Monday, March 07, 2011

Spinoza as probable Hebrew translator of a Quaker missionary tract.

This is the English and Hebrew title page (and first page of text) to Margaret Fell's (1614-1702) bilingual edition of A Loving Salutation to the Seed of Abraham (1660), a Quaker missionary tract. As you can see, in Hebrew it is called שאלת שלום באהבה. What makes this particularly interesting is that convincing, or at least compelling, circumstantial evidence points to none other than Benedict Spinoza as the translator. The evidence circles around a letter written by William Ames to Fell, in which he referred to the translator as a "Jew at amsterdam that by the Jews is cast out."

Scholars who have studied the question point out that around that time (=1657) there were four Dutch Jews in cherem, but only Spinoza fits all the criterion in Ames' description. Uriel D'acosta was already dead, having died in 1640. Another was Juan de Prado, and another was Daniel Ribera, who was not yet excommunicated. The translator was described as knowing Dutch, Portuguese and Hebrew; the book had to be translated from English into Dutch in order for the Jew to translate it to Hebrew, "because," according to Ames, "he whoe is toe translate it into Hebrew cannot understand english." Juan de Prado, as a recent Maranno returnee, probably did not know Hebrew very well. This leaves Spinoza, whom other evidence ties to the circle of the nascent Quaker movement. So if anyone ever asks if Spinoza ever flirted with Chareidism, the answer appears to be yes.

The following is the end of Margaret Fell's tract, which asks "Certain Queries, to the Teachers and Rabbi's [sic] among the Jews." At the end of these 20 questions, the rabbis are schoolmarmishly instructed to "Answer these Queries according to the LAW and PROPHETS in Number 2 Pencile."

Readers who are interested can peruse the Hebrew translation of Spinoza's grammar of the Hebrew language here.


  1. Brilliant. What do the Spinoza scholars say?

  2. I think there is agreement. Richard Popkin, who knew his Spinoza, republished an edition of this book with the subtitle "Spinoza's Earliest Publication?" Despite the question mark, I think he is in agreement that it is probably him. The only thing missing is his name, which William Ames never gave.

    I think the other unknown is that there is some doubt as to whether they tried to get another Jewish translator, who was also involved with them, a Polish so-called rabbi named Samuel Levi Asshur. But even if he had something to do with it, Ames is pretty clear that it was a Jew from Amsterdam who was excommunicated and believed things which sound awfully similar to Spinozism.

  3. For Spinoza, of all people, to have gotten involved with such a project, I imagine he must have been desperate for cash. Can you tell us a little more about Spinoza's "ties to the circle of the nascent Quaker movement"?

  4. I agree that probably did it for the money, but it's not as weird as it sounds. Quakers weren't a 300 year old sect then, for one thing, but avant garde religious dissenters.

    In Ames's letter he refers to Spinoza (assuming, of course, that it's him) as being ideal "because he owneth no other teacher but the light," which apparently is a very Quaker turn of phrase. Now, of course I know nothing about Quaker theology beyond what I'm willing to look up and find out in five minutes, but for Spinoza this was probably a reference to reason, and for the Quakers it referred (I think) to their eschewal of clergy, something that certainly Spinoza could have agreed with. But given that this was the 1650s, it isn't so strange that he and they would have had some attraction. Remember, many people thought that Spinoza and Chassidus taught a very similar Pantheism. In addition, Spinoza's biblical criticism has an affinity with Samuel Fisher, another early Quaker, whose earlier work seems to be very similar to Spinoza in his Theolog, etc. Treatise (which is to say, Spinoza is similar to him).

  5. Yerachmiel Lopin9:58 AM, March 27, 2014

    It would be fascinating to know if there were more intellectual affinities between Spinoza and these Quakers. I am surprised to learn that the Quakers were producing missionary tracts aimed at Jews.

  6. Spinoza was introduced to the Amsterdam Quakers and William Ames by Serrarius who as a member of the collegiant circle Spinoza mixed with.

    It was a different (Quaker) William Ames - He wrote to George Fox who wanted a work of his translating into Hebrew (Oct 14 1658): "I have spoke to the one who hath been a Jew toe translate it intoe Hebrew"

    But it was William Caton, a Quaker missionary who wrote to Fell about translating 'The Loving Salutation':

    Nov 18 1657: he had "bene with a Jew and have showed him thy booke, I have asked him what language would be the fittest for them he told me portugees or Hebrew: for if it were in Hebrew they might understand it at Jerusalem or in almost any other place of the world. And he hath undertaken to translate it for us, he being expert in several languages"

    March 15, 1658: AS touching thy booke (titulated a Loving Salutation), I have gotten it once translated in Dutch; because the Jew that is to translate it into Hebrew, could not translate it out of English; he hath it now, and is translating it; like he hath done the other, which Samuell Fisher and John Stubbs have taken along with them: the Jew that translates it, remained very friendly in his way"

    If the Jew is Spinoza then he was also the translator also of Fell's earlier letter to Manasseh ben Israel that Ames had translated into Dutch.

  7. Ah, yes, but maybe it was Aboab; wasn't that about the time he departed to Brazil? He may have been excommunicated, so despised was he by the "political actors" at the time.



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