Francis Bacon – Part II: The Secular as Sacred

If Spinoza used reason to unpack the misconceptions and misinterpretations about and allegedly found in sacred texts, Bacon made it his life’s work to set the mind on the path of discovery, first by dethroning the very idea that all knowledge had already been discovered and merely needed to be handed down by tradition and scholarship. Though approaching a problem from opposite angles, both thinkers were committed to freeing up the mind and thereby the life of humans. For Bacon, this entailed both deconstruction – the exposure to the light of day the idols of the past that have been embedded in our minds – and construction, the establishment of truth based on observation, induction, experiment and falsification.

This applied to the “Jewish problem.” In his work, The New Atlantis (1626), his model civilization is called Bensalem; religious tolerance is its defining characteristic. Though Jews had been banned from England in the thirteenth century, Jews had been allowed informally to set up some businesses in London. Bacon describes his encounter with one such Jew in Bensalem. Given its description, particularly the latter half, it is highly unlikely that it really happened. The whole story, after all, is a fable. He wrote:

By that time six or seven days were spent, I was fallen into straight acquaintance with a merchant of that city, whose name was Joabin. He was a Jew and circumcised; for they have some few stirps of Jews yet remaining among them, whom they leave to their own religion. Which they may the better do, because they are of a far differing disposition from the Jews in other parts. For whereas they hate the name of Christ, and have a secret inbred rancor against the people amongst whom they live; these, contrariwise, give unto our Saviour many high attributes, and love the nation of Bensalem extremely. Surely this man of whom I speak would ever acknowledge that Christ was born of a Virgin and that He was more than a man; and he would tell how God made Him ruler of the seraphim, which guard His throne; and they call Him also the Milken Way, and the Elijah of the Messiah, and many other high names, which they though they be inferior to His divine majesty, yet they are far from the language of other Jews.

Does this suggest that Francis Bacon was an anti-Semite? Perhaps in part, an advocate of anti-Judaism in its traditional form, but not antisemite. A deconstruction of the text in a Baconian mode indicates why.

There is an actual place called Bensalem in Pennsylvania, but the name is taken from Bacon rather than being the origin of the place Bacon describes. Similarly, though there is a place called Salem on the coast of Massachusetts where the notorious witch trials of the seventeenth century took place, Bacon could not have been referring to that Salem since the town was established the same year that the New Atlantis was published. Since Oregon was established well after the seventeenth century, its capital, Salem, had to be derivative as does the name of towns in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and South Dakota. Only Salem in Virginia and Bensalem in New Jersey might qualify.

I could have driven to Salem, Virginia, a town of 25,000, in five hours from Chattanooga by driving north-east, but it would have been of no help in understanding Bacon since the town was established 45 years after the New Atlantis was published. This is also true of the currently shrinking city of Bensalem in New Jersey of about 5,000 which I could have driven to in about a half an hour when I visited my eldest son about a month ago in Princeton. But it too was established at the same time as Salem, Virginia.

The reality is that the name has its root in the Torah, specifically Genesis XIV:18. 

יח  וּמַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם, הוֹצִיא לֶחֶם וָיָיִן; וְהוּא כֹהֵן, לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן.18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High.

The chapter begins with a description of a war around the Dead Sea between one alliance of four kings (Alliance 4) and another of five kings (Alliance 5). The second alliance (Alliance 5) included the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah. The war had already witnessed the defeat and slaughter of the Rephaim, the Zuzim, the Emin, the Horites, the Amalekites and the Amorites. Then the alliance of the five kings, that included Sodom and Gomorrah, took their stand against the marauding alliance of the four kings and were routed. Sodom and Gomorrah were both ravaged and looted. The kings of both Sodom and Gomorrah in flight threw themselves into bitumen pits. Lot, Abram’s brother’s son who lived in Sodom, was taken captive.

Abram was told of this. He then had 318 men under arms and, with his allies, went to free his brother and his brother’s son, which he did. He also recovered not only their property, but looted the property of the four kings and chased the losers towards Damascus. Following the battle that completely shifted the war effort, Abram was welcomed back as a conquering hero. “And Melchizedek king of Salem (my italics) brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High.” In other words, Abram was a war hero who totally reversed the fortunes of a number of rulers and was given a ticker tape parade in Salem.

Bensalem is the son of Salem taken from the Hebrew, shalom (שלם) meaning peace or to make whole or to complete, and ben meaning son. It is considered another name for Jerusalem, in fact, the original site of what would become Jerusalem. For Puritans, and their Baptist and Methodist successors, the name Bensalem was used to refer to a chapel belonging to a non-conformist church. According to Psalm 76:2, God’s tabernacle is in Salem. Yet it is also the location of the King of Sodom of infamous fame.

There is another personal name rather than place name in the story – the name of the Jew Bacon encounters, Joabin, also spelled Jobin. The suggestion is that it is a reference to Job, but the meaning of “in” as a suffix is not clear. It may mean a lesser Job as when we use sifron to mean a booklet compared to a sefer.  Who is this little Job?

If we look at the Book of Job, Chapters 1 & 2 provide a prologue, namely a wager between Satan and God in which Satan bets God that a pious man will abandon his faith in God if his life becomes a misery. Job loses his wealth, his family and his well-being but refuses to speak against God. However, his tone changes in Chapter 3 when he begins to curse his life. “You must have done something wrong to deserve this,” say his friends. “I’m innocent,” Job insists. Job turns to God and asks, “Why?” “Why this self-evident injustice?” And whatever the interpretation of God’s two answers, it is clear that suffering is NOT caused by sin. Job in the end remains faithful to God, both when God had been good to him and even when he was wronged.

This is not the time or place to go into the various theological debates that have arisen over the Book of Job, but the lesser Job in Bacon’s New Atlantis, in Bensalem, now overwhelmingly populated by Christians, is a Jew for Jesus, but of a very different kind than the one currently connoted by the phrase. This new Jew, Joabin, attributes to the Christian saviour lofty traits and even may acknowledge that Jesus was born of a virgin Mary. That is, Jesus is an archetype, a fictional model and not a flesh and blood being. For Joabin, Jesus was “more than a man” and assigned by God to be ruler of the seraphim. This new ideal offers a glimpse into a new source of light. In contrast, there are the “other” Jews who hate Jesus and carry a deep animosity to Christians. Why would Joabin as a lesser Job suffer for his beliefs?

There are a number of possible answers:

  1. He was disowned by the other branch of the Jewish people who despised Jesus;
  2. He identified with the suffering Jesus.
  3. He went from being a happy and prosperous citizen of Bensalem to someone, who, like Job, lost his family, his wealth and his good health.

The problem is that the fable says nothing of the kind re the third proposition. Further, with respect to the first, Joabin seems indifferent to the other branch of the Jewish family who hate Jesus and resent the Christians who have inherited Bensalem. What seems to be the case for Bacon is that Jews who accept Jesus, at least, as we shall see, this Enlightenment view of Jesus, are happy and contented and no longer even have to go through a suffering phase like Job while Jews who despise Jesus are malcontents, bitter and resentful. It is not Jews qua Jews who should be banished from England, but only Jews who reject Jesus as their saviour, that is, the new Enlightenment Jesus, as well as the traditional Jesus who, after all, can now be understood as a mythical figure given how he is characterized.

This is a midrash, a product of the imagination rather than a scientific conclusion drawn from observation and experimentation. But why would Bacon, this beacon of light for the Enlightenment dedicated to science as the means for improving the human condition fall back on a stereotype, on what he himself had labeled an Idol of the Market, a prejudicial notion unsupported by evidence and rooted deeply in a fixed perception of the other? Further, why would a man committed to science as the means for human betterment fall back on a religious trope that suggests that faith as a Christian is what delivers the goods?

As we read on in The New Atlantis, Bacon substitutes science for God as the means of satisfying and guaranteeing human welfare.  Bacon is not a believer in knowledge for its own sake. He is a proto-utilitarian. What function then does a belief in Jesus serve? Is the Christian church suddenly a supporter of science? Well, a certain kind of Christianity is, a religion which accepts reason as the light, and Jesus is that light, and education rather than surrender to the will of God is the means of salvation. A Christianity which gives a community coherence to support the utility of science is the kind of religion Bacon extolls.

So why divide Jews in to the good kind who accept Jesus as the ruler of the seraphim versus those who despise Jesus? Look at the difference between traditional Christianity’s view of Jesus as the supreme light versus reason as the supreme light. The former light is divine; the latter light is earthly. In The New Atlantis, the Governor of Bensalem tells the tale of the founding of Bensalem by Salomon (Solomon???) who creates the College of Six Days’ Works, “Salomon’s House,” dedicated to spreading “God’s first creature… light” throughout the world via the scientific prowess of Bensalem. Bensalem is the start-up metropolis inhabited by the “Merchants of Light” and “Lamps” which make empirical knowledge possible. And knowledge is power.

But the city is still an adaptation of Augustine’s City of God. Except it works through research that unveils secrets and provides material benefits – health, wealth and well-being, the very benefits God restores to Job when the latter remains faithful.

Just as God worked for six days to create the world, the College of Six Days’ Works uses reason, science and education to enable progress to usher in a new Zion in which Christianity provides the social cohesion which reason cannot provide. Christianity is instrumental in tricking people into accepting the scientific revolution and the quest for a new scientific paradise, one in which we now live. What about our original question – why offer a stereotype of the bad Jew and a utopian view of the good Jew?

Note that the religious priest of Bensalem wears clothing with both Christian and Jewish elements as well as Muslim ones. He is ecumenical. This is not a tale in which the birth of Jesus changes the course of history. Rather progress in history – and there is progress – depends on science, something which only the intellectual elites understand while the masses are carried forward by the use of traditional costuming.

Note that the Tanach appears in the sea for the sailors who seem to be substitutes for the sailors on the ship which threw Jonah overboard; it is equivalent to a hologram, an image created for effect but without any substance. The god of The New Atlantis is reason and science and he is a humanist. Insofar as Jews worship this rewritten version of God, insofar as they join the Enlightenment and, like traditional Christians, leave behind their Idols of the Market, they can join in the new religion of reason, science and the Enlightenment.

Joabin, and the Jews like him, are honest and tolerant and full of brotherly love for non-Jews. All humans belong to the same human family. Jesus, at least this re-interpreted Jesus, is a spokesperson for that view.  Therefore, Jews who no longer reject this Jesus, who accept the new sense of community, Jews who accept assimilation in the religion of reason and progress, Jews who no longer betray a dual loyalty, will not suffer as Job suffered at the hands of God.

If you recall Shakespeare’s portrait of Shylock and Marlowe’s portrait of Jews, whatever objections one might have to Bacon’s doctrine, this is a very different world than one which sanctioned the exclusion of Jews.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Francis Bacon – An Introduction

Spinoza wrote that what he meant by God was “the fixed and unchangeable order of nature or the chain of natural events.” God was a unity. Nature was a unity. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the so-called father of empiricism and of precise observation of nature, in contrast with Spinoza’s emphasis on abstract critical reasoning and Nature with a capital “N,” divided knowledge into three realms associated with three different faculties:

Philosophy   reason

Poetry          imagination

History        memory.

For Spinoza, there was only one route to knowledge – reason – and only one body of knowledge – Nature or God. However, nature created men of different kinds. But these differences were external and not substantive, a product of varied circumstances versus constant laws. Bacon argued that different fields of study required different methods and different disciplinary practices. For Spinoza, one could only get to fixed laws through the use of reason.

However, Spinoza wrote that the mind is a complex of mental (both cognitive and affective) states. The essence of the bodily aspect of Nature is appetite. Will applies to reason alone. Appetite applies to both mind and body. One consequence: we do not desire the good but dub the good what we desire, a principle almost identical to one Bacon put forth. Whatever we desire we brand good. But Bacon offered different grounds for this principle.

His originality is his defence of the classification rather than the classification itself. Classification allows organization and hence accessibility and, thereby the democratic spread of knowledge. Bacon becomes a contemporary precisely because of his concern, not with the purpose of knowledge, its end, not the why of knowing, but the how. Information, for Bacon, is processed through three routes, reason, the imagination and though narrative or historically. Spinoza also depicted the imagination, but not as a vehicle to knowledge, but a passive response to pleasure and/or pain as part of the common order of nature. Love is pleasure resulting from an external cause. Hate is its parallel – pain resulting from an external cause. Therefore, love can be a product of either fleeting or long-term gratification. Imagination encompasses the wide range of passive responses to these affects.

Whatever their philosophical differences, both were prodigies. Like most of the other precocious personalities discussed thus far from the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, Bacon was a brilliant student. Even taking into consideration the much younger age when young men attended college, Bacon went up to Cambridge when he was only 12 years old. Though he made his intellectual name as a philosopher of science in his volume Novum Organum, he made his public name earlier as a diplomat and was a student of law, statecraft and languages. Thomas Jefferson regarded Bacon as one of his heroes alongside John Locke and Isaac Newton, with Bacon having the added advantage of founding colonies in Virginia and the Carolinas, as well as Newfoundland.

Bacon was very ambitious, determined to both uncover the truth while serving his country, all along remaining faithful to the church. Unlike Spinoza, Bacon was no iconoclast. He became a politician sympathetic to Puritanism and a promoter of the union of England and Scotland. He supported the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. It was he who explicitly identified England with Athens and Spain with authoritarian and militaristic Sparta. On the other hand, he actually opposed Queen Elizabeth I for being so punitive towards Catholics, but nevertheless was named by the Queen to be her legal counsel. He tempered the hard-nosed proponents of Realpolitik with compassion, but nevertheless became an ardent supporter of King James I. Some would call him an opportunist, others a proto-pragmatist.

When the House of Commons was at odds with James I over his extravagant lifestyle, Bacon tried to mediate between the King and the Commons. One could argue that he had become an apologist. But much worse. When he was named Attorney General in 1613, he used torture to help convict Edmund Peacham of treason and get him hung. Three years later, in 1616, he initiated the impeachment of Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset. He became Regent for a short period and them Lord Chancellor at the age of 45 when he married Alice Barnham, a 14-year-old daughter of an ambitious alderman. She later went on to have an affair with Sir John Underhill, possibly because Bacon was gay and preferred a Welsh servant. Bacon disowned her.

His worst period came in 1621 when he was charged with corruption – he had accepted legal fees while holding high office. He made a plea bargain. His fine and confinement to the Tower of London were both pardoned by the king, but he never could hold a political office again, a great benefit to the future because he then devoted himself to study and writing.

Our interest, however, is on the interaction of his religious beliefs with his political and scientific ones. He was an Anglican with a sympathy for Puritanism, but never a dogmatist in religious terms. In Fama Fraternitatis he wrote, “after a time there will now be a general reformation, both of divine and humane things, according to our desire, and the expectation of others: for it’s fitting, that before the rising of the Sun, there should appear and break forth Aurora, or some clearness, or divine light in the sky.” “According to our desire and the expectation of others.” We act, not for a divine end, but to satisfy desires and others’ expectations.

Let me offer a contemporary application of the guiding principle of historical knowledge that the politics of the present, the divisiveness of politics in America, is affected by competing accounts of the past. The Confederate flag that Governor Nikki Haley took down from the South Carolina State House following the murder of nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston is a case in point. Her action was invaluable. However, her rationale was dead wrong. The flag was not hijacked by white supremacists; it has always been the symbol of white supremacism both for the secessionists in the nineteenth century and for the Dixiecrats in the forties and fifties of the twentieth century. To read the flag simply as a symbol of sacrifice is to hide its heritage in deep racism and to cover up that for which there had been so much sacrifice, so much Jim Crow, so much murder and mayhem, so much abuse of the rights of others. Under the Confederate flag, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops killed unarmed black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.

For Spinoza, competing accounts of the past were just different efforts to create an imaginative world, a construct as it were, that reinforced one’s desires and appetites. Thus, there was no truth value in such imaginative efforts, just personal satisfaction. The only hidden meanings worth unpacking were those in Nature uncovered by reason. Bacon, however, found hidden meanings in myths and fables as well as historical narratives. All hidden meanings in whatever realm are regarded by establishments as not only hidden but forbidden knowledge.

Both Spinoza and Bacon opposed the realm of superstition and promoted its replacement by what could be called substition, that is unpacking the hidden truth beneath the surface. However, religious belief for both were matters of faith, not knowledge. It was a realm in which to escape and provide relief from the pains of this world and find pleasure in another. That perhaps explains why Bacon is probably most famous for his depictions of the idols of the mind.

There are four such idols:

                                        Idols of the Theatre


Idols of the Cave          ————!————         Idols of the Market


                                        Idols of the Tribe

An idol is an image fixed by the imagination in the mind which is venerated but has no substance. That is, it lacks any truth value. An idol is an idée fixe that cannot be dislodged by counterfactual evidence. We begin at the base – Idols of the Tribe inherent in all humans. They are human propensities to distort, exaggerate and inflate and disregard what is directly apparent to one’s senses. At one extreme, the idols create utopian fantasies which gain dignity over time, especially when constructed of an admixture of facts. At the other extreme, they are pure fabrications used to denounce and destroy others and advance one’s own interests and appetites.

If Idols of the Tribe belong to the public realm, Idols of the Cave are inner creations of the imagination roaming about in the cavern of one’s mind. Given our education and preoccupations, these idols are used to interpret and distort what appears to our senses as these are filtered through forms and categories to which we have given a preferential status. A military historian will give a preference for viewing the past through military categories while an economic historian gives preference to economic matters and a physiologist may give a strong preference to explaining phenomena in terms of the functioning of the body. Truth entails dislodging these Idols of the Tribe and Idols of the Cave from their fixidity. These fixations are often viewed by Bacon as feminine qualities. In Bacon’s New Atlantis (1626), in a frontispiece, a winged figure, Father Time, retrieves a female figure from the dark cave of the mind and brings her into the light.

Idols of the Market are not what one may assume in today’s consumer culture as those bitten by an advertising bug so that one becomes intent on purchasing something which may, in the end, be of little use. Rather, Idols are of the Mind and not the material realm, and an Idol of the Market is more akin to what George Orwell tried to expose in his dystopian novel, 1984.  If we use words to give them a false significance, even an inverted significance, we engage in Idols of the Marketplace such as when we call the vicious autocrat, Stalin, Uncle Joe, or call the rulers in a dictatorship, Big Brother, or another person whom you are trained that you cannot trust, comrade. When words become substitutes for thinking, in fact, often prevent thinking, when words are used to overwhelm the other with the Big Lie, with repeated claims that are unsupported by any evidence – such as the Ukraine rather than Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 American election, then you are dancing with an Idol of the Marketplace.

Idols of the Theatre occupy the top tier because these are idols that frame our thoughts rather than simply being fake news. The view that the sun revolves around the earth and that the earth is the centre of the cosmos is an Idol of the Theatre, in this case, the drama of the cosmos. Similarly, the Aristotelian emphasis on final causes, on telos, is an Idol of the Theatre because it is a mental worldview presented to the masses not to enable them to think but so they will not think. Here we enter the arena in which philosophy or theology has become a servant to power and the establishment. When we have erected a false mental superstructure in the mind that cannot itself be subjected to analysis and criticism, then we have enslaved our faculties to the Idols of the Theatre.

The antidote to these idols – pay attention in detail to causes in nature, not, like Spinoza, to nature on a grand scale, but to nature in all its varied details. And keep in mind utility. Knowledge is important for the use that we can make of it. Bacon was a proto-pragmatist. The value of certain spheres of knowledge depended on their degree of contribution to the well-being of humanity. Further, that knowledge had to be subject to tests of falsification. This was the essence of the scientific method.  Knowledge may be inherited but its truth value can only be assessed through observation and established by experimentation and testing.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Spinoza Addendum

I have been asked by several readers to expand more fully on Spinoza’s biblical criticism in his Theological-Political Treatise of 1670. I have already written on the connection of theology and political theory in general in both Grotius and Spinoza. This blog offers specific illustrations and answers some questions directed at me. Nothing I write is earth shattering or original.

Clearly, the basic premise was that the Bible should be examined and analyzed by rational methods. This was the forerunner of what became known as “higher criticism.” Further, I believe Spinoza was the first to argue that the Torah was a product of different authors and, following the rabbinic commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century), expanded on the latter’s thesis that Moses could not have been the author. In addition, Spinoza claimed that reason was sufficient to find basic ethical principles. The Torah was primarily a pedagogical tool. Perhaps, even more importantly, as I have put forth, the Torah was for Jews the constitution of the Jewish people.  For an extended analysis, readers may want to consult Jonathan Israel (2001) Radical Enlightenment.

Readers of my blog were interested in examples in which Spinoza found the Torah to be “faulty, mutilated, tampered with, and inconsistent,” a synthetic product of different versions, some lost forever. His views were also shared by some Calvinists, like Isaac La Peyrère, namely that the flood did not cover the whole earth or that Adam was the first man. In doing so, Spinoza did not disparage the Torah. He upheld it as a crucial text to teach ordinary people through telling tales that offered norms by which to live. But Spinoza was also an intellectual snob. It is because the ordinary guy was incapable of higher reason that the teaching had to be written as stories to be read to and by the ordinary guy.

What he most disparaged were miracles – of which the text is full. He did not need to prove that any one one of them was false for, from the proposition that natural laws are manifestations of God and miracles are breaches of natural laws, and that it was irrational for God to express his nature in natural laws at the same time as He provided for breaking those laws, it was a contradiction and irrational. Therefore, not only were there no miracles, but there could be no miracles. Claims for miracles were only products of the imagination, tall tales without any truth value.

More radically, Spinoza disparaged the idea of God as judge. God manifested Himself in nature and nature was the expression of God. God is an immanent presence and not transcendent. Further, even the application of a concept like free will is misleading. For if God manifests Himself in nature according to laws, and that is called God’s freedom, then “free will” is a superfluous expression. There is no personal God. God does not feel, get angry or mete out justice. God does not expect nor does He experience disappointment. God does not even make choices. So why worship or pray to Him?

Spinoza’s most profound critique targeting the Aristotelians was his attack on final causes, the notion that to each thing there is an essential end and that through the purpose of anything, its telos, we can unravel the nature of the world. Spinoza disparaged the view that the world has a purpose especially made for our benefit; such a perspective was as fallacious as the doctrine that the sun revolves around the earth. His critique claimed that there was an inherent contradiction. If God is perfect, then there is nothing yet to be unfolded. More importantly, it suggests that there is something that God does not have but which God wants, pointing to an insufficiency in God.

Further, if nature as an expression of God is perfect, why are there faults and failings in the system, such as in the way the heart functions for some. If the heart was designed by God, then God could not be perfect for He makes imperfect pumps. Since there are imperfections in the particulars, it is only in the overall composite of natural laws that you can come closer to perfection – but still very far away. An inability to understand variations in a system is but a reflection of our limited minds rather than saying anything about nature, let alone God.

The problem most believers have with Spinoza is not so much that nature is a manifestation of God, of the divine spirit, but that one cannot extrapolate, not only a purpose, but even a preestablished order. In a modern idiom, Spinoza would insist that, “it is what it is.” Standards of beauty, of good and evil, are constructs of humans and do not inhere in nature.

Why then was Spinoza excommunicated? Who would disagree with his views of imperfection, his critique of teleology and his contempt for miracles? First off, excommunication was no great thing in a Jewish congregation. It meant that you lost your membership. When we think of excommunication, we think of the Inquisition, we think of Galileo. And even in that case, as I tried to show, the action was far more permeated with politics at the time than just a conflict over religious doctrine. Nor was Galileo’s house arrest anything close to being burned at the stake.

Further, Spinoza was just being kicked out of membership in his synagogue. He was free to join another Jewish community in Hamburg or Leiden or Vilna. The language may have been drawn from Inquisitional documents – such as clauses about no contact or discourse with the man – but Spinoza continued to have contacts with Jews even as he expanded his correspondence and contacts with gentiles.

I was asked what were the particulars of Spinoza’s herem? Asa Kasher and Shlomo Biderman in their essay, “Why Was Baruch de Spinoza Excommunicated” in D. Katz et. al. 1990 edited collection, Sceptics, Millenarians and Jews or Steven Nadler’s 2013 essay, “Why was Spinoza Excommunicated,” (Humanities 34:5) offer detailed accounts. The condemnation reads as follows:

The Senhores of the ma’amad [the congregation’s lay governing board] having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from his evil ways. However, having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having for this numerous trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of this matter. After all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honorable hakhamim [“wise men,” or rabbis], they have decided, with the


consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.

The reasons sound horrific and the extent seems global. The “crime” certainly seemed very serious and, for the Jewish community, the punishment was very severe.  Though the offence could have been for a cause as mundane as not paying dues, the instigation in Spinoza’s case was far more serious. Although the Board of Directors of his synagogue had responsibilities equivalent to the United States Senate, Spinoza was not an officer of the synagogue nor was he excommunicated for high crimes and misdemeanours. In fact, he was not even the worst villain. Daniel Ribero and, especially, Juan (Daniel) de Prado, whose memberships were also up for review at the same time, were worse. There was no equivalent to Galileo’s trial. There was not even a trial.

Reread the document above. Neither it nor any other document has been found which tells us what the “monstrous deeds” and “abominable heresies” were. Dr. Prado, charged at the same time, recanted. The charges were dropped until Prado repeated the offence a year later and was then excommunicated. Spinoza would not recant on the first round and even rejected the offer to be relocated in another Jewish community alongside all the Jewish refugees who had fled Brazil. There are some suggestions that Spinoza felt that the four Sephardic congregations in Amsterdam had all been “infected” with the Christian conviction as a dogma that the soul was immortal, since all four rabbis espoused such a belief and critics argued that this was a result of their immersion in Christian beliefs before they converted back to Judaism.

Yet this young man, only 23 at the time, from a well-respected Portuguese Marrano family, with no published works, is branded with such a severe edict. My hypothesis is it was the same charge leveled against Socrates for which that ancient Greek philosopher was forced to take hemlock – the corruption of youth by questioning the Bible’s historical accuracy. Spinoza was brilliant. They did not want him to influence their children and his peers lest his “abominable heresies” become even more “monstrous deeds.” When he did publish, he proved that the Directors of the synagogue were correct. Spinoza ended up “corrupting” the whole religious world.

What about Spinoza’s reference to the particularism of Judaism and the universality of Christianity? First, that distinction should be suspect from the get go. After all, Christianity really anthropomorphized God; Judaism only did so with characterization – how God felt, how He thought, how He decided, how He had regrets. That meant a constraint on human freedom and reinforcement of institutionalized authority. The establishment had a way of keeping the masses in line. The consequences of disobedience were enormous, much more for a Christian than for a Jew. Nadler speculated it was worse for Jews because God then could not have “chosen” the Jews.

But even Spinoza’s God could have done so, not by giving Jews a special status, but by assigning them by nature to a specific function or set of functions. A role, not a reward, was defined. But once the world became or aspired to become a commonwealth of nations, “there is nothing whatsoever that the Jews can arrogate to themselves above other nations.” They no longer need to define themselves as more different than other nations. Further, the history of Jews has proven than the laws Jews adopted were historically rooted. The laws of Temple sacrifice were no longer relevant and had been abandoned. So would be the end of other irrelevant Jewish laws.

Except for one law that was universal. Love thy neighbour. Love your fellow human beings. Act towards others with justice and charity. The Lutheran doctrine that one could only grasp the truth of scripture by “opening oneself first to grace and surrendering oneself to the service of and trust in Jesus” was even more irrelevant than the accretions of Jewish law. Institutions, the Christian churches much more than the Jewish establishment, perverted the universality of the message of both Jesus and of the prophets, including Moses.  Even though the prophets directed their message to the Jewish people, one should attend to the universality in the message. When Paul taught that Jesus died on the cross to free men, it was not to free them from the rule of law, but from the bondage imposed by irrelevant legal commands. That is the correct way to read the Gospels. Jesus “purified” the universalist message within Judaism. The institutions built over his dead body resurrected authority structures to undermine the message.

It should be no surprise why liberal Calvinists respected Spinoza so much while conservative Calvinists, who clung much more to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, were even more negative that Spinoza’s own congregation. Did this make his synagogue more sensitive to the dangers of Spinoza’s beliefs?

With the help of Alex Zisman

Hugo Grotius and the Jewish Question: VI Political Theology

My previous five blogs dealt with the following:

I Sovereignty

II Grotius and Spinoza

III Spinoza

IV Menasseh ben Israel

V Theology and Revolution

In the last blog in this series, I want to review the previous five blogs, but within the context of political theology. What is political theology? It is a doctrine that the secular cannot be divorced from the sacred. If a divorce is attempted, parts of the secular world will be made sacred, and that can be very dangerous as evidenced by the relatively mild case of laïcité in France and in Quebec, and the very serious case of the national socialist movement (Nazis) in Germany. For without sacred ground, there is no solid foundation for political authority.

The topic was brought to the forefront of political thought by a German National Socialist (a Nazi), the German jurist and professor of law, Carl Schmitt, in his 1922 book, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. His 1915 equivalent to a master’s thesis was titled, On Guilt and Types of Guilt. His equivalent to a doctoral thesis in 1916 was called The Value of the State and the Significance of the Individual.

He also wrote:

Dictatorship (1921)

The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923; 1926; 1988)

The Idea of Representation: A Discussion (1931; 1988)

The Concept of the Political (1932; 1966; 2007)

The titles alone suggest where he stood in terms of politics.

However, the titles may suggest what he believed, but they do not indicate how those beliefs were translated into significant action. And I am not just referring to his joining the Nazi Party as a radical antisemite or to his active participation in the bonfires burning Jewish books as un-German or anti-German. In 1932, he was the counsel for the Reich government in opposition to the deeply socialist Prussian government that was suspended by the right-wing government of Franz van Papen. The court ruled against the Reich by concluding that the suspension was illegal, but, based on Schmitt’s innovative arguments, the court nevertheless ruled that the Reich had the right to install a commissar in control of decisions. This ruling effectively destroyed the federalism of the Weimar Republic. It also set the precedent for sidelining President Paul von Hindenburg and allowing the newly installed Nazi government to rule by decree or, as they say in America, by executive action.

Modern political theory, constitutional law and international law, as conceptualized by Hugo Grotius, rooted sovereignty in the people rather than a singular all-powerful monarch on the basis of a covenant with God. As conceived by both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the original covenant was simply a social contract made amongst a group of people to constitute a state in which their natural powers were delegated to either a ruler or a legislative elected authority, primarily a transactional exercise in Locke. Hobbes, as we shall see, legitimized authoritarian rule because the sovereign people of their own free will deeded their authority to a singular all-powerful ruler. Locke argued that the people would not surrender their power to anything but a legislature and executive branch that they continued to control. As we have seen, Grotius took neither of those two paths, but continued to insist that the prime covenant must be made between God and humans. The prime source of authority was still the sacred.

In the decision to make the people sovereign rather than a singular divine authority of His representative, for Schmitt, the foundation of the political was not and could not be rooted in human rational choice theory but had to be based on a theology that gave primacy to one voice over another. The shift from a divine source of authority to the people was not itself a matter of choice, but a paradigm shift that itself was irrational and, therefore, theological since it went beyond reason into the realm of faith.

As I wrote in my first blog in this series, we are witnessing the reintroduction of theology of the irrational into politics, not just over issues like abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia, but in the emergence once again, this time, in the most powerful nation in the world, of a leader who believes he stands not only outside of and apart from the legislative authority of the state rooted in the people, but outside of the fundamental conception of the people as sovereign. Trump believes that the leader is sovereign because the leader is in tune with and knows the will of the people. Trump may just be a Hobbesian dictator, but I suspect not, since in his thinking, there is no reference to the people delegating power to a singular person. They voted for him because his people identified with him.

Thus, for his base, it does not matter what intellectual elites say. Rather, the members of his base feel as if those elites condescend towards them. In contrast, Trump speaks their language and says what he thinks, and assumes that because he thought it, that it must be true since he said it. It does not matter that Trump lives in a penthouse with gold taps or is a billionaire, the members of the base feel that they are seen through him. The members of the base believe that members if the intellectual elite do not see them, know them or desire to know them.

This has created a constitutional crisis, not because the elected leader has assumed he has been placed in power by the will of a collectivity, but, more importantly, because a supine political party that once rested totally on the rule of law, totally on individual rights, totally on rationalism and self-interest, has been inverted and surrendered its legislative authority to a lawless autocrat who can turn international diplomacy into a personal transactional exercise rather than a defence of national interests.

However, perhaps that should be no surprise. After all, the party of individualism, the party of free enterprise, always did take its communitarian base largely for granted. It was Richard Nixon who saw the necessity of joining the issue of security on the international stage to security on the domestic stage and winning the Deep South to the Republican cause by appealing to the presence of racism in most Americans at the time. Even more importantly, the Republican Party knew that it was the party of the Revolution, the party forged by the Civil War, the party that, in the name of the “sacred union,” declared war on states in which their members’ representatives voted democratically to secede. Did the political body of each state in a federation have the right? Or did the constitution create a covenant which made the nation indivisible? For Schmitt, the choice of which sense of the sacred was right could not be determined by reason, but only by unreason and, hence, the resort to violence.

In fact, America had been born through such a choice, through revolution. In the international realm, were the treaties made between Native Americans and Britain sacrosanct or were they simply instruments of an imperial power to keep a vibrant new nation within boundaries? The key issue in the Civil War then became how do we decide, or who decides who is sovereign and what is the characteristic of that sovereignty domestically? How do we decide and who decides whether or not to base ultimate authority in the hands of a democratically elected legislature and who has the right to belong to that body who delegates responsibility to a legislature? The answer Grotius offered still resided in the sacred and was never separated from sacred authority?

Grotius used the biblical text as his authority that insisted that God gave that authority initially to a people, the Israelites who spoke a common language, forged a national identity and were rooted in a specific territory guaranteed them by God. God did not give that authority to an institution like the Roman Catholic Church so that it could ultimately reside in a pope and through the device of the king’s two bodies, a secular king that erred and a sacred one that expressed divine authority. Who then was there to sanction a monarch as possessing a divine right to rule? The Jews were a light unto the nations and the Dutch nation had come to see that light. In imitation of the Jews, they insisted that, through revolution, they could and would earn the right to rule themselves as a nation state.

For Grotius, in contrast to Hobbes and Locke, sovereignty was not a matter of a random collection of persons coming together in a state of nature to forge a state at a time when the nation and the state were created at one and the same time. Rather, the nation preceded the state. It had a common linguistic and cultural heritage and an attachment to a specific territory. But in history, it was just as much or even more that the battle with Spain over the freedom and self-determination of the Dutch, as well as an escape from Roman Catholic repression, that forged the nation. Nation states were born in blood – or, in the case of Canada, the fear of blood.

That is, as Schmitt argued, revolution, the recourse to violence, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a cause. Revolution and blood sacrifice were critical. In other words, sovereignty comes to the fore in the context of a crisis. There is currently such a crisis in the U.S.A. today. Democrats, and three of the eminent legal scholars who testified last Wednesday, argue that the national interest had been compromised and that foreign powers had been invited to intervene in an American election – arousing a deep-seated fear that foreign interference would undermine the sacredness of the insulated electoral process. In the abuse of that sacred right, the elected monarch of the United States posed as a traditional monarch, one above the law and one capable of denying witnesses and evidence to a duly elected committee of the House of Representatives.

I insisted in my opening blog that it was necessary to go back to sources, which was also the insistence of Grotius. Natural law emerged in history and could not be conceived as an abstraction forged in a state of nature divorced from history. The secular state governed by its people in accordance with the rule of law emerged from a sacred text. Grotius was not a modernist who divorced the sacred and the secular, just the church and state. Though he had a secular agenda, he supported that by reference to the Bible and, in particular, the emergence of the Israelites as a nation governed by the rule of law.

To repeat what I wrote in my opening blog in this last series, “Grotius propounded a theory of sovereignty based on a doctrine of natural law independent of the will of God and deriving its existence from the nature of man as a rational being who seeks a society consonant with his intelligence. Reason provided the basis for justice in the state and justice among states, both in peace and in war.” But the fault line remained the juncture of the sacred and the secular. And underneath that fault, was violence, war and conflict, the resort to which Grotius tried to restrict to the rational. Resorting to violence required a just cause (in contrast to conquest or revenge). The threat had to be imminent and self-defense must be the ultimate justification. Those who decide must be rightfully constituted authorities and consider the resort to war a last resort adopted to overcome a serious injustice.

But who decides who is the rightfully constituted authority, especially when the conflict is precisely over that issue? Who decides whether abolishing slavery is a just cause or, alternatively, the principle of states’ rights and self-determination is? Grotius did not resolve those issues. However, by alluding to the biblical record, he argued that God’s message and the true answer to that bedevilment was revealed in using critique to understand the intention of the Biblical text. The secular remained firmly rooted in the sacred even as it sought its independence.

“A doctrine of a right of rebellion explained the nature of sovereign authority within the state; a doctrine of just war was used to explain the nature of the sovereignty among states. Sovereignty, internally considered and defined by will and externally considered, defined by consent, derives its content and meaning, and its force of obligation, from the nature of man, from the law of nature, hence, natural law theory.” War between and among nations was to be determined by a compact among nations.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Hugo Grotius and the Jewish Question – Part V: Theology and Revolution

For non-Christians, this is intended as a useful backgrounder to Hugo Grotius’s Christianity and a preparation for my final blog on Grotius. Some Christians who are not Calvinists might find it useful as well. I welcome corrections from my Christian friends.

As I have written, unlike Galileo Galilei, Hugo Grotius (Huig van Groot) (1583-1645), who was twenty years younger than Galileo, was intimately involved with Jews, and with one Jew in particular, Menasseh ben Israel (Manoel Dias Soeiro 1604-1657). Like Galileo, Grotius was an amateur theologian. Again, like Galileo, he was aligned with one faction of Christianity opposed to another, but instead of being aligned with Catholic anti-Aristotelians versus the Aristotelian Jesuits, Grotius was aligned with a Calvinist Protestant faction, the Arminians against the Gomarists,  

Jacobus Arminus (1560-1609) was a Dutch theologian. His followers were known as Remonstrants, a faction of Calvinists, that is, Augustinians as opposed to Thomist Aristotelians. In particular, Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at the University of Geneva, introduced the soteriological variation to Calvinism preoccupied with salvation. The Remonstrance (1610) was a theological statement signed by 45 ministers and submitted to the States General of the Netherlands, the Dutch Congress comprising a House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer) and a Senate (Eerste Kamer) that so influenced the structure of the nascent republic of the United States of America. The States General in turn convened the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 to consider the five articles of Remonstrance dealing with salvation, namely:

  1. Salvation (and condemnation on the day of judgment) was conditioned by the graciously-enabled faith (or unbelief) of man;
  2. The Atonement is qualitatively adequate for all men, “yet that no one actually enjoys [experiences] this forgiveness of sins, except the believer …” and thus is limited to only those who trust in Christ;
  3. “That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will,” and unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God’s will;
  4. The Christian Grace “of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of any good,” yet man may resist the Holy Spirit;
  5. Believers are able to resist sin through Grace, and Christ will keep them from falling; but whether they are beyond the possibility of ultimately forsaking God or “becoming devoid of grace … must be more particularly determined from the Scriptures.”

In other words, salvation, deliverance or redemption, the saving of an individual from eternal suffering and from a separation from God, depended on faith and not works nor the rulings of any institution – God alone would be the judge of human innocence or guilt. All Christians, not just Arminians, not just Calvinists, not just Protestants, but all Christians could atone for their sins, for Jesus had died on the cross to atone for the sins of all humans, but only those who had accepted this proposition, that Jesus had died on the cross so that they could be forgiven, could garner atonement in this way.

Thus, though salvation was open to anyone, atonement, or forgiveness of sins, was only open to Christians. Depending on the sin, they had a ranked order in terms of degrees of depravity. Various Christian sects differed on what was or was not to be considered a depraved state and to what degree. This led to at least five different theories of atonement: ransom, Christus Victor, recapitulation, satisfaction and moral influence. Recall that Catholicism had demarcated three forms of required atonement: penance, alms and satisfaction.

Arminians were Calvinists who believed that saving grace was a prerogative of the divine spirit and nothing that humans did of their free will could determine whether they could be saved, but only the Holy Spirit. But even if one was chosen, humans could remain closed to receiving that Holy Spirit. Grace, however, could even overcome that resistance.

Who were the Gomarists? They were followers of Franciscus Gomarus (François Gomaer 1563-1641) He had been educated in Strasbourg, Oxford, Cambridge and Heidelberg. Like most Calvinist theologians, he was fluent in Hebrew and was named a Professor of Hebrew at the University of Leiden, the main competitor in continental Europe to the University of Padua as the Princeton of its age. There, Jacobus Arminius was a colleague. Gomarus accused the latter of teaching Pelagian doctrine, namely that a person from his own free will was capable of doing good or evil and choosing God without the aid of divine intervention – in direct contradiction to the basic precepts of Calvinism.

Arminius, however, insisted that election was solely a matter of faith and predestination determined that faith. Gomaris and Arminius came to direct intellectual blows in the assembly of the States of Holland in 1608 and 1609. Then Arminius died. Against Gomarus’ will, Konrad Vorstius, one of the Arminians, took his place. Gomarus was so offended he resigned his professorship and became a professor first at Saumur and then at Groningen.

Unlike Arminius, Gomarus advocated that restrictions be placed on the Jews. Why did Arminian doctrine remain open to the equality of Jews while Jews remained suspect to Gomarians and required limitations on where they lived, how they dressed and on their interactions with Christians? In Arminian theology, election depended on faith; predestination determined that faith. For them, that was the central message of the Bible. But in life, humans were free to do good or evil whether or not they were open to being saved.

For Gomarists, God, not humans, was the author of all sin; ironically, this was similar to the position of Spinoza, a liberal. But the principle for Gomarists had a particular Christian twist. The Fall of Man was decreed by God. So was the Fall of Jews and their failure to accept Jesus as their saviour. Thus, Gomarists, unlike Arminians, opposed tolerance not only for Jews but for Roman Catholics as well. As long as Jews believed that their salvation depended on following the rules of biblical law, they not only could not be open to salvation, but could influence Christians, namely Calvinists, to close their hearts to faith. Jews themselves could never be saved. However, Arminius left open the possibility that Jews could be saved by other means than faith, but only those who became Calvinists were eligible for grace being bestowed upon them.

Nevertheless, both men were thoroughly fluent in Hebrew and had a close acquaintance with the Torah. However, only Artimius reached out to Jews, and most particularly Menasseh ben Israel, to help in interpretation of Hebrew words and phrases and for learning different techniques for biblical interpretation.

When Gomarus in the Synod of Dort (Dordtecht) failed in the debate to have Artimius condemned for heresy and fled Leiden, Leiden became an intellectual and financial centre for both Christians and Jews and one of the islands of respect and tolerance in Europe. 

For the new covenant of faith in Jesus and God succeeded, but did not displace or replace the Jewish covenant with God. Jews could have had their own route to atonement and salvation. It was an early form of two-stream theology with respect to the relations of Christian and Jews. It was not for man to determine that Israel had broken the old covenant which gave rise to the new one of salvation through accepting Jesus as one’s saviour. Hence, there was no need to convert Jews or for Jews to convert, let alone to persecute Jews inherently as fallen and needing salvation.

For both versions of religious belief, God alone was absolutely righteous. Only persons pure of sin could approach Him. Only God could decide on reconciliation between man and God, but Jews followed a different path of sacrifice, more specifically, the ritual of the Paschal lamb and the search for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement. Christians required acceptance through faith in the role of “the suffering servant” and the mediation of a divinely sent servant of the Lord who was wounded for man’s transgressions and would bare the sins of the many.

Jews, learned and practicing, did not accept this depiction of themselves, even as they thrived under this form of theological tolerance. For one, forgiveness by God was not a single epiphany in one’s life, but a temporary state very dependent on follow through. Further, korbanot or offerings could only be useful in atoning for minor sins committed in ignorance without intent. They were not transactional exercises; there were no payments for sin and giving the gift to God was the means of transforming a sinful into a sacred act. The sacrifice was only effective if the person making the sacrifice was sincere in his or her repentance. Finally, restitution to the person harmed was required. All of these principles would have a deep effect on Grotius’ conception of the role of law.

One other piece of background, this time political rather than theological. For eighty years, between 1568 and 1648, the northern seven provinces of the Netherlands or the Low Countries (as distinct from what became Belgium and Luxembourg) which were extensively, but far from majoritarian, Calvinist or at least Protestant, were in revolt against the rule of the Roman Catholic King Phillip II of Spain who was the hereditary monarch for those provinces. His father, Charles, had been born and brought up in the Netherlands and spoke Dutch as well as French, Spanish and German. Phillip II would eventually become heir to the Spanish throne and eventually ruler of the entire Habsburg Empire, of which the Low Countries were an integral part.

However, as head of the most powerful state in the world at the time with its huge empire in the Americas, the Spanish ecclesiastical and corrupt nobility turned out to be no match in the end for the sincere, pious, humble and morally superior Dutch rebels who took advantage of the initially decentralized rule of Charles V and Phillip II after 1555. Phillip, unlike his father, had grown up in Spain and spoke no Dutch.

The Dutch managed to keep the Inquisition at bay and were able to resist and win against the efforts to re-centralize power using a precursor of no taxation without representation. They revolted against a heavy burden of taxation and the heavy hand of repression of Phillip’s de facto governor, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba, in 1567 led by William of Orange (senior), but only after initial very severe losses and a retreat to guerilla warfare. Victory would be achieved as the powerful Spanish were weakened by a four-front war – against the Ottomans, against the French, against the English pirates and, finally, against the Dutch.

This was a clash of cultures with deep roots in religion. William of Orange converted from Catholicism to Calvinism in 1573. But under the influence of an intimate knowledge of the Torah, the Dutch developed a nationalist ideology of self-determination influenced by the history of the Jews whom they believed had discovered and become the first nation state. The international law of Hugo Grotius was premised on nation states as the prime entities of the international system with international law governing the relationships between those states. Thus, the revolt led to the creation of an independent Dutch Republic, the United Provinces, under the rule of William of Orange (William the Silent), de facto in 1581 and de jure in 1648. But it was not without great cost. In the Spanish-French rivalry, which we have already seen played out in Italy and in competition for leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, the Dutch had France as an ally, but that meant that large swaths of the Southern Netherlands were annexed by France under Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII of France.

It was during this period of the revolution that Dutch theology, political and legal theory emerged as the prototype for a modern nation state. Further, the energy and creativity of the Dutch Republic led to it becoming an important sea power with its own colonial empire, a very prosperous merchant class alongside an economic, scientific and cultural explosion. However, two factions emerged in the Dutch camp mentioned above, each rooted in theology, economics, class and distribution of power. There were the well-to-do merchants who became Arminians and were intellectually led by Hugo Grotius. They were opposed by the Gomarists with their much harsher and narrower interpretation of scripture. Though the Arminians won the intellectual debate, in 1619 they lost the internecine conflict. Grotius, initially captured, was helped by his wife to escape in a chest ostensibly filled with books. The mode of escape was itself symbolic.

The significance: secular politics and its sacred ground were seen then as interdependent.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Birth of a Nation: Parashat VaYeitzei – Genesis 28:10-32:3

I love hearing from my readers. Further to my anticipation of an antisemitic backlash after the House passes the articles of impeachment, I learned yesterday that the fourth expert witness at the Judiciary committee hearings, Jonathan Turley, is also Jewish. His arguments for going slow and that the evidence gathered was insufficient to impeach and lacked the evidence of key witnesses (which Trump has prevented them from giving), and that impeachment requires a compact across party lines, were not very convincing and contradicted earlier statements of his. But he did not vote for Trump, was critical of his behavior as “highly inappropriate” in asking a foreign leader to investigate a political rival and agreed that withholding military aid approved by Congress until the President of Ukraine did him a favour was an impeachable offence. Turley was a witness for the Republicans but he effectively undermined the case they had tried to make. Was Turley a trick on them by those tricky Jews, some are bound to ask? Rick Wiles, a right-wing evangelical from Florida, already went further and called the whole process a “Jew coup.”


A nation is born. Abraham only gave birth to a progenitor of the nation of Israel, namely Isaac. Isaac, in contrast, was the earthly father of Jacob who was the real father of the Israelite nation. Who is this Jacob and what mark did his forbears leave on him? For one, he was the spiritual son of his grandfather, not his father.

His father, Isaac, was certainly scarred very deeply by his father’s, Abraham’s, efforts to sacrifice him. Isaac did not attend his own mother’s funeral, possibly because she did not intervene to prevent his own father from taking him up a mountain where Abraham planned to sacrifice him. With his older half-brother, Ishmael, he came together finally to bury his father in the cave of Machpelah, possibly in an act of forgiveness to his father for how that father had traumatized him.

Isaac was a nebbish, an unlikely father of a nation. Like his father before him, he had two sons, Esau and Jacob, who were not only full-blooded brothers, but twins. Jacob was a very flawed individual. Under the tutelage of his mother, Rebekah, he used a ruse to trick his brother into transferring to himself his older twin’s birthright in a mundane transactional exercise where he paid for that birthright with a bowl of lentils for his tired and hungry brother. Jacob had been ambitious from birth, coming out of the birth canal literally on the heel of his brother. He was a second born son who wanted to be the first born.

When Isaac was blind and old, as old as his father had been when he tied Isaac up and took out a knife to kill him, Isaac called his older and favourite son, the tougher and rougher huntsman, Esau, to bless him. Esau echoed the same words Abraham had uttered when he had been called by God, “Hineini, here I am.” Isaac then requested his son, Esau, to go out into the woods and hunt his favourite game so he could eat it possibly for his last supper. Esau’s mother took the opportunity to organize a second ruse whereby Jacob would pretend to be Esau and thereby receive his father’s blessing.

When queried by Isaac how he, Jacob, had returned from the hunt so quickly, Jacob told a lie to his father and claimed that he killed the game because, God by good fortune had done for him what he had done for his grandfather, delivered an animal for “sacrifice” in a timely fashion. Not so fast, Isaac said. You have the voice of Jacob. How can you be Esau? But Jacob had followed his mother’s instructions, dressed in Esau’s clothes and covered his arms with animal pelts so his father would feel his arms as if they were hairy like those of his older brother.  

Isaac then blessed Jacob, not once but twice at that time, first when he felt his supposedly hairy arms and then again after he had finished eating and Jacob had come close so Isaac could smell him, not knowing that he was smelling Esau’s clothes. He would eventually bless him a third time before Jacob fled to Haran. Isaac blessed Jacob as follows:

“May God give you

Of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth,

Abundance of new grain and wine.

Let people serve you

And nations bow down to you

Be master over your brothers

And let your mother’s sons bow to you.

Cursed be they who curse you,

Blessed be they who bless you.” (27:28-9)

Isaac had unintentionally blessed the man of smooth words (and clever tricks) rather than the worldly man with the terrific manual skills of a great hunter. Jacob had come with guile and stolen his older brother’s, Esau’s, blessing. Nevertheless, Esau, weeping, asked his father to bless him as well. Isaac agreed. He reversed the order, granting him the fat of the earth and the dew of the heavens, but said that Esau would have to live by the sword and not live in abundance. People would not serve him. Rather, he would have to serve his brother but would eventually break free and be the father of many nations.

Unlike Isaac’s mother, Rebekah intervened lest Esau use his weapons to kill Jacob. Jacob fled to Haran, to his mother’s brother, Laban. Isaac blessed him again, but insisted that he not take a Canaanite wife.

Parashat VaYeitzei then begins. On the first evening, Jacob first lies down for the night and has a dream. A stairway or ladder reached from the ground upwards to the sky like the stairwell in a surrealist painting. The angels of God were going up and down the stairway. The Lord, for the first time called YHWH, appeared beside him and gave him his fourth and final blessing:

“I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the ground on which you are lying I will give to you and your offspring. Your descendants shall be the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth will bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised.” (28: 13-15)

What a weird blessing!

  • Abraham is referred to as Jacob’s (real? spiritual?) father
  • Jacob and his descendants will be given a territory, the prerequisite to forming a nation (a land that will be referred to subsequently by Jacob as “the abode of God” and the gateway to heaven)
  • However, the descendants will be scattered to the ends of the earth
  • Further, the nations among whom they will live will not bless the descendants of Jacob, but will be blessed by the presence of that diaspora
  • God promises to protect those descendants; presumably, they will be in need of protection
  • Eventually, God will return the descendants of Jacob to the sacred ground after which they will be left on their own; God will leave them.

The latter item is the most peculiar of all because Jacob refers to the land to which the descendants will return as the abode of God. Why would God leave his abode? Because the earth is not God’s place, not where God belongs? Humans will have to learn that it is where they belong. That is the lesson Jacob learns that neither his father, Isaac, nor his grandfather, Abraham learned. It is then and there that Jacob proclaims his fealty to God, but conditionally only, at least at this time, so long as God protects him and his descendants. What about after they return to the holy land and God leaves those descendants on their own?

Ever onward and upward as Nancy Pelosi said yesterday just after she had announced that the American House of Representatives would vote on impeaching Donald Trump. Ever onward and upward vowed Jacob.

Jacob reaches Haran and the home of his uncle, Laban, and perfects the arts of deception that he learned under the tutelage of his mother, Rebekah. First, he refuses to follow the norms of the shepherds who await the arrival of all the shepherds with their flocks before they roll the stone off the well to water their flocks. When Rachel arrived with her father’s flock, Jacob pre-empted them and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. He then kissed his cousin Rachel and wept tears of joy. Laban promises Rachel to him as his wife if he, Jacob, will work for him for seven years. But Laban tricks him and substitutes his older daughter, Leah for Rachel.

Poor Leah. Her husband loved her younger beautiful sister more than her. In contrast, Leah was not beautiful and had “weak eyes.” Jacob woke up in the bridal bed with Leah and realized he has been tricked. He is outraged, ran to Laban, and, irony of ironies, accused Laban of deceiving him. Jacob must work seven more years for the hand of Rachel. However, Rachel was barren after they marry. But Leah gave birth to Reuven – “the Lord has seen my affliction” and, hopefully, “now my husband will believe me.”

No such luck. Simeon, “the Lord heard,” was born. But Jacob remained deaf to her yearning for love. Levi was born and all Leah could hope for by that time was Jacob’s “attachment.” Again, nothing. Then her fourth son, Judah (“I will praise”), is born and she no longer looks to Jacob for love, but turns to God. And she accepts the blessing of her four boys as sufficient. She has been blessed with the grace of God, not Christian grace that delivers salvation, but Jewish grace that delivers satisfaction. True to his sense of original outrage, Jacob even buries Leah in the Cave of Mapilech without addressing Leah as his wife. Jacob never rids himself of his bitterness and resentment. But he has a son, Judah, who will be satisfied with whatever comes his way.

Jacob had four more sons, two from Rachel’s maid, Bilhah – Dan (God has vindicated me) and Naphtali (I have prevailed). Leah, after she believed that she had passed child-bearing age, gave her maidservant, Zilpah, to Jacob and the maid bore Gad (luck) and Asher (fortune). Then a turn of events. Just as Esau had given up his birthright in return for a bowl of lentils, Leah gave Rachel the mandrake her son had given her in return for a chance to once again sleep with Jacob. Leah had a fifth son, Issachar (reward – for giving her maid to Jacob) and a sixth son, Zebulun (a choice gift) and a daughter, Dinah.

Finally, presumably because of taking the aphrodisiac mandrake that ostensibly removes barrenness, Rachel gave birth to Joseph and would later give birth to Benjamin. Jacob returned Laban’s trickery on him and made a deal and using a gimmick of light and dark rods to stimulate cross breeding of black and white sheep. He took the best animals for his breeding program to get all of Laban’s best sheep and goats. Jacob the trickster has outwitted his trickster uncle claiming that he learned the trick from God.

Then Rachel stole her father’s idols and Laban was left without their protection. When Laban came after his daughters and his grandchildren, and what he believed were his stolen flocks but, also, primarily his stolen idols, Rachel became a trickster insisting that because she was menstruating, she could not get off her camel’s saddle under which she had hidden her father’s idols so that he could not find them when he searched the whole of Jacob’s camp. After an argument, and presumably because Laban felt he lacked the protection of his gods, Jacob and Laban agreed on a peace deal and a line of territorial division which each could not cross to attack the other. The territory promised by God now had a boundary.

The whole deal, however, came at a cost. Rachel died in her next effort to give birth and was not buried at Machpelah, the only matriarch not to be buried there, ostensibly because she had betrayed her father for the sake of Jacob and Jacob, unknowingly like Oedipus, had promised that anyone who stole the idols would die.

Jacob will still have to make peace with Esau. Before he meets Esau, he will wrestle with a man – his alter-ego – and prevail, and Jacob will become Israel, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Up until that time, there is no sign yet that he can fulfill the blessing of God and become a father of a nation. Yet the clues are there. Contrast Jacob with his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham. Both were failures as fathers. They each had two sons who went their separate ways. Jacob had twelve sons and they would stick together and become a nation. How did he pull off that conceivably unprecedented act?

The beginning was not promising. He was an ambitious trickster, taught how to dupe by his mother, a skill which he perfected when he dealt with Laban. However, these were his superficial flaws. His deep flaw was that he still suffered from Adam’s greatest weakness, Adam wanted to be like God. Adam thought he was like God since he brought things into being by naming them and thereby creating a divine realm of words to match the divine realm created by God. Adam was a nerd who did not even recognize he had a body and a sex drive. His erect snake had a voice of its own and Adam took no responsibility for what it did. Adam had to learn he had a body through the so-called disassociated penis and Eve. The result of his not taking responsibility for what he did was that he was cast out of the Garden of plenty to make a living in the world by the labour of his hands.

Abraham, following Adam, had denied his accountability and blamed God for ordering him to kill his son. More importantly, he had failed to defend his oldest son, and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, as they were cast, both mother and son, into the wilderness. Abraham was guilt ridden and would try to kill his less favourite son, Isaac. Isaac too was flawed. He had also had a favourite, but once again backed the wrong horse, the first born and an outdoorsman rather than a homebody and bookish man. He had to be tricked into following the right historical course of second-born rather than first born alpha males becoming the leader of the nation. It is only when Jacob wrestled with the “angel,” (ish) (32:25), and pinned him. Did he, in effect, wrestle with his other half, his Machiavellian self on whom he had heretofore relied for survival, pin him and then release him? Had he freed himself from being a tricky Dick?

His son Joseph would inherit his ability to use trickery, but at a much more sophisticated level. Joseph was his eleventh son, not his first-born. By surrendering the Illusion that he was God, Jacob would become Israel, the father of a nation, for he now saw that his life had to be fully dedicated to his earthly family and not becoming himself a god. His greatest accomplishment, his greatest achievement, would be that, unlike his father, unlike his grandfather, he would become the instrument which allowed the twelve brothers to forge a nation together. He gave birth to the nation that Moses would have to forge into one. That was an historical accomplishment.

Grotius and the Jewish Question: IV Menasseh ben Israel

In Spinoza’s picture of God, God is the infinite, necessarily existing (that is, uncaused), unique substance of the universe. Further, there is only one substance in the universe; it is God; everything else that is, is in God.” For Hugo Grotius, in contrast, God was not an object at all, but only an agent. God’s beneficence is demonstrated by His beneficence towards Jews and those countries that host Jews. He adopted this notion directly from Menasseh ben Israel (Manoel Dias Soeiro), a Portuguese rabbi and Kabbalist, writer and publisher in Amsterdam with whom he shared a long contact and correspondence. Menasseh wrote:

”Hence it may be seen that God hath not left us; for if one persecutes us, another receives us civilly and courteously; and if this prince treats us ill, another treats us well; if one banisheth us out of his country, another invites us with a thousand privileges; as divers princes of Italy have done, the most eminent King of Denmark, and the mighty Duke of Savoy in Nissa. And do we not see that those Republiques do flourish and much increase in trade who admit the Israelites?”

Fleeing the persecution of the Inquisition in 1604, by 1610 Menasseh’s family had resettled in Amsterdam. Menasseh was another prodigy. He excelled in Talmudic studies and had a thorough knowledge of the Torah. At the age of 18, he was appointed to the Rabbinical Council of Amsterdam. He was a gifted orator and read widely from the secular world. At the age 28, he published El Conciliador in 1628, initially in Hebrew. Menasseh became Spinoza’s teacher. However, in contrast to Spinoza who used the inconsistencies in the Biblical text to disprove its divine origin, Menasseh tried to reveal the contradictions as only apparent and then resolve them. In doing so, he used an enormous range of resources, not only the classic Jewish commentators and the Talmud, but also Christian authorities and classic Roman and Greek works.

It was Menasseh whom Grotius sought out to refine his knowledge of Hebrew and develop traditional rabbinic modes of hermeneutics to find the message for the Christians in the text. Foremost of those lessons was that natural law determined that the Israelite idea of the nation state was the key political reference point for organizing polities and the relationships among polities.

Together, along different paths, the two thinkers prepared the ground for the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Great Britain whereby Britain invited the Protestant, William of Orange, to invade England and displace the Catholic king, James. Both argued that the readmission of Jews to Britain (they had been expelled in 1290) was a prerequisite for Britain to both demonstrate it was on the leading edge of tolerance as well as a necessary step in God’s plan to develop a system of nation states welcoming of Jews.

Unlike Spinoza, Menasseh defended the principle of the resurrection of the dead and the divine origin and immortality of the soul. Unlike Spinoza, Menasseh and Grotius were not proto-Zionists. Menasseh was in fact convinced that the restoration to the Holy Land could and should not take place until the Jews had spread and settled in every part of the world. Menasseh was far more interested in finding places for the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees in Sweden or Britain or any other heaven he could locate. Further, Menasseh and Grotius followed Galileo’s universalist message to undermine the Catholic traditional vision of the cosmos and the dominant Catholic version that the Church alone governed all aspects of life, and that monopolistic governance demanded the exclusion of Jews. The Puritans would be among those Protestants who adopted this pro-Jewish stance.

Secularists who demanded the emancipation of reason from faith and some branches of evangelical Protestant Christians became the odd couple in advancing the cause of the emancipation of the Jews.  In 1655-1656, Oliver Cromwell negotiated with Menasseh ben Israel over the terms of the re-admission of Jews into England. Previously, only in the Dutch Republic were Jews allowed both to settle and to practice their religion, albeit not in public.

The Dutch were not only the pioneers for emancipation, but they adopted the Jewish model of a system of nation states grounded in law. All communities were united by language. National communities were united by a common national tongue. The international community is founded on the universal language of contract law as Abraham recognized when he negotiated the terms for paying the Hittites for a gravesite for his recently deceased wife, Sarah. As Grotius wrote in On the Law of War and Peace:

There could be no obligation at all by Promises, if every man were left to his Liberty, to put what Construction he pleased upon them, therefore some certain Rule must be agreed upon, whereby we can know, what our Promise oblige us to; and here, natural Reason will tell us, that the Person to whom the Promise is given, has a Power to force him who gave it, to do what the right Interpretation of the Words of his Promise does require. For otherwise no Business could come to a Conclusion, which in moral things is reckoned impossible.

Grotius is on the side of Shylock and not the Merchant of Venice, Antonio. Clearly, the strong association between Judaism and law in the Protestant Christianity to which Grotius adhered, advised men like Hugo Grotius (and John Selden) to build their theory of constitutional law from detailed studies of Jewish law. Mastery of Hebrew and even of the Talmud was a requisite to such an enterprise. Hugo Grotius, as well as Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, held to the Adam (of Adam and Eve fame) theses that words must have a close approximation to the category of things named, otherwise known as the correspondence theory of truth.

In response, this would be a source for criticism of Jews for their cosmopolitanism, their hyper rationality, their propensity for abstraction as distinct from an organic sensibility and instinctive ethnic identification with one’s own society. Those who held populist nationalist beliefs characteristic of folk and romantic nationalism Grotius labeled as akin to bandits and pirates, enemies of humanity living outside the protection of natural law. The terms of the conflict between the old order and the new had been set.

Although in Grotius’ time, generally the prince decided the piety of the people, after centuries, the consensus on this soon disintegrated. Three years after Grotius died, the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that ended the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War and set the grounds for a league of nations as the principle for determining an international order, provided the acid that would eat away at the premise of princely power to determine the religion of a people. Natural law, not an interpretation of God’s word, would enforce religious tolerance rather than religious conformity.

The old edict required amputating a “rotten member at an early stage before the disease spread…Cut off, by fire, sword and death: that is to say, when their number is still small.” It is still the byword for most autocrats. The new order required protection of civilians and even decent treatment of captured enemy soldiers. We think that the losses suffered in WWI were horrific. But one-third of Germans were wiped out in the Thirty-Year War. Reason became the ruling champion only after enormous cost as the rulers defended at great cost the power to enforce the piety of their members. The Hebrew Bible once translated into the vernacular language rather than Latin effectively undermined the person and power of a monarch inducing a king to respond with even greater ferociousness to any challenge to his rule. The great rebellions, the Dutch against the Spanish, the British against their Catholic monarch, were carried out on the backs of scripture not in defiance of the Bible. The Hebrews and “God’s word” were their inspiration.

The burning questions of the rights of sovereigns versus subjects were posed and answered by reference to Jews, the old order upholding “Davidic Kingship” while the new order cited the earlier Israeli republic where every Israelite had direct access to God. The latter view was taken directly from Menasseh, for not only was Hugo Grotius in contact with him, so were hordes of European Gentile Millenarians. In fact, based on his biblical commentary, Grotius was widely criticized for Judaizing Christianity. He certainly cited Menasseh very frequently. In one of the many letters that he wrote him, he advised, “I implore you to spend all your spare time in explaining the Law. You will do a great favor to all scholars.” (“Grotii Epistolæ,” No. 564, Amsterdam, 1687).

With the help of Alex Zisman