Costa, Uriel da

views updated Jun 11 2018


COSTA, URIEL DA (Acosta , alias Adam Romes ; 1583/4–1640), philosopher and free thinker. He was born as Gabriel da Costa in Oporto, Portugal, into a New Christian or Converso family, his father being a devout Catholic. After studying Canon Law at Coimbra, he became a treasurer of the collegiate church, a lucrative and prestigious position. He took minor orders and received the tonsure. In his autobiography (see below), Da Costa claimed that examining the Bible brought him back to Judaism. Then, he said, he converted his family to the version of Judaism he had worked out from the Bible. In 1614 they fled to Amsterdam to avoid persecution by the Inquisition and to practice their religion freely. Shortly afterwards, Uriel and part of the family settled in Hamburg. Very soon after his arrival at Hamburg he addressed a polemical broadside to the leaders of the Sephardi congregation of Venice, in which he criticized rabbinic Judaism as incompatible with the Torah. The Venetian rabbi Leon *Modena rebutted Uriel's theses and advised the leader of the Hamburg congregations to excommunicate him. In spite of his excommunication at Hamburg in 1618, Da Costa did not leave the city before 1623. A year later Da Costa finished his Examen dos Tradiçoens Phariseas Conferidas con a Ley Escrita (1624), for which he was excommunicated, arrested, and fined, and the book was burned (at least three copies must have survived, however). Even before he finished his work on the subject, an answer had appeared by Samuel da Silva, Tratado da Immortalidade da Alma (1623). After his banishment, Da Costa lived for four years in Utrecht. When his mother died in 1628, Da Costa returned to Amsterdam, where he sought reconciliation with the Jewish community, though he had not altered his opinions. He felt the need to belong to the group and said that he would "become an ape among apes." Having rejoined the synagogue, he soon began doubting whether there was Divine sanction for the Mosaic Law, and whether religions were more than human inventions. He was led to deism or some kind of natural religion, denying any value to institutional religion. He gave up Jewish practices, and tried to prevent two Christians from converting to Judaism. This led to his second excommunication, after which he continued to live for seven years in Amsterdam. In 1640, he rejoined the Jewish community, submitted to a public recantation of his views, received 39 lashes, and prostrated himself so that the entire congregation could tread over him. He was so shocked by what was required of him that he wrote a few pages of his autobiography, Exemplar Humanae Vitae (published in Limborch's Amica collatio… 1687, repr. 1847), and then, according to the Hamburg Lutheran clergyman Johann Mueler, committed suicide.

Da Costa became a hero of the fight against religious intolerance, and a precursor of modern Bible criticism and naturalistic thought. He has been seen as a precursor and inspirer of *Spinoza. Practically all that is known about Da Costa comes from his autobiography (Eng. tr. in L. Schwarz, Memories of my People (1963), 84–94). On the basis of Portuguese Inquisition archives, it has recently been proposed that Da Costa's original version of Judaism was not that of the Bible, but rather an odd kind of Marrano Judaism, that some of his mother's family practiced, and that it was only in Amsterdam that he worked out his biblical religion and his deism. Da Costa became, for the Enlightenment and the Romantic Age, a symbol of the freethinker opposing religious orthodoxy. Though his doctrines are hardly known, he has had an important influence through the story of his life on anti-religious thinkers, and has been seen as a martyr to Orthodox Jewish intolerance and as a possible source of Spinoza's views.

[Richard H. Popkin /

Harm den Boer (2nd ed.)]

In the Arts

Treatment of Uriel da Costa by writers, artists, and composers has generally tended to idealize him as a victim of obscurantism. The inspiring effect of a supposed link to the Spinoza case is obvious. The German dramatist Karl Ferdinand *Gutzkow, a "Young German" ally of Heine, wrote two works on the theme: the novella Der Sadduzaeer von Amsterdam (1834), and the five-act tragedy Uriel Acosta (1847). Gutzkow's heroic interpretation of the Sephardi philosopher, the first of significance in literature, inspired later works, including G. Schoenstein's brief parody in his Humoristisch-jocoser Witz-und Lach-Almanach (1851); a Hebrew version of the drama by S. Rubin (1856); and a Yiddish adaptation for the New York stage, with musical accompaniment, by Abraham *Goldfaden, produced in the late 19th century. Even as late as 1995 Gutzkow's depiction of Da Costa inspired the absurdist play by the Polish poet and playwright Lidia Amejko (1955– ), Męka Pańska w butelce (The Lord's Passion in a Bottle; also produced in English and Italian). "Uriel da Costa" was one of H.M. Bien's Oriental Legends and Other Poems (1883), while Uriel Acosta (1900) was the title of a novel by the Yiddish writer John Paley. The most important 20th-century work on the subject was Israel *Zangwill's sketch in Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898), another idealized portrait. Later treatments of the theme were the U.S. writer Charles *Reznikoff's play Uriel Acosta (1921) and Yoḥanan *Twersky's biographical work of the same name in Hebrew (3 vols., 1934–45). Josef *Kastein devoted one of his literary-historical monographs to him (Uriel da Costa, oder Die Tragoedie der Gesinnung, 1932) and the American literary critic and poet Stanley Burnshaw (1906– ) wrote an unpublished verse play entitled Uriel da Costa that he later made into Book I of The Refusers (1981).

In art there is a highly imaginative painting by Samuel *Hirszenberg depicting Uriel da Costa with the infant Benedict Spinoza. The Dutch Jewish artist Meijer Jacob Isaac de *Haan (1852–1895) is reported to have painted in 1888 the dramatic scene of his excommunication in antiquarian style.

All the musical works on the theme were inspired by Gutzkow's play, including Uriel Acosta, an opera by the Russian composer Valentina Serova and by general consent her most successful work, which had its première in Moscow in 1885. Subsequent compositions all took the form of stage music for Gutzkow's drama, especially for the Hebrew version by the Habimah company. Jacob *Weinberg's score (1921) has remained unpublished, but that by Karol *Rathaus for Habimah's Berlin production of 1930 has achieved a degree of permanence in the musical repertoire; later he reworked it into an independent piece in four movements.

[Bathja Bayer]


C. Gebhardt (ed.), Die Schriften des Uriel Da Costa (1922), includes almost all known material by or about Da Costa; Révah, in: rhr, 161 (1962), 45–76 (new material); C. Michaëlis de Vasconcellos, Uriel da Costa: notas relativas a sua vida e as suas obras (1921), includes bibliography; A. de Magalhães Basto, Alguins documentos inéditos sôbre Uriel da Costa (1930). add. bibliography: S. Dorsey (transl.), Uriel Acosta – A Tragedy by Karl Gutzkow; see Denow's Review, vol. 6 (1869).

Da Costa, Uriel

views updated May 18 2018

Da Costa, Uriel (1585–1640). Rationalizing Jewish freethinker. He was born in Portugal of a Marranos family. After beginning a career as a church lawyer, he abandoned Christianity when he read the Hebrew Bible. Da Costa insisted on sola scriptura (‘by scripture alone’), and rejected later halakhic accretions, as well as ritual. He cast doubt on the immortality of the soul; his first publication (1624) was duly burnt, and he was excommunicated (ḥerem). In 1633, he formally submitted, though remaining privately sceptical. Such views led to a second excommunication (1633). His decision to recant required public humiliation and punishment, the thought of which led him to suicide.

Costa, Uriel da

views updated May 21 2018

Costa, Uriel da: see DA COSTA, U.