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Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Jewish Encounters Series) Paperback – August 11, 2009
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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)
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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
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Top Customer Reviews
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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Goldstein's varied talents -- philosopher, novelist, humanist.