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76 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What price dissent?
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...
Published on August 28, 2006 by Stephen A. Haines

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68 of 73 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a good read but ultimately not that satisfying
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...
Published on February 21, 2007 by pandajama


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76 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What price dissent?, August 28, 2006
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. The god, he declared, was all-pervasive and one with Nature. All intermediaries between humanity and the deity must be cast aside. No human can know or assess another. Hence, Goldstein concedes she's "betraying Spinoza" by trying to determine the roots of his thinking.

In explaining the origins of Spinoza's concepts, Goldstein takes us on a complex journey. She recounts the history of the Jews on the Iberian peninsula and their ouster at the restoration of the Catholic Monarchs. Jews had long been under pressure to convert in the Christian realm, perhaps nowhere more so than in Spain and Portugal. These "New Christians" developed tricks to retain their Jewishness while living in Catholic communities. Those who were driven out found a haven of sorts in The Netherlands. Amsterdam was a city of uneasy tolerance toward the Jewish community. Only because the Calvinists feared and despised the Roman Catholics more than the Jews were the latter allowed to practice their religion. Disturbances, such as contention over religious issues might shatter that fragile arrangement. Spinoza, although neither the first nor the only, threatened the stability of Jews in Amsterdam. To excise this threat, Spinoza, still only a young man, was excommunicated - permanently.

Goldstein notes that in the years prior to his exile, Spinoza had been a star pupil in the Amsterdam synagogue. Well versed in Jewish law and history, he was clearly not a dissident for simple reasons. His family's success had placed him in a strong position in the community. He might have simply remained with his brother engaged in commercial activities. Instead, he raised questions the rabbis didn't want to hear. Many of the traditional teachings, such as those of Maimonides - considered the greatest of Mediaeval Jewish thinkers - were rejected by Spinoza. The Thirteen Articles of Faith proposed by Maimonides were considered empty in Spinoza's view. Knowledge, not blind faith, was the young exile's answer. He contended that "my purpose is to explain, not the meaning of words, but the nature of things." Only in this way, he argued, can the deity be known and understood.

Spinoza's stance has led to his being considered the founder of modern philosophy. Certainly his views are a great departure from his contemporary, Descartes, who is credited with the same title by others. Spinoza, however, didn't arabesque around the existence or behaviour of the deity. He firmly insisted that observation and the application of proofs will render the deity accessible to those who persevere. That it all ends with death wasn't something Spinoza mourned, as Descartes did. A fulfilled life surmounts that grim termination.

Although this book is hardly a "life", its comprehensive approach, even if it seems overfocussed to the new reader, makes it a valuable contribution. There are a few good biographies of Spinoza available, but this work provides a fresh insight in the exile's thought. It is a fitting companion to any biography. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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138 of 148 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent in many dimensions, June 13, 2006
By 
Daniel Shaw (Richmond, VA USA) - See all my reviews
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"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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68 of 73 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a good read but ultimately not that satisfying, February 21, 2007
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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45 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perspective on the view from nowhere, July 13, 2006
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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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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars It's not all about me..., August 20, 2010
By 
Alexander Krem (New Zealand and the US) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Jewish Encounters) (Paperback)
This is a rather innocent, very mixed up book of intellectual reconciliation, written by an evidently bright New Yorker, struggling to reconcile the strict teachings of her conservative all girl's yeshiva with her later discovery that Spinoza was more than the naughty boy her teacher claimed. Eureka! Spinoza was not one those "bad" worldly boys who met each afternoon at neighborhood store to ogle girls and fritter away the day, as did some of the undesirable boys from the two nearby boys' yeshivas whom she knew. Instead, he was a profound and courageous thinker of radical thoughts. Duh!

The new cover of the book says it all. This is about Ms. Goldstein, not about Spinoza. If you want a book about Spinoza, look elsewhere. However, if you want a book about Ms Goldstein, and her life in a very sheltered Jewish community, this may be it. One must winnow through the tedious haystack of her personal memories to find occasional watered down summaries of who Spinoza was, what he thought, who influenced him, whom he influenced.

She touches briefly on the profound question, but sadly then ignores it: How can the Jewish community claim Spinoza as their own since he rejected the teachings and was irrevocably excommunicated? To the Jews of Amsterdam, he was not a Jew. It seems a bit rich to rediscover him now as "one of the Tribe". After all, as Ms Goldstein reminds us, he was not just a naughty boy at the corner store, he was an intellectual giant who rejected Judaism as a religion, a philosophy, a culture and a social group. "Come back, Baruch! We see you made it big. All is forgiven."

To some, this book may be cute. To others it is trivial and tedious.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A good read, but it's more about Jewish history than about Spinoza, February 6, 2007
In her title and throughout the book, the author acknowledges that Spinoza himself would not care for her approach, which gives his philosophy third or fourth place: less important here than his Jewish background, his biography, and the writer's own autobiography. This is all interesting and worth reading about, but in making the story personal the essence of his thought gets slighted. Spinoza would have wanted it to be all about the philosophy and nothing else -- but then who would read it?

For those readers interested in Spinoza's contribution to philosophy, the writings of British philosopher Stuart Hampshire provide a more lucid and focused introduction.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sui Mirabilis Generis, August 8, 2006
By 
Theodore Keer (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
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This wonderful book is neither an introduction to nor truly a biography of Spinoza. It does not put forth his system of thought in any comprehensive way. It makes little comparison between Spinoza and his contemporaries. It virtually ignores his place in philosophy from an historical viewpoint. Yet it engages the reader from its first pages and it left me wishing the book had been twice as long.

The book is largely presented as a parallel memoir. Baruch Spinoza, a 17th Century son of the Jewish exile community of Amsterdam goes from child-prodigy to excommunicate-heretic by the time he is 23 years old. Our author learns the cautionary tale of Spinoza the "epicure" as a young girl getting a conservative Jewish education in 20th Century New Amsterdam, (i.e., NYC) only to come to be a professor of philosophy whose favorite subject is none other than Benedict the Apostate himself. The author delves deep into the backroom politics of the ex-Marrano congregations of his era. We get excursions upon kabbalah, upon the Sephardic/Ashkenazic division, upon the Messianic cult of Shabbetai Zevi. Yet more contemporary and familiar thinkers like Nietzsche and Ayn Rand are mentioned - only to be dismissed. We learn that Spinoza disagreed with Descartes - but exactly over what? Nevertheless one must sympathize with the author, any work must have its limits.

I absolutely loved and adored this book. But before reading it I had already read Spinoza in an upper level philosophy course. I had studied Latin and Greek, logic and calculus, Aristotle, Aquinas and Maimonides. I fear that anyone who approaches this title as light reading, or who doesn't already know the meaning of `axiom', `kherem', or `sub specie aeternitatis' may be somewhat lost. Likewise, the initiated may be expecting something more esoteric or synthetic than they will get here.

Spinoza is not an easy subject, and if there were an easy introduction to him, he would not be what he is. My best advice would be that if you are familiar with most of the terms or people I've mentioned above, and read voraciously, then buy this book without hesitation.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too much speculation, June 26, 2007
By 
Shawn Klein (Roscoe, IL USA) - See all my reviews
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Overall, I liked the book. I enjoyed the story Goldstein had to tell, particularly her own experience encountering and teaching Spinoza. However, I think the book fell short of my expectations and was, at times, too superficial of a presentation.

I was expecting more development of the connection between Spinoza's thought and the Marrano/Jewish tradition. Also, I was looking for more development of her argument that Spinoza played a major role in "giving us modernity".

The connections here were tenuous and more guessed at than established. Goldstein didn't go into enough detail in trying to make her case on either count. We get mostly loose connections between Spinoza and Marranoism. And on Spinoza's contribution to modernity we get even less. We get: Spinoza was influential on modernity because lots of freethinkers flocked to Amsterdam. Spinoza may have influenced Locke because he went to Amsterdam and left with stronger views on rational, tolerant, republican government. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of Spinoza's work.

Nonetheless, Goldstein does make room for the stronger point of Spinoza's influence on modernity; namely that he was the first to systematically formulate the essence of modernity: reason, individualism, and freedom.

A good book with plenty of information to chew on, but too much speculation (and if one doesn't read the footnotes, one doesn't know she is speculating).
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Whetting appetites of those unfamiliar with the breadth of the so-called heretic..., August 16, 2006
For most Jewish teens and school-aged children, the late Amsterdamer Baruch Spinoza isn't exactly the first order of academic business on the run-of-the-mill eigth grade Jewish high school syllabus.

I suppose that partly explains why -- prior to reading this book, fourth in the amazing "Jewish Encounters" series -- I hardly knew much about Spinoza.

That which I *did* know was none too good; according to most Jewish theologians and scholars, the collected writings and musings of the former Dutchman of former converso (or New Christian, converted during the Spanish Inquisition) parents is feared with a virulence seldom seen in Jewish academic circles.

My central question in picking up this book was WHY?

What was so controversial about Spinoza's words, and what did Jewish clergy and laymen have to fear from the utterances of this brilliant man?

What was so threatening about a Jew who questioned the notion of God, and, moreover, how much of a threat could this man have been when latter-day evidence suggests that Spinoza had always wished to remain a part and parcel of the kehila (Amsterdam's Jewish Community) despite the worst of the kherems, or excommunications?

Why had the Dutch rabbinate of the time tarred Spinoza so indelibly?

Goldstein tackles many of these issues in her work, positing that perhaps had Spinoza grown up in a different time under different circumstances, a "Spinoza" mightn't have been such a threat to a fragile Jewish community on the comeback trail.

During Spinoza's era, Jews were a rather new phenomenon to the newly-amalgamated Dutch Provinces. Only recently had Jewish residents of the city of Amsterdam been granted their civil rights by the various Dutch burghers. Therefore, Goldstein describes (as have others, I'm sure) how Spinoza's constant challenging of the existence of a deity or higher power was total anathema to a community who was seeking to crystallize their indentity after nearly a century of living underground as unsuspecting Christians or "secret" Jews.

Amsterdam Jews had continued to look fondly to the more established Jewish community in Venice, for example, for its solace and religious sustenance, upon whose recommendation -- as you'll read in this book -- came the "suggestion" to ban Spinoza from having an influence on the tender young minds of the nascent Dutch Jewish community.

You're going to love how Goldstein uses the leitmotif of her former Jewish girls yeshiva (Jewish seminary) teacher Mrs. Schoenfeld of Manhattan's Lower East Side, a matronly type who used to consel her students -- girls like Rebecca Goldstein -- on the corrosive harm of Spinoza's words and deeds. She weaves references to this woman throughout the narrative, and it's a cute little break in the action -- but its significance to the modern impression Jews have vis-a-vis Spinoza is an importance which shouldn't be dimished by its apparent cuteness.

It was this seminal event in the writer's life which began her lifelong quest to unearth the truth about the so-called renegade heretic, culminating ostensibly in this book.

Some of my favourite chapters outlined an historical overview of the immediate aftermath of the Expulsion period from Spain, and at how the pernicious legacy of the Spanish Inquisition germinated latent self-doubt within the hearts and minds of Amsterdam's Jewish collective.

It was the as-yet unformed thoughts of this tiny collective which became the barren soil of Spinoza's rejected notions; it was a community who had virtually ensured Baruch Spinoza's untimely death due to the viciousness with which it had dogged him.

I didn't know much about Spinoza before settling into this read. Therefore I approached the subject matter with a very open mind.

Following this, I made a list of alternative sources which I'll be getting into before making a definitive decision on whether I would like to buy into the Spinozist worldview. Having said that, what a majesty of the post-modernist era that I'm even able to make such a frank admission (!!!) -- for had I dwelled during the mid-17th century, I mightn't have had such a distinct luxury: to be able to decide or not to decide whether a god exists.

My rating of only four stars comes about because I felt Goldstein's narrative to be somewhat truncated in certain sections. I'd have liked to have seen a work at least double the size of this current page length, because many ideas, I felt, needed "take-off" room to launch themselves into my mind. I wonder what the editors at Schocken Books had in mind with making all of the Jewish Encounters books in their series so short. I guess they're victims of the age, too. Short attention spans and the instant availability of titles on the internet prevent people from making time for anything other than a couple of hundred pages. Pity.

Admittedly, and this is no umbrage of Ms. Goldstein's excellent research and highly educational work, I'm personally not too clever when it comes to the actual philosophy described herein. Within the pages of BETRAYING SPINOZA, there existed a strong presumption on the author's part that the various Latin idioms and philophical Descartes-ian and Leibniz-ian concepts were understood by all and sundry.

I'd have liked to have been given a little bit of a primer on these before having settled down into the nitty-gritties of the read, which wasn't the case. I found myself at certain spots getting a little lost in the highbrow verbiage, and that's what affected various parts of my enjoyment, if the truth is to be told. I don't know if that was intentional; I merely say this because in my readings of two prior titles from this series (see my reviews for Century's BARNEY ROSS, for example) there wasn't such a presumption made.

But for an uncommonly sympathetic read on Spinoza from a talented beyond her years Jewish author and professor, BETRAYING SPINOZA is as good as it gets.

Treat yourself to the honour of reading about one of the finer Jewish minds of the past half-millennium to have ever lived.

-- ADM in Prague
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars in the beginning..., February 12, 2011
By 
Jill (Jerusalem, Israel) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Jewish Encounters) (Paperback)
I had long wanted to read about Spinoza and his thought, and was delighted when recently given a copy of this book. While it is useful in putting Spinoza and his ideas in historical context (something which I understand Steven Nadler also does in his well-known biography), I found it mildly irritating. I'm happy to say that it raised questions for me about some of Spinoza's ideas, to which I hope to find answers elsewhere: they certainly can't be found in this book. Just when it gets interesting (e.g. when Spinoza discusses emotional pain), the author chickens out and tries to distract the reader elsewhere. It doesn't work. I suspect I'll find more satisfying reading -- and better-written work -- elsewhere.

The book would have been more informative with less emphasis on the author's girlhood education, and the lengthy description of the misunderstandings of Spinoza's thought system that is perpetuated to this day. If there was a page limit, she would have served readers such as myself (intelligent and educated, but new to Spinoza) better by explaining more clearly and at greater length about some of his key ideas. In the end, she just comes across as evasive. Pointless, really.
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