Anthony Mayer ;  alternative history ;  Jonathan Edelstein's Spinoza in Turkey - Part 9
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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
"A handful cannot satisfy a lion."
-- Glckel of Hameln (Glckel bat Judah Leib), diary entry [FN1]

Part 9 - Gottfried and Sophia

July 1685 to November 1687

Of all the institutions in seventeenth-century Germany, that of the Hofjude - court Jew - was possibly the most peculiar. As the feudal state gave way to the mercantile state, the princely rulers of the Holy Roman Empire found themselves in need of large amounts of money, but without the financial infrastructure to obtain it. In Amsterdam or London, there were already banks, but no such things existed yet in Germany. [FN2] Instead, it was the Jews, with their international connections and access to credit, who provided the princes with the funds to raise troops and maintain their courts. Some Hofjuden, such as Samuel Oppenheimer of Vienna or Jost Liebmann of Berlin, could raise millions on short notice or organize supplies from all over Europe. In the words of one of Louis XIV's courtiers, the Jews were "a kind of republic and neutral nation for commerce among different states" [FN3] - and in the 1680s, the Hofjuden were that republic's rulers.

The potential rewards for serving as a court factor were great. Through royal patronage and grants of monopolies or lucrative civil posts, court Jews could become very rich - but, even more, they could break free of the ghetto. In contrast to the majority of German Jews, who came under increasingly severe restrictions as the 17th century wore on, the Hofjuden were granted patents that placed them on the same footing as Christian merchants. They traveled freely, lived in fine houses in non- Jewish districts, mingled with high society and were guests in the homes of noblemen. Long before emancipation was granted to the rest of their brethren, the court Jews were emancipated one at a time.

With great rewards, however, came greater risks. Although the court Jews held power, they did so at the sufferance of their royal patrons, and their fortunes could turn at a moment's notice. Jealous nobles and hostile clergymen - and, often, rival Hofjuden - schemed against them, often successfully. Bankruptcy was a common occurrence, especially when a royal patron defaulted on his debts, and other court Jews faced arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and even execution. Few families of court Jews were prominent for more than three generations, and many came to tragic ends.

Poised halfway between two worlds, the Hofjuden were keenly aware of the spreading ideas of the Enlightenment, and were just as aware that they were accepted only conditionally into enlightened society. It was only natural that many of them blamed themselves - or, rather, the ghetto customs that were part of their heritage - for this exclusion. It was also natural that some of them turned to Rational Judaism, with its rejection of the more restrictive rabbinic legislation and its adaptation of customs and practices to the modern world, as a means of bridging the gap. [FN4] The trend toward Rationalism among the Hofjuden, not surprisingly, accelerated after the publication of On Emancipation in 1684. Finally, a noted philosopher had said what the court Jews had believed privately for decades; that Jews were a modern and enlightened people who should be admitted as equal partners in Western civilization.

In 1685, there were three centers of Rationalism in the Holy Roman Empire. The first was Vienna, the imperial seat, where the greatest of the court Jews - Samuel Oppenheimer - made his home. The second was Frankfurt, one of the few cities where the Jews had never been expelled and therefore home to a sizable Jewish middle class and central to German Jewish life. The third was Hanover.

On its face, Hanover seemed an unlikely place for the cradle of a Jewish movement. At one time, the Jewish community of Hanover had been large and valued - so much so, in fact, that a municipal ordinance of 1303 had forbidden citizens "to offend the Jews either in word or in deed." Less than half a century later, however, an outbreak of the Black Death had led to the Jews' expulsion on charges of poisoning the wells. Since then, the Jews of Hanover had repeatedly been expelled and readmitted, always in small numbers and always grudgingly. In 1685, there were no more than fifteen Jewish households in the city, and the synagogue - which had been torn down in 1613 on the orders of the duke - had not been rebuilt. The city's prominence in Jewish life was not due to the size or wealth of its community, but to a fortunate combination of three people - the court Jew Leffmann Behrens [FN5], the philosopher Gottfried von Leibniz, and the Duchess Sophia.

In the cutthroat world of the Hofjuden, Behrens stood out as an exception. Where many other court Jews schemed against their fellow Jews - for instance, the attempt by Israel Aron of Berlin to deny entrance to Jewish refugees from Vienna after the expulsion of 1670 [FN6] for fear they might compete with his business - Behrens acted as protector to the Jews of Hanover and the surrounding province. [FN7] All the same, he was one of the richest and most well-connected Hofjuden, with business associates throughout Europe and marriage connections to most of the other families of court Jews. His relationship with his patron was also unusually close; in contrast to the distaste which most princes felt toward their court factors, the bond between Duke Ernst August and Behrens was one of genuine friendship and trust.

Behrens was not a Rational Jew himself; his personal piety and connections to Germany's leading rabbinical families were too deep. However, despite being unwilling to shift the balance between tradition and modernity as far as Spinoza advocated, he saw value in the Rationalists' modernizing message, and he was an astute enough politician to realize that Spinoza's kind words about Jesus would impress some Christian rulers favorably. Thus, he patronized Rational as well as Talmudic scholarship, and leading Rationalists of Germany were often guests in his home.

Also, Behrens' son Naftali Herz, born in 1663, had none of his father's reservations about Rationalism. As a young man, he had encountered Spinoza's works and embraced them in full, entering into correspondence with the great philosopher. His newfound faith found expression in a surprising way - through the authorship of novels. Herz Behrens' Lady of Israel, a German- language romance set in Maccabean times and featuring the Jewish heroine Judith, was published in 1683, and its successor, Esther the Queen, was released in 1685. Both books were well-written - surprisingly so for someone of Herz' age - and were widely read in the salons of Europe. [FN8]

At the same time, Spinoza's pro-emancipation tract was coming to the attention of Ernst August's court historian, Gottfried von Leibniz. This was far from the first time that Leibniz had encountered Spinoza; the great German polymath had known and corresponded with him for almost twenty years, and credited him with part of the inspiration for his theory of monads. [FN9] Leibniz' ecumenism and Spinoza's pantheism also meshed well. Leibniz had long promoted the quixotic cause of reunifying the Catholic and Lutheran churches, and On Religion convinced him to pursue a more quixotic path still - "the reunion of the Elder Brother with the Younger, of the Parent with the Child." Of course, the reunion he sought - which naturally involved acceptance of Jesus' divinity by the Jews - would never occur, but his support of the cause led him to develop a profound respect for Judaism. Leibniz was never an anti-Semite, but by the time he accepted a position in the Hanoverian court in 1680, he had become a genuine philo-Semite.

In Hanover, he passed his views on to one of his most brilliant students - the Duchess Sophia. Sophia was one of the most remarkable women of her time, a patron of scholarship with a fine mind and boundless curiosity, and Leibniz became one of her favorites soon after he came to court. When she was not precluded by her responsibilities as duchess, she held long conversations with Leibniz - to which Leffmann Behrens was occasionally invited - that ranged across all the topics known to contemporary philosophy. It was also Leibniz who urged Sophia to write to Spinoza after she was favorably impressed with the arguments in On Emancipation.

By the beginning of 1686, Sophia had become a regular correspondent of both Spinoza and his wife Sarah, whose ideas on the education of women seemed quite sensible to someone of the duchess' temperament. As always, she sought a practical outlet for her ideas; she founded a girls' school for the burghers and merchants of Hanover, and spoke in favor of equality for educated Jews.

Such emancipation, however, was not politically possible at that time and place. The city council and provincial diet, dominated by established guildsmen and landowners, was reluctant to allow Jews to live in Hanover, much less grant them the rights of citizens. The clergy also opposed both Jewish emancipation and Spinoza's pantheism; in one famous episode in late 1686, Spinoza's works were described by the Lutheran bishop of Hanover as "the fables of a deranged heathen mind." [FN10] The response Sophia is widely believed to have given - "I have more faith in his fables than in your theses" - is probably an apocryphal story spread by one of the political enemies who accused her of Judaizing, but it accurately reflects both her own embrace of Spinoza's philosophies and the clergy's opposition to them.

For the time being, the combined opposition of the clergy and the guildsmen outweighed Sophia's advocacy. Although Ernst August was privately willing to concede the legitimacy of emancipation, he needed his political capital for other matters, and he was unwilling to take the risk of emancipating even the relatively small and well- to-do Jewish community of Hanover. But even so, Sophia prevailed upon him to allow the opening of a Rational school and publishing house in the city, which would prove enormously influential on the subsequent course of German Judaism.

At the same time his philosophies were spreading in Germany, Spinoza was starting to question some of their foundations. In this, he was following a dictum he had laid down in Against Dogma more than a decade before - that even matters that have been acceptably proven are open to question if new evidence should call them into doubt. As his letters to Locke and Leibniz during 1686 and 1687 indicate, Spinoza's exposure to the scientific method was by this time leading him to question whether intuition was truly the highest form of knowledge, and whether it was in fact possible to know the universe solely through the mind.

This was a realization that Spinoza found difficult to reconcile with faith; he felt that a system in which God's existence could not be proven a priori detracted from the perfection of the supreme being. As he wrote to Leibniz in March 1687, he was inclined to divide the world into the supernatural and natural realms, with intuition remaining a valid form of knowledge when applied to supernatural matters. The problem with this division lay in matters such as morality and law, which were partially derived from the divine essence but which were interpreted by human beings and applied to the natural world; the foundation for these was partly intuitive, but thorough observation also played a part in distinguishing true theories from false. Spinoza's attempts to craft an empirical theory of law and society would occupy much of his time during the succeeding years, and lay the foundation for his works of the late 1690s and 1700s.

This process of self-discovery, however, would soon be interrupted by events. On August 12, 1687, the Turkish army suffered a crushing defeat by the Austrians on the field of Mohacs. The news of the battle reached the capital barely ahead of the Janissaries' rage, and Spinoza barely had time to depart the city before the streets erupted in rebellion. It was November 1687, and Mehmet IV would rule the Ottoman Empire no more. He would spend the remaining years of his life imprisoned in an upper room of the palace, while the Janissaries' candidate - his brother, Suleiman II - sat on the throne.

[FN1] Glckel was talking about money, but the statement applies just as well to freedom.

[FN2] Similar conditions obtained in other countries, and there was some use of court Jews in the Italian cities and the duchies of Metz and Lorraine, but the institution of the Hofjude was a characteristically German one.

[FN3] Natalie Zemon Davis, Riches and Dangers: Glikl bas Judah Leib on Court Jews, in Mann & Cohen, eds., From Court Jews to the Rothschilds: Art, Patronage and Power 1600-1800, p.57 (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1996).

[FN4] Here, I'm drawing heavily on the experience of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, of OTL. The Haskalah, which in many respects mirrors Rational Judaism's attempt to forge a middle path between tradition and assimilation, got its start among educated German Jews during the late 18th century, but IMO it was an inspiration waiting to happen during the 17th. The court Jews of Germany during this period were unique in two respects: they took part in non-Jewish high society on a regular basis, and their social status placed them above and outside the jurisdiction of the rabbinate. They were, in other words, just integrated enough into German society to want to go the rest of the way - and this was just as true during the 1680s as it was during the 1780s. In OTL, the Haskalah had to wait for Moses Mendelssohn, who was the next great Jewish philosopher after Spinoza - but in the ATL, where Spinoza remains within the framework of Judaism, his ideas would IMO find a ready audience among the court Jews.

[FN5] Not to be confused with Behrend Lehmann, another famous court Jew, who is also remembered as a great protector and patron of the Jewish community during his tenure as court factor in Saxony.

[FN6] Astute readers may wonder, in light of the fact that Jews were expelled from Vienna in 1670, what Samuel Oppenheimer was doing in that city in 1685. The answer is that Emperor Leopold allowed a small number of wealthy Jewish families to return to Vienna in 1677 - for a price - after realizing that he needed them as court factors. As noted above with respect to Hanover, this cycle of expulsion and readmission was far from uncommon.

[FN7] The intrigues of court Jews against their fellow Jews are summarized in several of the essays in the Mann & Cohen collection. The Hofjuden tended to be an amoral lot, as they probably needed to be to succeed in the 17th-century business world. Not all of them were like this, though - many others, such as Behrens, took their role as stadlan (intercessor) for the local Jewish community very seriously.

[FN8] Novels such as this were also written during the Haskalah. The difference in the ATL is that Herz Behrens' books are written in the vernacular, and thus accessible to a non-Jewish audience.

[FN9] I have more to go on here than in my description of Spinoza's correspondence with other philosophers, since Leibniz actually did correspond with Spinoza in OTL. He seems to have been quite enamored of Spinoza's ideas, going so far as to visit him at the Hague, and I don't think anything in the ATL would change that. If anything, *Leibniz might be even more attracted to Spinoza's ideas, given how well his ATL religious theories mesh with Leibniz' ecumenism.

[FN10] The bishop was, perhaps, kinder than the church council of Amsterdam in OTL, which condemned the Theological and Political Treatise as a "work forged in Hell by a renegade Jew and the Devil."

Last modified: Fri Dec 6 12:28:58 GMT 2002