This Day in Jewish History

1618: A Tormented Free-thinker Is Excommunicated in Venice

The converso Uriel da Costa returned to Judaism, but didn’t like what he found there – and he suffered for it.

A painting of Uriel da Costa instructing the young Spinoza, Samuel Hirszenberg, 1901 (Louvre)
Wikimedia Commons

On or about August 14, 1618, Uriel da Costa, a free-thinking but tormented Jew of Amsterdam, was put under herem – a ban – by the Sephardi rabbi of Venice.

As a Portuguese-born converso who had returned to Judaism and left his birthplace for a land that offered Jews the opportunity to practice their faith in relative freedom, da Costa had become disillusioned with the religion he encountered there, and felt compelled to make his criticisms public.

That was something that the community could not abide, hence his excommunication. The story, however, did not end there.

Reborn in Judaism

Uriel was born and baptized as Gabriel da Costa in Oporto, Portugal, in 1583 or 1584. His father, Bento da Costa Brandao, was a Roman Catholic, and a successful merchant and tax farmer, with substantial holdings in the Portuguese colony in Brazil. His mother, the former Branca Dinis, was from a converso family that had, at least nominally, given up Judaism for Christianity, but apparently held on at least to the knowledge that they had once been Jews.

Much of what is known about Uriel’s life was reported by him, in the memoir “Exemplar Humane Vitate” (Example of a Human Life) he wrote shortly before his death. He studied canon law at the University of Coimbra and after that worked for the Church as a financial official.

His studies, however, had given da Costa the opportunity to read the Hebrew Bible and compare it to the New Testament. Increasingly he became convinced that the Jewish narrative and beliefs were more authentic, and after his father’s death, in 1608, he resolved to return to his family’s ancestral faith.

There is also some evidence that he was being investigated by the Inquisition in Portugal, and that his knowledge of this is what impelled him to flee the country, in 1614. Da Costa was accompanied in his spiritual and physical journey by much of his family, including his mother. Most went directly to Amsterdam, while Uriel and a brother, and their wives, went on to Hamburg, to set up a branch of the family trading business.

English translation of Da Costa's Examination of Pharisaic Traditions, which studied the Jewish traditions regarding immortality.
Wikimedia Commons

Rebellious ideas crushed

Newly circumcised and religiously observant, da Costa found himself disappointed with the Judaism he now took up. He had learned about the ancient faith via the Bible, but in the two millennia since its writing, it had been augmented by the Talmud and rabbinic Judaism in general. He didn’t like its innovations, and he expressed his criticisms in writing.

The Hamburg Jewish community asked the chief rabbi of Venice, Leon de Modena, to respond to da Costa’s complaints, which included opposition to circumcision and the wearing of tefillin.

Rabbi Modena wrote a rebuttal, and at the same time placed the upstart under a herem, while urging his colleagues in Hamburg to do the same.

This did not deter da Costa, who traveled to Amsterdam in 1623 to publish his critique of rabbinic Judaism, “Examination of Pharisaic Traditions, Compared with the Written Law,” in which, among other things, he also argued that biblical Judaism did not hold for the immortality of the soul.

Armed with advance knowledge of da Costa’s book, a member of the Hamburg community, Samuel da Silva, published his own attack on Uriel. And when da Costa’s book was printed, it was burned, and the secular authorities of Amsterdam imprisoned him, claiming that his writing also criticized Christianity.

Da Costa did not back down, and his memoir recounts his ongoing struggle with Jewish officialdom. Most painful to him was the herem placed upon him in Amsterdam, which rendered him an outcast. Finally, in 1639, he requested readmission to the community, whose three Sephardi congregations had that year reunited in a single synagogue, Talmud Torah.

The price of readmission consisted of signing a statement promising to reform his behavior, to be followed by 39 lashes and a humiliating ceremony in which he was to lay across the threshold of the synagogue, as each of its members stepped over him.

This, apparently is what broke Uriel da Costa. Not long after, in April 1640, he shot himself to death. His memoir was found near his corpse.