Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 1

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ON a Friday afternoon at the end of April, 1647, in an obscure corner of the Jewish cemetery at Oudekerk, near Amsterdam, men were shovelling quickly to cover a sunken coffin with earth.

No mourners stood by. The people present stood in groups, and conversed on the events of the day or of the life and death of him now given to the earth, while the gravediggers hurried over their work in silence and indifference; for already the sun sinking in the west showed that it would soon be time "to greet the face of the Sabbath."

At the head of the grave stood a pale youth, who watched the brown clods fall into the hole with thoughtful looks. With his left hand he unconsciously plucked the buds from the well-cut beech hedge.

"Young friend," said a stranger to the youth in Spanish, "are you the only kinsman here of him who rests beneath? I perceive that you knew him well, and could tell me who he is, that he should be shovelled over like one plague-stricken without a sigh or word of mourning or lamentation. I am a stranger—"

"I am no more related to him than you," said the youth with some hesitation, "in so far as you, I presume, are of the race of Israel. You must indeed be a stranger, and come from distant lands, not to have heard of the fate of this unhappy, God-forsaken man. Oh! he was great and glorious, and how is he fallen into the depths!"

"Pray," interrupted the stranger, "do not do as the others did whom I asked on turning in here from the street; tell me—"

"Do you know the family of Da Costa from Oporto?" asked the youth.

"Who has lived in Spain, and has not been impressed with the renown of that name? The most distinguished of knights bore it. Miguel da Costa, after whose death the family disappeared from Oporto, was one of the stateliest of the cavaliers, whom I saw at the tournament of Lisbon; he was once a zealous member of our secret community."

"He, who there finds rest at last," began the youth, "was his son, and, as my father often said, in figure and bearing the image of his sire. Gabriel, as he was named, was practised in all knightly exercises, deeply learned, especially in the law. Though so early tortured by religious doubts, he accepted, in his twenty-fifth year, the office of treasurer to the cathedral charities. Then a desire awoke in him for the religion of his forefathers, and with his mother and brothers he left the land where rest the bones of so many slain for our faith, where Jews without number kneel, and kiss the pictures, which they—" Here the youth suddenly stopped, and listened to the conversation of the diggers at the grave.

"God forgive my sins," said one, "but I maintain this knave did not deserve to be buried on a Friday evening; because the Sabbath is coming in he is freed from the first torments of corruption. If his soul gets safe over, he will come to a spread table, and have no need to wander in Gehinom (Hell), for on the Sabbath all sinners rest from their torments. I told them they should have let him lie till Sunday morning: it was time enough for the fate that awaited him; and at least his death need not have led us to make a hole in the Sabbath. Make haste that we may finish."

"Ay, ay," responded the other, "he'll wonder when he gets over, and the destroying angel whips him with fiery rods; he'll believe then that there is another world that he did not see while living. Think you not so?"

"Pray tell me more," said the stranger.

"You have heard what they said," answered the youth, "and the little man there with a hump on his back, who scoffs at him now, enjoyed much of his bounty; for his generosity was boundless. Gabriel came to Amsterdam, submitted to every precept, and entered our faith. Henceforth he bore the name of Uriel Acosta. He followed zealously what is written: 'Thou shalt search therein day and night.' I have often been told that it was affecting to see how the stately man was not ashamed to be instructed in Hebrew or the Holy Scriptures by the merest boy. But an unclean spirit entered into him, and he began to scoff at our pious Rabbis. You have heard here that he was one of those who deny the foundations of our faith; he has set down the sins of his heart in his writings, and would prove them from the Holy Word. Rabbi Solomon de Silva, our celebrated physician, has refuted his errors. Acosta was excommunicated, but freed himself by recantation. The contrary spirit in him, however, rested not. He not only opposed our holy religion, in that, as his own nephew said, he violated the Sabbath, and enjoying forbidden meats, and dissuaded two Christians, who would have changed to Judaism, but he spoke openly, as a very apostate, against all religion. For seven years he refused to live according to the precepts of our faith, or undergo the penance laid upon him. He should have been laid forever under the greater excommunication, and expelled from among our people. On the persuasion of his former friend, the pious Rabbi Naphthali Pereira, he submitted to the sentence of the Beth-Din (the court of Rabbis), and bore all the hard penances to which they subjected him. My father often said, if Acosta had entered the field in defence of our religion he would have cheerfully and courageously gone to his death for it, but he could not live for it. Domestic disunion, the breaking off of his engagement to a daughter of Josua di Leon, disordered his mind entirely. He left as his last will the story of his life, wherein he sought to justify himself; if you remain in Amsterdam you may hear many other things about him. For a long time he had not spoken with any one, contrary to his former ways; men took it for repentance, but he brooded over new misdeeds. He shunned the Rabbi Naphthali Pereira, for he held him to be the first cause of his sorrows and misfortunes. Early yesterday, as the Rabbi passed Acosta's house on his return from the synagogue, the apostate shot at the holy man with a pistol. He was once a good shot, and renowned for it in his native town; but an angel from heaven must have held his arm, for it is wonderful that he did not wound the holy man! He seems to have premeditated the deed, for he immediately seized a second loaded pistol, and shot himself in the mouth, so that his brains are said to have been blown even to the roof. For this, therefore, is he now infamous—"

"Baruch," interrupted a long lank youth who now approached them, "Baruch, come; all is finished, and we return home with our master."

"I am coming, Chisdai," answered Baruch; and bowing to the stranger he crossed to where those assembled prayed in the Aramaic language for the resurrection of the dead and the restoration of Jerusalem. On leaving the graveyard each one plucked grass three times from the ground, and throwing it over his head said the following verse in Hebrew: "And they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth" (Ps. lxxii. 11). Three times, in front of the graveyard, each one washed his hands in the water brought for the purpose, to cleanse himself from the touch of the demons who haunt God's acre. While so doing they said the verse (Is. xxv. 8), "He will swallow up death in victory." Only then could they proceed on their homeward way, but even on the road the verses of Ps. xc. 15 and Ps. xci. must be three times repeated. According to custom, they seated themselves while commencing the verses on a stone, or sod; the first verse being spoken they renewed their march. Thus departed Baruch and Chisdai, with their teacher Rabbi Saul Morteira between them.

"So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord!" (Judges V. 31) said Chisdai at last. "On this haughty man the judgment of the Lord has declared itself in all its might. Thou didst not see his penance, Baruch. I hope that mine eyes may never see such another. A sinful pity arose in me until I perceived with sorrow that men are constrained to wield the lash of God. All is fixed in my memory. I see the apostate before me as he read out his recantation in the synagogue, in a white winding-sheet, not in his former imperious tone; he carried his front less audaciously high: but what good was it that he, like the Prophet Isaiah, bowed his head like a reed to the wind? And when they led him to the corner, and bound his Samson-like arms to the pillar, and bared his broad back—I see it all before me as plainly as if it were before these eyes now. The Chacham stood near the sexton, and read out the verse (Ps. lxxviii. 38): "But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath." Three times he repeated the thirteen words, and at each word the sexton laid his lash on the bare back. Not the slightest sign of pain did he give, and when he had received the required number, he still lay there motionless, his mouth kissing the ground his feet had refused to tread. At last he was reclothed and led to the entrance of the synagogue: there in the doorway he was forced to kneel, the sexton holding his head, that each as he went out might set his foot on the scarred back, and step over him in his way; I made myself heavier as I stepped, that he might feel my foot also. I tell thee it is a shame that thy father should have taken thee away with him just on that day. I saw him, when all the rest were gone, rise, and go back into the synagogue; he tore the holy chest furiously open, and gazed long on the scroll of laws, till the sexton reminded him to go. "Are the gates of heaven again opened to me?" he asked—and he seemed to me to laugh scornfully. He wrapped himself in his mantle and sneaked home. The ways of God are just! He has fallen into the pit which he digged for others. Thus must all such perish: he is lost both here and there." Chisdai glanced at his teacher to read in his looks the approval of his holy zeal; he, however, shook his head thoughtfully, and repeated the prayer before him quietly.

Baruch had twice opened his mouth to answer his schoolfellow, but fearing to express his pity for the sinner's fate too warmly, he had remained silent. Now when he perceived the displeasure of his teacher, he said, "Thou dost not appear to imitate the Rabbi Myer's wife," alluding to a narrative in the Talmud in which the woman changed the word sinner in Ps. civ. 35, "Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more," into sins and continued, "for there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good and sinneth not" (Ec. vii. 20).

"I too abominate the teaching that led to the perplexities of Uriel—"

"Name him no more: he is damned," interrupted Chisdai; while Baruch continued:

"He has overthrown even his teachings, since it drove him to suicide. While he lived men judged him; now he is dead God alone can judge him."

The Rabbi nodded to Baruch without saying a word, being still busied with the Psalms.

"But it is written," said Chisdai defiantly (Prov. x. 7), "'The name of the wicked shall rot.'"

The three walked on for some minutes in silence, each engrossed by his own thoughts. At last the Rabbi broke the stillness, and explained that the revealed law admitted of no denial, for God had written it with His own hand, and delivered it to us all that we might live according to it.

"Whoever desires to live according to the suggestions of his reason, denies the necessity of revelation, denies its truth, and thereby mocks the laws that must rule him."

"There are men," concluded the Rabbi, "who say: 'Let each think and believe as he can answer it to himself.' They are themselves, without knowing it, fallen away. We dare not leave any one born in our faith to perdition, for it would be our perdition also. If we can bring him with discourse to repentance and penance, we sing 'Hallelujah!' but if he remain obdurate and stubborn, we rend our garments; he is dead; he must die, or kill the Satan in his heart. We constrain him with all the power that God has given us."

"They constrain him until he says 'I will,'" interrupted Chisdai from the Talmud; and the Rabbi continued:

"If we cannot exorcise the lying spirit in him, we exterminate him, and his devil also. When words no longer reach, the Lord has given us the stone wherewith to stone. Let not yourselves be led by those who are now soft-hearted over the fate of the apostate, and say, 'They should have saved him—not driven him so far.' It is well for him that he can sin no longer."

A singular train of thought must have risen in Baruch's mind, for he asked after a pause:

"Where in Holy Scripture is suicide forbidden?"

"What a question!" replied the Rabbi peevishly; and Chisdai added:

"It says in the sixth commandment, 'Thou shalt do no murder,' without comment, and that means neither another nor thyself."

"You start strange questions to-day," said the Rabbi disapprovingly to Baruch. He, however, could not explain what disturbed him. The stranger had aroused him from deep thought as he stood by the grave of the heretic, gazing into the pit while they lowered the body in; it seemed to him as though his own body were sunk therein, and that his spirit wandered complainingly and questioningly through the world. Is it the fate of the wanderer that he should be pushed over a precipice? Who can compel another's mind, who compel his own, to keep to the path mapped out for him? How unalterable must have been the convictions of him who was there shovelled over, that for their sake he should have tried to give death to others, and have given death to himself! Who dare judge and condemn in such a case as this? The words of the stranger had broken in on these heavy thoughts; the words of the Rabbi on their return had awakened his opposition anew, and raised a forgotten memory in the mind of the youth. Years before, when he stood for the first time among the graves, this grief had disturbed the mind of the boy. His uncle, Immanuel, was then buried; long an invalid, he had been much with the children, and had made them his messengers to the outer world. When all the people had left the graveyard, some to school, others to the harbor or exchange, and others to workshops and counting-houses, the noise of the city still going on, as if nothing had happened, the boy's heart beat fast within him as the question arose in it:

"How can everything go on so uninterruptedly when our uncle is really no longer at home?"

For hours the child wept in the empty room of the dead man, where the window stood wide open as it had never stood before; and he railed at the cruel people, who left the sick man lying outside, and acted as if they had known no uncle. His mother—for he dared not complain to his father so—sought to pacify him, and explain that his uncle was no longer alone and ill, but well and happy above with God and his forefathers and all good men. The boy could not understand, and cried:

"Ah! you have not seen them: they have put him in a deep pit, and thrown great sods on the box in which he was sleeping; he is surely awake and cannot get out." His mother strove to explain that, only the body was buried; the soul was with God. The boy was pacified, but for weeks he thought, in storm and rain, "How is it with our uncle in the earth?" . . .

Since then he had stood at the grave of his mother, and remembered her consoling words. But to-day, at the grave of Acosta, the recollection of his uncle's funeral awoke anew. The apostate who was here buried had never been free all his life long from this pain that made his heart beat so fast. How does it happen that children and heretics ask the same questions? Is it because the one knows naught of revelation, and the other rejects it wilfully, intending to answer the questions for himself? Who dare punish for such struggles?

"Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldst thou destroy thyself? (Ec. vii. 17,) said Baruch to himself, and was silent.

When they arrived at the Rabbi's house he reminded his scholars impressively that the morrow would be the 6th of Ijar. They separated, each to his own home, to change their garments and hasten to the synagogue.

The corn-seed falls on open ground, a sod crumbles and covers it, and no one considers how it sprouts and strikes root, thus hidden from human eyes. Well may the life of man be likened to such hidden growth: its laws are still less revealed; only the result can be modified, not the process; examination but reveals more and more interruptions in this growth.

Again, no fruit grows to perfection except thus: the seed-corn must renew the changes of its life; must bud and sprout, become stem, foliage, and tree, to give seven and a hundred fold of the fruit that nourishes life anew.