At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Nature versus God was a core topic of debate. In the Jewish community, the controversy swirled around the philosopher Baruch (later known as Benjamin) Spinoza, a Sephardi whose writings elevated Nature in a challenge to traditional views of God as the Creator and Ruler of the universe. Spinoza suggested that Nature was an infinite system of which humans are a part and that Man will only find happiness by understanding Nature and his place in it
He disturbed the Jewish establishment of Europe so greatly that he was excommunicated by the Elders of the community in Amsterdam in 1656 (just a bit more than two decades after Galileo). However, Spinoza was only one of a chorus of thinkers who were heralding in the Enlightenment. And David Nieto (1654-1728) had the task of negotiating the Jewish community in London through these difficult times.
David Nieto (1654-1728), was the first rabbi of the new Bevis Marks Synagogue in London and the Chakkam (sage) of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation of London at the beginning of the 18th century. The Bevis Marks Synagogue exists to this day and it has a wonderful website (http://www.bevismarks.org.uk/). The community must have recognized that they were hiring one of the most original thinkers in 18th century Judaism, a prolific writer in both Hebrew and Spanish, a serious scholar of his religion but also of the sciences. David Nieto was a physician as well as a rabbi (a chakkam clearly!) but his contract in 1701 forbade him to practice medicine, an early warning that the elders of the congregation had concerns about the ongoing debate about Nature (Science) and God. Nieto understood that the community was engaging him to be a public figure, to be the spokesman of the Jews of England (at least of the Sephardim (there was an Ashkenazic community but at the time they were poorer, less educated and only recently arrived.)
In his role as the leader of English Jews, Nieto met with members of a highly sophisticated society of English scientists and churchmen who had already integrated new scientific advances into their political and religious aspirations. They absorbed the writings of Hobbes and Spinoza that God was seen in natural things including man and natural beings had equal value. This could lead to a conclusion that political systems that oppressed certain classes were evil and needed to be changed. Christian leaders stopped short of espousing revolution and instead, added a focus on social improvement through good works.
Nieto was acutely aware that his congregation was composed of assimilated, secularized, highly ambitious but politically and culturally insecure Jewish merchants. He quickly saw that Judaism could only survive within English society if it demonstrated allegiance to the Crown (therefore, no calls for revolutionary change) and appropriated some of the language and ideology of the religious establishment. English Jews would remain Jews, he believed, in an era of increasing assimilation, only if their religious sensibilities were more in tune with their economic and social aspirations and aligned more comfortably alongside those of their Christian neighbors.
Controversy erupted quickly. In 1703, after a sermon on divine providence and its relation to nature, some of the listeners thought their chakkam identified God with nature. There were calls to condemn Nieto as being a “Spinozist.” But Nieto had not said that. He was, through a metaphoric debate, espousing the belief that God created Nature and thus, the natural world cannot be considered equal to God or even godlike in any aspect. He used the metaphor of a clock to underscore his meaning. If a primitive man saw a clock for the first time, and had no understanding of how it worked, he might think that the pendulum and the hands have intrinsic power on their own. However those who understand the laws of physics know that the power is not in each part but in how the system works and that it was created by someone who intentionally fit the whole system together.
In his greatest work, Mateh Dan, published in 1714, Nieto presents a defense of traditional Jewish faith and practice, not only by using traditional Jewish sources but also by including the language of science. He contends that Judaism has been open and willing to embrace science while at the same time the Jewish faith might enhance the moral and spiritual life of the individual, particularly in areas in which science cannot penetrate. He cites the invention of the barometer, thermometer and telescope and then underscores how even the discoveries made by the use of these tools can never uncover the totality of reality. Science can move forward but humans will always have more questions to ask and never find all the answers. God is the source of Creation and faith and tradition holds the ultimate answers.
By the beginning of the 19th century, when the Tales of Judah Halevi take place, the Age of Enlightenment was sparking revolutions as people questioned the relationship between Church and State and Man and Religion. Judah Halevi (born Hassan) NIeto, a physician learned in his faith, just like the earlier Nieto, struggled on a personal level between tradition and new science, between acceptance through prayer and justice through action. And sadly as Napoleon emancipated Jews as his empire expanded, their social disintegration accelerated with the rapid political and cultural changes of Enlightenment and Revolutionary Europe.
Below find a drawing of the Bevis Marks synagogue in the 19th century and a picture of it now. The grave of the Chakkam Nieto is also featured.