Standing in front of Rembrandt's portrait of Menasseh ben Israel at an exhibition in 1996, I was confused and somehow lost in space and time, because on the museum label I read the words "Portrait of Robbi Menasse" — Robbi Menasse, that was me! Robbi is what my parents and friends call me. Now, it's true that around this time I was starting to feel old, but I wasn't so old that it was actually possible I'd had my portrait done by Rembrandt. Only at second glance, after blinking my eyes a few times, did I read "Rabbi Menasseh" — but nonetheless, from that moment on, I was left feeling a strong connection, in fact practically an identification, with this man who lived at the beginning of the era at whose end I found myself: the era of the Enlightenment. And of course, I wanted to know who this man was who had my name, and who was possibly even an ancestor of mine, because my great-grandfather Joseph Menasse came from Amsterdam to Vienna in 1860 and, after he'd met my great-grandmother, settled down here. So I did some research, and it should be noted that this was a time when Rabbi Menasseh still had no institute and no homepage of his own. So I might not be at the cutting edge of knowledge, but I do have the impression that Menasseh, although he's been recognized for his significance, is not yet fully understood.
We know a lot about the work, but little about the life in Amsterdam of the scholar, publisher, diplomat, and rabbi Menasseh ben Israel. Both of his biographers, Cecil Roth and Meyer Kayserling, took great pains to embellish the few extant pieces of evidence for his life, so that we can also imagine this person whose work is so important for Jewish history in the modern era, but also beyond that, for the history of the European Enlightenment. A few anecdotes have been handed down; for instance, the circumstance that, for religious reasons, he rejected alcohol so rigorously that he even refused to drink water from a glass that had once been used to drink alcohol, because — in a sentence attributed to him — "even after cleaning the glass most meticulously, there might still be a single atom of alcohol in it!" This, of course, is crazy (just as it was back then), but what's interesting about it is that in effect Menasseh bases an irrational orthodoxy on natural science, by referring to the fact that material reality is composed of atoms that may not be visible to the naked eye, but are always busily at work. With this he contradicted not only medieval mysticism — his heart-root — but also the growing significance of the sciences at this time, of the beginnings of modernity. In this little anecdote, as we will see, we basically have all of Menasseh: a man of contradictions who believes he's reconciling them.
A few anecdotes have been handed down; for instance, the circumstance that, for religious reasons, he rejected alcohol so rigorously that he even refused to drink water from a glass that had once been used to drink alcohol, because — in a sentence attributed to him — "even after cleaning the glass most meticulously, there might still be a single atom of alcohol in it!"
He was not only strictly religious, but in an almost naive sense a man of faith, a believer: he believed everything that fit into his magical-religious worldview. Nevertheless, what he believed turned out again and again to be factual, with real historical impact. For instance, he believed that the Indians in the New World, about whom he collected all the information available at the time, must have been Jews, or more precisely: the ten Lost Tribes who, after the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the diaspora, mysteriously found their way to America. He celebrated the discovery of America as the rediscovery of the Lost Tribes. In the nature religion of the indigenous peoples of the New World he saw echoes of Mosaic rituals. In the Indian's campfire, he recognized something like the Sabbath lamp, and in the fringes of the Indians' hunting garments he saw stylized phylacteries. This seems funny to us nowadays, but the book "Spes Judorum," in which Menasseh tried to prove this theory, became his biggest bestseller and was seriously discussed far beyond the Jewish congregations. As if Friedrich Nietzsche had also had Menasseh in mind when he wrote "Truth in practice is nothing more than an effective constellation of errors," what Menasseh had written about the Indians came true. He wrote: "Now, if the tribes in the New World are Jews, then like all Jews they will be afflicted: they will be persecuted, and the attempt will be made to exterminate them!" We know that the mass murder of the Indians actually became historical reality. And the fact that an error enabled Menasseh to issue this prophecy is probably its least significant aspect for world history and its victims.
Even in trivial everyday life, Menasseh was a contradiction in the flesh. We know from his contemporaries that Menasseh was always in a hurry. On the streets of Amsterdam, he was always seen hurrying along on the double. And he only came to a stop when, amid the pushing and shoving that prevailed on the streets of the Jewish quarter, a Christian was forced aside and fell in the canal. "Now what have ye done to that poor man? Hasn't he already been baptized?", Menasseh is supposed to have said, laughing as boisterously as a child. This doesn't seem to fit this man with a reputation as a scribe and author of great earnestness, a conversation partner sought out by the most renowned scholars of his time, recognized and highly esteemed far beyond the Jewish community, in the Christian world as well, a man of reconciliation between Christians and Jews. And then he laughs at the poor Christian who's climbing out of the canal, soaked to the skin? Wouldn't one sooner imagine this man with a serious mien under his black hat (like the one he's wearing in the portrait of him painted by the Rembrandt pupil Govert Flinck), striding thoughtfully, practically a walking monument to his own importance?
We know little about Menasseh's life, and so that little bit is quite contradictory: the portrait by Govert Flinck shows this stern representative of Jewish orthodoxy with a beard, but without sidelocks, with a hint of a smile, enigmatic like Mona Lisa's, but somewhat more playful, more childlike. And then there's that bulbous nose, so typical for the Menasses, shiny red, as if this man who claimed to be afraid of a single atom of alcohol was a secret alcoholic. In any case, when I showed my wife a reproduction of the portrait, she said, "If you keep drinking like that, you'll end up looking like him!" He thought Indians were Jews and was considered a Jewish authority in the Christian-Jewish dialog of his times. He considered England, Angleterre, literally the outermost corner of the world and believed that the Messiah would come as soon as the Jews in their diaspora also lived in the outermost corner of the world, for thus it was prophesied. That's why he negotiated with Oliver Cromwell to allow Jews to be readmitted to England, where they had been forbidden to stay since 1290. True, the Messiah did not come then; and later, in the twentieth century, one was even forced to say: quite the opposite! But the fact that my family was able to flee to England during the Hitler era, and settle and survive there, can actually be traced somehow to the mad messianic mission of Menasseh ben Israel to Oliver Cromwell.
Of further interest when dealing with Menasseh ben Israel is the following contradiction: he is generally designated "Rabbi", and that's also what he called himself — but in fact he wasn't a rabbi. He was never appointed rabbi by the Jewish congregation, which of course offended him; he became only a rubi, that is, an elementary-school and Talmud teacher. For the Christian world, this difference was highly insignificant. But this distinction gained historical force when, as a rubi, he became the first teacher of young Baruch Spinoza, whom he was later to "innocently" betray: on the day the rabbinate debated and decided Spinoza's banishment from the Jewish congregation, Menasseh reported sick. In any event, it is of the greatest historical importance that as a rubi, Menasseh ben Israel was Spinoza's teacher and thus literally stood at the cradle of the Enlightenment and, with his lullaby, influenced the course of history.
Menasseh had a greater influence and impact on his pupil Spinoza than has long been assumed. And it's an example of the intricate dialectics of history that Menasseh's pursuit of harmony, his yearning to somehow mystically offset all the contradictions of faith, was precisely what brought his intellectual heir Spinoza into conflict with Jewish orthodoxy, leading to his break with the Jewish congregation. It can be said that Menasseh's mystical-religious doctrine of harmony became a scandal when Spinoza translated it into a philosophical system, thus breaking new ground in the history of the Enlightenment and rationalism.
To understand this, we must briefly go into Menasseh ben Israel's magnum opus, the four-volume work "Conciliador O de la conveniencia de los Lugares de la S. Escriptura que repugnantes entre si parecen." The first volume appeared in 1632, the year of Spinoza's birth. It was soon translated into Latin by Dionysus Vossius, the son of the famous Amsterdam scholar Gerhard Vossius. Three more volumes appeared between 1641 and 1650, roughly the period when Menasseh was Spinoza's rubi. The "Conciliador" made Menasseh familiar to humanist circles throughout Europe and established his importance as a mediator between Judaism and the Christian world. We can assume that during the time he was in contact with Spinoza, Menasseh was totally engrossed in working on this book and the aspirations he associated with it. The "Conciliador" attempts to reconcile all the contradictions and the numerous discrepancies in the Bible, and to supersede them in a "higher logic." God's word cannot be contradictory, and hence any contradictions can only be ostensible, and they must be eliminated in a holistic interpretation. This mammoth work of a Jewish scholar also had such an enormous influence because it finally seemed to close the gaping wound that had been delivered to Christianity as long ago as the twelfth century. In the 1130s, the French philosopher Abaelard published a document that remained influential for five hundred years despite being placed on the Index and burned, and despite its author's having been sentenced to monastic imprisonment and eternal silence for heresy — a document that Menasseh's "Conciliador" finally responded to. This is "Sic et Non," an enumeration of the contradictions between the writings of Saint Augustine and the Bible, along with the internal contradictions of the Bible itself. It was Abaelard's aim to re-establish doubt in general, and doubt about religious orthodoxy in particular, as a prerequisite for the human pursuit of truth. Today, Abaelard is largely forgotten, even if everyone now thinks they're familiar with the title "The Name of the Rose." This was originally the title of a famous example of Abaelard's in which he demonstrated the insoluble contradiction between the meaning of a word and the actual object. "The Name of the Rose" is probably Abaelard's last echo in the long corridors of history.
I consider Abaelard one of the greatest geniuses in the history of ideas. Centuries before the Enlightenment, he had already formulated the fundamental principle and aspiration of the Enlightenment, namely to establish the primacy of human reason by means of a critique of religion, and to put the fate of humanity in the hands of people and not of a God.
Today, Abaelard is largely forgotten, even if everyone now thinks they're familiar with the title "The Name of the Rose." This was originally the title of a famous example of Abaelard's in which he demonstrated the insoluble contradiction between the meaning of a word and the actual object. "The Name of the Rose" is probably Abaelard's last echo in the long corridors of history.
We must assume that Menasseh knew Abaelard's "Sic et Non" and also considered his own "Conciliador" to be a response to it. We know that in the theological and especially the scholastic disputes of the seventeenth century, Abaelard was still being discussed as an exegetical problem. And in the first volume of Menasseh's "Conciliador," all of the sections of "Sic et Non" in which Abaelard had presented the inner contradictions of the Bible (of the "Old Testament") are worked through faithfully and thoroughly. It's easy to understand why Menasseh didn't bother with Abaelard's critique of Augustine; it couldn't be a Jewish scholar's task to clarify the inner contradictions of Christian biblical exegetics. And we know from reception history that after Menasseh published his monumental "Conciliador," Abaelard had been finished off, so to speak. Christian theology, with the aid of a Jewish Talmudic teacher, had closed and sutured an eternally festering wound. Indeed, this was the reason for Menasseh's great prestige in the Christian world.
But it was precisely this recognition by Christians that also led to Menasseh's encounter with growing distrust within the Jewish community, especially on the part of the First Rabbi Aboab, who in contrast to Menasseh's concept of harmony, was a proponent of "empty tolerance," which insisted on merely acknowledging and putting up with the differences between Judaism and Christianity.
This contradiction between outward harmonization and the internal conflict that erupted in the Jewish community may have been what set up the rupture in the history of ideas that Menasseh's pupil Spinoza would then bring about.
If you visit the Spinoza house in Rijnsburg, you'll see a bookcase where, precisely in the centre of the middle shelves, somewhat below my eye level — which probably means at Spinoza's eye level — the first volume of Menasseh's "Conciliador" is located. I don't know whether the books are really still ordered as Spinoza himself arranged them, or if this is an extremely intelligent arrangement undertaken by the museum's curators. In any case, it seems totally logical to me to trace Spinoza's thought back to the early and sustained influence of his teacher's book. Menasseh's "trick" (if we may call it that) was to reconcile the inner contradictions of the canonical texts by relating them to the variety of divine creation, that is, to a plan, perfect in its totality, which as the plan of the absolute Being could in no way be contradictory, because otherwise "the world in all its manifestations could not function as a whole." It is only a tiny step from this scholastic thesis to Spinoza's pantheism, which suddenly stood in such logical and radical contradiction to Jewish orthodoxy — and which, in the form of scepticism about the laws that humans had made "in the name of God," left the field wide open for the Enlightenment.
Spinoza's two axioms (which he formulated in his theological-political treatise), that God is the uniform substance, and that this substance can be conceived only within itself and from itself, can be read as a conclusion of Menasseh's "Conciliador," and only this logical consequence that Spinoza draws reopens the contradiction: the definition of a single substance can only follow from its difference (differentia) from other substances. But if the universe itself is the substance, then all material phenomena in the universe are qualities of this substance, which is why God must be present in everything and everyone, and not as a distinct being.
This thesis, that God might not exist as a distinct being, different from Creation and from mankind, was a scandal of course, a lucky break for the history of the emancipation of enlightened thinking. But from Menasseh's point of view it is also the maximum credible unlucky break that could happen to him: Menasseh's strategic concept for enlightened modernity in which emancipation became a legal condition, was reconciliation, compromise, the harmonizing of contradictions — and now his pupil Spinoza, only by taking Menasseh's thought to its next logical step, had produced the definitive contradiction, the ultimate disruption. Now pre-modernity and modernity were conclusively divorced, in the form of the teacher and his pupil.
There are countless examples of the kinds of convoluted paths that history takes (if we even want to ascribe a meaning and impute a goal to it), but this example is especially piquant: an Enlightenment figure who came too early (Abaelard) is refuted by the last scholastic (Menasseh), after which the pupil of the scholastic (Spinoza), by taking his teacher's thought to its logical conclusion, effectively became the actual founder of the Enlightenment.
If we look back today at the history of the Enlightenment, we arrive at a peculiar result: the Enlightenment famously began with the critique of religion, but parallel to that there was also the "harmonious strategy," according to which, by reconciling the contradictions between faith and science as well as the contradictions between the religions, the emancipation of the citizen could be ensured. Today we must conclude that both concepts have failed. The critique of religion has failed because such a critique can secularize the world, but not eliminate the need for religion from the world, and the concept of harmonious tolerance has failed, as the continuing persecution of the Jews and ultimately the Holocaust have definitively made clear, and as the current conflict between the Christian-secular world and radical Islam is showing once again. What would Menasseh and Spinoza, if they could have a sort of class reunion today as ancient, worldly wise men, say about that?
If we look back today at the history of the Enlightenment, we arrive at a peculiar result: the Enlightenment famously began with the critique of religion, but parallel to that there was also the "harmonious strategy," according to which, by reconciling the contradictions between faith and science as well as the contradictions between the religions, the emancipation of the citizen could be ensured. Today we must conclude that both concepts have failed.
The day before yesterday I visited Menasseh's grave in Beth Haim on the Amstel. I placed a stone on his grave marker and thought: "Yes, I want to love people, but I don't want to rely on God's love." Then I thought: "No, it's people's love I can't rely on! Is that what we call freedom? Freedom from any and all security?"
As I walked to the cemetery exit, a cold, sharp wind came up, and I thought: "Was there ever a greater love than the one between Heloise and Abaelard?" And with that I was back at the beginning of the story, which would have to be told again, and in a different way.
Sic et Non.
Translated by Geoffrey C. Howes