Qabbalah and Jewish mysticism in the thought of the Dutch philosopher
The extraordinary topicality of Barukh Spinoza’s (1632-1677) thought catches the eye as soon as one considers the quantity of books on him that come out every year, in addition to the continuous re-publication of his writings, always re-translated and explained and annotated by new generations of scholars. How can a Jew, son of former Portuguese merchants Marranos and follower of the French mathematician René Descartes, have become a banner of modernity and at the same time of post-modern thought? Precisely in the Jewish world, then, his name is ‘sign of contradiction’ and even today there is discussion about its inauspiciousness excommunicationthe 1656 kerem (issued by the political leaders of his community) – at just 24 years old and without having published a line – which remains one of the great enigmas of Jewish history (although the US scholar Steven Nadler tried to unravel it about twenty years does in the volume Spinoza’s heresy. Immortality and the Jewish spirittranslated in 2005 by Einaudi). But how truly Jewish is Spinoza’s philosophy?
An answer to this question comes from a recent book by the scholar Marco Cassuto Morselli, titled Spinoza’s messianic theology (Castelvecchi 2022, pp.124, 16 euros), which can be read on at least two innovative levels: first of all as a ‘general’ introduction to his philosophical thought, with emphasis on the theological-political dimension rather than on the logical-metaphysical or rationalist one , as used in many high school textbooks; not secondarily, the book ‘in particular’ illuminates some passages of his work which are difficult to understand by those who are not familiar with the rabbinic tradition, to which Spinoza belongs, especially his mystical current (that is, the qabbalah). Above all in this explanation lies the originality of the volume, which thus corrects a long history of interpretations that tend to overlook – usually out of ignorance – deep Jewish roots of the work of the famous Amsterdam ‘lens cleaner’.
An emblematic case is Spinoza’s controversial expression Deus sive naturefound in the Latin version of his Ethica more geometrico demonstratawhich appeared in the year of his death, an expression always read (superficially) as the attestation of a ‘substantial’ pantheismby virtue of that sive, or rather, thanks to which there would be no distinction between nature and the divine, since one and the other are the same substance, in fact. Cassuto Morselli explains that that famous phrase has to be understood instead in a Qabbalistic key:
The formula Deus sive natura has been interpreted as an expression of Spinoza’s naturalism, as if it meant: God is none other than Nature, there is nothing supernatural, for which Spinoza would be a radical denier of transcendence and an advocate of an absolute immanence . Now, Deus sive natura is a Qabbalistic saying translated into Latin. One of the most important qabbalistic techniques is the gematriyah [geometria?]which consists in establishing relationships between words that have the same numerical value [poiché a ogni lettera dell’alfaberto ebraico corrisponde un numero]. And one of the divine names, Eloqimhas the same numerical value as the Hebrew word Hateva which it indicates [nell’ebraico medievale] nature, the natural world.
Jewish mystics had already created this link centuries before Spinoza, and certainly not to support a philosophical pantheism (or atheism, as the romantic Frederick H. Jacobi argued in the late eighteenth century). A similar juxtaposition could also be made between ratio and Scriptura, both of divine origin, but certainly not to support a banal rationalism. In any case, remarked Cassuto Morselli, Spinoza himself would have debunked the controversy and played it down, given that in his eyes what matters is not the divergence of ideas and beliefs, but the coherence of behavior with the values of justice and charitycoherence that the Dutch-Jewish philosopher simply calls, in Latin, obedientia, that is, the practical observance of the precepts. Is there anything more Jewish?
Also Nadlerof course, offered an explanation for Spinoza’s famous dictum found in the preface of part IV of the Ethica, calling it “an ambiguous sentence, almost as if it could be said equally well that Spinoza divinizes nature or naturalizes God. But an attentive reader cannot misunderstand his thought anyway” (among other things, the expression is found only in the Latin edition and that ‘sive natura’ was omitted from the Dutch edition, obviously much more accessible than in Latin, edited by his friends after the philosopher’s death). Indeed, Nadler explains that nature is elsewhere assumed by Spinoza in two senses, one active, called natura naturans, and a passive one, called natura naturata, and it is the latter that bears the signs of that natural necessity which derives from the necessity of the divine attributes themselves… pure scholastic theologyas you can imagine. But then why does Cassuto Morselli speak of ‘messianic theology’ in Spinoza?
By claiming the dignity of nature, which comes from God, Spinoza has de facto redeemed this concept from Augustinian theology which spoke of nature lapsa or corrupt: in Spinoza nature is anything but lapsafallen due to original sin; instead it is the book of the divine, the other way of revelation, very close to the conception of Abraham Herrera (Also a Portuguese Qabbalist, a few decades older than Spinoza), influenced in turn by the mystique of Itzchaq Luria (16th century): the world is full of divine sparks – nizozot – waiting to be redeemed, like the souls of the Marrano Jews. Only such a conception of nature will allow access to the true religionthe one inspired by justice and charity, the universal religion of the Torah.
After all, Marco Cassuto Morselli proposes a reading of Spinoza very close to that proposed at the time by the Livorno rabbi Elia Benamozegh (1823-1900) who wrote something grandiose on the subject of the relationship between God and the world/nature:
I believe that God is not the world itself but neither is it alien to it, or outside the world. The world, and creation in general, or rather creation, consists of a limit that God imposed on himself. So instead of saying ‘creation from nothing’ we should say ‘creation of nothing’, i.e. of the limit, of the finite, indeed of the finiteness.
Now, it is not who does not see how these thoughts are in full harmony with all contemporary post-modern metaphysics or, more simply, with today’s ethical sensitivity, which has placed the finitude and fragility of the human at its centre. If the desire or the desire to redeem human frailty is a quality of the messianic, what theology is more messianic than this?