Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 4

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A LIGHT mist Still hung over the streets of Amsterdam; the golden letters of the words בית יעקּב (the House of Jacob) over the door of the synagogue on the town wall shone but dimly, but already a great many men and women crowded through the seven columns that adorned the vestibule of the synagogue. Baruch, his father, and the stranger were there. On entering the inner door, each stepped before one of the two huge marble basins that stood beside each door-post, turned on the brass tap and washed his hands. Baruch observed the rule of the Talmud, to wash the right hand first. Then they descended the three steps. Every synagogue must be below ground, for it is written: "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord!" (Ps. cxxx. 1.) Each one of those present placed over his shoulders a large woollen cloth, with three blue stripes at the ends, and tassels hanging from the four corners; the most pious, Baruch among them, covered their hats with it. "How lovely are thy tents, O Jacob! thy dwellings, O Israel!" sang a well-trained choir of boys; and here these words did not sound ironical, for the simply built interior of the building was beautifully ornamented. At the upper end, on the side towards the east, where once the holy temple of Jerusalem stood, towards which the Jew turns to pray, the tables on which were engraved the ten commandments were supported by two stone lions. They stood above the sacred ark, and around it, in a half circle, almond and lemon trees bloomed in ornamental pots. For yearly, since they had been driven out of their Spanish home, they sent to the Catholic Peninsula for trees planted in the earth from which they had sprung, wherewith to decorate the synagogue, that for some few hours they might dream themselves back into the well-known plains.

The long opening prayer, spoken aloud by the choir-leader, gave all leisure enough for observation; but when at last the "Statutes of Israel" (Deut. vi. 5) began, all joined in with a loud voice. It was by no means harmonious; the whole building echoed with the wild war-cry,—for what was it but a war-cry, with which they had conquered life and death a thousand times?—"Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord!" The soul of each would enter by force the impenetrable first cause of the existence of God. Baruch, too, closed his eyelids fast, and clasped his hands, his nerves thrilling in ecstasy, his whole consciousness, with its longings towards that other world, drawn upward to the rays concentrated in that one point of light where it found itself in God. With upturned glance, as in the writings of the wise of old, he saw all the dangers of the waters of death before his eyes, that he would so readily have gone through for his faith in the unity of his God. His whole soul, thus elevated, felt refreshed as with heavenly dew.

The first prayer was ended; the folding doors of the sacred ark were opened on a glistening array of rolls of the law bound in cloth of gold, and ornamented with gold plate and jewels, that drew all eyes to the holy place, where the three most prominent men of the congregation read alternately the names of the towns and lands in which faithful Jews had suffered a martyr's death; the most worthy of these martyrs were enumerated and read out at the conclusion of the death-roll of the preceding year. Rachel Spinoza was among the first of these; her name was said with a blessing, and the pious legacies mentioned, which she had left for prizes in the Talmud school, "Crown of the Law." Baruch looked sadly at his father; for with the sacred memory of his mother was mingled the enigmatical mention of her Moorish origin.

The sacred ark was again closed, and Rabbi Isaak Aboab advanced to the altar in the midst of the synagogue. He was a thin little man, marked with small-pox, with a high forehead and prominent gray eyes, and a red beard on cheek and chin. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me" (Ps. xxiii. 3), he repeated in a harsh voice. The corresponding text was added from the Talmud; and further, this choice explanation of the expression "thy rod and thy staff," that by "rod" the written and by "staff" the spoken law was understood. The preacher then descended to his audience: "The living buried in a dungeon bemoans his life; the unkempt hair of his head is his only pillow; whether it be day or night, whether spring blossoms, or the autumn winds pluck the yellow leaves from the trees, he knows not; dust and darkness surround him, but in his heart are light and joyous day, for God dwells therein. In his loneliness an innumerable host of angels hover round him, who bear him away out of the hard prison-walls, far away, over the world to the throne of God, where he rests in prayer."

All the grades of torture the Rabbi described to his hearers, to the most extreme degree, when by dropping of water on the top of the spine the nerves of the brain itself are weakened.

"Woe!" he cried; "our eyes have seen the indescribable afflictions with which the Lord menaces us. No. Let us not cry Woe, but Praise and Thanks to Him who has lifted them all to a pasturage in the glorious light of His Majesty!" The translator of Erira's "Doors of Heaven" here described the joys of everlasting felicity in all their exceeding glory, and praised that doctrine before which the angels bow themselves, and the Universe trembles; he described that absorption of self in the teachings of God and his creation, which, to him whose inmost heart is so absorbed, gives heavenly blessedness even here, and lends power to create and to destroy. With the usual conclusion, that God would soon send his Messiah, and restore Israel to his inheritance, he finished his discourse.

Rabbi Saul Morteira, whose tall, well-covered person we have already encountered on the previous day, advanced next to the altar. "He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth" (Is. xxv. 8), he began in a low voice. "I look round on this assembly, and again a year has thinned its ranks; another year will come, and with it this day of mourning and of rejoicing; and many of us will then have vanished from our places; perhaps I also! 'I also, O Lord! here am I,' I answer, if thou callest to me." With these words the Rabbi beat his breast with both hands till his voice trembled. He spoke at greater length on the suddenness of death, and the grief of the survivors; half-stifled sobs were heard from the trellised gallery of the women, and here and there among the men; only a few, who thought a funeral oration on the Sabbath unlawful, remained unmoved.

Baruch, too, stood with tears shining in his eyes—tears of longing; he felt God to be so near, so familiar, that he wished to die, and never more to be separated from him. "Check the sigh that would raise thy breast, for God the Lord wipes the tear from every eye," cried the Rabbi. From the application of his text to the fate of the individual he turned to that of Israel.

"For the Lord will wipe the disgrace of his people from off the face of the earth; but only those who have guarded his word in their hearts dare demand the fulfilment of his promise." The preacher added to these words an ingenious but plain and sharp argument against Christianity. With bitter zeal he railed against the subtilizing intellect of man, that aspired even to explain the immeasurable.

"In the Talmud tractate Chulin it is related that the Emperor Hadrian desired once of Rabbi Jehosuah that he should show him the Uncreated One, or else he would esteem his learning and faith as naught. It was a hot summer-day; the Rabbi led the Emperor out into the open air. 'Look at the sun,' he said to the Prince. 'I cannot,' he replied; 'it dazzles my eyes.' 'Son of Dust!' said the Rabbi, 'the rays of one single creation thou canst not endure; how couldst thou see the Creator?'"

So spake the preacher, and concluded his parables from the Talmud with the one (well known to readers of the New Testament, here slightly altered) on the laborers in the vineyard, and the one of those prudent and foolish ones who awaited the coming of the Saviour. He mingled amusing anecdotes with his sermon, raising thereby an involuntary laugh among his audience. The church and its servants did not then stand in their present frosty and oracular relation to the lay members. The Jewish Church especially, which both could and must offer all things to all men, did not refrain from godly jokes. An amused expression of interest spread over the faces of all when the Rabbi concluded; here and there men turned to their neighbors, and gave vent to their approval by gestures or exclamations. There are some Jews not sufficiently objective to abstract their attention from self enough to measure everything, even the words of their teacher, by the measure of the revealed law or their own reason. To these, therefore, it was no pleasure to hear yet another discourse; for now a man of compact figure and polished worldly address had taken the deserted place of Rabbi Saul Morteira.

It was that man of incomparable precocity and universality of genius, who, already a Rabbi in his eighteenth year, afterwards physician and statesman, had entered into controversy with Hugo Grotius on the beauties of the Idyllic poetry of Theocritus, and with Rabbi Isaak Aboab on the mixture of metals in the image of Nebuchadnezzar. It was Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel, whose wife, a grand-daughter of the renowned Don Isaak Abrabanel, derived her lineage in direct line from David, King of Israel.

For some seconds Rabbi Manasseh covered his eyes with his left hand, then began with a powerful voice that reached all corners of the synagogue:

"'O house of Jacob! come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord.' The day is again returned on which we consecrated this house that we built unto the Lord, for He allowed us here to find a refuge from the hands of our persecutors; but not by the strength of our hands have we obtained it. If God build not the house, vain is the toil of the laborer. We have built a house here unto the Lord; oh that the walls would expand and rise, as far as the heavens are stretched above the earth; and that my voice would fill the whole world, that I might awake the echoes with thunders, and lay in their mouths these words, that one echo might call them unto another. 'O house of Jacob! come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord' (Is. ii. 5). I myself, you all know, I had an enlightened father; he suffered martyrdom, and saved naught but bare life from the hands of those who call themselves Christians: but let us not look back into the dim dungeon, but gaze on the light that streams on us from all quarters."

The author of the book on the "Salvation of Israel" continued in spirited language, though often in ambiguous and superfine phraseology, his address on the necessity that the Jews should join in the universal striving towards the higher development of the age. By the "Light of the Lord" he understood the classics not less than the teachings of Moses. (He railed against the Polish Jews, whose obscure customs and debased position he ascribed principally to their want of solid learning; at last he rejoiced his hearers with an "Amen."

A roll of the law was then taken from the ark amid songs of praise. When it was handed to Baruch, he took the edge of the cloth of gold in which it was wrapped, and pressed it fervently to his lips.

The Thora was unrolled on the altar, and at each extract that was read out one of the three preachers was called upon to say the blessing thereon.

At the fourth extract the reader raised his voice and cried: "Rise, our teacher and master, Rabbi Baruch Ben Benjamin!" Baruch Spinoza, who was called to the Thora by this title of honor, was fiery red; he left his seat and repaired to the altar, where he read the blessing in a trembling voice. Every one in the synagogue wondered at so unprecedented a case as for a youth of fifteen to attain to such an honor; a few only there were who thought it misplaced, for Baruch was beloved of all who knew him. With the long, so-called Mussaph (additional prayer) and some concluding prayers the service was ended.