On February 10, 1660, Rabbi Shaul Levi Morteira of Amsterdam died. Morteira, the head of the combined synagogues of the city and one of the principal teachers of Baruch Spinoza, was a dominant figure in this central Jewish community. He did not shy away from theological controversy, and he has been presented by historians in terms that range from flattering to extremely negative.
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Sources generally say that Shaul Levi Morteira was born in Venice in 1596, although historian Marc Saperstein, editor of a volume of Morteira’s collected sermons, figures it had to be a few years before that, perhaps 1594. He was a descendant of the distinguished Ashkenazi Katzenellenbogen family.
In approximately 1612, Morteira accompanied the physician Elijah Montalto, a converso who had returned to Judaism, to Paris, where Montalto was to serve as personal doctor to the queen, Marie de Medicis. Morteira, in turn, was personal rabbi to Montalto. When Montalto died suddenly, in 1616, it was Morteira who escorted his body to the closest Jewish cemetery, Amsterdam’s Oudekerk burial ground.
In Amsterdam, Morteira accepted an invitation from the Sephardi synagogue Beth Jacob to stay on as its spiritual leader. He also founded and taught at a Jewish school, Keter Torah, where his students included Spinoza.
Amsterdam, which only in 1603 permitted Jews to practice their religion openly, was a place of intellectual ferment and insecure identity. Many of the Jews who settled there were exiles from Spain and Portugal, some of them second-generation conversos who now wanted to return to their ancestral religion. Some still had relatives living in Iberia as Christians.
Morteira came into this atmosphere as an outsider and a rationalist, a follower of Maimonides. In the 1630s, he became involved in a messy and public dispute with Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, a Portuguese-born son of conversos. Ostensibly, the argument was over the two rabbis’ respective interpretations of a phrase in the Mishna (Sanhedrin 2:1), according to which “All Israelites have a share in the world to come.” Morteira argued that this applied only to religiously observant “Israelites,” whereas Aboab believed that it applied to all Jews. Morteira insisted that transgressors would face eternal damnation, whereas for a first-generation returnee to Judaism like Aboab, those who converted under pressure deserved greater understanding and compassion.
So vexed was Morteira by the disagreement that he wrote to the beit din (religious court) of Venice, a far more senior Jewish community, for a ruling. The sages of Venice did not want to get directly involved, but sent a letter to Aboab urging him to soft-pedal his controversial stand, which he based on his study of Lurianic kabbala.
Aboab did not back down. Instead he claimed that kabbala, far from contradicting the Torah, actually revealed its hidden meaning, explaining that the souls of sinners would have a chance to repent by way of reincarnation in another body.
When, in 1639, the three synagogues of Amsterdam merged into one body, Aboab was rewarded for his impertinence by being given a junior position, while Morteira became the senior rabbi. (Aboab soon sailed off to Brazil, after Recife came under Dutch control.)
In 1656, when the rabbis of Amsterdam banned Spinoza for his heretical views on God, they were led by Morteira. Although Spinoza had been one of his prized students at Keter Torah, Morteira condemned him. And in this was he was joined by Aboab, who had in the interim returned to Holland, and by another colleague with whom Morteira had testy relations, Menasseh ben Israel (Manoel Dias Soeiro). All united to cut off Spinoza from their community.
Morteira continued to engage in polemics until his death, on February 10, 1660. In 1659 he issued an argument against the Christian reformer John Calvin.