- Series: Jewish Encounters Series
- Paperback: 306 pages
- Publisher: Schocken (August 11, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0805211594
- ISBN-13: 978-0805211597
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 82 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #199,817 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Jewish Encounters Series) Paperback – August 11, 2009
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“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
About the Author
REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEINreceived her doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University. Her award-winning books include the novels The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light, and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and nonfiction studies of Kurt Gödel and Baruch Spinoza. She has received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, has been designated a Humanist of the Year and a Freethought Heroine, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2015. She lives in Massachusetts.
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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)
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).