Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Uriel Acosta questions Religion, 1617-1624

Uriel Acosta (AKA Uriel da Costa, AKA Gabriel da Costa) was born in Porto to a successful and religiously Catholic New Christian family. He was profoundly Catholic, but his religious studies eventually persuaded him that the New Testament and Catholic practice was wrong, and he decided to adhere to the Old Testament.

He reports that “my Mother, Brothers, and myself embarked on Board a Ship, though at a very great hazard (it not being lawful for those that are descended from the Jews, to depart the Kingdom without the King’s special Licence.)”. Arriving in Amsterdam he immediately had himself circumcised as a Jew.
Acosta, having grown up in a Catholic country, had read the Written Law (the five Books of Moses) but knew nothing of the existence of the Oral Law (written down and codified in the Talmud) and did not accept it. The rabbi – who may have been Saul Levi Morteira or Isaac Uzziel of Fez – demanded strict adherence to a set of rules that were meaningless to Acosta. Heavy-handed self-regarding rabbis are not unknown in the Spanish & Portuguese Jewish community even today. Acosta had abandoned a position of wealth, risked his life and that of his family, and then had a delicate operation. He reacted badly to a rabbi demanding conformity and threatening Excommunication. In his own words:

“But as it was unworthy of him, who so lately left his native Country, and been content to forego many other temporal Advantages for Liberty of Conscience, to be overaw’d and forced to submit to Men, who had no right to such a Power; besides, I thought it both sinful and beneath a Man to be a Slave in things pertaining to Conscience; therefore I resolved rather to suffer the worst they could inflict rather than recants: Accordingly they excommunicated me from their Society, insomuch that my own Brothers , who before took me for their teacher, in spiritual Things, durst not take any Notice of me as they passed by me in the Street for fear of the Rabbins.”

Acosta wrote a pamphlet attacking what he saw as the Pharisee-ic position of the rabbis, which had the effect of also alienating Christians. Children threw stones at his front door (which, compared to what would have happened to him in Portugal, was nothing). The Mahamad reported him to the secular magistrates as someone who attacked all religion. He was imprisoned for eight or ten days.

His experiences led Acosta to question all religion but, not being able to cope with the social isolation of being excommunicated, he recanted. He was quickly denounced by his nephew for not keeping properly kosher. His wife having died, he was prevented from remarrying. His brother froze his business activities. Acosta felt pressured on all sides, from his family’s “domestick War” and the pressure from the rabbis and the community. 

When two men (I suspect New Christians) asked his advice on converting to Judaism, he told them not to bother. This infuriated the synagogue authorities. They demanded a recantation or that he would be excommunicated for a second time. They demanded what I can only describe as a Jewish auto-da-fé:
“that I must make my entrance into the Synagogue dressed in a mourning Vestment, holding a black Wax taper in my Hand, and there to read distinctly before the whole Congregation in a Form of Recantation penned by them, in which they had described in black and odious Colours, the great Enormity of my Crimes: Then I was to submit to be whipt in the same publick Manner, with a Scourge made of leather Thongs: After that to prostrate myself at the Door or the Synagogue, that they might all pass over me, and moreover to fast certain Days.”

He refused, was again excommunicated and – for seven years – had to experience being spat at in the street. He felt pressured by both his family and the synagogue authorities. Eventually, unable to withstand the social ostracism any more he submitted to the synagogue authorities, while privately hating them even more than previously. He was stripped to the waist and given forty three lashed of the whip by the shamas while everyone else sang a Psalm.

“I was ordered to sit down on the Ground, and then the Doctor came to me and absolved me from my Excommunication; so now the Gate of Heaven, which was doubly lock’d and bar’d against me before, was flung open all of a sudden. O the ridiculous Notions and Conceits of Mortals! After this I put on my Cloaths, and went to the Door of the Synagogue, where I prostrated myself, the Door-keeper holding up my Head, whilst all both old and young passed over me, stepping with one Foot on the lower Part of my Legs, and behaving with ridiculous and foolish Gestures, more like Monkeys than human Creatures. When they had all done, I got up, and being washed and made clean by the Man who stood by me for that Purpose, I went home.”

Acosta concluded that everything good in religion already existed in the Law of Nature. Everything religious denominations add on is worthless. “How much happier would it have been, if Men had kept within those Bounds which Nature had set, and not given themselves up to such abominable Inventions! Why need I mention the Horrors and Anxieties, with which some superstitious Men have filled the Minds of their fellow Creatures, and which had they observed only the Dictates of Nature, they would have been entirely free from.” He felt that people should “lay aside those Impositions, which are only fit to frighten Children and simple Folk”. This is incendiary stuff to be saying in the mid-17th Century, a generation before Spinoza. As Catholicism and Protestantism were battling for supremacy, and Judaism struggling for survival, Acosta is saying that it is all nonsense. One can almost hear scandalised people all over Europe reaching for their smelling salts.

Acosta’s diatribe was published in English with a refutation by the eminent Dutch theologian, Philip a Limborch, who has interesting things to say. Limborch feels that Acosta is involved in a private fight with the Amsterdam Mahamad and should not include Christians. In so far as Acosta anticipates atheism (once Darwin has removed the need for God as a prime mover), Limborch anticipates the evils of social Darwinism. “The Law of Nature does not enjoin us to love an Enemy, or declare it unlawful to return his Hatred, or to revenge an Injury; but rather seems to allow a Kind of Right in Vengeance, and to return like for like, by doing to others as they have done by us.” I am not sure that Limborch draws the correct inferences, but am impressed by the man. Of course, Acosta’s main gripe was with the Catholics and Jews. Limborch and Amsterdam were Protestant. One wonders if they would have been quite as tolerant of Acosta if he had specifically taken shots at the Protestant religion.

While Acosta clearly had a bit of a martyrdom complex, he was one of those rare people able to step outside his culture and see a bigger picture. He suffered considerable psychological abuse from those who might have been expected to care for him. Maybe he had the misfortune of being born a hundred or two hundred years too early. Considering what would have been done to Acosta in Portugal, Limborch comes across as a thoughtful and good man.

Acosta was the subject of a play the German playwrite Karl Gutzkow. It was later translated into Yiddish and became well-known in Ashkenazi eastern Europe. Acosta is sometimes seem as an intellectual 'grandfather' to Spinoza, who in turn is seen as an intellectual grandfather to Karl Marx. A fanciful 1901 painting by Samuel Hirszenberg is of a very Ashkenazi-looking Acosta with a long beard and Medieval-looking clothes, showing a book to the young Spinoza.

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