Knowing that in Jewish communities encompassed by unrelenting enemies religion was the prop of life and the life of the Law, the rabbis discouraged secular studies that might open a cranny to religious doubt. Joel Sirkis, chief rabbi at Cracow, condemned philosophy as the mother of heresy, the fatal “harlot” of whom Solomon had said, “None that go unto her return again”; 61 and he proposed to excommunicate any Jew within his jurisdiction who became addicted to philosophy. Joseph Solomon Delmedigo, coming to Poland (1620) from an Italy still warm with the Renaissance, was dismayed by the exclusion of science from the curriculum and reading of the Jews. “Behold,” he wrote, “darkness covers the land, and the ignorant are numerous, . . . saying, The Lord takes no delight in the sharpened arrows of the grammarians, poets, and logicians, nor in the measurements of the mathematicians, and the calculations of the astronomers.” 62

Delmedigo was the great-grandson of the Elijah del Medigo who had taught Hebrew in the circles of the Medici. He began his deviations by learning Greek as well as the Talmud from his father, a rabbi in Crete; and he obtained some scientific education at the progressive University of Padua, where Galileo was his tutor. He took up the practice of medicine, which gave him a living and’his Italian name; but science—mathematics above all—continued to lure him, and in its pursuit he shed some of his religious faith. Such molting leaves a sensitive skin, and may for a time unsettle character. Uprooted and restless, Joseph moved from city to city. Transiently he attached himself at Cairo and Constantinople to the Karaite sect, Jews who (like the Protestants) rejected ecclesiastical traditions and emendations and clung to the Bible as the sole source of their theology. In Hamburg and Amsterdam he found his medical knowledge so far behind that of the Jewish physicians there that for bread’s sake he turned orthodox, joined the rabbinate, and finally defended the Cabala. He died as an obscure physician in Prague (1655).

Leo ben Isaac Modena was a subtler and profounder spirit. He took his Italian name from the town to which his family had migrated in the expulsion of the Jews from France. He was a child prodigy, reading the Prophets in his third year, preaching in his tenth, and writing his first published work at thirteen. It was a dialogue against gambling, on which Leo was an authority, for he remained its devotee to the end of his life. Greatest of his gambles was his marriage in 1590, aged nineteen. Of his three sons one died at twenty-six, one was killed in a brawl, one took to dissipation and disappeared in Brazil. One of his two daughters died during his lifetime; the other, having lost her husband, became dependent upon her father, whose wife became insane. Amid these buffets Leo was excommunicated for persistent gambling at cards. He wrote a dissertation proving that the rabbis had gone beyond the Law in their decree, which was soon revoked.

Meanwhile he had mastered Biblical, Talmudic, and rabbinical literature, had studied physics and philosophy, and had written in Hebrew and Italian some passable poetry. Admitted to the rabbinate in Venice, he delivered Italian addresses of such learning and eloquence that many Christians were drawn to his audience. One of his Christian friends, an English nobleman, engaged him to write an Italian exposition of Jewish ritual. In preparing this Historia dei riti ebraici (1637), Leo came to the conclusion that many of the traditional ceremonies, now divorced from their original purpose, had lost much of their significance. In an anonymous work, Kol Sakal, he proposed that Hebrew prayers and rites be revised and simplified, the dietary laws abrogated, and the holydays reduced in number and austerity. In this same book he criticized rabbinical Judaism as a mass of unwarranted complications added to the authentic Jewish Law; he urged a return from the Talmud to the Bible, but he extended his heresies to the Bible itself, even to the entire Mosaic revelation. He left this revolutionary pronunciamento unpublished; and when it was found among his papers after his death (1648), it was accompanied by a companion treatise defending orthodox Judaism. Neither saw print till 1852. Had Leo dared to publish Kol Sakal in his lifetime, Reform Judaism might have begun in the seventeenth century. He was too clever to anticipate history.

The most tragic of the Jewish heretics was Uriel Acosta of Amsterdam. His father came of a Marrano family that had settled in Oporto and had fully adjusted itself to the Catholic faith. Gabriel, as the youth was called in Portugal, was educated by the Jesuits, who terrified him with sermons on hell but sharpened his mind with Scholastic philosophy. Studying the Bible, he was impressed by the fact that the Church recognized the Old Testament as the Word of God, and that Christ and the twelve Apostles had accepted the Mosaic Law. He concluded that Judaism was divine; he questioned the right of St. Paul to divorce Christianity from Judaism; and he resolved at the first opportunity to return to the faith of his ancestors. He persuaded his mother and his brothers (his father was now dead) to join in an attempt to elude the Inquisition and escape from Portugal. After many perils they reached Amsterdam (c. 1617). There Gabriel changed his name to Uriel, and the family became members of the Portuguese congregation.

But the same spirit of inquiry and independent thought that had led him to leave the Church made him uncomfortable within the equally rigorous dogmas of the synagogue. He was shocked by the addiction of even the learned rabbis of Amsterdam to the intellectual puerilities of the Cabala. He boldly reproved his new associates for rites and regulations that had no apparent basis in the Bible, and that sometimes, in his judgment, ran quite counter to Biblical ways. As he had little sense of history, he thought it a great mistake that Jewish ritual and belief had altered in the course of nineteen hundred years. As formerly he had returned from the New Testament to the Old, so now he urged a return from the Talmud to the Bible. In 1616 he had published at Hamburg a Portuguese tract, Propostas contra a tradiçāo—arguments against the traditions upon which the Talmud was based. He sent a copy to the Jewish congregation in Venice; it proclaimed a ban against him (1618); and Leo Modena, himself a heretic, was required, by his position in the rabbinate, to refute Acosta’s claim that the ordinances of the rabbis had in many cases no warrant in Scripture. The Amsterdam rabbis, whom he called Pharisees, warned Acosta that they too would ban him unless he retracted. He refused, and openly ignored the regulations of the synagogue. Excommunication was pronounced against him (1623), excluding him from all relations with his fellow Jews. Even his relatives now shunned him; and as he had not yet learned Dutch, he found himself without a single friend. Children stoned him in the streets.

In the bitterness of his isolation he proceeded (like Spinoza a generation later), to a heresy that attacked a fundamental belief of nearly every person in Europe. He let it be known that he rejected, as quite alien to the Old Testament, the immortality of the soul; the soul, he said, is merely the vital spirit flowing in the blood, and dies with the body. 63 Seeking to answer Acosta’s contentions, a Jewish physician, Samuel da Silva, published a Portuguese Treatise on the Immortality of the Soul (1623), in which he called Acosta ignorant, incompetent, and blind. Uriel countered with An Examination of the Pharisaic Traditions . . . and a Reply to Samuel da Silva, the False Calumniator (1624). The leaders of the Jewish community, to protect its religious freedom, notified the Amsterdam magistracy that Acosta, in denying immortality, was undermining Christianity as well as Judaism. The magistrates arrested him, fined him three hundred gulden, and burned his book. He was soon released, and apparently suffered no physical harm.

His punishment was economic and social. His younger brothers became dependent upon him, and therefore upon his freedom—now forbidden—to engage in economic relations with his fellows. Perhaps for this reason, and because he wished to marry again, Uriel decided to submit to the synagogue, to recant his heresies, and, as he put it, “to become an ape among apes.” 64 His recantation was accepted (1633), and for a time the passionate skeptic lived in relative peace. But secretly his heresies continued, and broadened. “I doubted,” he later wrote, “whether Moses’ Law was in reality God’s law, and decided that it was of human origin.” 65 Now he cast aside all religion except a vague belief in a God identical with nature (as in Spinoza). He neglected the burdensome religious usages required of an orthodox Jew. When two Christians came to him and professed a desire to adopt Judaism, he dissuaded them, warning them that they were laying a heavy yoke upon their necks. They reported this to the synagogue. The rabbis summoned and questioned him; they found him unrepentant, and now they pronounced against him a second and severer excommunication (1639). Again his relatives excluded him from their lives, and his brother Joseph joined in persecuting him. 66

He bore this isolation for seven years, and then, finding himself grievously hampered in business and law, he offered to submit. Angered by his long and troublesome resistance, the Jewish leaders condemned him to a form of recantation and penance imitated from the Portuguese Inquisition. 67 As in an auto-da-fé, he was made to mount a platform in the synagogue, to read before a full congregation a confession of his errors and sins, and to solemnly promise that henceforth he would obey all regulations of the community, and live as a true Jew. Then he was stripped to the waist and was scourged with thirty-nine stripes. Finally he was made to lie across the threshold of the synagogue, and those present, including his hostile brother, stepped over him as they left.

He rose from this humiliation not reconciled but furious. Going home, he shut himself up in his study for several days and nights, and wrote his last and bitterest denunciation of the Judaism which he had sacrificed much to adopt, but whose introverted history, and protective rigorism under centuries of oppression, he had never sympathetically understood. In this sarcastic Exemplar humanae Vitae he told his intellectual autobiography as an example of what happens to the man who thinks. “All evils,” he felt, “come from not following Right Reason and the Law of Nature.” 68 He contrasted “natural” with revealed religion, and claimed that the latter taught men hatred as the former taught men love. Having finished his manuscript, he loaded two pistols, waited at his window till he saw his brother Joseph pass, fired at him, and missed. 69 Then he shot himself (1647?).

The Jewish community tried to bury this tragedy in silence, but some members must have found it hard to forget. Spinoza was a lad of fifteen when that excommunication rite was performed; he may have been in the congregation that saw it performed; he may have walked in awe and horror over the prostrate heretic. Through that youth the vision of Acosta, cleansed of its anger, entered into the heritage of philosophy. 70

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!