1664
Saul Levi Mortera's magnum opus

SAUL LEVI MORTERA (1596?-1660) is best known in history for his role as president of the ecclesiastical tribunal which in 1656 ratified the excommunication of Benedict Spinoza, his erstwhile pupil, then aged 24. Mortera, born in Venice, spent four years in Paris at the court of Queen Marie de Medici of France, where he was secretary to her personal physician, the Portuguese doctor Montalto. After he moved to Amsterdam he became the spiritual leader of the first Jewish community, made up mostly of Portuguese former New Christians. He also taught at their academy, founded around the time of his arrival (1616). In Amsterdam, Mortera was a celebrated preacher and author of several treatises originally written in Portuguese, some of them still unpublished.
In 1988, his Treatise on the Truth of the Law of Moses, comprising 429 folios quill-penned in his own hand during the last years of his life (Ets Haim Library, Amsterdam), was published by the present author. It is the most extensive and comprehensive work produced before 1659 by a Jewish author about all forms of Christian dogma; the first critical analysis of the New Testament in a vernacular; the only work of its kind ever written in Portuguese.
Mortera's ideas did have an influence on Spinoza's Theological Political Treatise of 1670, in a negative way; whereas Mortera attacked the rationalism and the authenticity of the New Testament, Spinoza applied Mortera's methods to attack the rationalism and authenticity of the Hebrew Scriptures. One of Mortera's aims, as he himself states, was to convince the adherents of the more radical branches of Dutch Protestantism to renounce their belief in the divine character of the New Testament, and to adopt a form of religion based solely on the Old Testament. But the work was never translated into Dutch.
It was, however, translated into Spanish by Chacham Moses Raphael de Aguilar. Five splendid decorated manuscript copies of this Spanish translation, entitled Providencia de Dios con Ysrael, Verdad de la Ley de Moseh y Nulidad de las Demas Leyes ('Providence of God with Israel, Truth of the Law of Moses, Insignificance of Other Laws') were produced in Amsterdam between 1662 and 1664 by the Dutch-Portuguese master calligrapher Luis Nunes Dovale (alias 'lehudah Machabeu'). LittIe evidence remains of this scribe's life except for his signature as witness at the wedding of his sister, Debora Israel Machabeu, to David Pereira at Amsterdam in 1627 and his presence in Pernambuco, Brazil, in 1646 (but see Ton Croiset van Uchelen's article earlier in this book, no. 15). The five copies of Mortera's work are Machabeu's masterpieces. The first one, dated 20 June i662., belongs to the Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, the second, dated 10 July i663, is in the BodIcian Library, Oxford, the third, dated 25 JulY 1663, is in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, the fourth, dated 1664, is in Ets Haim and the 6fth, also dated 1664, is in the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana. While the five manuscripts seem similar, each one has its own distinctive artistic quality.

HERMAN P.SALOMON


Reading

H. P. Salomon, Saul Levi Mortera en zijn 'Traktaat betreffende de waarbeid van de wet van Mozes' (Braga 1988).
P. Cohen, 'S. L. Mortera's historische opvattingen in zijn Traktaat betreffende de waarheid van de wet van Mozes' in: H. den Boer, J. Brombacher & R Cohen, eds., Een gulden kleinood (Apeldoorn / Louvain 1990) p. 105 - 120.