Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632, the son of Portuguese Marranos (or conversos, or crypto-Jews) who had fled the Inquisition. A prodigy at Amsterdam’s Etz Chaim Yeshiva, he was widely expected to become a rabbi. As rumors of his heretical ideas spread, he was denounced by his yeshiva teachers, and in 1656 he was excommunicated by the Mahamad (Jewish Community Council) of Amsterdam. He lived in several small Amsterdam towns, most notably Rijnsberg, before settling in The Hague, where he died in 1677.
While his writings are notoriously dense, the central doctrines of Spinoza’s philosophy are eminently clear and stunningly sweeping. In “Tractatus Theologico-Politicus” he openly questions the divinity of Scripture and assails the authority of the church. In place of the first, he offers a “natural,” critically historical and philological reading of the Bible; in place of the second, a secular state in which religious authorities would enjoy no power.