July 27, 1656
Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam on November 24, 1632. He was the son of conversos (Jews who had publicly converted to Christianity but continued to practice Judaism in secret). He received a traditional Jewish education and was being groomed for a career as a rabbi when he abandoned his studies to work in his family’s importing business.
As an adult, his publically expressed ideas about Judaism were rejected by the Amsterdam Jewish community. Especially egregious to the communal leaders were Spinoza’s questioning the divine origin of the Torah, his denial of the immortality of the soul and his rejection of a providential g-d. He was called before the leadership of the Jewish community and offered a stipend to keep his views to himself. When he refused, he was excommunicated and the community declared, “Nobody should communicate with him orally or in writing or show him any favor.”
Spinoza went on to become one of the most important philosophers of the Enlightenment. Jewish Enlightenment thinkers sought to reconcile the world of Jewish religious faith with secular, empirical reality. Baruch Spinoza’s critique of both G-d and the origins of Torah were at the heart of the Jewish Enlightenment, as was his best known work, Ethics, in which he asserted that everything in the universe comes from a single substance which he called G-d /nature. The Enlightenment eventually led to increased civil and political rights for Europe’s Jews in late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.