Menasseh ben Israel: Rab­bi of Amsterdam

Steven Nadler
  • Review
By – November 5, 2018

The sto­ry of Rab­bi Menasseh ben Israel, the great sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry rab­bi of Ams­ter­dam, is hard­ly the tale of fame and for­tune one would expect. As expert­ly told by Pro­fes­sor Steven Nadler — author of Rem­brandt’s Jews and Spin­oza: A Life, among oth­er well-researched vol­umes cen­tered on the Dutch Gold­en Age — ben Israel’s life was most­ly a tale of finan­cial, polit­i­cal, and per­son­al woe.

The off­spring of the sec­ond mar­riage of a cryp­to-Jew who sur­vived tor­ture at the hands of the Inqui­si­tion, ben Israel demon­strat­ed rab­binic tal­ent at an ear­ly age. For many years he was a suc­cess­ful preach­er, book pub­lish­er, and con­sul­tant, sit­u­at­ed at the cen­ter of a pan-Euro­pean net­work of Jews and non-Jews eager­ly await­ing the arrival of the Mes­si­ah. Despite these accom­plish­ments, how­ev­er, he had a dif­fi­cult time avoid­ing all man­ner of polit­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal imbroglios over the course of his fifty-three years. He received a year-long sus­pen­sion of his local rab­binic duties after curs­ing the lead­ers of his Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, and was wide­ly crit­i­cized for hav­ing close social rela­tion­ships with, and even ded­i­cat­ing some of his Jew­ish schol­ar­ly works to, his Chris­t­ian friends — who were them­selves con­tro­ver­sial with­in their own faith community.

His abil­i­ty to earn a liv­ing was not helped by such mat­ters, lead­ing to numer­ous quixot­ic quests, includ­ing an attempt to become the exclu­sive pur­chas­er of Hebrew books for the Queen of Swe­den, and time spent inves­ti­gat­ing the report that Native Amer­i­cans were iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves as mem­bers of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. He also played a lead­ing role in the long cam­paign (suc­cess­ful only after his death) to read­mit Jews back into Eng­land, which, in his mind, would con­sti­tute the ful­fill­ment of a bib­li­cal prophecy.

Though he died in pover­ty, there is much that ben Israel is to be admired for. His cease­less and coura­geous efforts to inspire and edu­cate Jews and gen­tiles both with­in and far beyond Ams­ter­dam left him with a lega­cy that con­tin­ues to live on.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

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