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Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave…
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Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (2006)

by Rebecca Goldstein

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In 1656, Amsterdam’s Jewish community excommunicated Baruch Spinoza, and, at the age of twenty–three, he became the most famous heretic in Judaism. He was already germinating a secularist challenge to religion that would be as radical as it was original. He went on to produce one of the most ambitious systems in the history of Western philosophy, so ahead of its time that scientists today, from string theorists to neurobiologists, count themselves among Spinoza’s progeny.

In Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Goldstein sets out to rediscover the flesh-and-blood man often hidden beneath the veneer of rigorous rationality, and to crack the mystery of the breach between the philosopher and his Jewish past. Goldstein argues that the trauma of the Inquisition’ s persecution of its forced Jewish converts plays itself out in Spinoza’s philosophy. The excommunicated Spinoza, no less than his excommunicators, was responding to Europe’ s first experiment with racial anti-Semitism.

Here is a Spinoza both hauntingly emblematic and deeply human, both heretic and hero—a surprisingly contemporary figure ripe for our own uncertain age. ( )
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  MarkBeronte | Mar 4, 2014 |
"By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day." -- excerpt from the excommunication of Baruch de Espinoza, July 27, 1656.

Bertrand Russell describes Spinoza as "the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers." I cannot disagree. As remarkable as his philosophy is, his conduct is even more so.

Goldstein titled her book Betraying Spinoza because she hopes to reconstruct his identity and demonstrate how it influenced his thinking, while recognizing that his formal philosophy endeavors to abrogate the concept of identity. Through an analysis of Jewish history at large (and the 17th century Amsterdam Jewish community in particular) and making the occasional educated guess, she makes the compelling case that Spinoza, in rejecting Judaism, was a sort of Jewish savior. By destroying the Jewish conceit of being God's "chosen people," he undercuts all forms of essentialism, religious or otherwise.

His impact on John Locke is noted. The leap to his influence on the deism that informed the thinking of those who would found the United States is short. When I am at my most pessimistic I think of the philosopher, and those like him, and I allow myself to hope. ( )
  KidSisyphus | Apr 5, 2013 |
Part biography, part philosophy, this book attempts to deal with the vastness of the Spinoza legacy from a personal angle - a sense of connection made during the author's years in an Orthodox Jewish high school. As a young philosophy professor, she was asked to teach a class on Spinoza, and set out to examine his body of work, a style of philosophy (metaphysical) divorced from her own (analytical). She displays a passion for her subject and a true eagerness to discover the real Spinoza (thereby betraying him, as the title of her book implies, because he believed in the total loss of the self). In spite of her passion, and my deep seated interest in Spinoza, I find the book to drag at times, though I can't put my finger on just why. I found myself thinking, come on, let's move on, but I couldn't identify any lack in style of writing or nature of text that created this sensation in me. It was usually at those times when Spinoza was absent from the story, as she filled in necessary background information, so perhaps that was why. It is important to understand the time and place where Spinoza lived in order to understand the man, but I do think perhaps there was a bit more information than needed, some of it rather peripheral, though it did pertain to Jewish history, which is at some level relevant to the Spinoza story. Overall, a decent introduction, but I would have like to have seen more of his philosophy and perhaps a bit less of his daily history. ( )
  Devil_llama | Aug 25, 2012 |
Goldstein acknowledges in the title of her book that by seeking to understand Spinoza from the context of Jewish history, from a kind of imaginative empathy for his particular condition, she is betraying his philosophy. She then proceeds to draw us readers into his philosophy by evoking exactly that imaginative empathy in us. She paints us a portrait of the strange mix of freedom and inward-looking dogmatism of the traumatized “nation” of Sephardic Jews in 17th century Amsterdam. She invites us to glimpse the world of ideas Spinoza was born into, and to speculate on the loneliness of the gentle, motherless boy and his drive for truth that tugged him away from the usual comforting thoughts and habits of his community.

It seems to be disloyal, Goldstein’s historical approach. Spinoza himself wrote in the language of reason so pure that many casual readers (such as myself) give up after a few hours of struggle in the icy crystals of his logic. In approaching Spinoza’s reality, anything individual or personal evaporates into the purity of truth. How wrong, then, to join in Goldstein’s sisterly imagination! Doesn’t it obviate his whole premise, that one triangulates truth through deductive reason and what I understand to be a kind of logical intuition? As I gropingly understand Spinoza’s position, there appears to be no place for explanation by pointing to outcomes, and certainly not for hanging explanations on contingency. So how can Goldstein, who certainly grasps Spinoza’s works far better than most, dare to wonder what it felt like to be Spinoza?

By the end of the book, however, I came to understand Goldstein’s project better. Despite the title, she does not cheat Spinoza’s philosophy. She does not try to explain or justify Spinoza’s philosophy by his personal history or even his Jewishness. That, I think, would indeed have been a betrayal. Instead, she merely tags along with him, traces his path up the mountain towards God. To Spinoza, his uniqueness and his struggle are both irrelevant in the face of God, but to the rest of us, this tale, like a zen koan, may help us both see and see past.
2 vote Nycticebus | Jul 29, 2012 |
Spinoza, seventeenth century Amsterdam, the Spanish Inquisition, Descartes, Leibniz, Maimonides, Kabbalah--This book is fascinating. ( )
  Jaylia3 | Aug 19, 2009 |
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For Steve DESPITE SPINOZA
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805242090, Hardcover)

Part of the Jewish Encounter series

In 1656, Amsterdam’s Jewish community excommunicated Baruch Spinoza, and, at the age of twenty–three, he became the most famous heretic in Judaism. He was already germinating a secularist challenge to religion that would be as radical as it was original. He went on to produce one of the most ambitious systems in the history of Western philosophy, so ahead of its time that scientists today, from string theorists to neurobiologists, count themselves among Spinoza’s progeny.

In Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Goldstein sets out to rediscover the flesh-and-blood man often hidden beneath the veneer of rigorous rationality, and to crack the mystery of the breach between the philosopher and his Jewish past. Goldstein argues that the trauma of the Inquisition’ s persecution of its forced Jewish converts plays itself out in Spinoza’s philosophy. The excommunicated Spinoza, no less than his excommunicators, was responding to Europe’ s first experiment with racial anti-Semitism.

Here is a Spinoza both hauntingly emblematic and deeply human, both heretic and hero—a surprisingly contemporary figure ripe for our own uncertain age.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:21 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"In 1656, Amsterdam's Jewish community excommunicated Baruch Spinoza, and, at the age of twenty-three, he became the most famous heretic in Judaism. He was already germinating a secularist challenge to religion that would be as radical as it was original. He went on to produce one of the most ambitious systems in the history of Western philosophy, so ahead of its time that scientists today, from string theorists to neurobiologists, count themselves among Spinoza's progeny." "In Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Goldstein sets out to rediscover the flesh-and-blood man often hidden beneath the veneer of rigorous rationality, and to crack the mystery of the breach between the philosopher and his Jewish past. Goldstein argues that the trauma of the Inquisition's persecution of its forced Jewish converts plays itself out in Spinoza's philosophy. The excommunicated Spinoza, no less than his excommunicators, was responding to Europe's first experiment with racial anti-Semitism."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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