Please Join Me in Appreciating This 400 Year Old Grudge
Three and a half centuries later, one rabbi in Amsterdam is still VERY mad at Baruch Spinoza.
If there's one thing I love, it's my friends and family. But if there's another thing I love, it's grudges that transcend space and time, and which live within the niches carved out by people who care very deeply about something very specific that overwhelmingly doesn't matter to just about anyone else on Earth. For example: this week, one of the world's leading academics was banned from a Netherlands synagogue in the latest salvo of an intractable feud between Amsterdam's small Jewish community and perhaps the greatest philosopher of the Enlightenment era — a man who dropped dead in 1677.
On Sunday, Johns Hopkins University philosophy professor Yitzhak Melamed was informed that not only had his request to research the life and work of iconic Rationalist thinker Baruch Spinoza at the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam been denied, but that the local community community had also declared him a persona non grata entirely, barring him from even entering the buildings at all.
As Amsterdam Rabbi Joseph Seftay noted in an extremely unambiguous letter to Melamed, Spinoza was fully excommunicated from Amsterdam's Jewish community in 1656 for heresy, with the "severest possible ban, a ban that remains in force for all time and cannot be rescinded." (Spinoza, prior to this excommunication, had spent his life living and working at the synagogue.) And because Melemed, one of the world's premier scholars on Spinoza's life and philosophy, had "devoted [his] life to the study of Spinoza’s banned works and the development of his ideas," Seftay deemed his request to be "an unacceptable assault" on the community, which, incidentally, still keeps the excommunication documents on the premises.
Seftay ended his rejection with the festive wish that Melamed, who is Jewish, have a "meaningful Chanuka," which is kind of like telling a grade schooler that Santa had been hit by a Mack Truck, and that his last words were "fuck you, kid" but hey, have yourself a merry little Christmas anyway.
Complicating matters is the fact that, according to the community leaders, Seftay’s letter to Melamed was something of a wildcard play that hadn’t been cleared with the synagogue’s membership and various stakeholders beforehand. As they write in a letter to congregants delivered on Tuesday [in Dutch, via Google Translate]:
The rabbinate has apologized for the way it has released the letters, but stands behind their contents. We have given the rabbi a warning and will provide the necessary energy to bring cooperation back to the desired level.
Long dead philosophers? Renegade clergy? Furious community? Fuck yes, give it all to me.
As a reminder, this is all because of a fight that took place between a philosopher and his community a century before the French Revolution. Everyone involved in this feud has been dead for more than a quarter millenia. What's more, Seftay's refusal to let Melamed study Spinoza in Amsterdam's synagogue-library complex is, itself, something of a tacit admission that there's something there worth studying in the first place which, y'know, kind of undermines the whole point of a ban that's supposed to exist "for all time."
Anyway. I can't help but enjoy myself a good, ol' fashioned grudge. There's nothing better than watching a discrete disagreement mutate into an all consuming blood-feud that will not — cannot — be tamed, no matter how little it actually matters to the rest of us. Haters, as they say, gonna hate. And I say: good. The world needs more irrational grudges. They make things interesting. I hope Melamed goes to his grave angry at Rabbi Seftay with the same intensity that Amsterdam's Jewish community had when they excommunicated Spinoza 350 years earlier. It's sloppy. It's mess. I love it.
Anyway, this isn't news or even all that important in the grand scheme of things. I just respect the energy involved, that's all. Let's all endeavor to carry the same vibe with us into the new year.