Uriel da Costa

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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.[1]



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 had been a Catholic priest who was well-versed in Canon law.

Costa also occupied an ecclesiastical office. While a student of canon law, 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 decided to return to Judaism; they fled Portugal for Amsterdam, which would soon become a thriving center of the Sephardic diaspora.

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.

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