. Levy gave Stuyvesant more justice than the Dutch governor would have given him, though; he found for the defense. [FN5]

It was around this time that Levy became aware of Rational Judaism. It was only natural that Rationalism would appeal to a self-made man like Levy, whose struggle to advance himself had frequently run afoul of established authority. Levy was also not an insular Talmudic scholar; he was a man of the world who took a gentile partner at his butcher shop, was called upon by non- Jews to administer their estates and lent New York's struggling Lutheran congregation money to build its first church. In New York, a community where there were no rabbis and where the ancient traditions no longer applied, a religion that adapted Jewish ethics to modern circumstances made perfect sense. Some of the Jews who migrated to New York from England and the West Indies were infected by his enthusiasm, and by 1673 he was holding Rational meetings at his home and sending missives to European and Ottoman Rationalists along with his dispatches of goods. When he died in September 1682, his estate included a spice box, a Kiddush goblet, a musket, pistols, two swords - and a prized copy of the Rational Book of Common Prayer, which had arrived earlier that year from Constantinople. [FN6] Nor was this the only copy of the book in New York; of the city's ten Jewish households, six attended Levy's Rational meetings.

By the time Spinoza's letter arrived, his estate was largely settled, and his widow and brother-in-law were considering relocation. [FN7] The family had prospered in New York, but conditions were still not ideal; retail sale had again been closed to Jews, and the community had been denied permission to build a synagogue. Pennsylvania, with its constitution guaranteeing liberty of conscience, offered the hope that these disabilities might be remedied. Thus it was that when the Levy family received Spinoza's request that they present his compliments to William Penn, they decided to do so in person. In the spring of 1683, Levy's brother- in-law, Simon Valentine van der Wilden, arrived in Philadelphia with his family and announced that he intended to take up residence as a general merchant. [FN8]

Van der Wilden's arrival unknowingly triggered Pennsylvania's first constitutional crisis. Under Article 2 of the bill of rights that accompanied the Frame of Government, any inhabitant who held 100 acres of land or paid "scot and lot to the government" was to be reckoned a freeman of the province, with the right to vote and be elected to office. As a Dutch burgher who had been naturalized with the British conquest of New Amsterdam, van der Wilden qualified as an inhabitant, and claimed that his payment of taxes entitled him to exercise freeman's rights. His claim was supported by many of the settlers, but others less friendly to him pointed out that Article 34 restricted the franchise to those "such as possess faith in Jesus Christ."

Like his formidable brother-in-law, van der Wilden was not one to give up without a fight. Asser Levy had voted in New York, where freedom of conscience was not protected as zealously as in Pennsylvania; why, then, should his family not possess the same rights in a place where their religion had greater freedom? In July 1683, as the Sultan's army stood outside Vienna, van der Wilden petitioned the provincial council to resolve the apparent conflict between the two sections and declare that he was a freeman of the colony.

The petition was heard in August before the council's committee on justice and safety. Many of the members were disposed to grant his petition. The provisions of Article 34 had not been enacted with any malice against Jews; the framers simply had never imagined that any Jew would want to settle in the province. In addition to asserting his natural rights, however, van der Wilden argued that, as a Rational Jew, he in fact had "faith in Jesus Christ." As proof, he entered a copy of On Religion into evidence, pointing out the passages where Spinoza had described Jesus as a philosopher- prophet equal to any of those in the Old Testament. Thus, although he did not believe in Jesus' divinity, he belonged to a faith that held Jesus in great respect and taught that his words were both rational and godly.

It was an argument worthy of any English barrister, and one that provoked a storm of debate. Some councillors were unwilling to concede such an elastic interpretation of the word "faith," but they were impressed at hearing Jesus praised by a Jew, and the fact that the Rationalists were hard-working people who worshiped in meeting halls made them seem a sober and godly folk. And besides, Pennsylvania needed merchants, and the Levy name was a by-word for honesty throughout the New World. A New England court had once remitted a Jewish peddler's fine "as a token of respect to Mr. Assur Levy" [FN9], and now this same respect carried the day before the Pennsylvania council.

The council's decision, although accepted by most, did not sit well with a number of influential citizens. Thus it was that the first case to come before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court - an innovation that Spinoza had inspired William Penn to adopt - concerned the work of Spinoza himself. The argument on both sides was heated, but in the end, the court ruled by a vote of four to one that the council's interpretation of the bill of rights was permissible. In the election of February 1684, van der Wilden cast his vote along with the other freemen, the first step in a civic life that would lead to his election as justice of the peace. [FN10]

Across the ocean, Spinoza was also considering emancipation. The early 1680s were a turbulent time in the Ottoman Empire and Europe, but a placid one for him, and a time of creativity for him and his family. His daughter Naomi, at the age of five, was already showing a prodigious talent for the flute, and both Spinoza and Sarah carried on a thriving correspondence with intellectuals throughout the Western world.

At the same time, Spinoza was making up for his long drought in publications. In 1682 and 1683, he published several treatises on mathematics and logic, the most important of which was On the Regulation of Reason. This treatise was a comprehensive discourse on methods of deduction and common logical fallacies. In many ways, it was a compilation of what had gone before - relatively few of the concepts discussed in the book originated with Spinoza - but it was a compilation of practically encyclopedic scope, and it was among the first treatises to attempt to reduce logical arguments to symbols and quasi- mathematical equations. By modern standards, Spinoza's attempts at symbolic logic were clumsy and amateurish, but he would provide inspiration to Liebniz and others with greater mathematical skill than him.

The following year, Spinoza published the first of his important political works, On Emancipation. Although this pamphlet is not generally considered a major work in a philosophical sense, it would profoundly influence the debate on the status of the European Jewish communities during the coming decades. Boiled down to its essence, it was a plea for equality; just as Spinoza had argued that an ideal religion permitted freedom of conscience to its members, an ideal state would not discriminate between its inhabitants on the basis of their faith. He argued that Jews had been cited by Ottoman and English monarchs as having the qualities of useful citizens, and that Jews in fact had held citizenship in the empire that was Rome. When the decree of Caracalla granted citizenship to all free men of the empire, Jews were not excepted, and they had diligently fulfilled the responsibilities of that role for more than two centuries after. How much more then, Spinoza argued, should Jews be granted citizenship in the modern age, especially since the Jewish community itself was taking steps to rid itself of its insularity and hidebound customs.

With the publication of On Emancipation, Spinoza formally cast Rational Judaism as a mediator between Jewish tradition and the Enlightenment. Others before him had pled for equality, but he was the first to argue that Jews could be both Jewish and Western, and that there was a middle path between ghettoization and total assimilation. The book was widely circulated among the educated Jews of London and the German courts, many of whom were wrestling with the same issue, and a collection of their letters and essays was published the following year under the title Commentaries on Emancipation. The struggle for equality would not be completed for centuries to come, but the debate had begun.

In Philadelphia, the debate continued. In the spring of 1685, the Jewish question was once more in the public eye with the arrival of six Jewish families from Newport, Rhode Island. The Newport Jewish community had existed for at least eight years, but its members - unlike the burghers of New York - were still treated as foreigners rather than inhabitants of the province. The significance of this was brought home to them in early 1685, when the entire community was arrested for violating the Navigation Act of 1660 and their property was impounded. They were ultimately acquitted by a jury, but they decided to leave Rhode Island. [FN11] Some drifted back to the West Indian islands from whence they had came, others to New York, but the Rationalist families - who had corresponded with their counterparts in other colonies - chose Pennsylvania.

Some alarmists among the population argued that the Newport Jews were the spearhead of a Jewish invasion, but the growing respect in which van der Wilden was held by the community calmed the worst of the rhetoric. Ultimately, in July 1685, the council issued them letters of denization permitting them to reside and transact business in Pennsylvania, although it stopped short of granting them the naturalization that van der Wilden had obtained as part of New Amsterdam's terms of surrender. It would be almost a decade before any Jews outside the Levy family won the vote in Pennsylvania, but the seed of a great Rational Jewish community had been planted.

In the same month, five thousand miles away, Spinoza received a letter from the Duchess Sophia of Hanover. [FN12] An avid patron of philosophy, Sophia had learned of Spinoza from Duke Ernst August's court factor, Leffmann Behrens, and from his historian, Gottfried von Leibniz. She was, it seemed, particularly interested in his theories on emancipation.

[FN1] Some accounts give the date of Asser Levy's death as 1681, others as 1682. Jacob Rader Marcus, whose treatise on the Jews of colonial America is IMO the most thorough, hedges his bets and says that Levy died in "1681 or 1682." I'm exercising authorial privilege and going with 1682. If necessary, I'll assume that Levy's adoption of Rationalism led him to healthier habits and prolonged his life for an extra year - that seems a small enough butterfly.

[FN2] Authorial privilege again. None of the sources I consulted, including Marcus, had any indication of the circumstances or even the date of Levy's birth. His legal name - Asser Levy van Swellem - indicates that his family, at least, came from the city of Schwelm in Westphalia, but Levy himself could just as easily have been born in Holland or Brazil. Leo Hershkowitz, a history professor at Queens College, believes based on Dutch court records that Levy was born in Lithuania, and that his family may have migrated through Schwelm to Holland and Brazil. I'm going with the theory of a European birth; a Recife birth would make him 24 years old or less at the time of his arrival in New Amsterdam, and IMO his fairly early rise to community leadership indicates that he was older than that. The exact European country in which he was born is immaterial to this story, and is left as an exercise for the reader.

[FN3] My major source of information on the Recife community, in addition to Marcus, is Eli Faber, A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992).

[FN4] The minutes of the council session in which this occurred are recorded in Morris Schappes' fascinating collection of primary sources, A Documentary History of Jews in the United States, 1654- 1875 (New York: Citadel Press, 1950).

[FN5] True story.

[FN6] With the exception of the prayer book, these items were all part of Levy's estate in OTL. The estate was appraised at 553, although he was probably much wealthier than that.

[FN7] Asser Levy's family moved to Long Island after his death in OTL. In the ATL, they're simply moving a little farther.

[FN8] This is an advance of nearly forty years over OTL. Although the Jewish community of Philadelphia was one of the most influential in eighteenth-century America, it didn't get its start in OTL until 1720, when Isaac Miranda settled in Philadelphia.

[FN9] Marcus, The Colonial American Jew, 1492-1776, v.1, p.247 (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1970).

[FN10] In OTL, of course, this controversy never occurred, and Jews didn't have the franchise in Pennsylvania until the Revolution. There were no Jews in Pennsylvania during the formative years between 1682 and the fourth Frame of Government in 1701, and there was thus no thought of exempting Jews from the anti-Catholic tests and oaths included in the constitutions of this period. IMO, though, it isn't implausible that the Pennsylvania Jewish community in the ATL might be enfranchised in the manner described. As discussed above, Jews voted in New York during the 1600s, and there were several other colonies, including New Jersey and South Carolina, that had Jewish freemen. William Penn wasn't an anti- Semite in OTL, and he would be even less so in the ATL given his acquaintance with Spinoza's work; this, combined with the presence of a relatively assimilated form of Judaism in Pennsylvania during the 1680s, would IMO create the conditions under which enfranchisement could occur.

[FN11] This happened in OTL. The Newport Jews of OTL, however, migrated exclusively to Barbados and New York. In the ATL, the Rationalists among them will become the nucleus of the Philadelphia Jewish community.

[FN12] At this time, she isn't yet an Electress.

Last modified: Fri Dec 6 12:28:54 GMT 2002