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America's Jewish founding father

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Driehonderdvijftig jaar gelden kwamen de eerste joden aan in Amerika. "New Amsterdam" heette New York toen nog. James Carroll gaat in op die gebeurtenis. Hij trekt een lijntje naar Oude Amsterdam en een jood, genaamd Benedict Despinoza.

THREE HUNDRED fifty years ago, Jews came to America. Beginning today, observances in New York mark the arrival in "New Amsterdam" of 23 Iberian Jews in the year 1654. Noting the milestone in The New York Times last week, Jeremy Eichler celebrated "a tale of the passage from the periphery to the center, from immigrant yearning to mainstream achievement."

The Jewish story in America is usually told that way. An alien people comes to an already established national culture, does very well by transforming and inventing aspects of it, from show business and movies to intellectual life and literature. Jews are honored by this story -- their creativity and diligence enable them to "break in" -- and so is America -- the open society where outsiders are welcome.

But the most basic assumption of that "tale" is that, by the time Jews arrived, America was an already flowing "mainstream," marked by democracy, freedom, openness. The story as usually told does not credit Jews or the Jewish tradition, that is, with having centrally contributed to the invention of the national idea in the first place.

I write from outside the Jewish experience, but what strikes me about that time when Jews first came to "New Amsterdam" is how much the nascent American imagination was preparing to draw on the vital culture of the rabbis, going back centuries. The incubator for the new idea at that moment was, in fact, old Amsterdam, in Holland, where the great foreshadowing of what came to be called liberal democracy was embodied in a Jew.

Benedict Spinoza (1632-77) was a bridge figure between the religious tradition of Rabbinic Judaism and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. In his political writings, one sees, for example, the clear influence of Lurianic Kabbalah, an established Jewish spirituality. It is a small step from the idea that "emanations" of God inhabit the souls of all humans, to the idea that each person, taken individually, is as worthy as every other. That idea is the kernel of democracy. Political tolerance -- what we would call pluralism -- is rooted in this positive attribute.

But Spinoza also saw up close the dark effects of the religious wars then wracking Europe, and so there was a negative source to his call for political tolerance as well. Spinoza was himself expelled from the Synagogue (1656), investigated by the Catholic Inquisition (1659), and banned by the Calvinist Synod (1670). This experience of omnidirectional religious intolerance underwrote his two-fold new idea -- that the state's first obligation is to protect the freedom of conscience of each citizen; to do so the state must not itself be religiously identified. The separation of church and state begins here.

Spinoza is famous for proposing that all things be seen "sub specie aeternitatis," from the point of view of eternity. Nothing bound by time is absolute, which means no human institution is above criticism. Spinoza's political writing, especially his "Theologico-Political Treatise," imagines, therefore, social structures organized to support mutually critical give-and-take.

Here is the seed of a constitutional polity, based on checks and balances. Spinoza did not exempt even the institutions of religion from this spirit of criticism -- which is why he was as suspect in his own Jewish community as he was denounced by Protestants and Catholics. To some, Spinoza was an irreverent atheist, to others, a mindless pantheist, seeing God everywhere.

The point for us is that his fundamental (and, as this Christian sees it, fundamentally Jewish) idea that human beings participate in the divine, but are not themselves divine (Only God is God), spawns a political ideal of human rights, on one hand, and of limited government on the other.

Amsterdam in Spinoza's day was alive with intellectual and political ferment: Dutch Calvinists struggling with republicanism, "Puritan" nonconformists in flight from England, scarred veterans of religious wars, merchants and explorers looking west. John Locke, for one, would be immersed in these revolutionary currents, bringing their articulation to a next level, the place at which the American idea first becomes conscious of itself.

But the author of what might be called the first draft of that idea, drawing on the positive riches of his own tradition, as well as reacting to the intolerance of which his people knew more than anyone, was Benedict Spinoza. When 23 Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in September of 1654, he was 22 years old. They and he together were just beginning, as was the great nation they then helped invent.

By James Carroll, Globe Columnist | September 14, 2004

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