Of the major figures in Western philosophy, Baruch Spinoza may well be the most admirable as well as the most remote. Both physicist Albert Einstein and philosopher Bertrand Russell openly admired his thinking and his integrity. While few scientific thinkers would be willing to endorse Spinoza’s claim that the universe can be understood by reason alone, his ideas resonate with those of some modern cosmologists. At the same time Spinoza’s theories of the emotions and the mind-body relationship have a certain appeal for modern neuroscientists. Though Spinoza could not accept revealed religion in its Jewish or any other form, he championed religious liberty. Later in life, his Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670; A Theologico-Political Treatise, 1862) would argue that the Pentateuch could not have been the work of the historical Moses but combined the writing of other, later writersinitiating the so-called higher criticism of Scripture now accepted by many scholars and seminary professors.
Spinoza was born in 1632 to a family of MarranosPortuguese Jews who had nominally converted to Catholicism under duress but continued to practice their religion in secret before migrating to the Netherlands where they could resume their Jewish identity and outward observance. Spinoza received a traditional Jewish education and was soon recognized as an exceptional scholar. In 1656, however, he was placed in kherem (excommunicated) by the Jewish community of Amsterdam. Excommunication was not unusual in the Amsterdam Jewish community and was often temporary. Spinoza’s excommunication was particularly harsh, however, and permanent. How it came about that a twenty-three-year-old man should be subjected to such a harsh penalty and the effect of the penalty on Spinoza’s work are principal themes of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.
Three themes intertwine throughout the memoir. First, there is an introduction to Spinoza’s thought. There is also the reflection of a mature scholar on her first exposure to Spinoza as a young orthodox Jewish girl attending a girls-only yeshiva in Manhattan. Then there is the history of European Jews, their thought and persecution as it certainly influenced the Jewish community in the Netherlands. Shifts from one strand to another, which would be out of place in a history or biography, are appropriate in this memoir and act to keep the reader engaged. The writing is clear and interesting, and some critics have read the book in a single sitting, though it is far from light reading.
Goldstein poses a further question: To what extent did Spinoza maintain a Jewish identity, a Jewishness, despite his expulsion from the community and his rejection of its core doctrines? The book does, after all, appear in a series devoted to Jewish thinkers. Without stating her own opinion, she points out that Spinoza kept relatively quiet about his doubts prior to his father’s death, in keeping with the precept of shalom bayis, keeping peace in the home even if it means diverting time from laudable religious study. In keeping with ancient rabbinic tradition, the young scholar Spinoza mastered a manual trade, lens grinding, and largely supported himself by it in his later life. Though expelled from the synagogue, he did not take the politically pragmatic step of converting to Christianity, though he had many...
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