Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 6

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CHAPTER VI.

TALMUD AND LATIN.

BARUCH'S hand trembled as he laid the pages aside, and his brow was hot as he leant it on his hand.

What confusion there is in the life of humanity thus divided into races and sects, each one of which hates and persecutes the other, and thinks itself alone wise and righteous! Thus the Temples become encampments, where the watchword given out is salvation to the initiated, damnation to all the rest.

A voice stronger and more piercing than that of the synagogue now called upon Baruch to pronounce the blessing on the revealed unwritten Law, whose two pillars are freedom from all shackles of race or creed, and love to, all mankind. Had not Maimonides already taught that "the pious of all religions shall inherit eternal felicity?" Baruch was no longer a son of Israel only; he was the child of humanity. It was not his descent alone that gave him this impulse thus to classify himself, though possibly it was the first motive. The spirit of life, the Spirit of God, seized upon him, carried him over all boundaries, and held him firm and free in blissful uncertainty.

At first when his father called him on the morrow he remembered with difficulty who and where he was. He returned the manuscript to his father and kissed his hand: he held his son's hand fast in his, and walked with him to the synagogue.

Baruch answered the congratulations of those who waited at the door of the place of worship to honor him on his attainment of the Rabbinical dignity but absently and inappropriately. The people thought him conceited.

This supposition had some truth in it when after early service on the Sunday morning he went, with his richly clasped folio under his arm, along the road to the school called the "Crown of Law." With what joyous haste he had formerly trodden that path—and now he stared confusedly about him, almost stumbling at every step. A feeling of mingled sadness and pride filled his heart: must he still follow this road as before; still study the same books, and what new thing could he find in them? He had attained the rank of Rabbi, the highest attainable in this career, and he must go on studying the same subjects by which men merely sharpened their cleverness into conceit. He was familiar with all that could be learnt there; what was the use of eternal repetition? But more painful still was the thought that he had become a stranger to it, for the experience of the previous day had lifted him above all that was customary to him. Was it not a sin to go on just the same as if nothing had happened? The Jewish community and its doctrines no longer formed the heart of the world, all the rest being but its shell. Houses were built there, ships launched, streets laid out, indifferent to this narrow circle; bells tolled and called to the worship of other sanctuaries. Where is centred the life of the world? The boy, ripened into a courageous youth, would willingly have penetrated to those eternal halls,—and it was but the door of the School of Law that opened to him now. He could not understand that this world had not suddenly changed to another, because it seemed to have changed to him. Why was it impossible, when thus awakened to conscious existence, to begin life anew?

The world goes on in its accustomed grooves.

The wounds of early youth heal quickly; doubts are soon extinguished, whether in forgetfulness or in habitual repression by the will.

When Baruch had entered the school he was, as is the habit of youth, quickly engaged with the immediate interest of the moment; all others had vanished. Rabbi Saul Morteira pointed to the place on his left; that on his right hand Chisdai held by right of seniority. The other students sat at the long table in order of age or attainments, "at the feet of the Rabbi." The master commanded Baruch to read out the Friday's unfinished extract. It was the place in the Talmud tractate, Kiduschin, folio 22. Baruch read:

"It is written, Deuteronomy xxi. 10: 'When thou goest forth to war with thine enemies, and the Lord thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, that thou hast taken them captive, and seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her that thou wouldst have her to thy wife: . . . This indulgence is granted because the Israelites had not abstained therefrom; and it is better that they should do that which is permitted than that they should do that which is forbidden.'"

Baruch had hardly read for a few minutes, when a violent dispute arose between him and Chisdai. The great schoolman, Rabbi Samuel Edels, had added a problem to this proposition, and ended with the words, "a solution is to be found for this."

Chisdai thought he had discovered it, but one of the youngest scholars at the lower end of the table made him in a few words the butt of universal ridicule. Chisdai sprang up, and would have stormed the saucy youth into silence, but Baruch stood up and ranged himself on the side of the boy. Chisdai turned to the adversary whom he deemed his equal; he drew himself up and stretched out his bedaubed fingers till they stood out like a palisade of notes of exclamation: he laughed compassionately, and with ironic astonishment shook his learned head over the weak grounds taken against him; but Baruch pressed him more and more hotly, till at last Chisdai, shaking himself free, rushed at his opponent; he seized him by his cloak and would not allow him to say another word. Chisdai struck the table, turned himself from side to side, first to one and then another; it was all no good. Baruch had placed him in a dilemma by his tranquillity, from which he could not free himself. Chisdai sat down and bit his nails. Baruch quite simply explained the problem.

"It seems strange to me," he then said, "that a thing should be permitted because it was done; that could be done in many another case as well."

"The punishment of him who marries a gentile follows immediately," said Chisdai with a delighted face that no one understood but Baruch and himself; "for, as the Talmud says, directly after these verses follow those of the rebellious son, because of such a marriage only the godless could be the fruit."

Baruch did not answer him. "Then is this the conclusion," he inquired of the Rabbi, "that a marriage with a gentile is no sin?"

"You see that it is so," replied the Rabbi, "but only in time of war."

"Can God make one law for war and another for peace?"

"Why not? There are many laws that refer only to Palestine. Stand by the word: here it speaks only of war, not of peace."

"Excuse me," persisted Baruch; "I must ask something else. Just after this verse it stands written: If a man have two wives, he loves one but not the other; the permission to wed many wives is granted for war and peace, for Palestine and other lands; why is it no longer so?"

"You know well enough that Rabbi Gerschon, 'the Light of the Exile,' laid those of all time under the ban who should wed more than one wife."

"But how dare he do so, since it is nowhere forbidden in the Holy Scriptures; and according to the Talmud, King Solomon was merely forbidden to wed more than eighteen wives?"

"I believe you think," replied the Rabbi, "that the Sanhedrim of Mainz did not know that as well as you. I cannot now explain everything, you are not alone here; if you ask sophistical questions, I cannot keep the others waiting till I answer them. Chisdai, read on."

Chisdai did as commanded. The whole reading was in a tone commonly believed to be traditional; half melancholy chanting, half recitation as of a litany, as little according to the rules of declamation or music as a grammar would be according to rule if extracted from the Babel of dialects in the Talmud. Each student sought to combine new problems from the many sophistical questions in the text and their numerous commentaries, again to be drawn out in striking syllogisms, etc. In spite of the license of intellectual activity shown on all sides, a certain defined order was unmistakable. The Rabbi listened carefully to all the questions, and then, according as he considered the solution easy or difficult, he called upon this one or that to answer it.

Chisdai, who sat next to the Rabbi's chair, nodded kindly to the younger ones, whose first efforts in dialectic made them timid, with condescending encouragement. He smiled like a general, who, in the anticipation of speedy advancement, claps his subordinate good-naturedly on the shoulder when he has successfully led in some small skirmish. When a pause intervened, he brought two plainly opposed views of the great Maimonides into the field of battle, while against the views here laid down he brought up one of contrary signification from the tractate of Chetuboth, with much circumlocution and cunning. All were silent.

"Now, Baruch, what do you say to that?" asked the Rabbi. Baruch aroused himself as if from a dream, for he had been employed on a very different train of thought.

"Now Baruch, what do you say to what Chisdai advances?" repeated the Rabbi.

"He is perfectly correct," was the quick answer.

A peal of laughter, begun by Chisdai, echoed from one end of the table to the other.

"Where are your thoughts again?" asked the Rabbi softly. "Not on his words alone, but on his thoughts, a man must place a curb. Now who can answer Chisdai's question?"

No one replied. Then Chisdai triumphantly brought forward a finely woven chain of arguments and authorities, with which he brilliantly solved the apparently insoluble problem. Baruch tried forcibly to master his wandering thoughts; with painful diligence he repeated the words of the text before him: it was all of no use; his mind unconsciously glided over the words to other subjects. He soon gave up the application afforded him by the whole discussion to his mother's history; the doubts which had arisen in him as to the eternal validity and immutability of the Law, he thought he had repressed by persuading himself that his teacher was not sufficiently learned to answer such questions, or held him as yet unworthy to partake of the tree of knowledge. Much that had been nearly erased from his memory arose within him again fresher than ever, and he was glad when he heard his fellow pupils close their great folios, and the Rabbi rise with a heavy sigh.

At home he sat down to table in silence with a feeling of general discontent. His father left him undisturbed, but Miriam looked at him inquiringly. They talked of the approaching departure of Rodrigo Casseres, and the anticipated company of his family.

"What is the matter with you to-day, Baruch?" asked his father when the meal was over. "You used always to recollect the saying of 'the fathers': 'When three sit together at table and speak no godly word, it is as though they partook of a funeral feast.' Must I remind you to read a passage from the Mishna before grace?"

Baruch rose, fetched the handsome quarto, and repeated the paragraphs before him. To-day, for the first time, he found it tiresome that he could not put a bit between his teeth without some consideration of the old laws.

"I have already thought about your wishes today," said his father; "I have found you a Latin master. But go on reading; I will tell you afterwards."

Baruch read the appointed number of verses more quickly than usual, but not to betray to his father by ending too soon how much interested he was in the deferred information, he read two more paragraphs; his thoughts, however, did not follow the lines his eyes and mouth read. He ascribed this fault to his father's words, for he would not confess to himself, or was not fully conscious, what an immeasurable change had come over him. He closed the book, and looked expectantly at his father, who commanded him to repeat the long Hebrew grace. Lucky force of habit! If Baruch had not repeated this prayer several times daily since his earliest childhood, he would now have made many stumbles therein; for while thanking God for bodily nourishment, and praying for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, his mind passed to the gods of Rome and Athens, and rejoiced in the intellectual nourishment which Aristotle and the Roman historians would offer him.

After the "Amen" his father rose and lighted a cigar, saying:

"When I have smoked this, Baruch, we will go together to Salomon de Silva. I bit the sour apple unwillingly at first, but it was so easily arranged, that I have quite given up all opposition. I accompanied Rodrigo Casseres to the Amstel to-day, where he took the boat for Leyden; and as I was returning, our friend the Doctor met me. I doubt the people make much too much of your dignity of Rabbi; do not let them make you conceited with such talk."

"Certainly not," answered Baruch, without looking up. How changed his father was to-day! Where was his Sabbath elation gone to?

"One must always go on advancing; that is the principal thing," continued his father. "While I was speaking to the Doctor, I recollected my promise; and Silva said he could recommend such a Latin master to me, that half Europe could not show his equal."

Baruch and his father went together to the physician.

"I have been expecting you for a long time," he said, "and Magister Nigritius expected me to come to him this morning."

The praise that Baruch now received personally from the physician was doubly painful to him; he felt so unworthy of it since his inner experiences and the day's events in the school.

What if it were a foreordained necessity that he should become an apostate? Baruch trembled now at the fulfilment of his ardently desired wish.

If apostasy were a necessity, who could oppose it?

"I have felt a disinclination," said his father, as the three proceeded together to the house, "to my son's learning Latin, and still more to letting him learn it from a Christian. I once heard the saying in the Talmud, 'Cursed is he who allows his son to study the learning of the Greeks.' Nothing else turned Acosta's head; if in all his days he had never seen Latin or Greek, I could swear he might now be living among us in peace of mind, honor and happiness."

"With all respect for your words, my dear Benjamin," said the Doctor, "you are a skilful merchant, and know how and when to effect a sale of the rose-wood and cinnamon the East India Company bring you, but in this case you must let others teach you. I cannot believe that you too are one of those who forget their own youth and would bring the darkness of the Poles down on us. For the respect and honor which we enjoy (here the Doctor's looks partook of pride), we have only to thank the fact that in secular learning we can speak a word as well as the others. It is another thing whether to learn it from a Christian or not. But your Baruch is so familiar with the Bible and the Talmud, that against any evidence they might adduce from the Bible for the Messiahship of Jesus, he could easily find counter-evidence; and it is generally the pious Christians who would leave everyone to his own faith: the freethinkers among the Christians are much more to be feared; they could ruin our youths; for he who would deny the foundations of all religion—he is the true betrayer. True learning, however, leads back again to faith."

The learned Doctor enlarged yet more on his theme; for he not only wanted to show off his knowledge of theological and philosophical learning, rare indeed in a physician, but wished to have his rude beginning forgotten. He had not finished when he entered the house of Magister Nigritius, and as he somewhat noisily mounted the five steps, he gave his companions regulations how to behave to the man whom they visited. They at last reached a landing, whose floor showed many cracks. The Doctor opened the door: a little man with a greenish-yellow complexion, and a neutral-tinted, ink-spotted dressing-gown, sprang up to meet him, stumbling over some folios that lay on the floor.

"Eureka carissime amice!"[1] cried the Magister. "Marsi, not Mauri, is the reading. Look, Horace wishes to derive the descent of Augustus from the God of War, and says:

Quern juvat clamor, galeaque leves,
Acer et Mauri peditis cruendum
Vultus in hostem.'[2]

But the Moors are neither warlike nor brave. Here is a passage in Hirtius on the African war, where less than thirty Gauls drove two thousand Moorish cavalry from their position; and the Moors had no infantry. Also the Moors were their enemies then, and the conquered foe over whom Mars rejoices was a Roman—how stupid and unpatriotic! So I read it Marsi, and the Marsian infantry were the boldest among the Italians, of which there are many proofs in Strabo, Appian, and Vergil, and two passages in Horace show the same. You see, with this conjecture alone I can so fill the mouth of that boaster, Kaspar Barläus, that he will have had enough for his life. Ah, my dear Doctor, how lucky I am to have a man to whom I can tell all this, and who knows how to value such a discovery! Ever since this morning I have been waiting impatiently for you. I cannot understand now how they could have thought for so long that the most refined of Romans would have praised the stupid Moors. Sit down, my dear Doctor."

The Magister placed some open books that lay on a chair carefully on the floor. He now first paid his respects to the two strangers, whom he had not hitherto appeared to notice. Baruch stared before him absently during the long commentary of the Magister; he pressed his lips thoughtfully together; it seemed to him as if to-day all the world conspired to remind him at every step of the Moorish origin of his mother.

"What do they want with me?" inquired the Magister irritably. The physician appeased him, and said they had a request to make. "Sit down here," the Magister said to the father, and straightened his arm-chair, covered with brown leather.

"You, young man, sit by me on the bed."

"Have you nearly finished the medicine? and how is your cough?" inquired the physician.

"Optime. Last night I coughed a long time in bed, and when I had extinguished the lamp, the letters still swam before my eyes; then it first struck me that the reading was Marsi, I cried out for joy. For fear I might lose the glorious discovery in my sleep, I sprang out of bed; but if I had searched myself dead I should never have found the tinder-box. Look! there it is. So I wrote it on the floor in the moonlight there with chalk. I then went quietly to sleep, and woke early this morning in a perspiration; so the cough seems to have gone away."

"You must give up your former way of life," said the Doctor, "and in the coming spring leave your cell oftener, or else I will not answer for it; if that chest cough comes back, a fever of joy over a lucky guess may not sweat it away."

The Magister laughed in good-humored incredulity. The Doctor now brought forward his request, and Nigritius agreed to it, with the proviso that Silva must be answerable for it if the boy were not clever enough.

"How old are you?" he asked Baruch.

"Fifteen."

"And you cannot say your declensions?"

"No."

"Hum, hum!" grumbled the Magister. "Ars longa, vita brevis, says Hippocrates; at fifteen Hugo Grotius had already made his learned edition of Martianus Capella, translated into Latin Stevini's art of navigation, and so amplified the 'Phaenomena' of Aratus that no one knew which wrote better Latin, Cicero or he. I myself, ut at minora redeam, had, when I was of that age, already made such a Carmen that Vergil himself could not have pointed out a Germanism or a false quantity in it. Fifteen! But we will see: diligentia est mater studiorum—that is, you must be industrious."

Baruch promised, and the Magister continued:

"You can come to me every day at this time, but you must not awaken me if I am asleep. You need not bring any books; I have everything here."

When the physician had repeated his congratulations on the lucky guess, he left the house of the Magister with Baruch and his father.

"You know I wish my children to learn everything, I never spare in that; but I must not make myself out to be greater than I am. I am not a rich man, so I must know what the Magister requires. I cannot give too much for Baruch alone, but if I win my lawsuit I may be able to spend more on him; now, however, I must remember that I have two more children." So spoke the father, and the physician burst into a loud laugh.

"What are you laughing at now?" he asked irritably.

"Nothing, except that you take the Magister for a merchant; why, if he had nothing to eat to-morrow, he would rather starve than ask a penny in pay for instruction. Like the Rabbis who think it a sacred task to instruct any one in the Bible and Talmud, So does he with Greek and Latin. Shy as he is of his fellows, he holds all mankind alike deaf to his heart without distinction; and timid as he looks when people are with him, he is bold, nay, overbold, against them when he has his pen in his hand, and his ever-ready companions in arms, his books, at his side. By means of his extraordinary memory he can any minute raise a whole host of witnesses. This Nigritius is a truly extraordinary man."

"It is a dreary life to live so much alone, not a soul near him, only books, books; I could not live like that," said Baruch.

"I believe you," answered the physician. "You see that is another unseen though incalculably valuable point of superiority in our religion; it is impossible that such hermit natures should arise within it. Unless some one has cut loose from all sacred duties,—which, God be praised, has never happened yet unpunished, and which would not be permitted, how could any one manage to live alone? To pray—three times a day in company with at least ten co-religionists, and to attend the synagogue without fail every Sabbath and fast-day, these are simple precepts which make a hermit's seclusion impossible. And such narrow pedantic natures, with their minute hair-splitting and small so-called love of order, which are so common in this country, you never meet among the Jews; that comes of their quick southern blood." The theologizing physician would willingly have followed up this newly discovered idea, but the father's curiosity interrupted him with the question:

"Where does the Magister come from, and how does he keep himself?"

"He comes from Heidelberg, a German town on the Rhine;[3] his name is Schwarz, but, like all the learned men of the day, he has Latinized it. He does not like to talk of his early life; but in an hour of sadness he once confided to me that in the war which has now lasted full thirty years his native town was plundered and laid in ashes by the Imperial troops. He was fortunate enough to save the manuscripts taken from the University library to Rome that belonged to him; he fled with them, and remained deserted here. He had not crossed the boundaries of his native town twice in his life; in Attica, or Latium, he knew every house and every road; but here he did not know his way out or in. He joined a company of exiles and came here, where he has now lived for six-and-twenty years. The Heidelberg Library bought back his manuscripts, which he had enriched with valuable comments. Besides, he undertakes corrections for Gerhard Vossius, his countryman, and for others. The best emendations in the ancient classics are his, and no one knows them to be so; but that does not trouble him. It verges on the incredible how little his requirements are; study as much as he will, he is the same one day as another, always gay and pleasant; but he knows nothing of the world. He is long past sixty, but he is as inexperienced as a child of ten years old; he can tell you easily enough how many sesterces Crassus had for his fortune; but if he possessed twenty stivers, and had to count them, he would not know what to do or say about it. It is well for him that he is in such an honest house; Klaas Ufmsand and his wife, good Gertrui, take care of everything for him. I tell you all this, Baruch, that you may never make fun of him, even if he is rather queer; he cannot bear ridicule. Even if he often thrashes empty straw, he is so thoroughly learned, and you can learn so much from him, that you must always treat him with respect,"

"Yes, yes," said his father, "if you do not learn Latin with him, you never will learn it."

From this time forth Baruch went to the Magister every day. He soon found out that he was not the man to introduce him to the famous temple of classical antiquity, but remembering his father's threat, he said nothing about the disappointment of his expectations.

He was obliged to gnaw at the hard shell of the rudiments of Latin grammar, while longing so earnestly to get at the nourishing kernel. Not even the intellectual gymnastics of his Talmud studies were in these empty forms, which merely required impressing on the memory. A student like Baruch required special treatment. A mind that had already exercised itself on the highest intellectual questions was far beyond the degree of mere receptiveness; and only what he could work out for himself he truly understood. His teacher tried to satisfy Baruch's impatience with the assurance that—

"It is only when all the forms are in the head that a man can wander inoffenso pede in the paths of classic learning."

Baruch by degrees learned his teacher's strange ways, and learned to respect and to imitate them. Just this steady but often painfully measured progress, which admitted of no haste, still less allowed for digressions, even this hard discipline pleased him after the showy hair-splitting of the Talmud-school. He constrained himself to follow this regulated pace, and his master appreciated the devotion, and found his scholar win on his affections, as he rejoiced daily more and more to find a sympathetic mind near him. He promised his pupil to leave him his Cicero "On the Greatest Good and the Greatest Evil," which he had enriched with valuable marginal notes, as a legacy.

One day when Baruch came to his tutor's house he received him with unusual warmth, and told him that he had that day deciphered one of the most difficult passages in Cicero's "Orator." The commentators and the later philologists had always given the easier reading, which would naturally be more convenient; but it was the sacred duty of all true philologists to regard the more difficult reading—just because it was the more difficult, and not so easily understood by every one—as the correct and original.

"That is strange," said Baruch; "it seems to me as though, if I were crossing a barley field, and saw some sheaves lying there, I must say, Ay, those are oat sheaves that have been brought from another field, for to allow they were barley sheaves would not evince skill."

Magister Nigritius started; this application of Talmudistic sophistry to a foreign, if not wholly unkindred subject, disgusted him. He assured Baruch that the transcriber of a difficult passage would of course be willing to find an easier turn for it; it was therefore his duty, if there were sense in the more difficult reading, to prefer it.

Baruch was satisfied by this representation: the acuteness of reasoning that thereby came into play attracted him, but still unsatisfied he felt the longing for that new world of serene beauty which should have been opened to him. The increasing chest disease of the Magister, and the secret dissatisfaction between him and Baruch, made the struction henceforward irregular and little profitable.

At this time Rabbi Saul began the tractate Erubin with his scholars, and to facilitate the solution of the geometrical problems there given, he undertook a thorough course of mathematics according to the Hebrew translation of Euclid. The restless intellect of Baruch found sufficient employment therein, and he also devoted himself again with undivided zeal to the study of the Talmud. He hoped thus to re-find his former peace. His immediate pleasure in this study had grown less, and yet he still aspired with a perfectly ravenous craving towards the fuller satisfaction of his longing for knowledge. He did not tell any one his opinion, nor confide in any one. For it is inherent in the nature of a young growing human being, as it is in every growth of nature in general, that, by means of its power of attraction, its absorption far exceeds its loss by rejection; thus its vital principle grows and ripens into its destined form. In quietude as of sleep the mind of the youth awoke to the surprise of his own consciousness, and the insight of others.

  1. Found, my worthy friend!
  2. The din of battle and the glittering helms delight, and the Moorish foot-soldiers furious look at the bleeding enemy.
  3. So in the original; it is on the Neckar.—Transl. note.