Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 23

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THE holy Jewish Church could not with indifferent eyes see one who belonged to her by birth and ritual wilfully break loose from her. She knew well enough that, if individuals were permitted to separate and live according to their own inclinations, the original Jewish tabernacle would in the future stand deserted, and no one would be found to take it on his shoulders and bear it from land to land, fixing its pillars in all kingdoms of the earth. Where men are allowed to be merely men, the gigantic edifice of the Church is tottering. The lords of the Christian Church, as well as of the Jewish, who call themselves servants, recognize this. The Jews had no state. What would be left to them if they had no Church, no synagogue?

The synagogue keeper, Elaser Merimon, whom we have before seen in company with the Cabbalist, had already been to Spinoza three times, and commanded him in the name of the Beth-Din[1] to return to the congregation, and in meat and drink, as well as in attendance at the synagogue, to live after the precepts of the Jewish religion. He had refused to obey these commands, and the lesser excommunication was passed, which banished him for three months from the Jewish Church. Though he had already condemned himself to this penalty, he entered a protest against the sentence, because his manner of life was not radically in opposition to Judaism, and he pledged himself to prove the illegality of the ceremony. His protest, however, was in vain, and he thought no more about it, for he recognized only one ban—that which could banish him from the presence of Olympia. His two brothers-in-law then came, and reminded him that he must return to the bosom of the Church. He put them off with a quiet smile; but they became more and more violent, abused and cursed him, and threatened to tear him in pieces if he did not avert the shame of his manner of life from his relations.

Spinoza's Spanish blood boiled, but even then he suppressed all explosion of wrath. The threats and blustering seemed to him only immaterial opposition which he could have pictured to himself. With measured speech and kinsmanlike behavior, in so far as was consistent with independence, he drew the limits; he taught their violence that external behavior could not bind, and external force not convince. His words must have contained convincing proofs, for the two looked at each other in mute astonishment and left him. A few days afterwards, however, on the Sabbath, Spinoza was surprised by another visitor, a woman, carrying a baby hardly a year old in her arms, and leading a little girl by the hand. Spinoza advanced kindly towards her.

"I am glad you have come to me, dear Miriam," he said; "but how you have aged! Are you ill, or in trouble?"

"I am quite well, God be praised!" answered Miriam, sighing, "and could not complain otherwise. Yes, dear brother, 'marrying is marring;' two bad confinements, thirteen weeks in bed, and the household going to ruin all the time; no rest at night with the children, and trouble and care the whole year round—you would not laugh at me now for looking too often in the mirror; often I never look in it from one Sabbath to another."

"I am very sorry that I have seen so little of you, or been able to help, you so little; but leave the cares behind now," said Spinoza, "they will soon be less. You can hardly think what an infinite pleasure it is to have you with me again. Relations are naturally the best friends. Do you remember old Chaje's proverb? 'Bind me hand and foot, and throw me among my people, that will always be true.'"

"Ay! you will be thrown nicely among your people. O God! from the way you go on, we cannot see you without blushing. Do you know what is happening to-day? To-day you are summoned the second time in the synagogue; perhaps at this very moment in which we are speaking. A week ago I was in the synagogue; my heart is so heavy, it seems as if a hundredweight lay on it. When we had all risen,[2] Rabbi Isaak Aboab (who gives himself great airs since he returned from Brazil) went to the altar; all were still, and looked to see what he would do next. He called on your name; and commanded you to return, if you would not have heaven's lightnings smite you, or the earth swallow you up. Dear brother, I thought my heart would be torn out. I turned icy cold, and then flames seemed to be before my eyes; I thought I should fall down, and grasped the railing; I fainted time after time; I don't know how I found strength to go home; Esther de Leon, who stood near me, went home with me. You know she is a malicious, mocking thing; but she ought to be silent, for she was once Acosta's betrothed, and you are not as bad as he yet, thank God!"

"No, and will never be."

"But it is bad enough now," began Miriam again; "to-day is the second time, and in a week you will be summoned for the third time, and then—I shall never survive the shame of it. My husband will order me to forget that you ever were my brother—and how can I do that? It seems you could, for if you can forget your religion, why should you not forget your sister."

Miriam with these words looked at her brother's agitated face; she seemed sorry to have given him so much pain, and continued weeping:

"Day and night you are always in my mind; I forget my duties as mother and wife, and it is all your fault; it is the thought of your disregard of duty that makes me do it. I cannot think what makes you so obstinate, but I know this: if my son should one day cause such trouble to his sisters, I would rather he should die before he learned to speak."

"You must not say so, dear sister; I hope all will come right yet. Does not your husband know you have come to me?"

"He must not know a word of it. Only think, he wanted me to go to the synagogue this morning, but, God forgive me! I would rather go to the gallows; the women would look at me, and whisper and giggle together. I said I should be obliged to stay with the children, and came to you; Rebecca stayed at home too, but she has not dared to come with me; her husband is too stern. I cannot see, though, why you will not return. You know, I do not care about trifles, and do not condemn you like the others; but the life you lead now, you could lead just as well if you lived like other Jews. If you don't want to go three times to the synagogue, you can go once, and that cannot be much trouble to you. You see, you would still have to live, if, God forbid it! you were shut up in a House of Correction; would it not be much worse? No Sabbath, no holiday, what would you live for? I entreat you to come back; let other people trouble themselves about what belongs to religion, and what not. I believe you are right in many things, and I will listen to you in secret, if you must confide in some one; but what is the use of letting all the world know? I know well enough you men will not put up with things that we women must bear and endure; but you—you are quite different: from childhood you always gave up to others willingly. Be what you used to be again; believe me, you cannot be otherwise, it will break your heart to try any other rule. Control yourself now rather, and come back. O God ! if you were with us again, we should be as happy and as much respected as we ever were. I will read your wishes in your eyes, I will lay my hands under your feet; with lifted hands I entreat you to come back to us."

Spinoza with difficulty mastered his agitation sufficiently to explain to his sister that he was fully determined to defend himself against the Rabbis, that they might not succeed in degrading either himself or his family; he would not merely break their power in his own case, but in that of others also in which they would have put free thought under a ban.

"I believe it, I believe it!" cried Miriam enthusiastically; "you only want what is right; you are better than all the rest of the world. But believe me too, I have learned to know mankind since this misfortune has come through you. You wish to offer yourself as sacrifice for others? You are too good, you are the crown of mankind; the others are not worthy that a hair of your head should be injured for them."

Spinoza was deeply moved as he looked at his sister, who loved him so well that for his love's sake she rejected all others. Miriam might have known the movement of his heart, for, with a wail of grief, she threw herself on his neck and cried,

"You cannot and you must not for the world's sake offer up yourself and us too. Or is it true that you wish to wed a Christian?"

Spinoza was in a painful dilemma. To lie was as foreign to his nature as night to day; and yet he hesitated how to explain to his sister that his intellect had led him over the boundaries of church dogmas, whither love was his only guide.

An unexpected circumstance freed him from the necessity of further explanation. The two children, seeing their mother crying on their uncle's neck, began to cry and scream also, so that Miriam forgot her question in pacifying her children.

"Benjamin," she said to the boy, who was first pacified, "Benjamin, entreat your uncle not to leave us. Ah! the child has our late father's name, who would weep and wail too if he saw you; he cannot rest quietly in his grave if he hears what has become of you." Spinoza took the boy in his arms, and embraced and kissed him.

"As little as this child condemns me, as little would my father condemn me in eternity," he said. Little Sarah, too, played with her uncle's hand, and asked him, on her mother's bidding, to go with them. Spinoza repeated his assurance that he could defend himself; and Miriam with a heavy heart took her children away with her.

He had to sustain another conflict on account of his decision that day. Towards evening Rodrigo Casseres came to him.

"You have no father now," he said, "I must take his place. Do you remember the time you saw me first? You too will have a cur's burial like that renegade. Do you remember the evening when I told you of your uncle Geronimo's dreadful death? You too will die like that; only more God-forsaken, more torn by the devil, for you have trodden down the creed of your fathers of your own free-will. Your father, I and all of us, for what have we staked our lives day after day? For the holy faith of our fathers. Why have we left our beautiful native land and wandered into far countries? That we might openly serve our faith in peace; and you reject it of your own free-will. I warn you while there is yet time; you are young now, but when you approach your end, your treachery will follow you when you wake, and murder your sleep."

Spinoza had regard to the man's age, and quietly represented to him his firm decision and his innocence.

For a week he was free from attempts at conversion, and during this time he worked out a plan of defence; and while employing for this purpose the authority of the Sacred Scriptures, he formed new conclusions and became more firm and decided in those he had long ago formed. What had been suppressed in the development of silent thought, whether by innate shyness or under cover of stated facts, now shot up with renewed strength in the hot conflict of defence. Spinoza, too, now felt that warlike spirit, that concentrated power, which strengthens ordinary forces and makes them rise above themselves.

For the next exhortation which was addressed to him he did not require this power.

On the Sabbath, as he sat at table enjoying his simple mid-day meal, he heard some one heavily mounting the stairs; the door opened, and old Chaje entered the room. Spinoza drew a chair to the table for her, and asked:

"Have they sent you out too, to bring back the lost sheep to the flock?"

"No, as true as I wish God may let me see joy in him again, I came here of my own wish. I thought my old legs would break before I got up the stairs. I did not believe any of them. I wanted to hear with my own ears if it were true that he would reject our holy religion; he was once a brave, pious Jewish child."

Spinoza remarked in silence the influence that the report spread about him must have had, for old Chaje in her zeal almost forgot his presence, and appeared to talk to herself about him.

"Who knows that?" asked Spinoza.

"Who knows it? A fine secret! The children in the street talk about it. O Lord, how often have I carried him in my arms! Who would have thought then that he could become such a one as this? What is true, is true; the sister of Black Gudul, who was servant at Rabbi Aboab's, said long ago Baruch was a hypocrite; where he will be the Rabbi, the congregation will get baptized. I always thought, if I should close my eyes after living over a hundred years,—I have neither kith nor kin in the world, more's the pity,—I would leave Baruch my little bit of fortune that I have saved up, and that he would have said prayers for my soul; that I, too, might have a silver chair in Gan-Eden.[3] Ah! my wishes and hopes have melted away."

Chaje wept bitterly. Spinoza tried to console her.

"He leads me too into sin by making me weep on the Sabbath; it has knocked another nail in my coffin," she wailed. "I would like to know what he can be thinking of. Has the Jewish religion been right for so many thousand years that it should be thrown aside now like a broken pot? He must be possessed, I do believe; why should he have abused the Jews and the Jewish religion? 'Cut off your nose and spite your face,' the proverb says. He will try and please me and be good and pious again, won't he? He will surely thank me on his deathbed, when he follows me. It was only youthful folly, and that is soon forgotten. The grass need only grow over it a year, and then he might choose among the daughters of the richest men in Amsterdam."

Spinoza was nearly powerless against old Chaje's talk; on her no explanation had any effect; she would not go away until he had promised to be pious and good again. At last he had to give her plainly to understand that she must take her departure. Olympia prophesied aright when she said pilgrimages would one day be made to Spinoza, but the pilgrimage was first made to Maledictus. The day after Spinoza had got rid of old Chaje, the physician Solomon de Silva came to him. He began with professional inquiries, and told Spinoza that his present way of life was undermining his health; but he replied that two of his friends were physicians, that he observed diet, and was always fairly well. Silva then drove his probe deeper.

"I confess," he said, "that Judaism contains many abuses and abnormal developments which ought to be got rid of; when I was your age it used to weigh on my mind too. The impetuosity of youth always wants hastily to cut away what displeases it, but that will not do; men must first win respect and confidence, and not shock people; then later on something may be permitted to you, and you can carry out your plans by degrees."

"The Talmud teaches that you should keep no false measures in your house," answered Spinoza. "Does that not refer here?"

"In any case," persisted the physician, "time and opportunity are to be considered; these everyday conditions have at least their natural rights as much as abstract logical thoughts. The first rule is, that whoever wishes to influence any association and work seasonable and reasonable reforms, must never place himself outside that association. Therefore I counsel you to return; remember there are other people who have seen the light of reason, but who do not care to overthrow the old observances all at once. Much has happened latterly for the suggestion of which any one would have been stoned fifty years ago; and it is ever so with progress. You see, our whole Low-country home is a type of our religion. Dams are built, canals dug, to bind and restrain the wild power of the elements; on these dams life again appears, and the canals become connecting roads which hold men together. The power of centuries lies in these wise precautions. Common men even will keep this land sacred, because they know that the labor of races passed away has wrung it from the sea. If any one should come and find a better, must he pierce the dams, destroy the work of his forefathers, and for a short time annihilate fruitful fields, and populous villages and towns, now built on dry land? It is thus with our religion. Do not tear down the dams. Do not! If you return, there are many clear heads with whom, perhaps indeed at their head, you can help to reform Judaism."

"Who told you I wanted to do so? Perhaps Judaism is nothing more to me than its offshoot, Christianity—a development of mind followed by others. In the first place, I want nothing but to retain my independent life, and in that the power of no Rabbi shall hinder me."

"Have you forgotten," asked Silva, "what you told me when we came to this room for the first time with your late father? The time may come when you will feel deserted by all who belong to you by bonds of kindred and religion; you will stretch out your hands to them, and grasp naught but empty air. I know too well how far your free thought has carried you; I do not believe you will turn Christian. Trust my experience, if you reach the highest point of free-thought, and have shaken off all prejudice or doctrinal peculiarity, you are, and will always remain, a Jew to them; they will always look upon you as a foreigner. They have imbibed hatred and aversion to the Jews with their mothers' milk; you waste your love on them. What good they may discover in you, they will set down as exceptional; if you strive for wealth and honor, they will say it is Jewish avarice and ambition; if you hold both cheap, they will say he has acquired a little Christian modesty and scorn of worldly wealth. They will think you charming and inimitable if you mock at Jewish folly; but if you attack one of their own prejudices, even if they themselves had long ago made a jest of it, you must not do it, and if you do it, you are a pert, obtrusive Jew. It is the same in this as in other things in life: we confess our faults, and blame ourselves for them; but if another does it, we are annoyed. Sooner will the heavens kiss the earth, or fire and water unite, than a Jew and a Christian embrace in true, tender, all-forgetting love and union. Ay, and if you are baptized, the first defect they discover in you, it is the old Jewish Adam appearing. So return to your own people, who love you truly, and on whose neck rests the same yoke; they will receive you with brotherly love, and forget your backsliding."

"No," said Spinoza, "you have committed a sore sin against God and human nature by your words; it would be too horrible if they were true, but they are not. It is indeed possible for man to belong to man; love and comprehension are more durable than hatred and prejudice. Is the human mind originally Jewish or Christian? Well! I shall see in time whether you speak the truth."

"Do not; why should you be ruined? 'Whoever would purify himself, men will come to his help; but he who would defile himself, men let him alone,' says the Talmud. I will make you a good proposition. The congregation offer you a place in the Beth-Din; you can follow your studies undisturbed, for you have little to do there."

"I will never accept office."

"The congregation will guarantee you a salary of a thousand gulden, on condition that you will promise on your honor never to write a word against Judaism."

"The proverb says, 'If the people wish to silence a man, they must stop his mouth with broth,' replied Spinoza. "It is a practical and politic method, but not applicable to my case. My dear doctor, I do not want you to be angry with me, but what are such proposals to me?"

"I only told, you of them to fulfil my commission; I personally have something else to say to you. Youth will not see that there is really no such thing as absolute truth, that such a thing cannot exist in the world, because it would be tyrannically absolute. He who knows the fate of man, and has lived a long life of his own, knows that historical truth alone is worth anything. You are too modest and humble to be a scoffer; you see, even God allows the many-sidedness of truth; grant—"

"And my intelligence of Him obliges me to follow that perception."

"Hold firmly to that, and at the same time hold to the conditions of history. Whether you come to my conviction that no philosophy can reveal the secrets of the world further than the Jewish revelation, or whether you are of another opinion, and accept the Messianic time as one in which your absolute intellectual truth reigns; look back: if it were for nothing but the memory of the innumerable multitude who were murdered for our faith, this alone must keep us fast within its sacred walls. A religion which despises the joys of life, and teaches love of a fearful death for its sake, must it not contain the first spring of truth? Who would dam it up with a rash hand because in course of time it runs muddily? The blood of your brothers and sisters murdered in the past cries to Heaven for vengeance on you, for you defile their honorable graves by writing on their tombstones that they died for illusion and error."

"I do not do so; it is calumny to say so of me: the Jewish laws are great and holy to me; in them the Godhead for those times most clearly revealed himself; blessed are they who know and live according to them; but has the Divinity since those times ceased to live in the minds of men? Are all later born races doomed to stop where the former stood, and fetter themselves with old forms? The form fades, the spirit remains eternal, renewed in youth, and increasing ever in strength."

"A powerful mind is in you," began Silva again, controlling himself; "your moderation assures me that you will be a great man. Weak natures are violent and wrathful in controversy, but never the strong. Do not throw a stone in the well you have drunk from. Your resolution to freely sacrifice all for the truth, you have inherited from the Jews. Be thankful. Show your power by self-control, be faithful to yourself and your own, and be not led away to apostasy."

"There is no apostasy but from ourselves."

"We shall all honor you, I above the rest, if you control yourself."

"And I shall be disgraced in my own eyes."

Confusion and dejection were seen in Silva's face; everything, even just appreciation of his virtue, was in vain with Spinoza. The physician rose and cried:

"Alas! you are lost. I can only pray to God to let in the light of day on you, that the ignis fatuus which leads you into marsh and slough may vanish."

Tears stood in Silva's eyes as he spoke; he turned and went away. Spinoza was deeply moved by the conversation; he was much pained to have so grieved the reverend old man, and not to be able to obey him; but how otherwise could he or durst he act?

It was much easier for Spinoza to dismiss the last tempter. In the afternoon Chisdai came, and as soon as he had entered the door he threw himself on the floor and sat as if mourning.

"What is that for?" said Spinoza.

"Alas!" cried Chisdai, muttering to the floor, without raising his head, "has the unclean spirit in thee made thee forget everything? Do you no longer know the story of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos?"

"Very well; he wanted to prove his view of the permissible use of a baker's oven by miracles, and was excommunicated for it. No one would take him the news till Rabbi Akiba did as you are doing here. Am I not still a good Talmudist? But get up; I can neither tell a tree to place itself elsewhere, nor water that it should flow backwards, nor the walls either that they should bend inward; they none of them obey me."

"So!" cried Chisdai, springing up, and shaking his fist fiercely, "so you mock at the Talmud too? You see I came here in peace; I would have warned you to fear God, and showed you that I did not oppose you in jealousy or any other base passion; but words are lost on you. Go thy ways! The carrion crows beside the stream will peck out thine eyes, and the young eagles devour them."

"You can pervert the Bible, like a good Talmudist as you are; the Scriptures only lay that curse on one who mocks at and scorns his father and mother."

"That you have done seventy times seven, you reprobate. But your punishment will not tarry; you will yet be stoned to death, and men will cast stones in heaps on thy carcass, for a warning to all coming generations. Take heed to thyself; if I get thee into my hands I will tear thee as men tear fish, until thy breath can no longer poison the air."

"Talmud again," laughed Spinoza; "but remember the Talmud also says, 'It is good that the ass hath no horns.'"

Chisdai foamed at the mouth with rage, but hearing some one on the stairs he went out.

"What sort of a featherless biped is it that has just left you?" said Meyer, entering; "he looks like an incarnate original sin."

Spinoza laughed heartily at the description.

"You have ridden your hobby horse to the right post this time," said he; "but this original sin wanted to lead me back into the Jewish paradise."

Meyer exhorted him to oppose the Jewish Papacy with all his usual power and firmness, and as he soon took his leave, Spinoza too went out.

For the first time he felt not at home alone within his own four walls; he found it impossible to concentrate his mind as formerly on the investigation of any particular line of thought; he needed a friendly cheerful heart with whom he could unbend, and forget the storm of the day. Where should he seek it if not with Olympia? He went there, and found her in confidential conversation with Kerkering. He thought both looked strangely surprised when he entered; he guessed rightly that he had been the subject of their conversation.

Olympia, as usual, easily mastered her agitation.

"You appeared to me in a dream last night, Herr von Spinoza," she said in the course of conversation; "you must guess in what form."

"You believe in neither angels nor devils; perhaps you saw me in the form of a monk?"

"No, guess again."

"An Emperor?"


"A Rabbi? A Pope?"

"No, you are not guessing now, I know. I saw you as Masaniello, with a fishing net on your back; your red embroidered cap with the long tassel suited your coal-black hair, and your sleeves were rolled up above your elbows. I saw you carried through the streets that way, by a crowd of Jews, to the new Town Hall; there you climbed up to the golden ship on the tower and cried: 'Fellow-citizens, you who, as Erasmus of Rotterdam says, live like crows on the tops of trees! I see your fork-like chimneys and your double-faced gables, I see the canals and dams that intersect your land, and your life that flows on as much contracted, and without free tide, in the preordained way. I tell you, this will all be changed. I erase the "You should" from your book of life, and in my doctrine write it, "You must, for you can." You think fish are mute? It is not true. I have caught a legion from the depth of the sea, who all speak wisdom.' Then you took your net from your back, it was empty; you turned it round, and an infinite number of fish fell out; they glittered beautifully in the sun, their fins became wings, and they fluttered away screaming. You, however, remained there, and uttered a Philippic against the legend that, on the day on which the envoys of the Seven United Provinces should go through the seven doors of the finished Town Hall the good-fortune of each province would desert it and never return. And then you explained how your philosophy corresponded with the water communication of our land; how they could break and control storms and tides; how men could drain flooded land from the stream of sensations, and make it dry and fertile; everything was perfectly clear, I understood it quite well in my dream. Now I am, unfortunately, as unphilosophical again as the grauw—the crowd—who roared and shrieked, 'He is a wizard, he is a son of the Devil!' and pulled down the Town Hall. I awoke. If you only possessed some of Daniel's art!"

Spinoza asked if she had spoken to Frau Gertrui lately; Olympia protested she had not seen her for several weeks. It was really a strange coincidence, for Spinoza had two days ago begun the odd freak of drawing his own portrait as Masaniello. He told Olympia nothing of this, because he knew that she was much given, in spite of her free-thinking opinions, to building up wonderful theories of premonition. To-day, too, he did not feel at ease with her. Was it the presence of Kerkering, or was it because he had come there with a full heart, and saw too late that he should find no sympathy here in his painful conflict? An undefined uncertainty and doubt pervaded his connection with Olympia. He saw that Kerkering became more and more familiar with her, and she did not, as formerly, keep him jestingly at a distance. He even thought he perceived a secret understanding between them. When he left, Olympia said:

"Your sister Rebecca came to me to-day. I was to persuade you to submit to the Rabbis."

Spinoza bowed in silence. How could she relate her dream and carry on such jests, instead of imparting this circumstance? Must it not have made her heart full that his sister should come entreatingly to her? "You should not expect others to know an emotion which you suppress in yourself," he said to himself.

Miriam, who had lived with him in sisterly love from childhood, came to him, and only inquired shyly about his love; while Rebecca, the domineering, who had always been estranged from him, went straight to Olympia. What must she have appeared to her? Perhaps she had made his beloved one's heart doubtful, and given her a dislike to his family.

Spinoza felt his cheeks burn. He was on the point of cutting loose from all bonds of family and all chains of habit, but could never endure these to be despised.

Love and truth should have stood by him in the conflict now opening on him. Did truth alone remain to him?

  1. Ecclesiastical Court
  2. For the Thora to be replaced.
  3. Paradise.