Because Humanistic Judaism sees traditional Jewish law (halakha), under which Spinoza was excommunicated, as a record of historical Jewish practice but no longer binding on the Jewish people, we do not feel that we need to pursue an extensive halakhic argument to justify our embrace of Spinoza as a member of the Jewish family. However, the Babylonian Talmud does record a cultural precedent that supports our action: at times when the halakha was uncertain, rabbis could be encouraged to see how the Jewish people were already acting and follow them:
Raba son of R. Hanan said to Abaye, according to others to R. Joseph: What is the law? He replied: Go forth and see how the public are accustomed to act. (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 45a)
In our case, if the Jewish people celebrate Spinoza as part of the Jewish family, then we are welcome to welcome him back.
As another example, early Hasidic Jews and their Rabbinic establishment opponents (Misnagdim) sometimes turned to the cherem/herem as a weapon against each other. Elijah ben Solomon of Vilna, also known as the Vilna Gaon and the most respected rabbinic authority of his era, famously excommunicated the Hasidim, first in 1772 and reaffirmed in 1781. This included Zalman Shneur, the founding Chabad rebbe!
If the most important rabbi of the Misnadgim excommunicated one of the most important rabbis of Hasidism, but they’re still both Jewish, why not Spinoza? We secular Jews are following a venerable Jewish tradition, exemplified by early Chabad: ignoring a cherem/herem pronounced against one of our own by someone else!
See “Excommunication of the Hasidim (April 1772)” in Mendes-Flohr & Reinharz, eds.
The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History (Second Edition), 1995.
See also the Jewish Encyclopedia selection on “Elijah ben Solomon” – http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=284&letter=E&search=elijah b solomon.
The term cherem/herem (MrH meaning ban) has been used in Judaism since Biblical times with various shifts in meaning.
In Biblical Times
In Biblical times what cherem/herem referred to was complete annihilation as stated in Deuteronomy from New International Version Deuteronomy 20:17 (completely or utterly destroy is the translation for the word cherem/herem) for example:
20:16: However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.
20:17: Completely destroy them–the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites–as the Lord your God has commanded you.
20:18 : Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.
For more on this usage, see the Jewish Encyclopedia selection on “ban” – the Biblical use of cherem/herem that describes the Biblical herem/cherem. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=199&letter=B
In Rabbinic Times
Rabbinic Judaism used the term “cherem/herem” to refer to expulsion of the individual from the Jewish community by religious authorities. There were 24 offenses that could initiate a temporary ban or “niddui” (a mini-ban, for typically a 7 day period), ranging from challenging or insulting Jewish authorities to leading others to break Jewish law.
cherem/herem became a rabbinic court practice the beit din (rabbinical court) had jurisdiction. It usually referenced monetary manners. Although often only for short periods of time, it could be extended indefinitely. A cherem/herem could be and was enacted by the rabbis of the individual Jewish communities.
For more on this usage, see the Jewish Encyclopedia selection on “excommunication” – the Rabbinic use of cherem/herem http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=544&letter=E
Spinoza’s cherem/herem was more complex. There is still debate among scholars. The chief Spinoza scholar is Steven Nadler. He has written an extensive article that addresses this topic:
The Excommunication of Spinoza: Trouble and Toleration in the “Dutch Jerusalem” Nadler, Steve. Shofar. Lincoln: Jul 31, 2001. Vol. 19, Issue. 4, p. 40
From Allan Nadler, “Romancing Spinoza,” Commentary, December 2006, p.26
Availble at http://basmanroselaw.blogspot.com/2009/06/spinoza.html
“Upon receiving word of the verdict (he did not bother to show up for his own excommunication), he declared, according to his first biographer and friend Jean-Maximilian Lucas: “They do not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord if I did not dread scandal; but, since they want it that way, I enter gladly on the path that was opened to me.”
The following material was collected and presented on a philosophy blog: http://www.philosophyblog.com.au/the-excommunication-and-anathema-of-baruch-spinoza/
The severity of excommunication. Nadler (in Spinoza: A Life, 1999) gives a list of excommunicable offences. Richard Popkin (in Spinoza, 2004) notes that excommunication “was not rare among the members of the Amsterdam congregation. In its first hundred years, the community pronounced cherem/herems against over two hundred and eighty people. These were usually to force people to pay their dues, to carry through marriage contracts, or because of adultery. One person was excommunicated for buying a kosher chicken from an Ashkenazi butcher rather than a Sephardic one.”
Nadler: “There has always been much disagreement among halakhic authorities, the arbiters of Jewish law, over terminology, definition, sequence, and degree of punishment.”
The completeness of excommunication. Nadler writes: “… an excommunication was not intended by the Jewish community to be… a permanent end to all religious and personal relations… But it seems usually to have been within the power of the individual being punished to determine how long it would be before he fulfilled the conditions set for his reconciliation with the congregation.” Popkin writes: “In almost all cases the excommunicated party was allowed to make up for his or her fault by paying fines, performing certain actions, or promising better behavior.”
The forcefulness of the denunciation. On the one hand, the anathema is more vehement
than any other surviving anathema of the period. On the other hand…
Nadler: “The formula for Spinoza’s cherem/herem seems to have come from Venice…
adapted… from chapter 139 of the Kol Bo (‘The Voice Within’), a late thirteenth or early fourteenth century compilation of Jewish lore and customs printed in Naples around 1490.”
Abraham Wolf (in Spinoza’s Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being, 1910): 1910: “It must be remembered… that the actual anathema was a traditional formula, and (unlike the preamble and conclusion) was not specially written for the occasion.”
Lewis Browne (in Blessed Spinoza, 1932: “The awful maledictions which they heaped on Baruch’s head were largely conventional. They heaped them no less fulsomely on the heads of men who committed quite trivial crimes, for the language of the cherem/herem was literally a formula inherited from the early Middle Ages.”
From Felix Weltsch, “The Perennial Spinoza: Radical Philosopher.” Commentary Magazine, May, 1956.
…In 1656, the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam proclaimed: “In accordance with the judgment of the angels and the decision of the elders, and with the consent of God and this holy community, we hereby excommunicate, expel, curse, and anathematize Baruch de Spinoza. . . .” About two years ago (in 1954), Premier David Ben Gurion of Israel published an article in which he proposed that the tercentenary of Spinoza’s excommunication serve as the occasion for an official revocation of that ban… Ben Gurion’s article provoked a heated debate. In Holland the Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad protested sharply against the idea of lifting the ban of excommunication. In Israel, too, many voices were raised in defense of the Amsterdam synagogue. (Franz) Rosenzweig tells us, incidentally, that Hermann Cohen, the great German Jewish philosopher, once justified the act of excommunication, declaring that the community had every right to expel a blasphemer and atheist.
From Yovel, Yirmiyahu. “Spinoza, the First Secular Jew?” Tikkun, vol. 5, no.1, pp. 40-42, 94-96, http://www.autodidactproject.org/other/spinoza.html (article available in its entirety).
From time to time, petitions are made to have Spinoza’s ban revoked. in 1925, the late Israeli historian, Joseph Klausner, stood on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem and proclaimed: “Baruch Spinoza, you are our brother.” In the early 1950s, Israel’s prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, conducted a campaign to have the ban lifted. And in 1953, the then Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yizhak Halevi Herzog, replied to an application from the late G. Herz Shikmoni, director of the “Spinozaeum” in Haifa, asking him if the excommunication was still in force from the point of view of halakha. In reply to the question of whether the excommunication was intended to apply only to Spinoza’s lifetime or also to future generations, Rabbi Herzog did not rule, leaving the matter open to further consideration. But with regard to the ban on Spinoza’s works, the rabbinical ruling was clear:
I have examined the text of the proclamation [the writ of excommunication] and I have found … that the intention is not specified for future generations, but only for the period of Spinoza’s lifetime. . . . It seems that the ban on the reading of Spinoza’s books and compositions no longer stands.
From Itzik Basman blog
This ban of excommunication, or herem, had been imposed on the great philosopher in 1656. One of the local Spinozist “thinkers and preachers” was Joseph Klausner, a renowned professor at the Hebrew University (and Oz’s great-uncle). In a 1927 public lecture coinciding with the 250th anniversary of Spinoza’s death in 1677, Klausner, an apostle of “Jewish humanism,” took it upon himself not only to declare “our recognition of the terrible sin” that the Jewish people had committed against Spinoza in excommunicating him but to repudiate the idea that Spinoza was, in fact, a heretic. Hailing “the Jewish character of Spinoza’s ‘Torah,’ ” Klausner rose to his peroration:[T]o Spinoza the Jew we call out . . .
from atop Mount Scopus, out of our new sanctuary—the Hebrew University of Jerusalem— the ban is rescinded! Judaism’s wrongdoing against you is hereby lifted, and whatever was your sin against her shall be forgiven. Our brother are you, our brother are you, our brother are you! At the time, Klausner’s performance evoked a decidedly mixed reaction. Among the luminaries present for the occasion was Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, who would later recall that “many people were laughing at [Klausner’s] emotional performance (‘our brother are you,’ indeed!).” But Klausner was hardly the first, and by no means the last, in a long line of Jewish romancers of Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza, the meaning of whose life and thought has sometimes seemed permanently up for grabs.
Rabbi Peter Schweitzer of the City Congregation found this 1927 article that described Klausner’s position: http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F50814FE395B157A93C2AB1788D85F438 285F9&scp=2&sq=spinoza%20excommunication&st=cse).
Here is an article from 1951 about the Ben Gurion episode: (http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FB0712FA3458117A93C7AB178CD85F40 8585F9&scp=4&sq=spinoza%20excommunication&st=cse)