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Professor Steven Nadler  - Menasseh ben Israel

William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Director of UW-Madison’s Institute for Research in the Humanities

Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


  • Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die (Princeton, 2020)

  • Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam (“Jewish Lives”, Yale, 2018)

  • Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge, 1999; second edition, 2018); 

  • The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2008); 

  • The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy: From Antiquity through the Seventeenth Century (2009), co-edited with Tamar Rudavsky; 

  • A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton, 2011)

  • The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes (Princeton, 2013). 

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Episode #1

Q: Why Menasseh ben Israel?


Professor Steven Nadler:

  • Studied under Richard Popkin, Modern Philosophy 

  • Digger in archives

  • Studied and wrote about Spinoza

  • Delved into 17th century (Jewish) Amsterdam

  • Came across Menasseh ben Israel

Episode #2

Q: What was 17th century Amsterdam?


  • Amsterdam in 17th century – new community

  • Refugees from Spain & Portugal

  • Conversos went from Portugal to Antwerp to Amsterdam

  • International merchants

  • Imported Rabbis from other communities

  • 3 Congregations

Episode #3

Q: Was Menasseh ben Israel an influential printer? 


  • Mensseh was a very influential printer

  • Printing got him in trouble with the Jewish community

  • Published the first Hebrew books in Amsterdam

  • Made Amsterdam the leading center for Hebrew printing

  • Printing was his most important contribution to Jewish History

Episode #4

Q: Did Menasseh write for non-Jews?


  • Had many gentile friends

  • Very respected by gentile scholars

  • Biggest audience for his books were gentiles

  • But also wrote for Jews such as, Guide to a Jewish Home

  • Walked a very fine line

Episode #5

Q: What kind of congregational rabbi was Menasseh?


  • There were four rabbis in the synagogue

  • Menasseh was paid the least

  • Gave few sermons

  • Taught elementary school kids

  • Got in trouble, put in Cherem

  • Charismatic figure

Episode #6

Q: What is the “Hope of Israel”


  • Book on Messianic period and Lost Tribes of Israel

  • Glorious Stone was another Menasseh book on that topic

  • Reports of Lost Tribes of Israel in Americas

  • Caused great excitement among millenniums

  • Idea of Messiah predicated on Jews being scattered everywhere

Episode #7

Q: What was Menasseh’s Relationship with Queen Christina of Sweden?


  • Christina of Sweden highly educated

  • Possessed an extensive Library

  • Menasseh interested in being her supplier of Judaica

  • Procured Jewish works for Christina

  • Relationship did not develop as Menasseh hoped

Episode #8

Q: Did Menasseh help get the Jews readmitted to England?


  • Was perhaps looking to get out of Amsterdam

  • Went to England in 1655

  • Claims he was invited by Cromwell

  • Advocated for return of Jews to England

  • Whitehall Conference did not make a decision

  • The few Jews in London not pleased with Menasseh

  • Readmission evolved over time

  • Died on way back from England to Amsterdam

Episode #9

Q: Menasseh’s writings: impactful Rabbinic Literature?


  • Writings were not well received by Rabbinic Scholars

  • Basically ignored by them

  • Conciliator – combined Mishna, Talmud with philosophy

  • Used many sources Jewish & non- Jewish

  • Aristotle, Plato, Christian source

Episode #10

Q: Why Study the Life of Menasseh ben Israel?


  • Fascinating personality

  • Most famous Jew at that time

  • Influential in Jewish relationship with non-Jews

  • Understanding of 17th century Jewry & Amsterdam

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Full Interview - Professor Steven Nadler 

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