Betray­ing Spin­oza: The Rene­gade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

Rebec­ca Goldstein
  • Review
By – October 18, 2011
There is much to admire in Rebec­ca Goldstein’s fas­ci­nat­ing exam­i­na­tion of the life and thought of Bene­dic­tus Spin­oza, the philoso­pher who was excom­mu­ni­cat­ed in 1656 by the Ams­ter­dam Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of for­mer con­ver­sos in which he was raised and edu­cat­ed. Be advised, how­ev­er, that the com­plex philo­soph­i­cal pas­sages require a close read­ing (and in my case, re-read­ing), and that a dic­tio­nary is an absolute neces­si­ty unless words like asymp­tot­i­cal­ly” or ontol­ogy” are part of your lexicon!

In her detailed depic­tion of the ter­ror the Inqui­si­tion inflict­ed on the lives of the Jews of Spain and Por­tu­gal, Gold­stein suc­ceeds in build­ing the case that Spin­oza devel­oped his ratio­nal­ist phi­los­o­phy in an attempt to deal with the prob­lem of Jew­ish suf­fer­ing through­out the cen­turies. Her clear­ly writ­ten, well-researched his­to­ry of this peri­od includes com­pelling accounts of indi­vid­u­als and events that form the back­drop and con­text for her expla­na­tions of Spin­ozist thought. 

My only quib­ble with this text is that the author seems to have a score to set­tle with the frumpy yeshi­va high school teacher who first intro­duced her to the Ortho­dox Jew­ish view of Spinoza’s phi­los­o­phy. These asides seem out of place in what is oth­er­wise a fine, schol­ar­ly endeavor. 

Shi­ra R. Lon­don is the librar­i­an at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Com­mu­ni­ty High School in Bal­ti­more, MD. She holds an M.L.S. from Colum­bia University.

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