Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity Hardcover – Bargain Price, May 30, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
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From the Trade Paperback edition.
- ASIN : B002T450PU
- Publisher : Schocken; annotated edition (May 30, 2006)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 304 pages
- Item Weight : 15.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.3 x 1.1 x 7.6 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #11,395,253 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Spinoza was born into a Sephardic Jewish community in Amsterdam that had just recently won the right to freedom of worship. They were still in the process of relearning Judaism from the veneer of Christianity they had been forced to outwardly profess in Portugal.
Into this community comes a man radically influenced by the Cartesian revolution who has the intuition that the entire universe is ultimately explicable by reason. Of course, there is no need for revelation or a chosen people in such a cosmos.
These, and related beliefs, caused the excommunication of Spinoza from his people. However, his unique stance that reason, purified of all biographical particularities, is the highest aspiration of humankind seems to predate rather than be an effect of this shunning.
All of this is wonderfully told by Dr. Goldstein. I should emphasize that the book is not intended as an exposition of Spinoza’s philosophy. Instead it deals at length with the history of Dutch Jewry and Spinoza’s life. While not a full biography, the book does anchor Spinoza in his particular historical setting.
If you have previously studied his thought, or are just curious about the life of a great figure, I highly recommend Dr. Goldstein’s imaginative effort to situate Spinoza. While this may be a “betrayal” of Spinoza’s philosophical project it is by no means a betrayal of the man whose personality and unique accomplishments are fully brought to life.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein was commissioned to write this volume for a "Jewish lives" series, and begins it by asking how Spinoza's can even be considered a Jewish life. He was, after all, excommunicated by Amsterdam's Jewish community, and went on to abjure the very premise of ethnic identification, not to mention the core ideas of rabbinic Judaism. As it happens, Goldstein's own life history prepared her in unusual ways to address her framing question of Spinoza-as-Jewish, and that is why the element of memoir in this book is so apposite. She was raised in an ultra-Orthodox New York family and educated in an ultra-Orthodox schul, where her much-admired history teacher Mrs. Schoenfeld taught her of Spinoza as "an admonition, a cautionary tale"' of the "stubborn arrogance" of placing reason above tradition and community. Goldstein rebelled against her upbringing by getting a Ph.D. in analytical philosophy at Princeton, and her teachers there were, for almost opposite reasons, also hostile to Spinoza, whom they felt exemplified the "philosophical delusion" of "the naturalist fallacy" ( "ignoring the 'is-ought' gap"). Finally, as a philosophy prof at Barnard, Goldstein taught the 17th-century philosophy survey to undergrads and in the process developed a special affection for Spinoza. That teaching experience may be part of why she does such a fine job of explaining Spinoza's ideas to the non-philosopher reader.
Goldstein has a profound grasp both of Western intellectual history and of Jewish history, so she places in Spinoza into larger contexts with exceptional clarity and scope. From the Amsterdam Jewish community's memories of hiding their "crypto-Judaism" from the inquisition in Spain and Portugal, and their experience of expulsion in what she calls history's first official act of racial anti-Semitism, to the kabbalism that caught on, to Spinoza’s horror, in Amsterdam long after the community had excommunicated him – Goldstein shows, superbly and clearly, how these experiences influenced Spinoza’s thought. In the end she shows how deeply Jewish a thinker he was in spite of his aspiring to a universal, impersonal rationality.
Goldstein is, in her second career, a gifted novelist, and puts her skill to sensitive use when she allows herself to imagine Spinoza the human being - something Spinoza would have opposed, since he believed that his individuality did not matter; she says that she is "betraying Spinoza" by the very act of writing a biographical study of him.
She also shows how thoroughly Spinoza influenced the worldviews not only of Albert Einstein (an avowed Spinozan) but also - not overtly, but profoundly - of many non-Jews, notably America's founders, at least with regard to freedom of speech, the press, and religion (Spinoza: ""Freedom of thought and speech not only may, without prejudice to piety and the public peace, be granted; but also may not, without danger to piety and the public peace, be withheld."). She even convincingly suggests how John Locke, during his years in Amsterdam, might have been influenced by Spinoza’s associates. And she writes interestingly about how Spinoza has helped her to deal with the endless and unresolvable question of Jewish identity.
Goldstein writes clear, supple, engaging prose, and that is part of why this book forced me, unusually, to stay up way past my bedtime, unable to put it down. To give you a taste, here are a couple of striking passages:
"If there is some missing element of biography that must be summoned in order to explain [Spinoza's] vision of radical objectivity, his abjuring any love other than that for objectivity itself, I very much doubt that it lies in disappointed romantic love. If it lies anywhere, it's in Jewish history. Spinoza has forsworn the Jew's love of that history. That was the love that was too heartbreaking to bear.... He is, paradoxically, Jewish at the core, a core that necessitated, for him, the denial of such a thing as a Jewish core. For what can be more characteristic of a Jewish thinker than to use the Jewish experience as a conduit to universality?" (p. 178)
"Spinoza argues that the highest level of reason amounts to a sort of love. I would argue that the highest level of imagination also amounts to a sort of love. I would further argue that the imaginative acts by which we try to grasp the substance of others, that specific singularity of them that resists universalizing into the collective rational im-person, are a necessary component of the moral life. Spinoza, of course, would disagree." (p. 195)
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When she was a university student, her philosophy teachers all taught analytic philosophy, which maintained that metaphysics, such as those put forward by Spinoza, made no sense. But after she had become a young assistant professor of philosophy herself, the chair of her department asked her to teach a course on Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. It was then that, for the first time, she actually read Spinoza’s “Ethics”.
She now became fascinated by Spinoza the philosopher. She realized (and taught her students) that for him “our singular individuality is of no account”, and that for her “to have indulged in a sense of special bond with Spinoza, forged by reason of our shared Jewish experience, would have been to forsake the rational [meaning philosophical] project as Spinoza understood it” and “would have amounted to a betrayal of his vision.” (p.65). That was the second phase of her involvement with him.
The third phase came when, despite this, she could not help being drawn to Spinoza the individual, by his Jewishness, and by the background against which he lived; and this book gives way to the urge to explore these aspects: hence the title of the book. (We actually know quite a lot about Spinoza as a person from the accounts of his contemporaries, but Goldstein is particularly interested in exploring the extent to which his thinking was “Jewish”, and on that aspect we his contemporaries tell us nothing, other than that some of them did not forget that he was born a Jew: his friend Huygens, for example, never referred to Spinoza by name, but referred to him as “the Jew of Voorburg” or as “our Israelite.”)
So Goldstein sketches the community into which Spinoza was born. It was intensely concerned with its recovered Jewish identity – not least because in 1619 Jews had been permitted to live in Amsterdam on condition that they observe Jewish orthodoxy - and so it was hyper-sensitive about anyone who, like the young Spinoza, seemed to challenge it. Hence the ferocity of the herem (excommunication) it pronounced against him.
In her third chapter Goldstein traces the roots of Sephardi Jewish political and cultural experience back to the Golden Age of the Jews in medieval Spain; and, for good measure, she also goes into the long and painful experience of the Ashkenazi Jews. None of this account is in any way original, and the links with the Amsterdam Jewish community in general and with Spinoza in particular are mostly tenuous in the extreme.
In the fourth chapter Goldstein asks what it means to be Jewish. Once a Jew, always a Jew? Once of Jewish ancestry, always a Jew? (Some Spanish authorities thought so, espousing the racist idea of “limpieza de sangre” – purity of blood.) Was a Marrano who only outwardly practised Christianity still a Jew? How was the saying in the Mishna, that “all Israelites have a share in the world-to-come” to be interpreted? Did it apply to Jews who had gravely sinned, as the kabbalists maintained, or was eternal punishment in hell reserved for them, since they were no longer Israelites? (On this question the Amsterdam rabbis were sharply divided. The kabbalists accused their opponents of having imported Christian doctrines of eternal damnation into Judaism.) In particular, in what sense can Spinoza, who, after the herem, no longer believed in the Jewish religion, still be regarded as a Jew? Did he himself in any way feel connected to Judaism? Goldstein takes a phrase in one of his last letters to show that perhaps he did (p.176). (I do not think that phrase can bear the weight of this suggestion, though I think, as Goldstein does herself, it is well-nigh impossible to think that, given the tragic history of the Jews (and, indeed, his own Jewish upbringing), he would not - like all Jews, whether secular renegades or even converts - in some sense feel connected, whether he wrote or spoke about it or not. The impersonality of the Ethics was the result of Spinoza’s search for truth along lines of argument that were to be akin to mathematical proofs; but throughout her book, Goldstein’s conception of the impersonality of the “Ethics” is that Spinoza was also using this impersonality to protect himself from allowing his thought to be shaped (as it shaped the consciousness of the Jewish community) by the experience and memory of Jewish suffering.
In parts of the fifth chapter Goldstein imagines the thoughts that led the young Spinoza to question, from his schooldays onwards, what he had been taught by the rabbis. (A footnote admits that hers is a speculative construction.)
Rebecca Goldstein has written novels as well as books on philosophy; and the style of her book veers back and forth from lively and readable narrative to densely argued and difficult philosophical passages: I have read several clearer and better-organized accounts of Spinoza’s philosophy elsewhere. And she says hardly anything to show how, in the words of the book’s subtitle, Spinoza “gave us modernity”.