Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 8

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AT dusk Baruch and Miriam sat together, while old Chaje told them a marvellous story.

"Do you know that our servant for the Sabbath, old Elsje, came to a terrible end this night? I see green and yellow before my eyes whenever I think of it, and of what might have happened to us all, and I have sat with her for hours by this fireside. In old times, though, we used to hear of far more wonderful things; my mother often used to tell me how the synagogue in Warsaw was on fire once, and the fire had nearly reached the windows, but the Rabbi, who was a great Baal Shem,[1] threw a parchment on which he had written some secret words into the flame, and it went out like a puffed-out candle. Thank God! there are some pious men left who can control the Schedim."[2]

"You talk such things that no one can tell what you mean," said Miriam, and Chaje replied:

"I heard the whole story at the butcher's from black Gudul; her sister is servant in the house of the pious Rabbi Isaak Aboab. What a sweet child Rabbi Aboab's Sara was! I was always afraid she would be bewitched, and nearly a year ago her face went as black as a coal, and instead of speaking clearly and pleasantly, she shrieked out such words as one never heard in this world from a girl of fifteen, and wrung her hands as if she had the gout. Every one said she was bewitched and had a spirit. No doctor or apothecary could do any good. Rabbi Isaak wept and prayed the whole night long, so that he might have softened a stone in the wall. Since the misfortune befell him he has fasted from one Sabbath to another; he only takes soup and a couple of figs every night. Yesterday he went to the Mikwe,[3] and dipped nine times; when he went home he put on his winding sheet, had his chair brought from the synagogue, and his daughter placed in it; four men had to carry her and bind her in it, the spirit struggled so. When all the people had gone out he fastened Psalm cxxx. to all the doors and windows in the house, and forbade them to admit any one that night, however they might beg and pray; no one must attempt to open a door or window on pain of death. God forbid! Then he built up sacred books round the chair as high as Sara, and took a clean un-notched slaughtering-knife, and went nine times round Sara with it; then, as she had a loud rattling in her throat, he put a parchment with some holy words on it on her heart, and on the left side of the chair he put the slaughtering-knife. When all this was done he opened the holy chest in the corner, and took the Thora in his left hand while he opened a window with the other. Then he laid the Thora quickly on the table on which six black wax-lights burned, and as he unrolled the Thora he bent over it, threw himself on his knees, and called on the name of God and all angels so that all who heard him felt their blood run cold. Then he took the Shophar, and blew it as on New Year's Day, till they thought the Messiah was coming. Twelve o'clock had hardly struck when there came a knocking at the door, as if a hundred men were battering it with clubs.

"'Open, open, pray, I entreat you, open—have mercy—I shall die—open, it is Elsje, it is I, open!'

"So the voice cried outside, and the spirit in Sara began to scream again, so that you could hear it ten houses off. No one attempted to open it. Rabbi Aboab still went on praying and screaming, and calling on God and the angels till he had no voice left. At last all was still outside, and Sara too was quiet, and when they looked at her a black liquid like ink was pouring out of her right ear on to the knife. It was quite clean before, but there was a drop of blood as well on it now.

"'Thank God!' said Rabbi Aboab; 'my child is saved.'

"They took Sara to bed, and this morning she got up as fresh and well and prettier than ever; she knew nothing about it all, but thought she had slept a long time. Elsje came home last night about twelve o'clock with her mouth foaming, and as she took hold of the lock of her room door she fell down dead. You may believe it all, for black Gudul's sister looked through the keyhole of Rabbi Aboab's door. God is great to have left such men still among us; but just imagine, children, who would have thought that Elsje was such a cursed witch? Who knows how many children she may have bewitched? And the ingratitude of it! She might have starved if she had not earned a stiver or two from the Jews as Sabbath servant. Many a good bit have I got for her. I am afraid to be two minutes alone in the kitchen; I always expect Elsje to come down the chimney in the form of a black cat, or like a witch with fiery eyes, snakes on her head, and a broomstick in her bony hand. Ugh! I should die of fright,"

Suddenly there was a tremendous thud on the ceiling of the room so that the house shook; clamor and distant wailing were heard; the old woman screamed "Shema Israel!" Miriam clutched her brother's hand. All stood still to listen to the distant wailing.

"Come and bring a light," said Baruch rising. "We must see what is there." Chaje, with trembling hands, put a candle in the lantern, and, upon her urgent entreaties, Baruch was obliged to take his Thephillin[4] in his hand that no evil thing might have power over them. Miriam went with him, for she was afraid to be left in the room alone, and even Baruch could not repress a slight shudder as he mounted the stairs to the granary. When they arrived there they found a chest, which had long hobbled on three legs, overthrown. "So that was it," said Baruch laughing; a black cat limped from behind the chest, and disappeared through the window in the roof.

"Have mercy on our sins, it is Elsje!" screamed old Chaje, and let the lantern fall in her fright. The three remained in the dark, and speedily left the place that appeared so haunted. Chaje and Miriam held on to Baruch's coat-tails as they stumbled down the stairs.

Baruch regarded this little event in his home life in its true light, but the enigmatical incantations of Rabbi Aboab strengthened his determination to endeavor by all means to penetrate the mysteries of the black art. The Cabbala, of which every one spoke in wonder and with bated breath, might contain the solution of his doubts and questions; the initiated might form a community of the wise. The next day, Thursday, he went to Rabbi Aboab. He was a man in what is called the prime of life, of stalwart figure; his many fasts had not much injured him, for he looked in excellent condition; his round face and ruddy cheeks, his black beard falling to his breast, might have been called handsome, and were only disfigured by a large wart over his left eye, which wagged merrily when he spoke, and above all when he laughed.

Baruch was cordially received, but when he brought forward his request the Rabbi replied roundly:

"No, that cannot be; do you not know that Rabbi Salomo ben Adereth has forbidden under penalty of excommunication that any one should be introduced to the study of the Cabbala before his twenty-fifth year?"

Baruch warmly entreated him.

"Do you know too," the Rabbi continued, "that if you have—God forbid it!—the slightest worldly motive in the study of the Cabbala; if merely an incongruous thought mixes therein, your own life and the lives of all belonging to you are in some inexplicable danger? Can you trust yourself? Dare you face the risk? Will you?"

"I will," answered Baruch in a firm voice.

Without another word the Rabbi took Baruch's left hand in his, and studied the fine lines marked on the palm; then he pushed his hat back from his brow, and studied the lines of his face for awhile. Then he thoughtfully paced the room; firmly and mildly he did his utmost to dissuade Baruch from his purpose. Baruch was almost moved to tears, but, with a trembling voice, he still reiterated his firm determination without irresolution. "Well, so be it," said the Rabbi at last. "I am afraid you will only endanger yourself and perish, but I will be your leader. God will lead me in the way of truth. Come to me to-night after evening service."

The synagogue keeper Elasar Merimon could not repress his astonishment when he saw the youth coming with the Rabbi to the Mikwe.

"Peace be with you. Rabbi Baruch," he said, and grinned curiously.

The Rabbi commanded him to say nothing to any one of Baruch's presence there, and to go away himself as he did not need him that day. He took the key and lantern, and opened the tower-like edifice. The dull light of the lantern illuminated but dimly the bare, dusky walls and wooden benches around; in the middle was a well-like hole that was the bath. The Rabbi muttered a prayer and undressed carefully, observing all the while the precepts from the "Book of Chastity" written above. He had not quite undressed when he seized the lantern, and with rapid strides descended the thirty Stone steps of the bath. "Out of the depths I cry unto thee, O Lord! He hears me afar off, O my God!" he cried with all his strength, and his voice echoed weirdly from the depths of the well. Baruch shuddered to hear in the quiet night a soul crying to God, as it were, from the depths of the earth, for redemption and resurrection. The Rabbi placed the lantern on the lowest step of the bath, and threw himself with a splash into the water. At this sign Baruch laid himself down at the edge of the well, and nine times, whenever the Rabbi raised his head from the water and again dived, he cried "Koscher" (pure) into the illuminated vault.

The Rabbi came out again half dressed and with his head covered; his long beard, still dripping, and his lank matted hair gave his usually homely face a wild appearance. He gave Baruch a little book in which a prayer was written; the names of the angels therein must not be pronounced by lip or tongue on pain of death, but only repeated in thought. Baruch trembled with fear as he descended the dark pit, his knees gave way, but he took courage, and sprang lightly into the water. The Rabbi then undertook the same service that Baruch had performed for him; he too called the word of purification nine times across the well.

Without another word they left the Mikwe.

When they entered the street, lighted by the pale rays of the moon, Rabbi Aboab stood suddenly still, and shook his head as he gazed at the long shadow which imitated his movements; then, looking heavenwards, he repeated the text usually said on awakening:

"I thank thee, O living and eternal King! that through thy constant and great favor thou hast given me my soul again." Baruch did not venture to ask the reason of these proceedings; probably Rabbi Aboab had not yet taught him the saying of the Cabbala: "Whoever on the 'night of the sign'[5] sees his full shadow in the moonlight will not die that year."

Rabbi Isaak Loria saw his shadow headless that night, and he died the day before the year ended.

Rabbi Aboab was gay and good-humored that evening when Baruch supped with him. The novice took care to bestow a glance on the fair Sara, from whom the evil spirit had been driven, and who, while she served the meal, shyly stared at the pale youth whose fame had spread through the whole congregation.

Rabbi Aboab sat long at table, and it was late at night when he led Baruch into his study, and taking the Thora from the sacred chest, unrolled it at the place where stood the ten commandments.

Baruch then must lay his right hand thereon, and speak thus:

"I call on thee, God Almighty and Incomprehensible, who hast confided the secrets of thy existence to Adam, Enoch, Abraham, and Moses, who have handed them down even unto our day. Let thy Holy Spirit descend on me, and lead me, that I do not stumble in the way in which I would walk, and if ever I did violate or sin against Thy secrets may all the evils of fear overtake me that I tremble at my own shadow; may my tongue dry up, my entrails wither, my eyesight die out, my breath become poison that destroyeth my best beloved when they may approach me; may grass grow on the threshold of my father's house because none enter therein, and as I am damned here, may all the torments of Gehinom overwhelm me to all eternity. Therefore, O Lord, lead me that I rest under the shadow of thy wings, and bask in the light of thy glory. Amen! Amen!"

A shudder thrilled through his whole being, his lips blanched as he spoke these words, and even while he spoke a voice seemed to cry in him, "Woe unto thee! thou hast violated them since thou darest to enter here. Return!" But there was no return possible, the worst was over, and from that day forth the Rabbi became more confidential to his scholar.

They sat down to the table and the lesson began; the mystic reason why the Holy Scriptures begin with the letter Beth was disclosed; each letter and each stop, each phrase and each transposition therein had its own deep signification. As proof that a secret meaning lay hidden in the words of the Bible it was alleged that the Holy Scriptures related so many unimportant facts, as that (Genesis xix. 11) "Rachel and Jacob kissed," the detailed enumeration (Numbers viii.) of the contributions of the twelve princes of the tribes to the building of the tabernacle, and many similar passages. All this must have a hidden signification.

They were deeply engrossed in these discussions when the echoing chimes of the Zuyderkerk informed them of the midnight hour. The Rabbi rose, took off his shoes, strewed ashes on his head, and sat down on the ground beside the door-post, where a parchment on which was the Shema lay in a niche; he covered his face, and amid tears repeated the alphabetical confession of sins, then in a mournful voice sang Psalm cxxxvii.: "By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning—let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy."

He repeated the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the same position; then arose with the words, "Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem: loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion" (Isaiah lii. 2). "I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night; ye that make mention of the Lord, keep not silence; and give him no rest, till he establish and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth" (Is. Ixii. 6).

Baruch did everything like the Rabbi, but was ignorant of the hidden meaning, of each word, gesture and tone. Teacher and pupil again seated themselves at the table, drew on their shoes, and studied until morning, when the hour for the synagogue service arrived. Thus they spent the watches of each Thursday night.

Baruch went through the Book of "The Secrets of God," whose supposed author was Adam, and the Book of the Creation, whose author is said to be the Patriarch Abraham. Not only his whole mind, but his whole body was excited by these studies; he incessantly swayed himself about and exercised his body, for the Cabbala teaches there is nothing in the higher world that has not its counterpart in the microcosm; thus the 248 commandments of the Jewish religion correspond with the similar number of members of the human body, and all these must be active in and devoted to the sacred study. Baruch knew the names and powers of all the angels, and knew the formulas by which they are constrained to the service of man; but all this, like the solution of chemical and magic problems, had but little interest for him. The mystery of mysteries it was that he yearned for incessantly, and here the Cabbala taught that all physical and spiritual life was but an imitation of the original in heaven, and a chain of existence and action leading up to God. This is the heavenly ladder which God showed to the Patriarch Jacob in a dream, on which the powers of the created world as angels, after their spiritual emancipation or material concentration, mount and descend; the graduated ladder of all existing things rests on earth and reaches to heaven; there is the heavenly Jerusalem, there the temple, the model of the earthly one, there all is spiritual that on earth is bound up in matter. From the Hebrew word Ruach (soul) it is shown by the numbers which the letters give that, the same being found in the various Hebrew words for God, the soul must be a part of God. The Hebrew word for Messiah contains the same number as the Hebrew word for Serpent, in which image Satan seduced Eve; the Messiah will therefore bruise the head of the Serpent, and banish sin and death from the earth. To the Adam on earth corresponds a threefold Adam in heaven; thus are derived the three different expressions in the accounts of the creation of the first parents (Genesis i. 27); the original of the earthly Adam is the Adam Kadmon in heaven, the image of God, and his first born Son. There are four worlds, which are spiritual or material according to their more or less remote emanation from God. The end of creation, however, is the law; only for this revelation was the world created, for, according to the singular division of the words we read in Jen xxxiii. 25, "Thus saith the Lord, If my covenant be not with day and night, and if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth."

What is the triumph of victory or the power to rule nations compared to this immediate spiritual intercourse!

Rabbi Aboab used his own Hebrew translation of the Spanish Book of Erira as a guide to the oral law, which, according to the words and sense of the Cabbala, must ever remain unwritten, and only be passed on from mind to mind.

Here at last Baruch attained a higher hold by which he could swing himself onward. He strove to separate the inner kernel from the outward shell of grotesque and extraordinary observances, but he found with pain that these especially were represented as essentials: that general ideas do not suffice where the question is one of penetrating the actual, and solving the enigmas of the fate of men and nations, but must fall back on the strange suppositions of the doctrine of metempsychosis, and the powers of evil spirits, in which nature and her laws lose themselves in confusion and anarchy.

The Rabbi was rejoiced at the zeal of his scholar, but often reminded him that if any one would penetrate the real depths of the Cabbalistic practices, he must put away from him all sensual desires, which were the work of Satan.

"On the sixth day," he added, "woman, and with her all low inclinations, was created; therefore the Rabbis teach that men ought to marry at the age of three times six; you have reached that age exactly." There is no doubt that the views and efforts of the Rabbi were raised above all things earthly, but this need not hinder him from thinking of a union between Baruch and Sara. The young Cabbalist noticed nothing, even when the Rabbi once intentionally left him alone with the fair Sara.

The Rabbi once taught his pupil that Jesus of Nazareth also had been indoctrinated in the Cabbala by the sect of Essenes. The Rabbi never anticipated what he led to thereby.

Baruch had often already been irresistibly fascinated by a black bound book in the library of his master Nigritius, but an inward fear held him back. Now the question again arose, why, in the midst of the free field of knowledge, a tree of gorgeous and sweet-savored fruit should stand which he might not dare to approach? Who has the right, if the fruit is not indeed deadly, to say, Thou darest take of it, and thou not? Unseen by any strange eyes Baruch decided to open the book.

He read the New Testament.

His hands trembled as he held the book. It was the force of habit which made such a commencement seem apostasy. But yet he did not give it up. A quiet power possessed him. He found no new explanation of the Cabbala, but other things most unanticipated. He now read a new Bible, and not like a child following the finger of its teacher; but, for the first time, with free eyes and unfettered, independent judgment. It reacted on his conception of what had hitherto been to him the only sacred writings. Must not these also be viewed from the standpoint of independent criticism? Is it impossible to review the familiar, accepted with a defined signification, in its simple reality?

He passed over the miracles without difficulty. The parables too, with their resemblances to the Talmud, impressed him but little. He had seen too often in the Rabbinical department how willingly inward incompleteness, which is but unripeness of reflection, and outward incompleteness, which is but cowardice, make use of such disguises. And is it not said that Christ even revealed the truth to his disciples alone? Is it impossible to teach men the naked truth? Is "becoming as a child," the return to the simple world of nature, the only means of salvation in an age confused with dogmas and ruined by Pharisees? Must not to "become as a man," a development and growth of mind in accordance with the recognized laws of nature, be a means of salvation? Do these alone offer a firm foothold, because the ordinances of nature are in them immediately represented? Must the natural order too not be founded on knowledge?

Is not the "becoming as a child" in will often impossible, while manly development of mind is a necessary and rational task? Must not the Talmud phrase have its weight, "Everything is a gift of God, except the fear of God?" Is not righteousness, which is attained by free thought, firmer and higher than love? What is the pure unrevealed thought which (Mark iv. 34) Christ "without a parable spake he unto them," and which is not given in the Evangelists?

It cannot be said how much of the spirit of opposition inculcated by his early education lay in these questions of the young thinker. He sought to free himself from it, and it came to him as a new revelation, that nowhere is it said that God has appeared to Christ, and has spoken to him with a voice and by signs, and so on, as in the Old Testament, but that he had immediately revealed himself to the Apostles in Christ. It was no revelation face to face as to Moses; not in an outward material form but from within.

Baruch knew the dogmas but ill which in the churches were associated with the events of the life and the teachings of wisdom here given. As the highest that Christ had said of himself it is written that, "he was a Temple of God," and John said, to impress this more strongly, that, "the Word was made flesh," for in Christ God had revealed himself most immediately.

Baruch by natural affinity felt extraordinarily attracted to the life and teachings of the Crucified One. Just because he came from a circle of life which would know naught thereof, and whose members were persecuted by the followers of Christ; just because he was hampered by no Church rules, he strove more freely towards pure justice, and learned to apply it against the phenomena spread abroad during so many centuries, whose outward embodiment was to remain unknown to him.

How many apparently antagonistic and mutually dissolving elements does youthful development require! And as the spring breezes blow the young tree hither and thither, it strikes its roots deeper into the nourishing earth, and awakes to fresh powers of growth. And, as in outward nature much enters the mind that does not immediately reappear in a recognizable form, it awaits the riper growth and development.

From the library of the Magister, Baruch must again bury himself in the study of the Cabbala, and he did so with evident zeal. The hidden disguises fascinated him ever anew, for he might find therein a solution of the enigma which puzzled him, but the incomprehensible was here only replaced by new incomprehensibility. Often a guiding sign like a will-o'-the-wisp emerged from the darkness, but sank again without leaving trace or connection.

Baruch longed to be freed from the yoke which he had laid on himself by his dutiful visit to the Rabbi. It was done without his interference.

A Jewish colony was setting out for North Brazil. Rabbi Isaak Aboab joined it.

At sea, it was said, dolphins and sea-monsters surrounded the ship in which Rabbi Aboab was. All were in fear of death. Rabbi Aboab alone was tranquil. "Look! in these are the souls of the godless. Be still," he cried in a mighty voice over the floods; "have patience, yet longer ye must tarry, for the time is not yet come that will release you." He threw a parchment into the water and the monsters vanished.

The fair Sara did not live to see this miracle of her father's, which rumor spread so wide. She had shed many tears on taking leave of Baruch; she loved him secretly and passionately. She died on the passage out. When the exiles landed in North Brazil the first grave was dug in the newly won inheritance, and the fair, girlish corpse of the Cabbalist's daughter was buried therein. At her interment the Shophar was blown according to secret cabbalistic ordinances, a sign of the trumpet to be blown at the Resurrection of the dead. In a land never yet trodden by Jewish foot the trumpet notes of Canaan already sounded which echoed from the olden times and from end to end of the living world.

A few days after the departure of Rabbi Aboab Baruch went at the usual hour to the house of Magister Nigritius. Frau Gertrui Ufmsand, the landlady, met him with the news that the Magister had that morning been found dead in his arm-chair, his lamp still burning.

Baruch went in and looked once more at the set face of his teacher; the gentleness of a child rested on the features of the dead; his favorite book, Cicero de Finibus Bonorum ei Malorum, lay open before him.

Thus the youth was separated forever from the guides that should have led him to the treasures which men had acquired before him. How many thousands inherit the views of former ages without effort, in a well-trodden path, happy in the possession, while Baruch must ever strive anew and never rejoice in the acquisition.

In his youthful self-reproachfulness the loss of his leader seemed to him a just punishment for his sins, because of his silent opposition to the much lauded results. But could he do otherwise? Had fate called him to be a first man, untrammelled by the conclusions of his forefathers, unmisled by their guide-posts, out of the depths of his own life, out of his own conception of human nature and its laws to create salvation? Must each one to whom a revelation of the Eternal is to be given withdraw from the confusion of human society to the lifeless desert, to solitudes where he is alone on earth, where only the pulsations of his heart will be the measure of his time?

  1. Exorcist.
  2. Demon.
  3. Bath for purification.
  4. Amulet inscribed with texts.
  5. About 27th September.