Who Was Uriel da Costa?

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Living under the Portuguese Inquisition, Uriel da Costa (1583-1640) fled with his family to Amsterdam to reclaim his Jewish heritage. Tragically, the years of attempting to reconstruct authentic Judaism under the scrutiny of a zealous Church led him, like many crypto-Jews of his generation, to basic misunderstandings about the fundamental ideas and practices of his ancestral religion.  A combination of a personal struggle with mental illness and an inability to accept the discrepancy between his imagined Judaism and the way it was actually practiced led him to become an outspoken critic of Jewish leadership as he wandered between Amsterdam, Hamburg and Utrecht. He was censured with repeated excommunication, and ultimately took his own life in 1640 after penning a brief autobiographical statement cataloguing his inner spiritual conflict. His writings are brief and confused, but they had a significant impact on the work of Baruch Spinoza, whose own conflict with traditional Judaism paralleled da Costa’s in many ways.

Image: from Henryk Berlewi’s book cover to a 1931 Kultur-lige biography of da Costa.

Click here for the Prezi associated with this lecture.

Tonight: Uriel da Costa, 7 pm


Tonight’s Jewish History lecture will focus on the life and thought of Uriel da Costa, a tragic figure whose brief autobiography, “Example of a Human Life,” describes the psychic pain and spiritual loss felt by Jewish victims of the Spanish Inquisition, even generations after the expulsion of 1492. His thought had a major impact on later thinkers including Baruch Spinoza, depicted in this imaginary scene by Samuel Hirszenberg (1888) as a child on da Costa’s knee.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

1602 Avenue J, Brooklyn NY 11230. Lecture is free and open to the community.

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