Uriel (Gabriel) da Costa

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Uriel (Gabriel) da Costa

Birthdate:
Birthplace: Porto, Portugal
Death: Died in Amsterdam, Noord Holland, The Netherlands
Cause of death: Shot himself
Immediate Family:

Son of Bento da Costa Brandao and Branca Sara Dinis
Husband of Sara da Costa and Francisca de Crasto
Father of Abraham da Costa
Brother of Abraham da Costa; Joseph da Costa; Maria Da Costa and Aharon da Costa

Occupation: Philosopher and skeptic from Portugal, canon
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Uriel (Gabriel) da Costa

Uriel da Costa (c. 1585 – April 1640) or Uriel Acosta (from the Latin form of his Portuguese surname, Costa, or da Costa) was a philosopher and skeptic from Portugal. Some sources give his year of birth as c.1591.

Life

Costa was born in Porto with the name Gabriel da Costa. He hailed from a converso family that had converted from Judaism to Catholicism in order to avoid the civil persecutions of Jews. A member of a devoutly religious family, his father, Bento da Costa, was a devout Catholic who was well-versed in Canon law. His mother descended from Jews who had practiced a variant form of Judaism.

Costa also occupied an ecclesiastical office. While a student of canon law at the University of Coimbra, he began to read the Bible and contemplate it seriously. He was aware that his family had Jewish origins, and in the course of his studies, he began to consider a return to Judaism. After his father died, he began to very carefully reveal his newfound sentiments to his family. Ultimately, in 1617, the whole family (mother and her six sons) decided to return to Judaism; they fled Portugal for Amsterdam, which would soon become a thriving center of the Sephardic diaspora. Once in Amsterdam, the entire family embraced Judaism, with Gabriel becoming Uriel, and his mother choosing Sarah. Although most published works show his name as "Acosta", he himself signed his name as "Uriel da Costa" and that is how it's shown here.

However, upon arriving in the Netherlands, Costa very quickly became disenchanted with the kind of Judaism he saw in practice there. He came to believe that the rabbinic leadership was too consumed by ritualism and legalistic posturing. In 1624 he published a book titled An Examination of the Traditions of the Pharisees which questioned the fundamental idea of the immortality of the soul. Costa believed that this was not an idea deeply rooted in biblical Judaism, but rather had been formulated primarily by rabbis. The work further pointed out the discrepancies between biblical Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism; he declared the latter to be an accumulation of mechanical ceremonies and practices. In his view, it was thoroughly devoid of spiritual and philosophical concepts.

The book became very controversial and was burned publicly. Costa was called before the rabbinic leadership of Amsterdam for uttering blasphemous views against Judaism and Christianity. He was fined a significant sum and excommunicated.

He ultimately fled Amsterdam for Hamburg, Germany (also a prominent Sephardic center), where he was ostracized from the local Jewish community. He did not understand German, which further compounded his difficulties. Left with no place to turn, in 1633 he returned to Amsterdam and sought a reconciliation with the community. He claimed that he would go back to being "an ape amongst the apes"; he would follow the traditions and practices, but with little real conviction.

However, he soon again began to express rationalistic and skeptical views; he expressed doubts whether biblical law was divinely sanctioned or whether it was simply written down by Moses. He came to the conclusion that all religion was a human invention. Ultimately he came to reject formalized, ritualized religion. In his view, religion was to be based only on natural law; God had no use for empty ceremony. In many ways his beliefs were Deistic; he believed that God resides in nature, which is full of peace and harmony, whereas organized religion is marked by violence and strife.

Eventually Costa encountered two Christians who expressed to him their desire to convert to Judaism. In accordance with his views, he dissuaded them from doing so. For the communal leadership of Amsterdam, this was the final straw. He was thus again excommunicated. For seven years he lived in virtual isolation, shunned by his family and loved ones. Ultimately, the loneliness was too much for him to handle, and he again returned to Holland and recanted.

As a punishment for his heretical views, he was publicly given 39 lashes at the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. He was then forced to lie on the floor while the congregation trampled over him. This left him so demoralized and depressed that he became suicidal. After writing his autobiography, Exemplar Humanae Vitae (1640), in which he wrote about his experience as a victim of intolerance, he set out to end the lives of both his cousin and himself. Seeing his relative approach one day, he grabbed a pistol and pulled the trigger, but it misfired. Then he reached for another, turned it on himself, and fired, dying a reportedly terrible death.

Analysis of da Costa

Ultimately there are many ways to view Uriel da Costa. He has been seen as a crusader of free thought and an early precursor of modern biblical criticism. Internally to Judaism, he was seen by many as both a troublemaking heretic and martyr against the intolerance of the Orthodox Jewish establishment. He has also been seen as a precursor to Baruch Spinoza.

Costa is also indicative of the difficulty that many Marranos faced upon their arrival in an organized Jewish community. As a Crypto-Jew in Iberia, he read the Bible and was impressed by it. Yet upon confronting an organized Rabbinic community, he was not equally impressed by the established ritual and religious doctrine of Rabbinical Judaism, such as the Oral Law. As da Costa himself pointed out, traditional Pharisee and Rabbinic doctrine had been contested in the past by the Sadducees and the Karaites.

Writings

  • Propostas contra a tradição (Portuguese for Propositions against tradition), ca. 1616.
  • Exame das tradições farisaicas (Portuguese for Examination of Pharisaic traditions), 1623. Here, da Costa argues that the human soul is not immortal.
  • Exemplar humanae vitae (Latin for Example of a human life), 1640.

Works based upon Costa's life

In 1846, in the midst of the liberal milieu that led to the Revolutions of 1848, the German writer Karl Gutzkow (1811–1878) wrote Uriel Acosta, a play about Costa's life. This would later become the first classic play to be translated into Yiddish, and it was a longtime standard of Yiddish theater; Uriel Acosta is the signature role of the actor Rafalesco, the protagonist of Sholem Aleichem's Wandering Stars. The first translation into Yiddish was by Osip Mikhailovich Lerner, who staged the play at the Mariinski Theater in Odessa, Ukraine (then part of Imperial Russia) in 1881, shortly after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Abraham Goldfaden rapidly followed with a rival production, an operetta, at Odessa's Remesleni Club. Israel Rosenberg promptly followed with his own translation for a production in Łódź (in modern-day Poland). Rosenberg's production starred Jacob Adler in the title role; the play would remain a signature piece in Adler's repertoire to the end of his stage career, the first of the several roles through which he developed the persona that he referred to as "the Grand Jew". Hermann Jellinek (brother of Adolf Jellinek) also wrote a book entitled Uriel Acosta.

-------------------- Ergens tussen november 1583 en maart 1584 werd in de Portugese stad Porto Uriël da Costa geboren die bij die gelegenheid de christelijke naam Gabriël meekrijgt. Zijn ouders, Bento da Costa Brandao en Branca Dinis, stamden beiden uit geslachten van zogenaamde 'Nieuw-christenen' of marranen. Dit waren joden die zich tegen het einde van de vijftiende eeuw onder druk van de inquisitie tot het christendom hadden bekeerd. Zijn ouders waren vrome katholieken en voedden ook de jonge Gabriël op als goede katholiek. Gabriël was het tweede kind in een gezin dat uiteindelijk uit zes kinderen zou bestaan. De familie Da Costa bewoonde in Porto een fraai huis in een goede buurt en was tamelijk welgesteld. Zo had de familie de beschikking over huispersoneel en rijpaarden en in 1601 verwierf Gabriëls vader zelfs een adellijke titel. Zijn geld verdiende vader Da Costa als koopman en hij handelde vooral in port, katoen en Braziliaanse suiker. Van 1600 tot 1608 studeerde Gabriël da Costa met onderbrekingen canoniek recht aan de universiteit van Coimbra. Toen zijn vader in 1608 overleed, keerde hij terug naar zijn geboortestad waar hij een lucratieve betrekking kreeg als schatbewaarder van de collegiale kerk S. Marthindo de Cedofeita. Hoewel hij daarmee de eerste stap zette op de weg van een kerkelijke carrière (hij ontving zelfs de tonsuur) zette hij die lijn niet voort. Op 5 maart 1612 trouwde hij namelijk in zijn parochiekerk in Porto met de uit Lissabon afkomstige Francisca de Crasto. In de jaren daarna bracht nauwgezet onderzoek van het Oude Testament hem bovendien terug naar het geloof van zijn voorouders. Ook zijn vrouw, moeder en drie van zijn broers overreedde hij vervolgens terug te keren naar het jodendom. In maart 1614 gingen Gabriël, zijn moeder, zijn vrouw, de drie bovengenoemde broers en een schoonzus heimelijk scheep naar Amsterdam. Nieuw-christenen mochten Portugal namelijk niet zonder koninklijke toestemming verlaten. In Amsterdam aangekomen gingen zij over tot het jodendom en lieten de mannelijke leden zich besnijden. Gabriël nam bij die gelegenheid de joodse naam Uriël aan. Vervolgens reisden Uriël, zijn oudere broer Jácome (Abraham), hun beider vrouwen en hun moeder door naar Hamburg waar zij een handelspost opzetten. De kennismaking met het rabbijnse Jodendom viel Uriël nogal tegen. Zijn beeld van het jodendom was immers uitsluitend gebaseerd op lezing van het Oude Testament. Hij zette zijn bezwaren tegen het Talmoedische Jodendom op schrift en stuurde in 1616 zijn "Propostas contra a tradicao" (= stellingen tegen de traditie) op naar Venetië, waar de Sefardische rabbijnen, op aanraden van hun bekende en gezaghebbende Asjkenazische collega Leon Modena, tegen hem in het geweer kwamen. In de "Propostas" sprak Da Costa namelijk zijn twijfel uit over de goddelijkheid van de zogenoemde mondelinge wet, die volgens hem vaak in tegenspraak is met de Wet van Mozes. Bovendien geloofde hij niet in de leer van de onsterfelijkheid der ziel waarover hij in de boeken van Mozes niets kon vinden. Modena raadde zijn Hamburgse collega’s aan om Uriël, als deze in zijn ketterse opvattingen zou volharden, in de ban te doen. Dit zou uiteindelijk in 1618 ook in absentia gebeuren in de Sefardische synagoge van Venetië. Ook in Hamburg werd deze ban tegen Da Costa dat jaar bevestigd. Toch bleef Uriël nog enige jaren in Hamburg wonen om in 1623 naar Amsterdam te gaan.

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Uriel (Gabriel) da Costa's Timeline

1585
1585
Porto, Portugal
1612
1612
Age 27
Oporto, Portugal
1640
April 1640
Age 55
Amsterdam, Noord Holland, The Netherlands
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PHOTO'S AND INFORMATION GABRIEL (URIEL) DA COSTA 1585 - 1640