Durant 1926: The Odyssey of the Jews (Spinoza)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 1.1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


I.1 The Odyssey of the Jews

The story of the Jews since the Dispersion is one of the epics of European history. Driven from their natural home by the Roman capture of Jerusalem (70 A. D.), and scattered by flight and trade among all the nations and to all the continents; persecuted and decimated by the adherents of the great religions—Christianity and Mohammedanism—which had been born of their scriptures and their memories; barred by the feudal system from owning land, and by the guilds from taking part in industry; shut up within congested ghettoes and narrowing pursuits, mobbed by the people and robbed by the kings; building with their finance and trade the towns and cities indispensable to civilization; outcast and excommunicated, insulted and injured;—yet, without any political structure, without any legal compulsion to social unity, without even a common language, this wonderful people has maintained itself in body and soul, has preserved its racial and cultural integrity, has guarded with jealous love its oldest rituals and traditions; has patiently and resolutely awaited the day of its deliverance, and has emerged greater in number than ever before, renowned in every field for the contributions of its geniuses, and triumphantly restored, after two thousand years of wandering, to its ancient and unforgotten home. What drama could rival the grandeur of these sufferings, the variety of these scenes, and the glory and justice of this fulfillment? What fiction could match the romance of this reality?

The diaspora of Jews has been a remarkable event of human resilience under difficult circumstance over a long period.

The dispersion had begun many centuries before the fall of the Holy City; through Tyre and Sidon and other ports the Jews had spread abroad into every nook of the Mediterranean—to Athens and Antioch, to Alexandria and Carthage, to Rome and Marseilles, and even to distant Spain. After the destruction of the Temple the dispersion became almost a mass migration. Ultimately the movement followed two streams: one along the Danube and the Rhine, and thence later into Poland and Russia; the other into Spain and Portugal with the conquering Moors (711 A. D.). In Central Europe the Jews distinguished themselves as merchants and financiers; in the Peninsula they absorbed gladly the mathematical, medical and philosophical lore of the Arabs, and developed their own culture in the great schools of Cordova, Barcelona and Seville. Here in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Jews played a prominent part in transmitting ancient and Oriental culture to western Europe. It was at Cordova that Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), the greatest physician of his age, wrote his famous Biblical commentary, the Guide to the Perplexed; it was at Barcelona that Hasdai Crescas (1370-1430) propounded heresies that shook all Judaism. 

The Jews have been very thoughtful, progressive and adaptable while maintaining their racial and cultural integrity.

The Jews of Spain prospered and flourished until the conquest of Granada by Ferdinand in 1492 and the final expulsion of the Moors. The Peninsular Jews now lost the liberty which they had enjoyed under the lenient ascendency of Islam; the Inquisition swept down upon them with the choice of baptism and the practice of Christianity, or exile and the confiscation of their goods. It was not that the Church was violently hostile to the Jews—the popes repeatedly “protested against the barbarities” of the Inquisition; but the King of Spain thought he might fatten his purse with the patiently-garnered wealth of this alien race. Almost in the year that Columbus discovered America, Ferdinand discovered the Jews. 

With Christian ascendency in Spain the Jews were suppressed.

The great majority of the Jews accepted the harder alternative, and looked about them for a place of refuge. Some took ship and sought entry into Genoa and other Italian ports; they were refused, and sailed on in growing misery and disease till they reached the coast of Africa, where many of them were murdered for the jewels they were believed to have swallowed. A few were received into Venice, which knew how much of its maritime ascendency it owed to its Jews. Others financed the voyage of Columbus, a man perhaps of their own race, hoping that the great navigator would find them a new home. A large number of them embarked in the frail vessels of that day and sailed up the Atlantic, between hostile England and hostile France, to find at last some measure of welcome in little big-souled Holland. Among these was a family of Portuguese Jews named Espinoza. 

Most Jews took desperate measure of leaving Spain to escape the oppression. Some of them settled in Holland.

Thereafter Spain decayed, and Holland prospered. The Jews built their first synagogue in Amsterdam in 1598; and when, seventy-five years later, they built another, the most magnificent in Europe, their Christian neighbors helped them to finance the enterprise. The Jews were happy now, if we may judge from the stout content of the merchants and rabbis to whom Rembrandt has given immortality. But towards the middle of the seventeenth century the even tenor of events was interrupted by a bitter controversy within the synagogue. Uriel a Costa, a passionate youth who had felt, like some other Jews, the sceptical influence of the Renaissance, wrote a treatise vigorously attacking the belief in another life. This negative attitude was not necessarily contrary to older Jewish doctrine; but the Synagogue compelled him to retract publicly, lest it should incur the disfavor of a community that had welcomed them generously, but would be unappeasably hostile to any heresy striking so sharply at what was considered the very essence of Christianity. The formula of retraction and penance required the proud author to lie down athwart the threshold of the synagogue while the members of the congregation walked over his body. Humiliated beyond sufferance, Uriel went home, wrote a fierce denunciation of his persecutors, and shot himself.

Jews prospered in Holland, but they had to be very careful of not offending their Christian hosts.

This was in 1647.At that time Baruch Spinoza, “the greatest Jew of modern times,” and the greatest of modern philosophers, was a lad of fifteen, the favorite student of the synagogue. 


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