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Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he awakens. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. . . . May the Lord blot out his name from under heaven. . . . Nobody may communicate with him, neither in writing nor accord him any favour nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits in his vicinity, nor read any treatise composed or written by him.

Thus reads the litany of thunderous curses pronounced by the members of the Ma’amad (governing council) of the Jewish community in Amsterdam in July 1656. Part of a Herem, or Jewish writ of excommunication, threats of this kind were frequently used within the beleaguered, apprehensive, and largely autonomous Jewish communities of premodern Europe. The threat of complete isolation from the social and financial structures of the community was usually sufficient to bring all sorts of miscreants—petty criminals, abusive spouses, heretics—back into line, at which point the Herem would be annulled and the recipient welcomed back into the community.

Yet this time was different. The target in 1656 was no ordinary miscreant, but a mild-mannered and precociously talented student in his early twenties, who until recently had been one of Amsterdam’s most promising rabbinical candidates. Alas, history does not record the offense for which he was ejected from his community with such gusto, but it does record his quite extraordinary reaction to it. With unprecedented insouciance and self-assurance, the student simply left the community and continued his life as a private, nonreligious citizen. What the gentlemen of the Ma’amad could not have known was that this act of expulsion irrevocably altered the course of intellectual history. They had given the world Spinoza.

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