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Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Jewish Encounters) Paperback – August 11, 2009

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Product Details

  • Series: Jewish Encounters
  • Paperback: 306 pages
  • Publisher: Schocken (August 11, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805211594
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805211597
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #51,314 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This biography of 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) may seem out of place in the Jewish Encounters series, devoted to Jewish thinkers and themes, because Spinoza denied the importance of Jewish identity, and Amsterdam's Jewish community expelled him for heresy. But Goldstein, author of The Mind-Body Problem and Incompleteness and a professor of philosophy, reconstructs Spinoza's life and traces his metaphysics to his efforts to solve the dilemmas of Jewish identity. The philosopher grew up in a community of Jews who had fled the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. As Goldstein argues, Spinoza's "determination to think through his community's tragedy in the most universal terms possible compelled him to devise a unique life for himself, insisting on secularism when the concept of it had not yet been conceived." For Spinoza, "salvation" lay in achieving the radical objectivity of pure reason, which dissolves the contingent facts of one's personal history and religious and ethnic identity. Spinoza's effort to live as neither Jew nor Christian nor Muslim was unthinkable in the 17th century, but his arguments for political and religious tolerance were forerunners for the U.S. Constitution. In this admirable biography, Goldstein shows that Spinoza is paradoxically Jewish, "[f]or what can be more characteristic of a Jewish thinker than to use the Jewish experience as a conduit to universality?" (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“Beautifully crafted. What seem like separate issues—Spinoza’s pioneering advocacy of complete freedom of thought in religious matters; the turmoil in the Jewish community; the fateful events in Amsterdam in the closing years of Spinoza’s life; the philosophical developments of the seventeenth century; Spinoza’s idea of a philosophical religion utterly purged of all anthropomorphism, even to the extent of denying that God is a ‘person’ in any sense—come together as if by themselves (the sure sign of a fine artist!) to answer my puzzle: how to understand Spinoza the human being, a man for whom reason itself was a kind of salvation.”
—Hilary Putnam, New York Observer

More About the Author

Rebecca Goldstein is a MacArthur Fellow, a professor of philosophy, and the author of five novels and a collection of short stories. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

The book reads Spinoza from the inside out.
Herman Asarnow
The book explained Spinoza's ideas about as clearly as can be expected for such abstract ideas, doing so in such a thoughtfully compelling manner.
R. Blum
There are a few good biographies of Spinoza available, but this work provides a fresh insight in the exile's thought.
Stephen A. Haines

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

67 of 69 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on August 28, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The era known as The Enlightenment is characterised by many breaks with tradition. Protestant Christianity had consolidated its gains against the monolithic Roman Church, raising national consciousness in the process. The printing press expanded the reach of knowledge and imperialism added new discoveries of nature. Although the religious wars that had racked Europe had subsided, an expanded view of the world had raised new challenges. If the world was so vast and varied, where was humanity's true place in it? One man brought many of the questions together and formulated a new version of faith. Baruch Spinoza, an Amsterdam Jew, instilled a religion based on reason. In this captivating account of the roots of Spinoza's thinking, Goldstein has done more than simply delineate his life. She firmly establishes that excommunicated as he was, Spinoza remained fundamentally Jewish. More so, perhaps, than any of his contemporaries or predecessors.

Goldstein's own introduction to Spinoza opens the narrative and is brought back many times to make various points. Her yeshiva teacher, in the best Orthodox tradition, berated the memory of Spinoza as a radical and atheist. Burning with questions she dared not utter, Goldstein went through university and to a teaching position of her own. Assigned a course on 17th Century thinkers, she was forced to delve into Spinoza's life and writings. Between her own reading and student questions, Goldstein was driven to better understand her subject. She found a man leading an isolated life, banished by his community, who still carried the heritage of his ancestors as part of his mental baggage. The dichotomy led Spinoza to consider that Europe's religions were under the thrall of a variety of man-made ideologies, dogmas and practices.
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133 of 143 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Shaw on June 13, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Betraying Spinoza" -- the first book I've dogeared and filled with margin notes in years -- is fascinating and fulfilling in many areas:

Philosophy -- I spun over Spinoza in a survey course decades ago, and am now surprised to discover that his oh-so systematic approach makes great sense once I see through his Euclidean screen. Goldstein barely hints that Spinoza's system resonates perfectly with today's brain science, though suffering the same shortfall when it comes to an explanation for consciousness. In any case, wholly unique and miles ahead of Descartes because free of the limits Christianity imposed at this dawn of the Age of Reason.

History -- Before reading this I was ignorant of the "Golden Age" of Jewish culture in Iberia under the Moslem occupation, of the lasting impact of the Spanish/Portugese Inquisition on those who faced the "convert or die" ultimatum and chose to convert.

I also knew very little about the history of Jewish thought during this time, the connection of the Inquisition to the rise of Cabbalism, etc. (Those more familiar with Judaica will have an easier time with some terminology.)

Theology -- Putting full trust in reason and God rather than the Bible, Spinoza is as relevant today as when he stood alone in a world that was trying to fine harmony between Christianity and science, and contorting both in the process. As Goldstein doesn't need to dwell on a statement of faith from Albert Einstein to demonstrate Spinoza's relevance today.

A "Great Read" -- This book also demonstrates that Goldstein is both a daring scholar and a damn fine writer. She lets you know before veering into speculation, not too often and each time a worthwhile expedition.

Highly recommended!
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65 of 69 people found the following review helpful By pandajama on February 21, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I think the author had a hard time deciding what she wanted this book to be. It makes a good start at a new historicist effort to understand Spinoza, but is too weak on his text to do that, so it ends up being just a history lesson (albeit an interesting one). It veers into memoir for a time, also interesting, but again too sparse to have much of a point. Then there is the explication of Spinoza's Ethics, but it's way too skeletal to be worth all the pages you have to read to get there. In the end the reader will have a good grasp of a sliver of European history, a decent idea of Spinoza's biography, and a wee bit of an understanding of his philosophy. If that's what you want, this book might be for you. But really it's a weak piece of popular philosophy that isn't going to be satisfying for a person who wants to grapple with Spinoza's thought.
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41 of 46 people found the following review helpful By J. C. Woods on July 13, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The "problem" of Spinoza's philosophy is its complete rejection of the personal (I say this with that caveat that it wasn't a problem for Spinoza himself). All personal differences, all individual qualities all purely personal joys and pains are to be subsumed in philosophy by a vision sub speci aeterni (from nowhere). This does not mean that he rejects emotion, but rather, he sees through them, giving us a subtle theory that explains to the mind why it should consider them imposteurs. This naturally means that Spinoza is hidden in his work (it would not do to say anything personal about himself in a work advocating impersonality).

This is the point of Betraying Spinoza. Goldstein, as a Jew, helps Christian and perhaps even Jewish readers to penetrate the wall of geometry Spinoza sets between himself and his reader enabling them to see him in context. What issue did Spinoza, a Sephardic Jew born in exile in the Netherlands due to his family's flight from the Spanish Inquisition and excommunicated permanently from the Jewish community there at an early age, fight for with such passionate intensity? What ideas were current in his childhood that put him on a collision course with the religion elders of his community at age 23? How did he sustain himself as an individual without a religious community in a time that community and idenity were one and the same? This is the guy, after all, who invented the concept "separation of Church and State." How did he get there?

Goldstein tells a fascinating tale equating Spinoza's education in 1600's with her own in 1960's New York, telling us what she was taught about Spinoza as a child and what she learned to teach of him as an adult. This degree of personalization violates Spinoza. He would be spinning in his grave, if he were actually in his grave.
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