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Death of the self

Tractatus Theologico Politicus on Dr John Dunn. As late as 1665, Spinoza had still not collected his heresies against rabbinical Judaism together in written form. What changed?

Sabbatai Zevi was born in Smyrna (İzmir in present-day Turkey) in the Ottoman Empire, on supposedly Tisha B'Av (the 9th of Av), 1626, the holy day of mourning. His name literally meant the planet Saturn, and in Jewish tradition ‘The reign of Sabbatai’ (the highest planet) was linked to the advent of the Messiah.

1666 was the apocalyptic year identified by millenarian ideologues and it was no coincidence that this was the year that Sabbatai Zevi chose to announce his messiahship openly.

He convinced half of world Jewry that he was the true messiah and a vast Sabbatian movement promoted his messianic ambitions.

Gershom Scholem made clear that the echoes of the rising Sabbatian movement penetrated even the cloistered seclusion of Baruch Spinoza's study.

One of Spinoza’s correspondents, Henry Oldenburg, a native of Bremen in Germany, who lived in London where he had become secretary of the Royal Society, wrote to Spinoza in December, 1665, immediately after arrival of the first sensational reports. “As for politics, there is a rumour everywhere here concerning the return of the Jews, who have been dispersed for more than two thousand years, to their native country. Only a few here believe in this, yet there are many hoping for it. May it please you to communicate to a friend what you have heard regarding this matter and what you think of it…”

Unfortunately, Spinoza's reply to Oldenburg is lost, though elsewhere he expressed his opinion that a restoration of temporal rule by the Jews should by no means be considered an impossibility… In any event, Oldenburg seems to have taken a positive view of the messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi among the Jews, about which he continued to keep himself informed.

In Amsterdam the Jewish messianic fervour found willing ears among various circles of Christians, especially among the millenarians, who were very interested in the renewal of messianic activity within the Ottoman empire. Petrus Serrarius, a theologian, published Verklaringe over des Propheten Jesaia veertien eerste capittelen in Amsterdam in 1666, a work in which he described in detail his belief in the return of the Ten Lost Tribes, which was about to be fulfilled with the imminent revelation of the Messiah. He was a close associate and protector of Spinoza. Richard Popkin described him as ‘Spinoza's contact with the outside world’.2

The seismic tremors from the Ottoman Empire that marked the rise to claims of Messiahship by Sabbatai Zevi were felt ‘everywhere’.

This gave Spinoza licence to commit to paper the thoughts for which he had been excommunicated by his own Jewish community.

But it was not until 1670 that he finally published the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, the ‘manifesto’ for a new world outlook that influenced Locke and so shaped modern thought.

By then Spinoza was publishing into a ‘post-apocalyptic’ world, and what he published was wholly compatible with Sabbatainism.

It was the ‘logic’ of the Lurianic Kabbalah and tikkun that Spinoza shared with Sabbatai Zevi, which led to their world-changing conclusions.

If the sparks of divine light nourish the qelipot and their associated evil, then the pursuit of divine holiness through religious practice serves only to foster and strengthen evil.

Rather than pursue divine holiness, with all its associated religiosity, the very opposite should happen.

The exoteric practices of religion must be abandoned and their moral codes overturned if there is to be a chance of divine light being detached from the qelipot and the evil that it nourishes.

Spinoza rejected orthodox Judaism for the pursuit of esoteric kabbalistic metaphors clothed in the exoteric form of rationalism. Sabbatai Zevi pursued another course, but towards the same ends in the rejection of rabbinical tradition.

As such, their ‘messianic’ roles were to lead mankind into the modern world.

They would kill the Renaissance humanism that had led to the Marranos’ fall from grace. Tikkun would mean the de-centring of the subject, ultimately the sacrifice of the self on Locke’s tabula rasa.

1 G. Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, Princeton University Press; New Ed edition, 1976, pp. 543-44.

2 R. Popkin, Spinoza, Oneworld, London, 2004, p.40.

© John Dunn.

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