Thursday, February 07, 2008

Better know a heretic - Uriel da Costa

As I was reading Hirhurim about whether my bed should point north-south or east-west I thought of Reb Uriel... (and the progression of thought among certain well known bloggers)
However, upon arriving in the Netherlands, Da Costa very quickly became disenchanted with the kind of Judaism he saw in practice there. He came to believe that the rabbinic leadership was too consumed by ritualism and legalistic posturing. In 1624 he published a book titled An Examination of the Traditions of the Pharisees which questioned the fundamental idea of the immortality of the soul. Da Costa believed that this was not an idea deeply rooted in biblical Judaism, but rather had been formulated primarily by the Rabbis. The work further pointed out the discrepancies between biblical Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism; he declared the latter to be an accumulation of mechanical ceremonies and practices. In his view, it was thoroughly devoid of spiritual and philosophical concepts.

The book became very controversial and was burned publicly. Da Costa was called before the rabbinic leadership of Amsterdam for uttering blasphemous views against Judaism and Christianity. He was fined a significant sum and excommunicated.

He ultimately fled Amsterdam for Hamburg, Germany (also a prominent Sephardic center), where he was ostracized from the local Jewish community. He did not understand German, which further compounded his difficulties. Left with no place to turn, in 1633 he returned to Amsterdam and sought a reconciliation with the community. He claimed that he would go back to being "an ape amongst the apes"; he would follow the traditions and practices, but with little real conviction.

However, he soon again began to express rationalistic and skeptical views; he expressed doubts whether biblical law was divinely sanctioned or whether it was simply written down by Moses. He came to the conclusion that all religion was a human invention. Ultimately he came to reject formalized, ritualized religion. In his view, religion was to be based only on natural law; God had no use for empty ceremony. In many ways his beliefs were Deistic; he believed that God resides in nature, which is full of peace and harmony, whereas organized religion is marked by blood, violence, and strife.

Eventually da Costa came across two Christians who expressed to him their desire to convert to Judaism. In accordance with his views, he dissuaded them from doing so. For the communal leadership of Amsterdam, this was the final straw. He was thus again excommunicated. For seven years he lived in virtual isolation, shunned by his family and loved ones. Ultimately, the loneliness was too much for him to handle, and he again returned to Holland and recanted.

As a punishment for his heretical views he was publicly given thirty-nine lashes at the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. He was then forced to lie on the floor while the congregation trampled over him. This left him so demoralized and depressed that he was unable to live with himself. After writing his autobiography, Exemplar Humanae Vitae (1640), in which he wrote about his experience as a victim of intolerance, he set out to end the lives of both his cousin and himself. Seeing his relative approach one day, he grabbed a pistol and pulled the trigger. It misfired. Then he reached for another, turned it on himself, and fired, dying, they said, a terrible death.


Blogger -suitepotato- said...

I see disturbing parallels between people I've encountered online and his story. I often worry for those who like I once could not, do not hear G-d speaking to them and cannot see Him in the world. I used to wonder why if G-d existed, would He not talk to me too. I wondered if G-d didn't like me. I ended up not liking me for G-d.

I'm not sure what changed and exactly when, but I know that a crisis of faith can be a horrible experience. G-d be with all those who are so troubled.

February 07, 2008 12:07 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


February 07, 2008 12:13 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Uriel DaCosta is one of my favourite characters, given that he combines disagreement, opinionation, stubborness, and golden-age Netherlands.

He also characterizes the era during which some kin of mine kinda got fed up with things.

Peter Jansen v.d. fled Brabant in the sixteenth century because of religious persecution. He died in Haarlem, in the free Netherlands.

His son, Abraham Petersen v.d. left Haarlem in 1630 to get away from the stultifying atmosphere of the Netherlands. He died in New York.

His son, Isaac Abrahamsen v.d. is an ancestor of mine via two different lineages.

You can probably understand why that time, that environment, fascinates.

February 07, 2008 2:17 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

BOTH, your ancestors have Scandinavian names? What's that all about?

February 07, 2008 2:41 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Not Scandinavian - those are patronymics. The v.d. is short for the surname on that side - originally Van Deursen (from the town of Deursen in North Brabant, circa 1397 C.E. - leminyonem). Van Deursen are also Van Alsteyn - Alsteyn being the minor fortification where in the fourteenth century something significant in the family history may have happened, although nobody knows what.

B.O.T.H. is the son of William the son of John, the son of John who was the son of Selah, who was the son of Christopher, the son of Isaac, the son of Isaac Isaacsen , the son of Isaac Abrahamsen, the son of Abraham......

The regionymic Van Deursen also shows as van Dusen, van Deusen, van Duzer, van Duyse, and van Duessen. It really got messed up after the English took over.

Fortunately they couldn't really scramble my surname, that being originally merely the given name of a Van Deursen (different branch of the family) whose son decided to be unique and original by changing his surname to an abbreviated patronymic. The originality stopped at first names, however - such family standards as Jacob, Daniel, Hezekiah, Benjamin, Willem, and Cornelis spatter the record there. There were cousins with eactly the same name throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Unimaginative lot.

My brother Tobias was named after an ancestor on yet another branch/trunk of the Van Deursen mess. The side that was related to Van Buren.

My mother, of Presbyterian stock, was a distant relative of my father on two different lines - Calvinists married Calvinists. Not uncommon for NY Dutch to have an Ulsterman or Scot somewhere in the woodpile.

Did I mention that technically all of us are inbred? If four generations ago we hadn't started looking a little bit outside the barn for mates, I would now be slope-browed, furry, and dragging my knuckles on the ground while screaming 'oook oook!'. Some distant relatives no doubt act exactly so.

February 07, 2008 6:43 PM  

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